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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Campbell, Ross McKay (1910–1982)

by Jacqueline Kent

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Ross McKay Campbell (1910-1982), journalist and humorist, was born on 26 December 1910 at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, eldest of four children of Victorian-born parents Douglas McKay Campbell, insurance inspector, and his wife Alice Jean Nicol, née Paulin. The family moved to Melbourne, where Ross attended Scotch College. At the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1932), he was coeditor of the university newspaper Farrago. In 1933 he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, which he took up in England at Magdalen College, Oxford (BA, 1935; B.Litt., 1937), but he felt that his degrees were poor preparation for the practicalities of life—a view reinforced by his inability to find a job on his return to Melbourne in 1937. He moved to Sydney, where he joined (Sir) Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph as a journalist, subsequently writing for his Australian Women’s Weekly, and for Smith’s Weekly.

By 1941 Campbell was a public servant in the New South Wales Premier’s Department. Serving in the Militia from January 1942, he was assigned to public relations duties in Sydney until boredom drove him to transfer to the Royal Australian Air Force on 5 December. After training in Canada and Britain, he flew (1944-45) with No.466 Squadron as a Halifax navigator. In 1945 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for courage and fortitude on operations, a fact he later omitted from his autobiography, An Urge to Laugh (1981). He was demobilised as a temporary flight lieutenant on 20 June 1946 in London.

After joining the Sydney Morning Herald in New York, Campbell married Ruth Hazel Seale, a journalist, on 11 December 1946 at Croton-on-Hudson, New York State. He continued to work for the Herald in Sydney, but found John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd staid and felt that his writing was undistinguished. In 1954 he rejoined the Daily Telegraph as a feature writer, book reviewer and columnist—and it was as a columnist that he found his voice. For more than twenty years, Campbell wrote 450-word articles about family life for the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Australian Women’s Weekly. Set in his Sydney home, `Oxalis Cottage’, `a suburban house of 15 squares, including myself’, they featured his children under the pseudonyms of `Theodora’, `Lancelot’, `Little Nell’ and `Baby Pip’. Many of these pieces—dealing with such subjects as television programs, children’s expressions, advertisements—are gems of humour and social history. His originality lay in his persona of the bemused mid-century suburbanite. Unlike Lennie Lower, his view of suburban life depended on accurate reporting; unlike that of Barry Humphries, his satire was gentle.

Campbell also wrote ironic and witty articles for the Bulletin; at its best his wordplay bears comparison with that of James Thurber. He published collections of his writings in Daddy, Are You Married? (1962), Mummy, Who is Your Husband? (1964) and She Can’t Play My Bagpipes (1970). He retired from journalism in 1978. In typical Australian fashion, he wore his learning lightly. His self-deprecating comment that `I strove always for more profound superficiality’ contradicts the care and pride he took in his craft. He died on 24 February 1982 in his home at Greenwich, Sydney, and was cremated. His wife and their three daughters and son survived him. A further collection of his columns, My Life as a Father, was published in 2005.

Select Bibliography

  • Quadrant, Aug 1971, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Feb 1982, p 10
  • Bulletin, 9 Mar 1982, p 52
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 24 Mar 1982, p 22
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 Oct 1989, p 48
  • series A9300, Campbell Ross, series B883, item NX79121, series B884, item N388878 (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with Ross Campbell (typescript, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • Ross Campbell papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jacqueline Kent, 'Campbell, Ross McKay (1910–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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