Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Margaret Gardiner Cuthbertson (1864–1944)

by Anthea Hyslop

This article was published:

Margaret Gardiner Cuthbertson (1864-1944), factory inspector, was born on 6 September 1864 at Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, daughter of James Cuthbertson, contractor from the north of England, and his wife Jessie, née Watson, who had come to Australia from Edinburgh at the age of 7.

After gaining 'considerable experience in connexion with factory work', Miss Cuthbertson entered the Victorian Public Service in July 1888 as a telephone switchboard attendant in the Postmaster-General's Department. In March 1894 she was appointed to the newly created position of female inspector of factories, becoming the first woman in Australia to hold such a post. By that year there were 11,104 women in registered factories, and she supervised their general accommodation, ventilation and sanitary conditions, and investigated pay rates, hours of work and conditions of apprenticeship. A year later her appointment 'had fulfilled the most sanguine expectations', and soon she had two assistants.

In 1897 Miss Cuthbertson did valuable work as secretary of the Clothing Board, one of several wage boards introduced by the factories legislation of 1896 to regulate wages in sweated trades; the system later ramified and by 1907 she was secretary of six such boards. In 1898 she contributed to the investigation by Sidney and Beatrice Webb of Victoria's pioneering factory laws, and in 1900 she became a senior inspector. The government sent her to the United Kingdom in 1912 to find suitable female migrants for work in Victorian industry. In 1913, with Henrietta C. McGowan (Walker), she published Woman's Work (Melbourne), a guide to the nature, terms and conditions of many kinds of work for women.

Miss Cuthbertson was first president of the Victorian Women's Public Service Association, formed in 1901, and represented it on the National Council of Women of Victoria, founded in 1902. She held office for some years on the council's executive and worked on sub-committees for improving prison conditions for women and for establishing the Talbot Epileptic Colony. She also supported the Free Kindergarten Union, founded in 1908, to provide kindergartens for slum children, and worked with Vida Goldstein to assist unemployed women during World War I.

Miss Cuthbertson resigned her inspectorship in 1920 to take up an appointment with a city firm, but continued to work for the welfare of women and children. From 1921 she was a council-member of the College of Domestic Economy (now Emily McPherson College) and from 1923 of the South Melbourne Technical School. She also served on the board and auxiliaries of the Queen Victoria Hospital, and was for many years treasurer of the Yooralla Hospital School for Crippled Children.

On 17 November 1944, in Melbourne, Miss Cuthbertson died after a long illness, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Burwood cemetery. She left an estate valued for probate at £24,312. The Age's obituary described her as 'modest and retiring', yet a 'stimulating companion', cultivated and witty, and a 'capable public speaker'. It paid warm tribute to her 'valuable work in safeguarding the rights and well-being of woman and girl workers in the days when Victoria was becoming known as the leading industrial State in Australia'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • L. M. Henderson, The Goldstein Story (Melb, 1973)
  • National Council of Women (Victoria), Annual Report, 1904-10 (Melb)
  • Australian Woman's Sphere, 10 Oct 1902, May 1903
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1897, 26 June 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Oct 1905, 13 Nov 1913, 18, 20 Nov 1944
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1912, 13 Nov 1913, 18 Nov 1944.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Anthea Hyslop, 'Cuthbertson, Margaret Gardiner (1864–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 September, 1864
Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia


17 November, 1944 (aged 80)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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