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A tribute to...

Barbara Ker Wilson

Published: Wed 7th Oct 2020

"Remembering Our Mother" - A Eulogy to Barbara

- lovingly written by Julia and Sarah Tahourdin, Barbara's daughters

My early memories are lots of cuddles, cups of cocoa with bedtime stories. I remember family holidays - trips on a houseboat on the Murray River from Renmark to Swan Hill and back again, visiting New Zealand and Tasmania. Mummy took me to France for my 18th birthday; we had such a great time. We also had wonderful holidays in Sri Lanka and Dunk Island.

Once, I wrote a story while at high school and Mummy went to my defence when I was admonished by the teacher for writing a creative tale rather than an argumentative essay.

I remember waking up after a nightmare or in hospital only to see the love in her eyes and feel her warm and gentle embrace.

On a glorious spring day last year, my sister and I took mummy to Floriade and the National Library of Australia in Canberra. I'm so glad that I made a spontaneous visit to Sydney for my sister's birthday in February this year, the three of us had a lovely five hours together - it was the last time that I was able to give Mummy hugs and kisses.

Any personal relationship has its downs as well as its ups, I'm so happy remembering my mother's love, comfort and support as well as our adventures together. This brilliant woman will be in my heart forever.

Barbara with daughters Sarah and Julia in younger years.
Barbara with daughters Sarah and Julia in younger years.

- Julia Tahourdin

When I think of my mother now, a month after she has died, it is with sadness, but also joy.

My mother was an exceptional woman in so many ways. As someone recently said to me, "She broke the mould with her passing."

What is it about that generation? Born between two world wars, and growing up with the ever present threat of bombs as the Second World War wreaked havoc around the world. There seems to be an indomitable spirit that has survived those childhood years with its threat of disaster and impending doom. Was it a result of having to develop a certain self-discipline that comes with everything being rationed? Having to 'make do' and rely on one's inner resources to cope with adversity?

It was often said of my mother that she had a core of iron, an inner strength that enabled her to believe not only in her abilities - and they were considerable - but also to stand by her convictions. Fiercely independent to the end, this is a quality she has passed on to me: relying on oneself and charting the course of one's own life. I will miss this remarkable woman till the end of my days.

- Sarah Tahourdin

"The Publishing World"

Barbara at the Bodley Head 1956.
Barbara at the Bodley Head 1956.

Barbara Ker Wilson was born in 1929 in Sunderland, England. She was the daughter of William Ker Wilson, an aeronautical engineer and his wife, Margaret (née Rogers).

Her first successful work, written when she was eight, was a play based on the coronation of King George VI; it was performed at her primary school in England. Throughout her childhood she wrote poetry, short stories and unfinished 'novels'.

The family moved south and she was educated at North London Collegiate School, soon discovering her destiny. As a child, she used to accompany her father to a large publishing office in London, to deliver corrected proofs of his latest engineering textbook. "I made the irrevocable decision that I would enter the world of publishing one day, at the height of the London Blitz," she said.

"After I left school, I began working with Oxford University Press as a secretary and worked up through all the departments to be editress of the children's books section," Ker Wilson later recalled. Eventually, she progressed to the Bodley Head and then William Collins. Along the way, she worked with many prominent children's authors, most notably discovering Paddington Bear and working with Michael Bond on that iconic book. She also worked with C S Lewis on The Last Battle.

Her own writing was not neglected and included the well-received Last Year's Broken Toys (1963), which was described in a Times review as "a vivid picture of life in an English town during the last war, with a dramatic espionage trip to occupied Paris" and was named the New York Herald Tribune's book of honour in 1963. Ker Wilson received awards for other works: 1995 Selected International Awards - White Ravens for Hands Up! : Who Enjoyed Their Schooldays, University of Queensland Press (UQP), 1994 and 1988 joint winner Australian Bicentennial Authority Anthology Award for The Illustrated Treasury of Australian Stories and Verse for Children, Nelson, 1987.

In 1956, Ker Wilson married Peter Tahourdin, a composer. After being stranded in rural Sussex for a month during the miserable winter of 1963, the young family sailed the following summer on the SS Himalaya to Australia, where Tahourdin was appointed visiting composer to the University of Adelaide. Their arrival was featured in The Age newspaper in Melbourne under the headline: "Author is here to stay." Ker Wilson told the paper's reporter: "We came to Australia because we feel it is a country full of enthusiasm."

Barbara at the Reader's Digest 1983.
Barbara at the Reader's Digest 1983.

Her writing continued with titles such as A Family Likeness (1967) and children's books, most of them with a strong element of folklore and social history including tales about the koala, kangaroo, dingo and magpie. She collected Aboriginal stories in Tales Told to Kabbarli (1972) and wrote the libretto for Parrot Pie (1973), Peter Tahourdin's one-act children's opera.

Barbara Ker Wilson and Peter Tahourdin working on Parrot Pie 1970s.
Barbara Ker Wilson and Peter Tahourdin working on Parrot Pie 1970s.

She also threw herself into editing Australian literature at Angus & Robertson, breaking new ground by publishing Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972), a collection of tales about indigenous life by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, previously known as Kath Walker. Later she worked at Hodder & Stoughton, setting the groundwork for their children's list, making regular visits to international book fairs in Bologna, London and New York. Ker Wilson went on to work at Readers Digest and UQP.

Ker Wilson spoke of overcoming the great distances in Australia, explaining how sometimes she would edit a book without ever meeting the author in person. "This would hardly ever happen in Britain, but if I work in Adelaide and the author lives in Queensland, it can happen here," she told The Sydney Morning Herald in 1967, adding that letter writing made up for the lack of personal contact. "I often wonder if the art of correspondence is more alive in Australia because of the distances."

She took a break from editing in 1984 and lived for a while in Paris, but was soon asked to start a young books list for the University of Queensland, which she did from Leura in the Blue Mountains. Later, she moved to Brisbane. After Jane Austen in Australia, Ker Wilson continued to write historical fiction, including The Quade Inheritance (1988), a story that spans Victorian England and the colony in Australia. She described it as "an antidote to the many gothic novels I had to read for my work."

Her influence on the development of children's books in Australia was one of the most significant contributions of the twentieth century. She was awarded the Pixie O'Harris Award for services to Children's Literature in 1997 and the Dromkeen Medal in 1999.

In 2002, Ker Wilson was honoured with life membership of the former Society of Editors (Qld) because of her commitment to the Society and her contribution to its development. She was awarded an Order of Australia in 2004 for her service to literature as an editor and author, and as a mentor to emerging writers.

Barbara at Pt O'Halloran 1990s.
Barbara at Pt O'Halloran 1990s.

Barbara Ker Wilson AM died peacefully in Bowral, Australia on 10 September 2020, aged 90. She is survived by her daughters: Julia and Sarah, and her grandchildren Max and Imogen.

Julia and Sarah Tahourdin gratefully acknowledge the support provided by Margaret Hamilton AM and Nigel Starck in writing this tribute.

Barbara with Sarah and Julia.
Barbara with Sarah and Julia.

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