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Barbara Mary Ramsden (1903–1971)

by Ros Moye

This article was published:

Barbara Mary Ramsden (1903-1971), editor, was born on 27 December 1903 at Annandale, Sydney, eldest of three children and only daughter of Edward Maxwell Ramsden, a Melbourne-born medical student, and his wife Edith Johnson, née Hindley, who came from England. The family moved to Richmond, Melbourne, and later to Adaminaby and Bathurst, both in New South Wales. From 1919 Barbara boarded at Ascham school, Sydney. Her early interest in medicine appeared to wane and in 1924 she enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney. In the following year she moved with her mother and youngest brother to Melbourne and in 1926 entered the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1928). She obtained employment as a clerk in the university's engineering and metallurgy library in May 1928. Transferred to the central library in June 1931, she worked there part time and in the book-room of Melbourne University Press before performing the duties of assistant-reader with the publishers.

In 1941 Ramsden was formally appointed assistant-reader with M.U.P., then under the management of Frank Wilmot. She had immense respect for him and revealed it in her review, published in the Australian Quarterly (June 1943), of Vance Palmer's Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice) (1942). Wilmot's death in 1942 had left her effectively in charge of the press but without a corresponding increase in status, a recurring situation that frustrated her throughout her career. In April 1943 she applied unsuccessfully for the position of manager, which was awarded to the historian Gwyn James who had been brought in 'to carry on the work of the Press during Miss Ramsden's absence' on leave.

Ramsden's legacy was seen in the growth of M.U.P., the generation of editors whom she trained, and the meticulous editing that produced such books as Geoffrey Blainey's The Peaks of Lyell (1954), Margaret Kiddle's Men of Yesterday (1961), the early volumes of Manning Clark's A History of Australia (1962, 1968) and of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (1966 and 1967, edited by Douglas Pike), and the Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea (1972, edited by Peter Ryan). In 1965 she was appointed M.B.E. Following her retirement in June 1967, she was awarded the university medal for exceptional services.

Described as 'not a bit feminine in the ordinary sense', Miss Ramsden was a chain-smoker, rather short in stature, with 'very blue, very expressive eyes'. She typically wore a severe navy or green serge suit, with a shirt, man's tie and flat 'barges' of shoes. A formidable editor, both in expertise and in manner, she provided 'much of the stability and the authority in scholarship' which M.U.P. enjoyed.

Barbara Ramsden was an intensely private woman who lived for many years at Florida House, 601 St Kilda Road. She had an excellent knowledge of books, loved painting, and was a good horsewoman. A committee-member of the Probus Women's Housing Association and the Batman Business and Professional Women's Club, she was also an active member of the Melbourne Women's Walking Club and treasurer of the Victorian branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. She died of cancer on 1 January 1971 in Melbourne and was cremated. That year the F.A.W. established the Barbara Ramsden award for books that reflected 'credit on both author and editor'. In his preface to Anthropology in Papua New Guinea (1973) Ian Hogbin wrote: 'If some of my authors write like angels . . . then it is she who deserves much of the credit'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Moye, 'The ''Legendary'' Barbara Ramsden, Book Editor', in Melbourne University Mosaic (Melb, 1998) and for sources.

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Citation details

Ros Moye, 'Ramsden, Barbara Mary (1903–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 December, 1903
Annandale, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 January, 1971 (aged 67)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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