Mrs. R. L. Reid: The Craft Bookbinder

In 1924 The Courier Mail ran a story about the Arts and Crafts and a lady from Melbourne, recently arrived, who bound books.  Mrs. R. L. Reid was from then on mentioned regularly in Brisbane newspapers for her expertise in book binding, musical talents, her presentations about crafts, and presentations on very early radio broadcasts.  But by the early 30s her name disappears from the newspapers.  Some searching reveals Mrs. Reid has not gone but reinvented under a new identity as one of the earliest full-time female radio announcers on the fledgling 4BC radio station.  Under her radio name, Ruth Rutherford, she continues to promote arts and crafts, especially bookbinding, with regular radio shows describing the history of bookbinding and how anyone can get into the hobby.  But what is her story?  How did she learn her skills in bookbinding and what is her legacy?

Born in Melbourne in 1885 her name was Ruby Lillian Crawford.  Her mother, Elizabeth Jane Gunn, was born in Melbourne in 1851.  Ruby had 3 younger brothers (one died at the age of only 1) and an older sister and brother born of the same lady.  By some accounts her mother died in 1888, however another 2 children are recorded as being born after this date.  She never married Ruby’s father and some of the children’s births are registered twice, under both parents’ names, and some, such as Ruby’s, not at all.

Her father, Alfred Galen Crawford (known as Fred), came from America in 1875 and was a colourful character, seemingly loved by many, but also with deep secrets.  He was born in Massachusetts in 1847 and in 1864, when only 18 years of age, he enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War.  He served as a bandsman in regiments that were unattached and seems to have spent most of his time serving Garrison duty around the defenses of Washington D.C.  A Crawford family historian found the “regiment lost 23 men and 2 officers by disease and none killed or mortally wounded, so I assume that its service was relatively uneventful”. (1)  This is at odds with his obituary which states he witnessed several severe battles.  He served until his regiment was mustered out of service in 1865 at the end of the war.

In 1866 Alfred married Jane Wilson in Boston.  They moved to New York City, where Alfred worked for the Street Railroad Company.  They had a daughter, Cora, in 1868.  Then Alfred moved to Australia with his brother Hiram, leaving his wife and daughter behind. (2)

In Australia Alfred had many jobs and business interests.  He initially was the manager of the Eastern Arcade hotel on Bourke Street for his brother Hiram.  But he also worked as a broker and importer of trunks and travelling bags with premises in the Eastern Arcade.  At some point he seems to have even started manufacturing these items.  These business interests lasted most of his life and seemed to involve his brother Hiram and a bankruptcy.  In 1887 he was appointed Assistant Traffic Superintendent and Inspector of the Melbourne Tramway Omnibus Company, a job he did until his death in 1900. (2)  He lived at numerous residences, mostly in Richmond, often on Lennox Street, until settling into his home at 109 Lennox Street which was called ‘Alvira’, after his mother.

Between 1882 and 1897 Alfred Crawford and Elizabeth Gunn had 6 children, including Ruby.  It is unclear when Elizabeth passed.  But in his funeral notice it is mention that his brother Hiram and two sons were in attendance.  The absence of a mention of Elizabeth maybe indicates she has died.  Alfred’s funeral was large: “Few people connected with our tramways system were better known than Mr. Crawford, and his coolness and skill in directing and regulating large traffic and his uniform courtesy and kindness gained for him the good wishes and respect of the travelling public.  As a musician of both skill and taste, he took a leading part in the formation of the Tramway Band.  The funeral which left the deceased’s late residence at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning last, headed by the Tramway Band, followed by 200 of the employees in uniform.   The company was also represented official by Mr. F.B. Clapp, general manager, Mr. J.M. Pratt, managing director, and Mr. W.G. Sprigg, secretary and all the leading inspectors.  Mr. H.A. Crawford, the deceased’s brother, and two sons of the deceased gentleman, were accompanied by Messrs. A.J. Stead, E.J. Croker and C. Wright as immediate friends of the family.  The Rev. A. Hardie read the burial service and delivered some eloquent remarks as to the good and worthy life of the deceased.  The funeral arrangements which included a floral car laden with wreaths, were admirably carried out by Mr. H. King.  The coffin was carried to the grave by the deceased’s comrades, 12 of whom also acted as pall bearers.” (1)

It is unclear what Ruby’s life was like in her early years in Melbourne.  She went to school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and she also talks about being taught painting by Fred Taylor and Alice Hambidge (3).  We know from a later court case that she was working as a dental assistant, presumably soon after finishing school.  At some point, she becomes connected with South Australia as in 1907 she marries John Reid in Adelaide.  She mentions she studied music with Dr. Harold Davis and Mr. Charles Beaumont in Adelaide (3) (4).  She is later described as having a “fine contralto voice” (4).

In 1907 she marries a significantly older man, as she was 22 and John Reid 52.  John Reid was widowed in September 1906, and a week short of a year later marries Miss. Crawford.   John Reid had 8 children with his first wife.  There are indications that her life in Adelaide did not go as she had hoped.  In 1913 she was suing her husband for maintenance.  Some time prior to this they had agreed to separate, and Ruby had moved back to Melbourne.  They had come to a separation agreement that Ruby was to be paid £5 per month, which was related to her having lost her job as a dental assistant when she moved to Adelaide.  However, late in 1912 John had stopped paying this maintenance, and when he was ill in hospital in Melbourne Ruby confronted him about it.  John stated to the judge that he wanted Ruby to return to Adelaide as he had a good home for her and was willing to give her a greater allowance.  The judge found in Ruby’s favour and ordered John to backpay her allowance (5) (6).  It is unclear if the payments continued or if John died soon after.  Some family historians have John dying 2 years earlier in 1911 and his date of death has not been confirmed.

In 1913 and 1914 she is listed in the Electoral Roll as living at 160 Lennox St, Richmond, Melbourne and her occupation is, once again, as a dental assistant.   When she first arrived in Brisbane in 1924 she tells a reporter that she was always a lover of books.  And it was this love of literature that brought her to bookbinding.  She says, “what greater compliment could be paid a loved volume than to clothe it in a beautiful and specially design covering?”.  She described how it was difficult to find instruction in bookbinding, and this led her to placing an advertisement in an Adelaide newspaper.  This would indicate that she learned her bookbinding sometime in the period between 1907 and 1912.  By chance a visiting booklover from over-seas saw her advertisement and due to her enthusiasm agreed to provide a course of instruction.  This overseas visitor is described as a “genuine Roycrofter, who took the keenest interest in passing on the knowledge that he had gained in the world’s recognized art centers” (7). 

In numerous interviews she subsequently elaborated on her teacher, naming him as Henry (sometimes Charles) Field, who she describes as an associate of Elbert Hubbard, and that he was “a bookmaker in Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Colony”.  She even states in 1930 that it is her ambition to go to America and study at the Roycroft bindery in Eyrie County, which she describes as “the Mecca of all bookbinding” (8) (9).

Elbert Hubbard founded the reformist community of craft workers in the village of East Aurora, New York, in 1895.  They took the name Roycroft after the London printers of the seventeenth century, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft.  Hubbard was heavily influenced and inspired by William Morris, one of the leading figures, along with Ruskin and Pugin, of the English Arts and Crafts movement, which existed from about 1880 to 1920.  The term Arts and Crafts was coined by the celebrated bookbinder and printer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson in 1887.  At a meeting of the Brisbane Arts and Crafts Society in 1924 Ruby laments the death of the founder of the Roycroft movement who, along with his wife, perished when they were passengers on the RMS Lusitania which was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat on the 1st of May 1915.  She says, “the Lusitania disaster had deprived the world of a true artist”.  The movement was continued by Hubbard’s son, Elbert Hubbard II, until 1938.  However, by the time she was talking about this to Australian audiences the movement was already in decline and it was maybe not the mecca for bookbinding she thought by 1930. (10) (11)

The bookbinding teacher Henry Field is a mystery.  Exhaustive searches have yielded no mention of him.  Maybe this is not surprising as Ruby found him, rather than Mr. Field advertising for students.  He must have been in Australia for some time, as the level of skill attained by Mrs. Reid would not have happened overnight.  Even more puzzling is the lack of any records of him being involved with the Roycroft movement.  Queries to John Petty, an expert on the Roycroft movement, received this reply.  “Unfortunately, I can’t even find a mention of Field, either Charles or Henry in any of my reference works on Roycroft printing or bookbinding. Even the Head, Heart and Hand Exhibition catalogue, which was by far the most extensive exhibition of Roycroft ever put together, doesn’t list that name as an employee or worker in their compendium of Roycroft employees.  I’m at a loss on where to direct you further.  Or to even explain the clear references which you have.  I don’t know if Field was inflating his resume in Australia, and it was unlikely anyone would check.  I simply don’t have any viable explanation for you.” (12)

There is no record of Mrs. Reid between 1917, when she was listed on the electoral role as living at 160 Lennox St. Richmond and working as a dental assistant, and 1924 when she is interviewed in Brisbane for her skills in the Arts and Crafts.  Her older brother and his family had moved to Brisbane by 1914 (13) and her older sister by 1917 (14).  In 1917 her younger brother was also at the Enoggera Barracks, but it is not clear if he has moved to Brisbane or this is part of his mobilization for WW I.  In an interview in 1929 (15), which took place at her home in Ashgrove, her school-girl niece is present.  It would appear that family was a major factor in her moving to Brisbane.  But it may have also been an opportunity to reinvent herself and leave the past behind.

Mrs. Reid announced her arrival in Brisbane with a lecture to the local Arts and Crafts Society on “The Story of Bookbinding”.  This talk, which she gave for many years, starts with the invention of papyrus in Egypt to the development of folded vellum sheet manuscripts, illuminated by Monastic scribes, to cord sewn leather books, “still practiced by craft binders”, through to the then modern binding practiced in the Roycroft community.  She would often add useful tips for book collectors, such as sprinkling of naphthalene on bookshelves to prevent insect damage or the use of equal parts paraffin and castor oil to preserve bindings.  She became the vice-president of the Arts and Crafts Society in 1931 (4) and also became an active member of the Brisbane Women’s Club.

From 1924 to 1929 she appears in 7 significant newspaper articles including 2 major articles dedicated to her.  In this time, she has a number of studios and residences, from which she also worked.  In early 1928 she is working from her home in Ashgrove, but in May she starts working from a “charming little studio” in Rothwell’s Chambers on Edward St.  As well as bookbinding, her talents are listed as including expertise at the lacquer finishing technique of “Vernis Martin” and the mending of valuable china and glassware.  Her studio “is intended to be devoted to the teaching and development of individual talent in the modern expression of art and design”. (9)

The Australian Woman’s Mirror 28 May 1928 – The Craft Bookbinder

In most articles there is usually a description of some book that she has recently bound.  The most notable binding is a copy of The Book of Kells.  This book was first exhibited at the annual display of the Arts and Crafts Society in late 1927.  It is described as “in antique binding of grained wood and old leather, thronged and finished with antique end papers” (16).  “In the Roman Catholic Cathedral one of Mrs. Reid’s triumphs is the cover of the Book of Kells.  This, which encloses the famous illuminated copy of the Gospels, when exhibited in Brisbane excited so much admiration that leading members of the Catholic community bought it and presented it to Archbishop Duhig” (15).  This volume was said to hold a “honored place in the library of St. Stephen’s Cathedral” (4).

The Brisbane Archdiocesan Archives were very helpful in searching their catalogue and confirming that it wasn’t in the archives.  “It is very possible the Archbishop Duhig gave it to someone else” (17).  Another lead was an article about Archbishop Duhig donating a library of Irish books, stating it included a copy of The Book of Kells, to Villanova College in Brisbane.  The article was specific in that these books had been purchased in Dublin.  But there is some chance the copy of interest had been included (18).  A Chaplain at Villanova College remembered these books being given to the “National Library Canberra”.  The National Library of Australia confirmed these books were not held at the NLA but were part of the Duhig Memorial Collection at the ANU.  The Menzies library was very helpful in providing a photo of The Book of Kells in this collection, that confirmed this was not the copy bound by Mrs. Reid.  Other major collection likely to have received this book, such as the University of Queensland Library and the John Oxley Library, have been searched to no avail.

Mrs. Reid’s journey to bookbinding is very interesting in the context of the Arts and Crafts movement at the start of the twentieth century.  Bookbinding had become a popular hobby in the southern states for women, and numerous entries are recorded at the regular Arts and Crafts Exhibitions.  The principle path for this skill migration from England to Australia was by Mrs. Francis Knight who went to England and worked at the Society of Women Binders for about 1 year in 1902.  She returned to Australia for a short time and provided instructions to other women.  The most notable of these was Margaret Chapman.  Mrs. Knight returned to Europe, while Miss Chapman became an accomplished binder providing training to other women in turn.  Mrs. Reid was aware of Miss Chapman saying “with the exception of Margaret Chapman there were very few women in Australia engaged in the craft” (8).  While Mrs. Reid’s bookbinding heritage was still based on the English Arts and Crafts movement, it was through the filter of the North American movement.  It would be interesting to be able to compare bindings by Mrs. Reid and Miss. Chapman side by side.

Mrs. Reid’s talks were so popular she was invited to give them on Brisbane’s first radio station, 4QG.  4QG was opened in 1925 and was the forerunner of today’s ABC.  In 1929, in an article entitled “Huge Mail Bag”, this success is described. 

“A very popular artist at 4QG is Mrs. R. L. Reid.  Women from all over Queensland and even from the southern states, have been so charmed by Mrs. Reid’s talks that her mail reaches the amazing total of 150 letters a week.  Arts and Crafts are her pet subject, and she has proved that they can be taught over the wireless just as commercial subjects are taught through the post.  At last it is possible for the artistically inclined to develop their talent, even though they are hundreds of miles from a city and never attend a class.”

“The whole field of Arts and Crafts is being covered by Mrs. Reid in her talks.  She began with bookbinding and leather craft, and then taught wood-lacquer work, of which the process is the same as that used for the famous old Japanese lacquer.  Mrs. Reid also gives talks on a variety of useful subjects – how to restore etchings and pictures which have deteriorated, how to care for books, and so on.” (3)

In 1930 it is announced she has been appointed a full-time radio announcer.  “The many listeners who have heard Mrs. R. L. Reid ‘on the air’ will be interested to learn that she has been appointed lady announcer for the radio station 4BC” (19).  4BC was started in 1930 and was initially a private radio station established by Mr. J. B. Chandler, who was an electronics retailer and Lord Mayor of Brisbane.  The first major broadcasts were of the England versus Australia cricket Test Match.  Now Mr. Chandler had everyone’s attention he moved to capture the day time audience of housewives.  “Work became lighter when beautiful music was available – sewing was better done when entertainment was to be had at the same time”.  The popular Mrs. R. L. Reid was an obvious choice to attract the female audience, and she joined 4 men to make the 4BC announcing staff.  4BC still exists as an AM talk back radio station in Brisbane.

From 1930 on the references to Mrs. Reid almost completely disappear.  Instead she becomes known by her new radio name Ruth Rutherford.  In a 1941 article, near the end of her career, she cryptically said she “gained her radio surname, Rutherford, from her maiden name, Ruth Crawford” (20).  To help the listeners get used to this new character, Ruth Rutherford, Mr. Chandler published a small recipe book called “Radio Recipes”, which was compiled by Ruth.  In the forward she says, “It has been a pleasure to me to compile it from some of the recipes and hints which have been so kindly sent in to our Station by our radio friends”  (21).

Radio Recipes 1930

It is not surprising Ruth Rutherford was successful in radio.  She was not hindered by the expectations of a husband that she gives up work, and with a “a charming personality, an attractive speaking voice which transmits almost perfectly and her friendly and intimate manner at the microphone” (22), along with a wealth of interesting subject to talk about she was perfect for the time.  

By 1935 her “aim is to make 4BC the official station for every woman’s organization of importance in Queensland.  Her session now covers the activities of the Mothercraft Association, the Queensland Housewives’ Association, the Arts and Crafts Society, and the Young Women’s Christian Association”.    She was also a member of the Lyceum Club.  In 1935 she was doing a morning and afternoon session which were done without s script, including the advertisements.  She would write the blind in braille and founded a library at the leper colony on Peel Island (23).  An amusing job she had in 1934 was to make a trial instructional flight with the Aero Club, and report in the afternoons broadcast on “her impressions from a feminine point of view” (24).  By 1941 she held the record for Queensland (“and maybe Australia”) of the longest serving radio announcer behind the same desk.  In this report it still highlights her bookbinding hobby, and her triumph The Book of Kells (20).

Her enthusiasm for bookbinding is seen from the 1930 interview, conducted at her Ashgrove studio, where in regard to her craft she says it “is a subject to be treated with reverence.  It is my first thought on waking and my last on going to sleep.  Frequently I work at night for it is then that I often find I can achieve my best creativity.”   The interviewer “was amazed at the variety and number of the tools”.  She explained that “one could work with less, but the more tools employed the better were the results”.  She laments, as bookbinders still do that “sometimes she found it difficult to obtain the tools required, for in Australia one was so far from the center of things” (8).

Her binding style was exclusively in leather and appears to be hollow backed, though she mentions “the difference between the monastic sewn and the hollow back book.  It did not matter which method was followed by the hand worker, the cover was always an integral part of the book”.  In the only image of one of her books, a copy of Robinson Crusoe, the cover has heavy blind tooling with simple gold titling on the spine and cover and minor gold decoration. 

The Australian Woman’s Mirror 28 May 1928 – The Craft Bookbinder

Mrs. Reid also undertook restoration work and demonstrated this to an interviewer.  “She said one first took a piece of biscuit calf and dyed it.  The board of the book was then reset and a leather joint placed underneath.  A silk joint should be placed next to the end papers, then a leather on the outside to match the original, which in the instance demonstrated happened to be of tree calf.  The repair of all corners and any missing portions followed.  Then the repairs had to be stained to match the original leather and finally there was the polishing to be undertaken”. (8)

Mrs. Reid’s specialty seems to have been painted endpapers in lush colours related to the book.  She details “the many beautiful colours utilized in binding such as scarlet, royal blue, tabac brown, golden brown and crimson”.  She also said she had an ambition “to own a hand printing press for printing books themselves” (8).

Sunday Mail 19 January 1941 – Roundabout in Radio You’ve Heard Her on the Air

In the appendix, the bindings described in the source material are listed by the year the bindings are first mentioned and any subsequent descriptions of the same book.  She may not have been an active bookbinder after 1930 when her radio career took off.  No mention of any new bindings is made after 1929.

On the 5th of October 1957 Ruby Lilian Reid died at the age of 72 of heart failure.  Her profession is listed as Radio Announcer and the informant is her nephew, John Devitt, who is still living in Ashgrove at the time.  She was cremated at Mt Thompson Crematorium with a Baptist minister present.  With TV displacing radio as the main form of entertainment, the name Ruth Rutherford faded into history.   It is hard to estimate if her talks about bookbinding and teaching had any lasting effect.  Bookbinding went out of fashion along with the Arts and Crafts movement going into the war period, only to have a resurgence in the 1970s.  With no known bindings located it is difficult to admire her work.  Maybe now is the time for Mrs. Reid’s name to become known again in the book community, and hopefully one day some of her bindings will be recognized and displayed for all to admire.


Many people have provided help during the writing of this article.  John Petty helped try and identify the mysterious Roycrofter.  The following people helped try to locate The Book of Kells copy bound by Mrs. Reid.  Carolyn Nolan, Brisbane Archdiocesan Archives.  Antonietta Neighbour, Villanova College Brisbane.  Gemma Bush, National Library of Australia.  Tom Foley, Menzies Library, ANU.  Christina Ealing-Godbold at the State Library of Queensland was extremely helpful and found the information about Mrs. Reid’s separation and the important 18 May 1924 article.  I discussed the project with June McNicol who provided the encouragement that made it eventuate.