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Names of PNG: Camilla Wedgwood

Wedgwood PNG
Camilla Wedgwood taking the arm measurement of a young boy

| Australian Dictionary of Biography | Edited

CANBERRA - Camilla Hildegarde Wedgwood (1901-1955), anthropologist and educationist, was born on 25 March 1901 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

She was descended from Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), the master potter.

Aided by her famous name and the financial stability that flowed from the sale of Wedgwood pottery, Camilla was free to express her inherited independence, strong social conscience and streak of individualism.

Aged 17 she entered Bedford College for Women at the University of London. Here, she developed lifelong interests in debating and drama, Icelandic studies and Old Norse, and early English sagas such as Beowulf.

Her rugged, independent bearing, as well as her sympathy for 'primitive' peoples, earned her the sobriquet of 'The Ancient Briton'.

In 1920 she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied anthropology under WE Armstrong and AC Haddon. She passed with first-class honours the English tripos in 1922 and the anthropology tripos in 1924 but the university did not award degrees to women until 1948.

At Newnham she qualified as Master of Arts in 1927. She joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1925 and taught (1926-27) at Bedford College.

In 1928 Professor AR Radcliffe-Brown appointed Wedgwood temporary lecturer in anthropology at the University of Sydney, to replace Bernard Deacon, who had died at Malekula, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).

Instead of pursuing her own research, she accepted the self-effacing task of editing Raymond Firth's Primitive Economics of the New Zealand Maori and Deacon's Malekula.

Granted a fellowship by the Australian National Research Council, Wedgwood was encouraged by Professor AP Elkin and Raymond Firth to carry out fieldwork.

In 1932-34 she studied the lives of women and children on Manam, a volcanic island of 4,000 inhabitants off the northern coast of New Guinea.

Adopting her own version of the 'participant-observation' method of field-work, she immersed herself in social activity on Manam, to such effect that Manam women recollected 20 years later:

“She knew how to plant taro. She dug the hole. She cooked the taro just as we do. She cut away the scrub with a bush knife as we do. If a man died she sat in the middle with all the other women and grieved for him. She was not like white people, she was just like us black-skinned folk.”

Later, she investigated methods of reviving native arts and crafts on Nauru in 1935.

It was clear from her research on Manam and Nauru that she saw a subordinate role for women in marriage and the wider society as part of the natural order. This was in spite of her own unmarried independence and the personal singularity which reflected her fine intellect.

A member of the early cohort of women fieldworkers who included Audrey Richards, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, Wedgwood established her scholarly reputation with her Manam research.

In June 1935 Wedgwood was appointed principal of Women's College within the University of Sydney.

During a distinguished eight years in the post she stressed the importance of interaction between the college and the university (she herself was honorary lecturer in anthropology) and cultural links with the older universities in Britain.

Despite her commanding manner, it was said “she could mix with her students informally without any loss of dignity”. Her students were impressed by her skill as a public speaker and her “complete disregard for the conventions of fashion”.

Her deep, confident voice and gracious manners gave an impression of the serenity sometimes possessed by English county families with an unquestioning acceptance of their own worth.

Wedgwood's Fabian and Quaker social conscience led her to accept many responsibilities. From 1937 she was secretary of the German Emergency Fellowship Committee. She pleaded the cause of Jewish and non-Aryan Christian victims of Nazi persecution to John McEwen, Australia’s minister for the interior.

During World War II, in close contact with her father, she raised money for refugee passages to Australia, but confided to her sister Helen that she felt like “a mouse nibbling at a mountain”.

Camilla Wedgwood 1944 (Australian War Memorial)
Camilla Wedgwood, 1944 (Australian War Memorial)

As a college principal and daughter of a well-known British Labour politician (raised to the peerage in 1942), Wedgwood was a public figure in Sydney, prominent in charitable causes as well as a member of the strongly pacifist Sydney Meeting of Quakers.

Increasingly drawn to Anglicanism, early in 1944 she renounced the unqualified pacifism of the Sydney Meeting of Quakers and became an Anglican.

In January 1944 Wedgwood was commissioned Acting Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Army Medical Women's Service.

Serving as a research officer (anthropology) in Alf Conlon's Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs, she developed policies for post-war educational reconstruction in Papua New Guinea, where she served intermittently in 1944-45.

She had a strong dash of egalitarianism. On army bivouacs, when offered a cigarette by her young cadets her reply was: “No thanks, I roll my own”. But “behind her apparent self-confidence,” Elkin found her “somewhat retiring and lonely.”

From January 1945 Wedgwood was an outstandingly popular lecturer at the Land Headquarters School of Civil Affairs, Duntroon, Canberra, and, following her demobilisation in January 1946, at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA, where she was senior lecturer in native administration.

Her greatest written accomplishments were her pioneering surveys of mission schools in Papua New Guinea (1944-47), compiled as a prelude to establishing a government education scheme.

Camilla Wedgwood died of cancer on 17 May 1955 at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney.

A girls' secondary school at Goroka in the New Guinea Highlands and a memorial lecture in Port Moresby were named after her; her friend James McAuley dedicated to her his poem 'Winter Nightfall'.

David Wetherell, 'Wedgwood, Camilla Hildegarde (1901–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wedgwood-camilla-hildegarde-11992/text21503, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 27 May 2021


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