Peace, justice loomed large for lecturer




27-7-1928 - 28-12-2012

Ethel Ruth Campbell was born in Sydney to Ethel and Jack Beed. Her maternal grandfather had been a bootmaker, and her mother recalled that each Christmas the factory where he worked would be shut down and the workers laid off with no pay.

The family would leave their rental property and move into a large shack on the beach at Harbord, where the children could preserve their clothes and shoe leather and all live on fish until the factory advertised in the papers that it was opening again.

Ruth's mother worked as a secretary until her marriage and her father studied at night school to become an industrial chemist. In 1934, her father accepted a position with Olympic Rubber in Melbourne and the family made the long drive in an old T-Model Ford. They lived in Seaholme, part of Altona, where some neighbours lived in red converted train carriages.

During a polio epidemic in 1937, Ruth, her mother and sister were sent to Springwood in the Blue Mountains to avoid infection. Their cottage was close to the home of artist Norman Lindsay and the children were told not to look through the bushes at his naked sculptures which, of course, they did.

Ruth attended Williamstown High School but at the outbreak of World War II, her father moved the family to Boronia, away from the Altona oil refineries, which he feared might be bombed. Ruth then entered Methodist Ladies' College, Kew, travelling each day by train. Her mother had sewn a £10 note into Ruth's coat in case of a Japanese invasion.

At school, Ruth developed a passion for English and European history. She was inspired by an elegant teacher from Denmark, Ellen Christensen, who encouraged independent thinking and who became a lifelong friend. Ruth matriculated at the age of 16 and entered the University of Melbourne, where she completed a bachelor of arts and diploma of education, and became a secondary school teacher.

At the university she was a member of the Labor Club, made up of about 500 young undergraduates and older ex-servicemen students including Ian Turner and Steven Murray-Smith, all hoping to prevent the onset of another world war. Here she met John Campbell, an architecture student whose father had died in Sumatra in 1944 in a Japanese civilian internment camp.

In 1949, they married and the couple lived and worked in Darwin for several years. Darwin High School, where Ruth taught, still had bullet holes from the aerial bombing of Darwin during 1942 and 1943.

In 1952, Ruth and John attempted to attend an international peace congress in Beijing but the Australian government, under Robert Menzies, cancelled the passports of intended delegates to prevent them leaving the country. Those with British passports could leave Australia; others investigated chartering their own plane, given the airlines' refusal to carry passengers lacking passports, but this would have been hugely expensive. Some weeks later, after much debate in Parliament, the passports were reinstated.

Ruth and John, having missed the Chinese peace congress, left Australia in late 1952 for six months, and were among 25 Australian delegates to the Congress of People for Peace in Vienna. More than 2000 delegates from 85 countries attended. The presiding committee included Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda, and delegates consisted of trade unionists, academics, lawyers and many ministers of religion. Picasso gave his famous dove to be used on banners, and speakers included Madame Sun Yat-sen from China.

While in Modena in Italy, en route to Vienna, Ruth, John and two other Australian delegates were placed in prison, where they were kept without food for 25 hours. In Melbourne, nearly 150 members of the Italian-Australian Association gathered at the Savoy Theatre to protest against the arrests and the ill-treatment of their delegate, Charles D'Aprano. Protests were cabled to the Italian government. In Italy, the town of Modena threatened to strike until the four were released.

During the trip, Ruth and John also visited the Soviet Union and China on a seven-week tour to view social conditions and advances in postwar industry.

On her return, Ruth resumed secondary teaching and taught for some years at Methodist Ladies' College. The principal, Dr A. Harold Wood, thought well of his former pupil and was himself a supporter of the Peace Movement. Feeling the tug of academia, Ruth returned to university studies part-time while still teaching. She completed a law degree in 1965 and began lecturing in the law faculty at Melbourne University, where she remained until her retirement in 1990.

Ruth taught the university's first course in Australian legal history, as well as English legal history, constitutional history and administrative law. She wrote the first history of Melbourne University's law school and the history of the Melbourne law firm Mallesons, which she submitted for her PhD in 1988, aged 60.

She remained committed to social causes, supporting draft-resister students during the Vietnam War and attending Vietnam War moratoriums and Hiroshima Day rallies. In 1967, she joined the candlelight vigil outside Pentridge jail before the hanging of Ronald Ryan, the last person to be legally executed in Australia.

Ruth's life was not easy: her husband had a chronic illness and they divorced in 1980. She was thus a single mother with a young family and a demanding job, roles that she managed admirably.

Having returned to part-time studies as an adult, she was always aware of the difficulties that older and part-time students faced. She had a strong interest in these students, always encouraging them and with a ready ear, as she had for many friends. Author Kerry Greenwood is a former student, whose books featuring the character Phryne Fisher grew from a legal history essay Kerry wrote about the 1928 wharfies strike. She dedicated Murder in Montparnasse to Ruth, calling her "the most excellent of historians".

Following Ruth's retirement from Melbourne University, she continued to work, interviewing many judges and senior lawyers for an oral history project on the law in Australian society. The audio recordings are held in the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Ruth is remembered with respect and gratitude by a large cohort of former students and many of Melbourne's legal community, and with love by family and friends. She is survived by her two children, four grandchildren, her sister Gwenda and her brother Clive.

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