Killie Campbell: Biographical Essay

A dedicated collector of South African history: Dr Killie Campbell

Killie in the fiftiesMargaret Roach Campbell, or Killie Campbell, as she was later known, was born at Mount Edgecombe on 9 September 1881, the second of four children of the Natal senator and sugar magnate, Sir Marshall Campbell. She was educated at St. Anne's Diocesan College in Natal and at St. Leonard's School in Scotland where, in her own, words, she acquired, "an enthusiasm for History, and a love of historical places." 1

In 1914 her father built on Durban's Berea, at the top of Marriott Road (now Gladys Mazibuko Road), an imposing neo-Cape Dutch style house. This house, called 'Muckleneuk', was to be Killie's home until her death in 1965, sharing it first with her parents and later with her widower brother William.

It was at Muckleneuk that Killie assembled her large and important collection of Africana. She and her mother travelled regularly to England where Killie acquired some fine items with great enthusiasm: "I have always loved hunting for books in the rabbit warren streets of London." 2

However in her apprenticeship days, through excitement and eagerness over finds, she did sometimes pay too much for items but observed that, "every fool is grist to an auctioneer's mill," and added that, "I do not regret that I served by bitter experience my apprenticeship as a collector. It has afforded me amusing experience as well as increased knowledge. I had no attractive collectors' catalogues when I first started, though I don't think they can really ever give you half the thrill or joy that one gets rummaging round old second-hand bookshops and making firm friends with the inmates. Even if the search is unsuccessful, there is always the anticipation that tomorrow may bring success." 3

Of her great collecting interest Killie once wrote, "Perhaps it was a passionate love of my homeland, South Africa, that made me so keen to know more about the people, their history, the country in general. Later, the old travellers' tales and voyages and the adventurous expeditions into the interior and the musty old books of systems of geography fascinated me." 4 Perhaps she best expressed her aims in a speech which she delivered at a Rotary luncheon in 1935 when she said, "It is our bounden duty to see that all our treasures are collected and preserved for Natal. They are no longer our individual possession, but belong by right to our Nation, the symbols and makings of history so essential to a young country." 5 She also believed that records should be collected and maintained, "dealing with every aspect of our Nation, without prejudice to Race, Religion or Colour, which should be available to every earnest student seeking knowledge." 6 She was to add to this eight years later when she wrote, "For myself I do not seek publicity, but I do feel strongly that every chance of stressing the necessity of preserving old documents, letters, native customs and getting together reminiscences of the old days should be taken." 7 And Killie was always most grateful to the many people who donated items for preservation.

In 1939 Killie stated that, "My Africana collection comprises chiefly old travel books, books on history, biographies, and reminiscences." 8 When describing her Africana collection in an article published in Africana notes and news in September 1945 she wrote, "This Library has approximately 20,000 books, and I have specialized chiefly in history and Bantu life." 9 She went on to give details of the collection such as. "Reminiscences find a place in typescripts, either collected from diaries or written or given by old colonists," 10 while, "Extracts from newspapers are cut out every day, and classified under several headings..." 11 and, "We are making a feature of historical and other photographs, and grouping them into albums with corresponding short articles describing events in connection with them." 12 She added that, "Missionary books, journals and chronicles, etc, are fairly well represented in the library..." With the rider that, "It is to be regretted that many missionaries filled their letters and reports with Biblical ramblings and did not give more information about the country." 13

Although Killie acquired many unique items her library was essentially a working collection which, together with her own extensive knowledge, she freely made available to others. She compiled bibliographies and indexes, and preserved rare items, such as old family diaries, by painstakingly copying them, thus sometimes saving records which might otherwise have been irretrievably lost. The stimulating atmosphere she created at 'Muckleneuk', the interesting discussions at tea-time as well as her tremendous enthusiasm were often a motivating factor in the writing of books and articles. Of herself she said, "I am not so inclined to write -- if I do so it's bound to effect (sic) my collecting mania - and that after all is my job." 14

She encouraged old Natal settlers to record their reminiscences. As early as 1912 she had assisted her father in organizing an essay competition for Zulu and Sotho speakers who were invited to record the history of their families. Later she sponsored similar competitions, in 1942 and 1950, assisted by D. Mck. Malcolm, for Zulus to write essays about places which had historical significance and about their clans because, "It is good to have remembrance of the past and build up your history as seen through your eyes... before the wise old men and women of the kraals have passed away and their knowledge is lost." 15

Killie's interest in history however was not confined to her own collection. She was the first woman member of the Historical Monuments Commission, she served on the executive committee of the Natal Settler's Centenary Celebrations of 1949 and she also served for a long time on the committee of the Natal branch of the South African Society for the Preservation of Objects of Historical and Natural Interest. She was also a trustee of the Old House Museum in Durban which owes its existence largely to Killie who for more than twenty years campaigned and collected Natal settler relics for it.

As she grew older Killie's valuable work of collecting and preserving historical and cultural items for posterity was recognized in a number of ways. She received honorary degrees from the University of Natal in 1950 and the University of the Witwatersrand in 1954, and was awarded honorary fellowship of the South African Library Association in 1958 and Durban Civic honours in 1964.

When she died in 1965 her valuable collection of books, pamphlets, excerpts, photographs, maps, newspapers, journals and paintings, as well as the notable collection of manuscripts, passed to the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) which has since then administrated the collection and continued to add to it.

The authors of numerous books in the Killie Campbell Aficana Library have acknowledged Killie's assistance, but perhaps the most moving tribute to her is made by Donald Morris in the foreword to his book The washing of the spears which deals with the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. Morris wrote: "I owe the greatest debt of all to the most remarkable person, Dr Killie Campbell of Durban. She has worked industriously and largely alone for more than half a century to preserve the vanishing traces of the early days of Southern Africa... This book - as is true of a score of others - could not have been written without the riches of the Campbell library, nor without the many kindnesses and the friendship of its director... I humbly salute a very gallant woman." 16

Shortened essay which appeared in Library News supplement no.23 1981 Killie Campbell 1881-1965 by Jenni Duggan, Africana Librarian


  1. Campbell, K. Original correspondence KCM 5907b in File 26, March 23, 1954, KCAL
  2. Campbell, K. Original correspondence KCM 4728 in File 15, Aug. 3, 1947.
  3. South Africa, v. 202, no 2629, May 27. 1939. p. 247.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Campbell, K. Original correspondence KCM 4728 in File 15, Aug. 3 1947.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Campbell, K. Original correspondence KCM 4728 in File 15, Aug. 3, 1947.
  8. South Africa, v. 202, no 2629, May 27. 1939. p. 248.
  9. Africana Notes and News, v.2 no. 4, Sept. 1945, p. 119.
  10. Ibid, p. 119
  11. Ibid, p. 120
  12. Ibid, p. 120
  13. Ibid, p. 120
  14. Campbell, K. Original correspondence KCM 4302 in File 8, p.34, July 5, 1943.
  15. Campbell, K. Original correspondence KCM 4298 in File 6, p. 33, Aug. 1942.
  16. Morris, D. R. The washing of the spears. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965, pp. 9-10.