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Ethel Campbell Louise Anderson (1883–1958)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Ethel Campbell Louise Anderson (1883-1958), writer, was born on 16 March 1883 at Lillington, Warwickshire, England, eldest of four children of Cyrus Mason, squatter, and his wife Louise Campbell, née Scroggie, both Australian born. Ethel was brought up in Sydney and on her grandfather's station, Rangamatty, near Picton. With her two sisters, she was educated at home by Miss Piggott, and at Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls (1897-1900) under Edith Badham who recommended that she become a professional musician.

Small and dark, with green eyes 'flecked with brown', Ethel was endowed with charm, a sense of humour and a zest for living. On 8 October 1904 at Christ Church, Ahmednagar, Bombay, India, she married 36-year-old Major Austin Thomas Anderson (1868-1949), Royal Artillery. Born on 28 August 1868 on Mauritius, he studied at Eton and served in India and Queensland (1899-1902). Ethel adored many things about India. She accompanied Austin (usually riding)—whether he was shooting bears or marching with his battery—from the remote North-West Frontier to the Himalayan foothills. Their daughter was born in 1907.

On the outbreak of war, in 1914 Anderson sailed with the 7th (Meerut) Division for France, and his family for England. Ethel lived at Cambridge and attended drawing classes at Downing College. She exhibited with a modern group, and mixed with the Darwins and their connexions. Appointed C.M.G. in 1918, Austin commanded the 48th (South Midland) Division's artillery in 1920-24. The Andersons lived in a very old house at White Ladies Aston, Worcestershire, where she decorated the whitewashed walls with murals in tempera and did the same to a nearby Saxon church.

Retiring from the army in 1924, in September Brigadier Anderson settled with his family in Sydney; they bought a house, Ball Green, at Turramurra, which Ethel filled with Indian bric-à-brac. From 1927 he was successively private secretary to Governors Sir Dudley de Chair and Sir Philip Game, and to Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven as governor and governor-general. Austin was appointed comptroller and assistant military officer in 1939. For many years chairman of the Boys' Brigade, he published several military works, and articles and letters in the Sydney Morning Herald. His wife was a member (1929-48) of the general council of the Girl Guides' Association.

Ethel 'delighted in a life which was made up of a macedoine of governors, artists and writers'. Despite slender means, she kept open house. She joined the Contemporary Group of artists and exhibited with them. Having met the modernists Roi de Mestre, Grace Cossington Smith and Roland Wakelin, she promoted their work in such magazines as Art in Australia and the Home, and in 1930 cleared her house of furniture to show Wakelin's paintings. Assisted by others, she also painted jewel-coloured frescoes in the crypt of St James's, Sydney.

Drawing on her experiences in Australia, India and Worcestershire, Ethel Anderson contributed to the Pioneer and the Civil & Military Gazette in India, the Spectator, Punch and the Cornhill Magazine in England, the American Atlantic Monthly, and the Sydney Morning Herald and Bulletin. She published two volumes of verse, Squatter's Luck (Melbourne, 1942) and Sunday at Yarralumla (1947); four collections of essays and short stories, Adventures in Appleshire (1944), Timeless Garden (1945), Indian Tales (1948) and The Little Ghosts (posthumously, 1959); and edited the letters of Patrick Hore-Ruthven, Joy of Youth (London, 1950).

Although Ethel Anderson's love for Australia was deep and complex, she was too sophisticated and too individual to fit comfortably into any stream of Australian writing. Steeped in English, French and classical literature, Ethel also appreciated the moderns. She collected 'words as a naturalist collects butterflies' and experimented constantly with metre and form. Her verse is polished, glittering, and deceptively fresh and simple; her prose a mixture of fantasy and comedy, permeated with wit and delicate irony. She saw the world with a painter's eye. Her metaphors are visual and often sensuous: 'Odours of fading hawthorne, cloying as warm honey, potent as hops'. She loved gardens and lyrically described trees, flowers and fruit. Yet, she could also write with power and restraint, as in her story, 'Mrs James Greene'. Her poem, The Song of Hagar (1957), was set to music as an oratorio by John Antill.

Somewhat formidable in later life, Ethel became quite deaf and brandished an immense, silver ear-trumpet, adorned with chiffon to match her dresses. She retained a wide circle of friends and belonged to the Queen's Club, Sydney. Austin died at Turramurra on 22 February 1949, leaving his wife virtually penniless. Ethel, always thoroughly professional in her writing, managed to earn enough to survive: her novella, At Parramatta (1956), first appeared in the Bulletin. Survived by her daughter, she died on 4 August 1958 at Ball Green and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Pringle (ed), foreword, The Best of Ethel Anderson (Syd, 1973)
  • B. Foott, Ethel and the Governors' General (Syd, 1992)
  • Australian Quarterly, Sept 1960, p 23
  • Hemisphere, 19, no 4, Apr 1975, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Sept 1924, 7 May 1927, 19 Aug 1929, 11 Sept 1936, 19 Aug, 20 Nov 1939, 13 Sept 1940, 6 Feb 1945, 23 Feb 1949, 3 Aug 1958, 1 Dec 1973, 3 May 1975
  • Times (London), 8 Aug 1958
  • Bulletin, 27 Aug 1958
  • H. de Berg, interview with Roland Wakelin (transcript, 1961 or 62, National Library of Australia)
  • Anderson family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Anderson, Ethel Campbell Louise (1883–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mason, Ethel Campbell Louise

16 March, 1883
Lillington, Warwickshire, England


4 August, 1958 (aged 75)
Turramurra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.