Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Margaret Holmes (1886–1981)

by Renate Howe

This article was published:

Margaret Holmes (1886-1981), lay religious leader and welfare worker, was born on 8 March 1886 at Prahran, Melbourne, fourth surviving child and only daughter of English-born parents Charles Morell Holmes, accountant, and his wife Margaret, née Byers. The family belonged to the Congregational Church; its tolerant theology and commitment to women’s education were fundamental to Holmes’s career. After matriculating from Tintern Ladies’ College, she enrolled in 1905 at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1909; MA, 1911; Dip.Ed., 1911). There she was an active member of the Australasian Student Christian Union, becoming president of the women’s branch in 1907. After graduating in classics she taught briefly at Tintern then continued her university studies.

Faced with staff shortages during World War I, the ASCU (from 1930 the Australian Student Christian Movement) invited Holmes to become part-time general secretary. Based at the Melbourne office, she helped guide the movement through the turmoil of war and postwar adjustment until 1922. After a brief period on the staff of the Associated Teachers’ Training Institute (later Mercer Hall) Holmes returned to the ASCU. From 1924 to 1945 she served as the efficient and effective head-quarters secretary (executive officer) for this vast non-denominational organisation with branches in Australian universities, colleges and schools. Committed to the ASCM’s liberal, social and ecumenical theology, she participated in the preparation of study books for its large annual national conferences, and co-edited the ASCM journal, Australian Intercollegian, a forum for intellectual theological discussion. Although family responsibilities restricted her ability to travel, she was a consummate and assiduous letter writer, binding the ASCM together and strengthening its extensive and influential networks.

In the challenging decade of the 1930s Holmes, with others in the ASCM, was involved in the League of Nations’ Union in Melbourne; she assisted in the organisation of the 1937 Australian Peace Conference. On the executive, from 1928, of the World Student Christian Federation, with which the ASCM was affiliated, and vice-chairman in 1933-41, she strove to bring international issues before Australian students through conferences, articles and overseas visitors.

During World War II, Holmes began a new career in refugee work. She had helped Constance Duncan to establish the Victorian International Refugee Emergency Committee in 1938-39, and in 1940, because of her contacts with the WSCF, she was asked to look after the interests of internees (mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany) transported from Britain in the Dunera. The ASCM made arrangements for the `Dunera boys’ to take university courses and, as they were released from detention camps, assisted with resettlement. Holmes’s unstinting support and advocacy resulted in enduring friendships. In 1945-49 she was Australian secretary for World Student Relief.

After retiring from the ASCM, Holmes travelled abroad to attend conferences in Britain, Europe and North America. In 1951 she was appointed executive officer of a new resettlement department (later the Ecumenical Refugee Agency) of the Australian Council of Churches. Initially operating from her Kew home, it assisted thousands of migrants to Australia, mostly `displaced persons’ who did not qualify for the mass migration program. Holmes worked closely with immigration ministers, especially Arthur Calwell, in pioneering Australia’s postwar migration. Her work was a major contribution to human rights and a great achievement in the xenophobic Australia of the period. She was appointed MBE in 1958.

Margaret Holmes never married. She was a modest woman but firm, focused and a meticulous organiser. Her significant contribution was shaped by the ASCM’s liberal theology, international vision and enlightened attitudes to women. At the heart of her life of public service were intense inner strength, belief in and care for the individual, and a broad non-sectarian view of Christianity. Retiring to Deepdene in 1962 she coached migrants in English, maintained her wide correspondence, gardened, read, enjoyed symphony concerts and attended the Collins Street Independent Church. She died on 13 April 1981 at Brighton and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Willis, Women, Faith & Fetes (1977)
  • P. R. Bartrop and G. Eisen (eds), The Dunera Affair (1990)
  • F. Engel, Christians in Australia (1993)
  • Australian Intercollegian, 1 Mar 1949, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Feb 1951, p 4, 1 Jan 1958, p 4
  • Holmes papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Holmes, Margaret (1886–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 March, 1886
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


13 April, 1981 (aged 95)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.