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Margaret Joan Spencer (1912–1990)

by John Moremon

This article was published:

Margaret Joan Spencer (1912-1990), army officer, was born on 25 August 1912 in Hobart, youngest of five children of Victorian-born Percy Rutherford Henry, clerk, and his Tasmanian-born wife Corbetta, née Chipman. A capable sportswoman and student, Margaret attended Hobart Ladies’ College and in 1930 began studying commerce at the University of Tasmania (B.Com., 1947). The first woman to win a Tasmanian Aero Club flying scholarship, she obtained her ‘A’ pilot’s licence in 1937. On 14 September 1938 at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Hobart, she married Alfred Jack Spencer, a clerk. Occupied with home duties until her husband joined the Australian Imperial Force in July 1940, Spencer then stepped into his position at A. G. Webster & Sons Ltd, selling Aga cookers and Bendix washing machines.

Intent on contributing to the war effort, Margaret Spencer served in the Women’s Air Training Corps as a squadron commander. In March 1942, after her husband, a lieutenant in the 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, was reported missing in action, she entered the Australian Women’s Army Service. She was commissioned as a temporary captain on 20 April and was posted to Anglesea Barracks, Hobart. Instructors at her officer-training course observed that she was confident, energetic and cheerful, and had ‘plenty of initiative and determination and self control’. In early 1943 Spencer was promoted to temporary major and appointed assistant controller, Tasmanian Lines of Communication Area, the senior AWAS officer in her State. She commanded the 4th AWAS Training Battalion from July 1943, before her appointment as assistant controller, AWAS, First Australian Army, Queensland, in July 1944.

Later that year the government sanctioned the posting of AWAS members to New Guinea. On the recommendation of the controller, Colonel Sybil Irving, Spencer was chosen to raise and command a 350-strong contingent. She was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel in March 1945 (substantive in September). The women arrived at Lae in May and were integrated into headquarters and other base units, performing administrative, communications and intelligence duties. Five feet (152 cm) tall, personable and popular, Spencer was nicknamed ‘The Little Colonel’. Under her leadership, the contingent demonstrated the capacity of women to serve operationally in other than traditional nursing roles.

Spencer waited anxiously for news of her husband. Throwing herself into work until instructed to rest in November 1945, she wrote to Irving: ‘I have not given up hope and pray that I shall hear of him soon. I realise, of course, that the chances of good news are very slender’. She finally learned that he had been killed in action on 16 January 1942 at Bakri, Malaya.

In March 1946 Spencer led her ‘girls’ home and on 17 October transferred to the Reserve of Officers. She was appointed OBE in 1947. Completing her university course before moving to Melbourne, she settled at South Yarra and worked for Levin & Co. Ltd, importers of Aga products, and then for Overseas Corporation (Australia) Ltd. She was employed as the secretary (1962-78) and director of administration (1973-78) of the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults.

Remaining close to her family, who called her by her childhood nickname ‘Sitta’, Spencer never remarried. Having no children, she especially cherished her nieces and nephews. After retirement she suffered from leukaemia and rheumatoid arthritis, but was not one to complain. She died on 12 May 1990 at East Prahran and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Ollif, Women in Khaki (1981)
  • AWAS: Women Making History (1988)
  • Aircraft, 1 Mar 1937, p 32, 1 Jan 1938, p 33
  • B884, item TF424 (National Archives of Australia)
  • S. Irving papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Moremon, 'Spencer, Margaret Joan (1912–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Henry, Margaret Joan

25 August, 1912
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


12 May, 1990 (aged 77)
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia