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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Berry, Margaret (1832–1918)

by Tom Watson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Margaret Berry (1832-1918), educationist, was born on 24 August 1832 at Naas, Kildare, Ireland, daughter of Terence Berry, clerk, and his wife Margaret, née Allen. After six months training in 1851 at Marlborough Street Training College, Dublin, she taught in Ireland then migrated to New South Wales in 1856 to teach at the Catholic school at Bathurst. She was at the National School, William Street, Sydney, in 1857-60. In August 1860 the newly appointed Queensland inspector Randal MacDonnell selected her for the key post of headmistress and teacher trainer at Brisbane National Girls' School and from 1862 at Brisbane Girls' Normal (Central) School.

She became 'the indomitable Margaret Berry' because of her bold stand for female teachers in evidence to the royal commission into education in 1874, at which she was their sole representative. Others had declined to appear. Berry criticized MacDonnell for usurping her authority over the teaching of music and the appointment of an assistant teacher. She also complained about the lower salaries for women following the abolition of school fees in 1870, and stressed her faith in the ability of senior girls to tackle advanced scientific subjects.

Serving wholly as a teacher in the heart of a rapidly expanding Brisbane, Berry faced serious over-crowding in inadequate classrooms, in hat-rooms and on verandahs. Other problems included the erection of new or extended buildings; noise and pollution from nearby factories; exposure to curious carters and pedestrians; and regular bouts of sickness affecting both staff and students especially in winter. The water supply, stored in a metal tank, caused additional health risks: one mother wrote that her daughter tasted 'Something dead in it'. Summer brought stifling heat, which she tried to counter by planting bamboos; after the establishment of Arbor Day in 1890 she attempted to grow other shade trees in the stony surface of the playground, but had to admit defeat.

Yet successive district inspectors commended her as a skilled administrator in conditions that sometimes caused her self-confessed physical and mental exhaustion. They reported: 'The discipline and tone are excellent; the children shew a becoming demeanour and lively interest in their work' (1870); and 'V. efficient; an excellent disciplinarian, exercises complete control and thorough supervision over her subordinates' (1884). Advancing years made her more formulaic but she retained her zest, as evidenced in this report given in her seventy-second year: 'The methods are often suitable, but sometimes very mechanical and are applied with very fair skill and much energy' (1903).

Her training of pupil-teachers did not receive such complimentary assessments, due to the heavy professional burdens placed upon her, one of which was to examine teachers' needlework. Yet she always regarded their training and welfare as part of her duty and she expected the highest standards. When two young teachers played tricks on their pupils one April Fools Day she felt bound to report them. Many such girls had few career options except as lowly paid teachers and through them her influence spread to all parts of Queensland.

Berry retired in 1905. During her long career she had the strong support of other family members especially her younger sister Eliza, who became the headmistress of Kangaroo Point Girls' and Infants' School, Brisbane. Margaret also adopted an orphaned niece, May Mulligan, whom she trained as a pupil-teacher. Berry died on 3 November 1918 at New Farm and was buried with Catholic rites in a family grave in Toowong cemetery. A plaque on the former site of the Normal School commemorates 'the work of Margaret Berry, first head mistress of the girls' normal school for forty-three years (1862-1905), and that of her successor Elizabeth Large (1905-1921). Their contribution to the education of girls in this city was outstanding'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Watson, 'There was a Spirit in the Place: the Brisbane Normal School', in G. Logan and T. Watson (eds), Soldiers of the Service (Brisb, 1992)
  • Royal Commission into Education, Votes and Proceedings (Queensland), 1875, 2, p 83
  • Board of General Education (Queensland), Annual Report, 1860-75
  • Minister of Public Instruction (Queensland), Annual Report, 1876-1905
  • Unicorn, 17, no 4, Nov 1991, p 243
  • Brisbane Normal School file, and Female Teachers’ register (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Tom Watson, 'Berry, Margaret (1832–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 15 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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