Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts

Who Was Judith Wright?

Judith Wright

Judith Wright was a Queensland resident for more than 30 years. She was born in New England in regional New South Wales and came to Brisbane as a young woman. She lived for a time at 100 Sydney Street, New Farm and worked as a statistician at the University of Queensland (a job she was completely untrained for) while she wrote the first of the poems that were to make her famous, among them “Bullocky” and “The Moving Image”. In Brisbane she met and fell in love with philosopher Jack McKinney, and in 1945 they bought a tiny cottage on Mount Tamborine. They later moved to a nearby house which they named “Calanthe”, after a white orchid which blooms on the mountain at Christmas time. They shared 20 happy years together on Tamborine, until Jack’s death in 1966.

During the 1950s and 60s Judith’s fame as a poet grew, although she also wrote children’s stories, books of criticism, and "Generations Of Men", a novel about her grandparents who were early settlers in Queensland’s Dawson Valley. Her deep love of the Australian landscape, and her growing distress at the devastation of that landscape by white Australians, led her to help form the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in the mid-60s, an early and powerful conservation group. The battles to save places such as Cooloolah, Fraser Island and the Great Barrier Reef radicalised her and after Jack’s death she increasingly threw herself into active environmental work, which continued until the last decade of her life.

Along with her deep awareness of environmental problems came a new understanding of the wrongs inflicted on the Aboriginal people. In 1975 Judith moved south, to Braidwood in New South Wales and soon after she and Nugget Coombs helped form the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, an organisation dedicated to helping spread the word about the need for land rights and a treaty among white Australians. Judith continued to fight both for the environment and for Aboriginal land rights until her death in June 2000 at the age of 85. A week before her death she triumphantly attended the Reconciliation March across the bridge in Canberra, full of hope that the tide might at last be turning.

Judith Wright has been called “the conscience of the nation” for her early, ongoing and passionate commitment to Australia’s environment and the Aboriginal people. Nevertheless, it is for her poetry that she is best remembered, poetry which has helped shape Australia’s perception of itself as much as her tireless battles have helped to save it.

Find out more about Judith's life in Queensland and her work at the University of Queensland via this blog post reflecting on her centenary on 31 May 2015. 

For more information visit National Library of Australia - Judith Wright's Biography: A Delicate Balance between Trespass and Honour by Veronica Brady.