Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Margaret Alison Telfer (1904–1974)

by Ursula Bygott

This article was published:

Margaret Alison Telfer (1904-1974), university registrar, was born on 21 October 1904 at Lismore, New South Wales, second child of James Barnet Telfer, a native-born schoolteacher, and his wife Margaret Augusta, née Craig, who came from England. Peg attended Tamworth and Newcastle High schools, and entered Women's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1925; Dip.Ed., 1926). Involved in student societies, she held office in the university women's sports association and enjoyed skiing.

After serving as secretary (from 1926) of the Sydney University Women's Union, Miss Telfer was appointed adviser to women students in 1939. Encouraged by the vice-chancellor Sir Robert Wallace, she became deputy assistant registrar in 1944. She was promoted to assistant registrar in 1947 and deputy registrar in 1950. During her early years in the registrar's department she interviewed numerous ex-servicemen and women seeking war-service matriculation, meticulously reviewed all cases, and showed continuing interest in their welfare.

When Margaret Telfer accepted the university senate's offer of the position of registrar in August 1955, she was the first woman to hold a top administrative post in any Commonwealth university. A travel grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1956 enabled her to study administration and student services in British and North American universities. On her return she faced challenges arising from increased student numbers (both undergraduate and postgraduate), demands from departments and faculties, and pressures that flowed from the implementation of Sir Keith Murray's report (1957) on Australian universities. She tried to keep a balance between the senate, the administration, the professorial and non-professorial staff, and the students. Confronted with complex problems, she quite often calmly provided a simple solution.

A member (1940-55) of the Board of Social Studies, Telfer was appointed (1953) to the committee, chaired by (Sir) Harold Wyndham, that surveyed secondary education in New South Wales. She was a council-member (1940-59 and 1963-69) of Women's College, a trustee (1966-69) and council-member (1969-74) of the Public Library of New South Wales, president of the Sydney University Women Graduates' Association (1945-47) and of the Australian Federation of University Women (1958-60), and a member (1967-74) of the Parole Board, New South Wales. In 1960 she was appointed O.B.E. The University of Sydney conferred on her an honorary Litt.D. in 1969.

Dignified, efficient, courteous, patient and sympathetic, Telfer was readily available to staff and students who sought her help, advice, and knowledge of 'university rules, procedures, precedents and lore'. In May 1967, at the time of her retirement, Professor W. M. O'Neil wrote of her as a 'traditionalist' in a period of change, 'constantly reminding us whence we came and where we originally set out to go'. He further pointed out 'she has of course not been able to please everyone. That was not possible and she knew it. That, indeed, is why she has made her way to the top'.

Miss Telfer was a slender, dark-haired, elegant woman. Colleagues affectionately remembered her 'gentle wit and humour and the quiet authority with which she expressed her views'. She died of a coronary occlusion on 24 May 1974 at her Wollstonecraft home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Lilienthal, Newtown Tarts (Syd, 1997)
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, vol 2, no 13, 1967, p 202
  • U. Bygott, 'The Office of Registrar', University of Sydney, Record, no 1, Mar 1992, p 18
  • Report of the Council of the Library of New South Wales, 1973/74
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Mar 1939, 8 Feb 1950, 10 Aug 1955, 11 June 1960, 10 May, 22 Dec 1967, 1 May 1969, 27 May 1974
  • file G3/158 (University of Sydney Archives).

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Citation details

Ursula Bygott, 'Telfer, Margaret Alison (1904–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 October, 1904
Lismore, New South Wales, Australia


24 May, 1974 (aged 69)
Wollstonecraft, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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