Margaret Kiddle

Margaret Loch Kiddle (1914-1958), historian, was born in South Yarra, Melbourne, on 10 September 1914, daughter of Mauna Loa (born Burrett) and John Beacham Kiddle, solicitor. After a hesitant academic beginning, she matured to become one of Victoria's most distinguished historians. The chief influences in her formative years were her family, in which Scots, Irish and German strains mingled with the assured confidence of English 'gentlemen farmers'; her social studies mistress at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Gwenda Lloyd, who awakened in Kiddle her abiding love of history; and the University of Melbourne's History Department. There, Ernest Scott and Jessie Webb alerted her to voices of the past still speaking through their surviving records. She graduated BA in 1937 and obtained her Diploma of Education in 1938.

After working in the Prices Commission during the war, Kiddle returned to the History Department as a tutor and in 1947 gained her MA with a thesis on Caroline Chisholm which was published in book form in 1950. During these years she published also Moonbeam Stairs (1945), a beautifully written fantasy; West of Sunset (1949), a first-rate children's story based on family memory of outback life in pioneering days; and The Candle (1950), a tiny, charming evocation of childhood. Her Caroline Chisholm (1950) is not an exciting book to read. Kiddle was prevented by lack of personal papers from 'writing the book she wanted to write'. To recreate the past vividly she required the voices of the past. These she unearthed and used to the full in Men of Yesterday, the story of the western district of Victoria in the nineteenth century, a major contribution to Australian historical research and writing. Here the voices are those not only of the men but also of the women of yesterday, revealed from their letters and diaries in their loneliness, their frailties, their determination and their triumphs. This brilliant book displays Kiddle's meticulous research; her grasp of a broad canvas while always aware of detail; her power of deft, uncluttered description - as in accounts of Aborigines, squatters, selectors and 'Marvellous Melbourne'; her sure use of words, both her own and other people's; and, not least, her sense of place - of the western district plains, their Dreamtime and their transformation, the birds and animals, the homesteads and the silence.

Kiddle began work on Men of Yesterday in 1949. In March 1958 she completed it, only six weeks before she died. Suffering from a congenital kidney disease, she knew her health was deteriorating and succeeded in finishing her work only by desperate effort and dedication. The nine years of its production had included one year on a fellowship at the Australian National University and a tour of the United Kingdom with her sister to search for papers and records of descendants of the original western district settlers. Men of Yesterday, impressively and lovingly edited by her academic colleagues, was published in 1961; twenty years later it had sold over 15,000 copies. She died on 3 May 1958; annually a prize for the best final Honours essay in history is awarded in her memory at the University of Melbourne.

Lyndsay Gardiner