One of the pioneering women from the Campbell clan, Ruby Campbell of Kilburnie Homestead was not only a talented artist – she was a beloved aunt, animal lover, successful pastoralist, fantastic fudge maker, musician and so much more. Biloela Beacon editor Jen Gourley sat down at the kitchen table at Kilburnie recently with Ruby’s niece, Heather Stewart, to hear her wonderful tales of a truly unique and special lady.
Ruby Campbell was born in 1888, along with her twin sister Beryl, at Kilburnie Homestead, near Jambin. The girls were delivered by their own father John Campbell while their siblings were sent outdoors to be out of the way. When the twins were born (Ruby just before midnight on the 8th of December and Beryl just after midnight on the 9th of December), family history is that John placed the babies in the opened top drawer of a chest of drawers to keep them out of harm’s way.
The girls grew up together at Kilburnie. Beryl went on to have her own amazing adventures, including enlisting as a nurse during World War I and being awarded the prestigious Royal Red Cross (RRC) 1st Class. Meanwhile, aside from a brief period at boarding school and a short time at an art school in Melbourne, Ruby spent her life at Kilburnie.
When John Campbell passed away in 1943, he left Kilburnie to Ruby. Then, as Ruby had never married and had no children of her own (but was often visited by her many nieces and nephews!), her niece Heather inherited the property upon Ruby’s passing in 1977.
Heather has run both Kilburnie and neighbouring Craiglands successfully for nearly 50 years and has many stories to tell, but, as we sat at that kitchen table, with Kilburnie’s Jack the Cat hinting that he wanted a bite of our lamingtons, it was her memories of Ruby that she wanted to share.
Ruby: a modest but talented artist
“There was a traveling tutor (Walter Pasley) who went around the properties,” Heather began. “He’d come around and stay for a while and he would teach the older children. Unfortunately, before Aunty Ruby was born, he passed away from a heart attack in one of these bedrooms up here in Kilburnie. He’s buried at the top end of the garden, but he left behind watercolours and someone has suggested that perhaps he was the one who made Ruby interested in art – we don’t know for sure. Anyway, Aunty Ruby was really up against it as her older brothers regarded going up the paddock and sketching as a waste of time, but, in spite of that, Aunty Ruby managed to persist.
“She and Beryl went to the Range Convent briefly. I think a governor or someone was coming to the school and Ruby was one of the ones selected to do this beautiful piece of artwork in honour of him. So, she was obviously showing artistic talent right from the word go. But she used to go up the paddock and she’d find trees and things like that, mostly trees, and she’d either sketch or she would make a bit of a sketch and then she’d come back and she do the watercolors. She only ever tried watercolors in her earlier life. There’s one upstairs of a baby that was done in 1919. The colouring is absolutely beautiful. And she had a lot of other work too.
“I never knew she was an artist until I was well and truly in my late teens. Biloela used to have an old wooden library building and Aunty Ruby had already gifted some of the earlier watercolours that she’d done to the Shire Council, and some of them were quite lovely. They really were. I went into the library one day to get books and there, on this back wall, I could see all these beautiful artworks. I walked over and looked at the signature – Ruby Campbell. And I said to her, ‘I’ve just seen the most beautiful paintings of yours, Aunty Ruby. I never knew you could paint’.”
There’s a parable about hiding your lamp under a bushel, but Ruby hid her talent under a bed.
In Ruby’s last years, she spent some time in the Biloela hospital, and Heather would look after Kilburnie. It was during that time that Heather made a most remarkable discovery.
“I went in the bedroom upstairs… (As a child you were never allowed upstairs. You’d put your foot on the bottom step, ‘Where are you going?’ So, you scootled off again.) There were all these papers, they were all dusty and they were watercolors, just under the bed! So, I cleaned them up and I took them in with me to the hospital. I said to Ruby, ‘Look what I found.’
“She said, ‘Burn them!’ I said, ‘No way in the world am I going to burn them!’ and I made her sign just her initials on most of them and I brought them back.”
Heather was determined that the artworks wouldn’t be burned. Instead, she would do something with them. Some of Ruby’s paintings, and her intricate pokerwork on furniture, is on display at Kilburnie Homestead. Collections of her other artworks have been donated to art galleries, including the Banana Shire Regional Art Gallery and the Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum.
Ruby the remarkable
“She was a lovely little lady,” remembered Heather. “She had a sharp tongue, but you always knew where you stood with her. And I really, really liked that. She used to have a half door here (pointing to the kitchen door at the back of the homestead). And we’d call in every time we went to town. We called in, my dad (Gordon) and me, and ask if she wanted anything. Lo and behold, if we went to town and she saw us go past and not call in, that was not good,” laughed Heather. “You were not going to get away with that!”
“She loved her animals. She wore this big apron. Lots of pockets in it. And all she ever wanted when we went to town was mince for the birds and mince for the cats. Whatever she needed for all her animals. She had cats. She fed the birds. The cow would come to the door here and she’d give her hay and then she’d have horses, ponies and that coming up.
“She was a highly intelligent lady. Really, really good to talk to. She could talk to you about anything. I really liked Aunty Ruby. We got along. I used to ask her things I shouldn’t have probably. ‘Why did you never marry, Aunty Ruby?’ And she said, ‘No, I was too selfish.’ I wouldn’t have thought that. She always had a good word for people and she had a very good heart. She helped a lot of people.
“She used to always make something for the Peach Blossom fetes, I think that’s what they used to call them, the church fetes. And she had this magic recipe for chocolate fudge. She’d make a tray of it and then she’d cut it up into slices and she’d wrap them in greaseproof paper. And we always got our share too. Sometimes she made them plain. Sometimes she made them with raisins. Oh, they were just so yummy. Do you know she took that recipe to the grave?”
(Here we both take a moment to mourn the loss of a truly marvellous recipe…)
“I’ve looked at recipes since and I tried them and I’ve thought no, they’re not Aunty Ruby’s.
“She was a great pianist. Oh, yes. Her mother’s piano is up there in the room (upstairs in Kilburnie). We’ve had several others since, but she would come out to our place on Christmas Day (we’d always have her out for Christmas Day) and she would sit down at our old piano out there. She’d sit down and she’d play, with no (sheet) music. She played Beethoven, more of the classics, and then you could ask her about a modern song.”
Heather recalls asking Ruby if she knew one of the songs on the hit parade at the time. “Oh, yes, I know that one,” said Ruby.
“So, she’s hitting a few keys and then the next thing she’s playing it,” said Heather.
“She was really a great lady, no doubt about that. But you know, she had a very strong sense of duty. And she looked after Grandfather, with help from other people, and she ran this place. But she was the type of person who would put her duty in front of anything else. I wondered sometimes whether that’s why she never got married.
“She was a strong woman. If she wanted to do something, she probably would,” chuckled Heather. “And she loved gardening. She had the most beautiful garden here. So did Grandmother (Elizabeth Campbell). But in Grandmother’s day, to start off, they had to carry their water in buckets. And Aunty Ruby did have water on, which was a bit of a help.
“I just think she was so unique,” smiled Heather. “One day she was down in the yard with the meatworks buyers from Gladstone… with a big mob in the yard down there, drafting them on horseback, cutting out the ones for sale, and she’s helping. Then, all of a sudden, she exclaimed: ‘Oh my goodness! It’s Blue Hills!’ Suddenly, she takes off, leaving the poor old buyer there, and she canters back here, so that she can hear her midday radio serial.
So, she wouldn’t miss Blue Hills. And if she did miss an episode, she’d get on the old telephone, on the party line, and she’d ring my mum and she’d say, ‘Did you hear Blue Hills today?’. And if Mum hadn’t … well, that was a tragedy. But if Mum had, she’d spend all her time on the phone telling her what happened.”
How did Ruby feel about Kilburnie?
“Oh, she loved it,” said Heather. “It was her heart and soul.
“She had a full life, but she also was devoted to Kilburnie. She was the one who was instrumental, in the 1960s, in getting it classified by the National Trust. They came up and they had a look at everything that was here. Ruby had so much stuff they said it had to be preserved. They put it on the National Trust register because it was a perfect example of a grazing family from the 1880s right through to the present day.”
People today still recall Ruby Campbell, describing her as a “lovely, kind lady” and an amazing artist.
Fiona Hayward, Ruby’s great-niece and the Museum/Project Manager at Kilburnie Homestead agrees.
“Ruby was an incredible lady… ‘incredible’ doesn’t actually do her justice when I think about all I know about her,” said Fiona. “It’s pretty special that people still remember her today. She was kind and generous beyond many ‘landed aristocrats’ of the time, loved animals with a passion, and was a teeny bit of a rebel.”
People will have a chance to explore Ruby’s home, see her artworks and hear more stories from Heather this Sunday, July 3, when Kilburnie Homestead holds its Open Day. Located on an operational cattle property about 20 minutes from Biloela, at 531 Argoon Kilburnie Rd, Jambin, the 139-year-old homestead is filled with fascinating history and art. There will also be markets, damper making, blacksmithing displays and refreshments for sale from a cash canteen. Gates will be open from 11am to 4pm and entry is by donation. For more information, phone 0438 093 019 and stay up to date by following Kilburnie Homestead on Facebook.