Cracknell, Ruth

Ruth Cracknell AM (also Ruth Winifred Phillips) was born in Maitland NSW on 6 July 1925 to Charles and Winifred Cracknell. Her father Charles ran the family bakery in Maitland but when Ruth was four relocated the family to     Sydney. Unfortunately his financial affairs failed to prosper and the family moved regularly as the capital from the sale of their homes subsidised family living expenses.

Ruth was one of two daughters, and attended North Sydney Girls High School before proceeding to work as a clerk at Ku-ring-gai Council. At the age of 17 she joined the Modern Theatre Players drama school. Her initial roles were in radio before performing at the Independent Theatre Company, Mercury Theatre and as part of the John Alden Company. In 1952 she travelled to London, meeting her future husband, Eric Phillips, aboard the ship taking her there. Some two decades later she and Eric took their family back to London when Ruth was to perform there in a David Williamson play “What if you died tomorrow?”

Miss Cracknell appeared in over 20 films and television series with her best known performance being as Maggie Beare in “Mother and Son.” Written by Geoffrey Atherton she co-starred with Gary McDonald and Henry Szeps as her sons Arthur and Robert. First screened in 1984 it continued for 6 seasons over the next decade. It was the story of the close bonds between a divorced adult son who lived with his dementing mother. Some of her finest work was on the stage, especially with the Sydney Theatre Company of which she became the Patron together with patronage of the Australian Theatre for Young People. She became one of the most loved and leading actors of her time.

She was awarded a Logie as the Most Outstanding Actress in 1993 and 1994, in 1994 the Logie as the Most Popular Comedy Personality and in 2001 the TV Week Logie Hall of Fame. Also in 2001 she received the J C Williamson Award for her life time work in Theatre. In 1980 she had received Membership of the Order of Australia. In 1998 the National Trust named her one of Australia’s “100 National Living Treasures.”

Ruth married Eric Phillips on 25 June 1957 and they had three children Anna, Jane and Jonathan. Eric worked in electronics particularly for AWA but also in the theatre. Of their relationship Ruth said: “He is my greatest fan, and our life stimulates him and works because we are both focussed very firmly on what we do. He is absolutely supportive in that he values what I do, as I value what he does. We are equals and that never changes, though I believe I rely upon his judgment more than perhaps he needs to on mine. He is a crystal clear thinker.” [1]

Eric resigned from his position when the family travelled to England, and upon their return in 1975 established a framing business initially in Crows Nest and Ruth and the children provided some help in running it. “I knew that he had been considering frozen fish and second-hand whitegoods. Framing seemed a godsend by comparison.” [2]

Ruth and Eric initially lived in a flat at Parsley Bay before established their family home in Beecroft on the corner of Copeland Road and York Street. In 1996 she described the home as “these days the house has a high wall around it. From the street you see the white wall, trees, old terracotta tiles, chimney pots and the long side verandah. It started its life in 1907. We have lived in it for over thirty years. Just two of us now. Being in one place has been important. There has been no wish to re-live a peripatetic childhood. If the fates are kind, it is where I will die.” [3]

As Ruth worked, the family was helped by women who were employed to assist in the home. “That help has been absolutely indispensable and treasured. It has allowed the seams to stay stitched. I am profoundly grateful and so is Eric. The Florence Nightingales added a richness.” [4]

Of her family growing up in Beecroft she said: “Our children have always led very private lives, first our own wish, and when the time slipped away and they were grown, it has become very much their wish. …they are the central core of my being, …Their presence has always seemed, and still does, miraculous, and that they are the cause of the greatest pride. Nothing surpasses it. The fact that we can, husbands, partner and all, sit around a table and entertain and satisfy one another – mostly- means that Eric and I have done something right in the process.”[5]

The family had one dog Bambi and then a cat Joseph who both lived a long age but after Joseph a series of cats who didn’t “last long due to their insatiable desires to beat the cars on the increasingly busy front road.”[6] 

 Ruth was known to other children growing up in the area and at the school as Mrs Phillips and willingly gave of her time and skill when local causes required it. When the local History Group was seeking to raise funds to publish its first volume of the history that this biography forms part, she agreed to do a series of poetry readings as the very first fund raising event. Despite coming down with a severe cold she went on to perform to a packed house and the door takings provided a substantial starting amount to launch this project. When that volume was printed and the book itself launched, she once again made herself available to add importance and celebrity to the event.  Link The BCHG Beginnings

  “Where I live, our family home, there is a supportive and cherished community, and I feel relatively free. Nowhere else. The lifelong habit of observing people surreptitiously, a tool of trade, is no longer possible. Stop at traffic lights, stare straight ahead. Any deviation to right or left and a car load will be waving. And yes, it’s delicious, and they’re all simply lovely and there is enormous mutual warmth and the loveliest things are said. Real joy is a precious commodity. One is grateful for that. But what there isn’t is privacy.” [7]

Eric Phillips had a paralysing stroke while they were visiting Venice and he died shortly after their return to Sydney. Miss Cracknell died of a respiratory illness, having continued to live in her Beecroft home until shortly before her death which occurred on 13 May 2002.

 An obituary said: “Her intelligence, grace and charm earned her widespread affection, and her natural talent commanded respect.” [8]


[1]        R Cracknell, A Biased Memoir (Claremont, Sydney,1997) p 126.

 [2]       R Cracknell, p. 257

 [3]       R Cracknell, p. 4

[4]     R Cracknell, p. 127

 [5]    R Cracknell, p. 142

 [6]    R Cracknell, p 210

 [7]    R Cracknell, p 199

 [8]       Michael Bradley, Obituary, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 20