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Watts, Margaret Sturge (1892–1978)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Margaret Sturge Watts (1892-1978), welfare worker, was born on 12 June 1892 at Everton, Liverpool, England, fourth of five children of James Herbert Thorp, medical practitioner, and his wife Anne Sturge, née Eliott. The family traced its Quaker membership back to the seventeenth century. Margaret attended South Liverpool Corporation School, the Mount School, York, and Woodbrooke College, Birmingham; known as Peg, she was a tall girl with light-brown hair and dark-blue eyes. In 1911 she accompanied her parents when they were sent by the Society of Friends in England to advise Tasmanian Quakers about the consequences of the Australian Defence Act of 1909. They decided to remain; her father practised as a locum in Queensland and her two brothers also settled in Australia.

Like her co-religionists, Margaret Thorp was a pacifist. During World War I she helped Cecilia John and Adela Pankhurst to found (1916) a branch of the Women's Peace Army in Queensland, becoming its honorary secretary; she was also busy with the Children's Peace Army. Unusually articulate, she held open-air meetings from Rockhampton to Mount Morgan. She showed 'much courage in the fight against conscription': at one rally she was knocked down, kicked and thrown out, before returning by another door. Increasingly she was drawn to the 'Revolutionary Pacifists'. Under surveillance by military intelligence from 1917, she was seen as 'a full-blown Red Ragger and revolutionary'.

To 'gain more knowledge about factory conditions', in 1916 Margaret Thorp had worked for three months in Johnson & Sons' boot factory, Brisbane, and conscientiously tried to live on 12s. 6d. a week, 'but often on a Friday would call myself a fraud and have a good meal in town'. In November 1918 she was appointed an inspector of factories and shops. She went to Britain in March 1920. Fluent in French and German, she was accepted by the Friends' War Victims Relief Committee. She served (1920-21) with Quaker teams under the British Red Cross Society in Berlin and in 1921 reported on the famine in the Volga provinces of Russia where an Englishman, Arthur Watts, was in charge of the Quaker relief until he contracted typhus. Returning to Australia in October, she lectured in every State for Lady Forster's Fund for Stricken Europe.

Appointed welfare superintendent at Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd's department store in mid-1923, Margaret Thorp organized physical culture, music and dramatic societies. While an executive-member of the Young Women's Christian Association for two years, she was a founder (with Eleanor Hinder) and president (1923-28) of the City Girls' Amateur Sports Association. She represented the C.G.A.S.A. on the National Council of Women of New South Wales and was convener (1923-26) of the council's standing committee on trades and professions for women.

Having raised the money to bring Watts to Sydney, Margaret nursed him back to health. She married him with Quaker forms on 1 October 1925 at Killara: 'He seemed to have been entrusted into my care and I admired his singleness of mind and utter sincerity'. In 1931 Arthur returned permanently to the Soviet Union. She did not share her husband's fascination with things Russian, especially 'changing revolutionary conditions', and remained in Sydney; they were childless and divorced in 1936. In 1930 she had been appointed welfare officer for the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children and, in 1931, executive secretary of its central council of the women's auxiliaries. She visited Britain and the United States of America in 1935 to see the latest methods of treatment and rehabilitation.

In response to an urgent plea for help from the Friends in England, Watts resigned and sailed for Europe in February 1946. In Berlin she chaired the co-ordinated British relief teams charged with maintaining public health and child welfare. Compassionate and practical, she worked among the destitute and the displaced: 'Life was tiring and depressing—I often cried myself to sleep feeling utterly inadequate'. In 1947 she returned to Australia seeking supplies and money. Next year, at the request of (Sir) Richard Boyer, she toured the country for the United Nations Appeal for Children.

With first-hand knowledge of what many immigrants had suffered, in October 1949 Margaret Watts was appointed State executive secretary of the New Settlers' League of Australia (Good Neighbour Council of New South Wales from 1956). She and her staff helped immigrants to find work, provided interpreters, organized experts to advise and protect them when buying property, and arranged friendly visitors to lonely people in homes and hospitals. A justice of the peace (1955), she was appointed M.B.E. in 1957.

Following her retirement in 1962, the Quaker 'Meeting for Worship' at Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, remained the centre of her existence. Watts chaired (1966) the Quaker Service Council. Strongly critical of the futility of the Vietnam War, she tried to help Vietnamese orphans by arranging for their adoption in Australia. To the end of her life, she entertained—immigrants, Friends, Asian students—at her flat in Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point, which was filled with seventeenth-century carved, wooden furniture. She enjoyed music and sketching. In 1975 the Council on the Ageing named her senior woman citizen of the year. Margaret Watts died on 5 May 1978 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. Her sister-in-law later confessed: Margaret 'had such abounding energy & dedication to & for whatever she was doing that very few people could stand the strain!'

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Friend, 30 Oct 1916, p 1022, 6 June 1917, p 1071, 20 Aug 1917, p 1099, 21 Apr 1919, p 1275, June 1921, p 1506, Dec 1921, p 1553, June 1922, p 1601, June 1923, p 1706
  • Friend (London), 59, 1919, p 455, 137, 1979, p 208
  • National Council of Women (New South Wales), Biennial Report, 1923-24, 1924-26
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 1926, 27 Sept 1935, 13 Oct 1945, 15 Oct 1966, 24 July 1967, 20 Apr 1972, 11 Jan, 6 May, 28 June 1978
  • Mirror (Sydney), 13 June 1957
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 23 Aug 1959
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 21 Oct 1962
  • M. and W. Oates, Dictionary of Australian Quaker Biography (National Library of Australia)
  • B. Marsden-Smedley, Australian Quakers and the 1914-1918 War (M.Phil. thesis, University of Sydney, 1992)
  • Testimony to the Grace of God in the Life of Margaret Watts (typescript, 1979, copy on ADB file)
  • Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, papers concerning M. Watts (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Investigation Branch file, A402, item W245 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Watts, Margaret Sturge (1892–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watts-margaret-sturge-11984/text21485, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 September 2016.

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

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