Cambridge, Ada (1844–1926)

views updated

Cambridge, Ada (1844–1926)

Australian fiction writer and poet. Name variations: Mrs. George Cross. Born Ada Cambridge on November 21, 1844, at Wiggenhall, St. Germains, Norfolk, England; died on July 19, 1926, at Elsternwick, Australia; daughter of Thomasine (Emerson) and Henry Cambridge (a farmer); educated at home; married Reverend George Frederick Cross (d. 1917), on April 25, 1870; children: Arthur Stuart (1871–1876); Edith Constance (1873–1884); Vera Lyon (b. 1876); Hugh Cambridge (1878–1902); Kenneth Stuart (1880–1967).

Selected works:

Hymns on the Litany (1865); Hymns on the Holy Communion (1866); The Manor House (poems, 1875); Unspoken Thoughts (1887); A Marked Man (1890); Thirty Years in Australia (1903); The Hand in the Dark (1913).

Ada Cambridge was the eldest daughter and second child in a family of ten children whose parents farmed 174 acres in England's Thorpland. Their father Henry, however, was more interested in hunting, and much of the farming fell to their mother Thomasine, while Ada, a caretaker at a young age, saw to household chores. Unable to make ends meet, the Cambridges moved to Downham Market in 1854, where Henry became a grain merchant. During her youth, Ada and her siblings had seven governesses, most of whom were less literate than their pupils who terrorized them into quitting. Ada maintained that one governess, with whom she was forced to share a bedroom, molested her. A maternal aunt took a special interest in Ada and pushed her to study languages and literature.

The family eventually moved to Ely, where the teenage Ada became devoutly religious and considered becoming a nun; she worked as a District Visitor for her church, checking on elderly and sick parishioners and, by age 22, had anonymously published two volumes of hymns. She also helped financially support her family with the publication of short stories in local magazines and newspapers.

Cambridge met her future husband George Cross, who had been born and raised in Ely, while he was completing his theology studies. Ada knew that George wanted to move to Australia and help establish the Church of England. During their seven-week engagement, she sewed her own wedding dress in grey so that it might be worn again, and they married in April of 1870. Cross was made a rector on the same day, and they sailed for Australia on June 1. The 80-day voyage brought Cross and Cambridge (who kept her maiden name for its established literary reputation) ashore at Hobson's Bay, from which they departed for his first parish, in Wangaratta. There, the couple had a son, Arthur Stuart, and Ada learned to handle a pistol in the event of attack by Aborigines. In January of 1872, the family moved to Yackandandah. They had a daughter, Edith, in November of 1873, and Ada began publishing in magazines once more to contribute to the family coffer. Although she taught Sunday school and led the choir, Cambridge shunned most of the traditional duties of a parson's wife, which she found boring. "After I could plead the claims of a profession of my own," she wrote, "my position in the scheme of things was finally and comfortably defined." The family suffered Edith's death of whooping cough in April of 1874, after which they moved as soon as Cross could obtain a new post. As well, their new home in Ballan proved a house of sadness with Arthur dying two years after his sister, and Cambridge was childless for two months until Vera was born. When Vera was one, they moved to Coleraine and added two sons, Hugh and Kenneth. The seasons were harsh—flooding in winter, extreme heat in summer—and the parsonage was isolated. Loneliness and long hours working for extra income made Cambridge ill. She was frequently bedridden but wrote voluminously.

George Cross could not keep up the parsonage, so in December 1883 the family sold its belongings and boarded the school-age children. George began a series of traveling posts and Cambridge, her baby, and a nursemaid went "visiting" with friends and family for a year. Cross took an assignment in the Melbourne district of Beechworth, where they would stay for nine years. The country landscape soothed Ada, and the parishioners expected little of her. A near-fatal illness in March of 1886 left her with recurring periods of poor health, which were complicated by a back injury suffered in a carriage accident; still, her writing continued to flourish.

The 1887 poetry volume Unspoken Thoughts, which voiced Ada's increasing doubt in the organized religion her husband represented and the "relentless bonds" of marriage, deepened the emotional gap between the two. Ada withdrew the volume but not all copies were recovered. Of her increasingly feminist works, she remarked, "I am a woman's woman; I am even—although I detest the term—a woman's rights woman."

In 1893, the Beechworth years closed with a move to Williamstown. Ada continued to write and publish prolifically but the quality of her writing diminished; demands on her time from the parish had increased. Williamstown was Cross' longest post, and they remained there through their daughter Vera's marriage and son Hugh's death at age 23 of enteric fever.

Ada Cambridge lived in Australia nearly 30 years before she returned to her homeland. The trip was afforded by Cross' sister's estate, which George was called home to settle. They stayed five months, visiting family and old friends. When they returned to Australia, he worked for only a year more before retiring. In 1912, the couple returned to England to live. Cambridge destroyed most of her personal papers before they set sail.

To George Cross, Australia was a career, but it had become home to Cambridge. She returned to Malvern, Victoria, within months of George's death in February 1917, and "found a tiny home for myself here, under the wing of my only daughter who lives in the next street." In her final years, Cambridge's eyesight and general health failed. Her savings were depleted. When she could no longer afford her own home, she moved in with her son Kenneth with whom she stayed for three years before a series of strokes forced her into full-time nursing care. Cambridge's longtime publisher, George Robertson, arranged to purchase the rights for her entire catalog of writings in October 1924. He did it as a kindness, and the sum allowed Cambridge to live out her days in a private hospital in Elsternwick. She died on July 19, 1926, and was buried at Brighton Cemetery, Melbourne. Her tombstone incorrectly identifies her as 84 years old, instead of her true 81 years. Cambridge's sister, Jenny Wylie , was buried beside her five years later.


Belby, Raymond, and Cecil Hadgraft. Ada Cambridge, Tasma and Rosa Praed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Bradstock, Margaret, and Louise Wakeling. Rattling the Orthodoxies: A Life of Ada Cambridge. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books, 1991.

Tate, Audrey. Ada Cambridge. Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1991.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts

About this article

Cambridge, Ada (1844–1926)

Updated About content Print Article