One of Betty Archdale’s earliest memories was of fortnightly visits to Holloway Prison, where her mother Helen had twice been incarcerated for her role in the British suffragette movement.
Betty’s school days were spent at Bedales and then at St Leonards in St Andrews, where cricket was taking precedence over tennis as a sport for girls. She graduated with First Class Honours in political science and economics from McGill University in Canada, and then returned to the University of London to obtain her LL.B and then her LL.M majoring in international law. After university she worked for a Labour MP and went to Geneva to lobby delegates to the League of Nations for equality for women. Her interest in cricket continued, and in 1934 she captained the English Women’s Cricket Team on its first tour to Australia.
Miss Archdale was admitted to the London Bar in 1937, but her incipient legal career was thwarted by the outbreak of war two years later. She promptly enlisted as an administrative officer in the WRNS, and during the war saw service in Singapore, Colombo, Ceylon, Kenya and the Persian Gulf. She came to Australia on a WRNS tour just as the war was ending, and was appointed Principal of the Women’s College in 1946. As a College Principal and later as Headmistress of Abbotsleigh (1958-1969), Betty Archdale encouraged a system of freedom with responsibility at an early age. She brought a passionate belief in the importance of women’s education and of their role in civic life to the conservative heartlands of Sydney at a time in the 1950s and 1960s when domestic virtues were more readily extolled. Due to her participation in public life and the media, her influence spread well beyond the institutions she headed.
After her tenure at the College, Miss Archdale’s association with the University of Sydney continued when she was elected to the Senate in 1959. In the Senate election of 1964 she topped the poll, ahead of a field of some of Sydney’s most distinguished judges, doctors and academics. She founded the Australian branch of the International Law Association in 1958. She chaired the NSW Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (1960-1962) and the Arts Council in NSW (1972-1974). Her opinions on current affairs were often sought and quoted on the radio and the press. In 1998 the National Trust voted her one of Australia’s hundred living treasures. In 1999 the MCC elected her as one of the first ten women honorary life members of Lords. Betty Archdale died on 11 January 2000, aged 92, a famous, beloved and unconventional educator.
Source: Adapted from an article in The Independent, London, by Robin Fitzsimons.