Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Spencer, Gwendoline Gladys (Gwen) (1888–1974)

by Margaret Bettison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Gwendoline Gladys (Gwen) Spencer (1888-1974), journalist and managing editor, was born on 1 April 1888 in Hobart, second child of Alexander Morton, a museum director from the United States of America, and his Sydney-born wife Caroline Eliza, sister of Stephen Mills. Gwen was educated at the Collegiate School, Hobart. On 1 February 1909 at St David's Cathedral she married with Anglican rites Henry John Spencer, a 40-year-old electrical engineer. Their twin sons died at birth. By 1922 she was contributing articles and sketches to the new publication Woman's World, edited by Frances Taylor. Her first piece reported an interview with Ada Cambridge.

The Spencers moved to Sydney about 1924. For thirty years from December 1924 Gwen contributed occasional articles to the Sydney Morning Herald, signing them as Gwen Morton Spencer from 1933. In the early years she wrote from her personal experiences on such topics as 'A country holiday. Dipping the sheep', life in boarding houses, and her delight in Sydney and its suburbs. Her younger sister married John Moore in 1924; through this connexion Gwen met Sydney Ure Smith. In September 1927 she was appointed sub-editor of his stylish and influential magazine, the Home.

Mrs Spencer sailed for Britain in the Oronsay in May 1932 intending to stay for a year, but in 1933 accepted the position of fashion editor in London of the long-running Queen. Subtitled the Lady's Newspaper & Court Chronicle, the magazine was an illustrated weekly, with sections on gardening, hunting, fashion and the world of art. It also published poetry and fiction. Spencer reported fashion shows in London and Paris, and found life in both cities stimulating. She flew to Paris twice a year for the dress shows and thought that flying was 'fun'. The flight took three hours, during which a five-course meal was served to the forty-two passengers. There were four fashion shows a day, the last one ending at midnight. In 1934 she experienced excitement and danger when 60,000 Parisians rioted and the army took over from the police.

A studio portrait of Spencer, taken in London in 1934, showed a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman with immaculately waved hair, her face framed by a large fur. In 1935 she was a foundation member of the Fashion Group, Great Britain. She resigned from the Queen because of ill health and moved in 1936 to Sussex where she continued to write articles for English and Australian papers. In December that year she became a foundation committee-member when an Australian group of the Over-Seas League was formed in London.

Returning to Sydney in 1937 for a holiday, Mrs Spencer accepted the posts of social editor and feature writer for Woman, under the editorship of Vera Hamilton. In 1939 she resumed her working relationship with Ure Smith who had that year formed a company, Ure Smith Pty Ltd. Together they edited (1939-47) the Australia National Journal. For most of its life it appeared monthly. In spite of Ure Smith's plans to appeal to a wider audience than the readers of the Home, the A.N.J. was in financial difficulties by 1940. Ure Smith wrote to a director that 'Mrs Spencer would have to take £4 or at the most £5 per week'. She and Ure Smith produced five annual issues of the Australia Week-End Book (1942-46), consisting largely of material that had appeared in Australia.

In addition to her editorial duties, Spencer contributed occasional general and fashion articles to Australia. For both publications she selected contemporary poems for 'Anthology in Miniature'. By 1944 Ure Smith was director of the Empire-United States of America Art Trust, of which Sir Keith Murdoch was president. Spencer, as its paid secretary, had written an article for the Society of Artists Book (1942), setting out its aims and proposed activities. As Ure Smith's health failed, Gwen's responsibilities increased. She wrote the introduction to Margaret Preston's Monotypes and the commentary for Alec Murray's Album. By 1949 she was managing editor (with Ure Smith's son Sam) of Ure Smith Pty Ltd.

Spencer retired from that position in 1951, but retained a director's interest. In February she visited England for a year's holiday. Letters to the firm reported on a busy social life, interspersed with visits to publishers and sales managers, and attempts to meet (Sir) Robert Helpmann to discuss a book on his career. She spent eight weeks in Italy 'ghosting' a book for the art patron Captain Neil McEacharn: the result was The Villa Taranto: A Scotsman's Garden in Italy.

After her husband's death in 1941, Spencer had moved to a Potts Point penthouse where she proof-read for Ure Smith and, in later years, ghosted other books. She enjoyed meeting artists and writers, collected books of poetry and was 'president of a poets' corner'. A member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers of New South Wales and of the Sydney P.E.N. Club, she also belonged (from 1940) to the Society of Women Writers. As late as 1970, while a vice-president and honorary life member of the society, she spoke on 'ghosting'. Mrs Spencer died on 15 August 1974 at Mosman and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • I. North et al, The Art of Margaret Preston (Adel, 1980)
  • N. Underhill, Making Australian Art 1916-49 (Melb, 1991)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Dec 1924, 28 Jan 1928, 13 July 1929, 11 Jan, 15 Mar 1934, 7 Jan, 9 Apr 1937
  • Ure Smith Pty Ltd papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Society of Women Writers records (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Bettison, 'Spencer, Gwendoline Gladys (Gwen) (1888–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spencer-gwendoline-gladys-gwen-11743/text20997, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Morton Spencer, Gwen
  • Morton, Gwendoline Gladys
Birth

1 April 1888
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Death

15 August 1974
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation