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Margaret Alison Telfer OBE

Margaret Alison Telfer OBE (1904 - 1974) was Registrar of the University of Sydney from 1955 to 1967. The position of Registrar included being Secretary to Senate.


BA DipEd Hon Sydney
Registrar: 1955 - 1967


Margaret Alison Telfer was born on 23 October 1904 in Lismore. She was the daughter of an Inspector of Schools in Tamworth and she was educated at the Tamworth High School.

Her students days at the University of Sydney

In 1922 she commenced her studies at the University of Sydney and graduated in 1925 with an Honours degree in English. She took out a Diploma in Education in 1926. During these years she resided at the Women's College.

Her career at the University of Sydney

In 1926 Margaret Telfer was appointed Secretary to the Women's Union, a position she held from 1926 until her appointment in 1939 to the newly established position on the administrative staff of Adviser to Women Students. The position had been established in place of that of tutor to the women students, which Miss Isobel Fidler had held for 39 years.


Margaret Telfer in 1939, photo, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March 1939, National Library of Australia.

In 1944, encouraged by the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Robert Wallace, she joined the Registrar's Department and was appointed Deputy Assistant Registrar.

She became Assistant Registrar in 1947 and Deputy Registrar in 1950.


Miss Telfer on her appintment as Deputy Registrar in 1950, photo, The Australian Women's Weekly, 25 March 1950, National Library of Australia.

The appointment of William Maze to the position of Assistant Principal in 1955 necessitated the selection of a new Registrar. In August 1955 the Deputy Registrar, Margaret Telfer, was invited by the Senate to accept the position of Registrar. She became the first woman appointed to a top administrative position, that of Registrar, in any Commonwealth university.

The Senate had chosen wisely, for in Margaret Telfer the University had a fine administrator who was to win the respect and the affection of both staff and students and indeed all with whom she carne in contact.

In preparation for her work as Registrar she was, in 1956, given study leave and a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York which enabled her to study administration and student services in universities overseas. This period was to be of immense value to her in the years ahead.

One of the major tasks that confronted her on her return was the increased student enrolments, the pressures, as the recommendations of the Murray Report were put into effect, the problem of the rapidly developing postgraduate body, and demands from departments and faculties for quick solutions to what appeared insurmountable problems. Associate Librarian, Beatrice Wines, recalled:

"As a Registrar I remember her outward serenity, her cool appraisal of a problem, examining it from all sides then cutting straight to the heart of it, and often as not corning up with a beautifully simple solution."

Margaret Telfer had been well schooled in the skills needed in personal relationships in the appointments she had earlier held. In particular, her early years in the Registrar's Department when
she had interviewed hundreds of ex-servicemen and women all seeking war service matriculation status. Each applicant's educational attainments, both formal and informal, civil and service, were carefully reviewed before being taken to the War Service Matriculation Committee where she would present a set of requirements "appropriate to each case". Many graduates would later be grateful for her continuing interest and care.

As Registrar, Margaret Telfer was efficient, unfailingly courteous and sympathetic. She was always ready to spend time with those who requested to see her. On record is her patience, whether the purpose of the visit was to seek information, advice, or to make a complaint. No problem was too small for her attention. She had a "wide and unfailing knowledge of University rules. procedures, precedent and lore". Many academics were grateful for her guidance as to protocol etc. The late Professor O'Neil recalled it was she who tutored him "in the technicalities of his duties as Chairman of the then Professorial Board". H D Black, later Sir Hermann Black, in his tribute to her in 1974 said that she had a "quiet, unemphatic, persuasive personality" and, he continued, "she filled her office with dignity, served the University with efficiency and evoked the tribute of a predominently male Professorial Board as being their 'favourite member'.

Margaret Telfer had a deep, sympathetic understanding for the students and a very genuine concern for their welfare. Many students, the recipients of letters either giving or refusing requested permission, and signed M H Telfer, sometimes failed to understand how much thought had been given to their requests or problems whether they might be academic or personal.

Registrar Margaret Telfer showed outstanding ability in handling a large staff and ensuring maximum efficiency whilst at the same time showing concern and sympathy for each individual. In consequence, her staff were deservedly devoted to this rather frail-looking, exceedingly feminine woman.

An active participant in University life, Margaret Telfer was from 1938 to 1944 Vice-President of the Women's Union and from 1970 after her retirement to 1972, fourth Patroness of the Women's Union. She was a member of the Council at the Women's College from 1940-1959, 1963-1969, and was Deputy Chairperson in 1951 and 1952. Always anxious to promote the interests and welfare of the women graduates, Margaret Telfer was active in the Sydney University Women Graduates Association and was the President from 1945 to 1947. She was also involved in the affairs of the Australian Federation of University Women and participated in their Conferences and held office as President. She chaired the 1960 AFUW Conference in Melbourne.

A keen educationalist, Margaret Telfer had been from 1940 to 1955 a member of the Board of Social Studies. In 1953 she had been appointed by the Minister for Education to be a member of the Committee under the Chairmanship of Dr Harold Wyndham which produced, in 1957, the Wyndham Plan for Secondary Education. She was also a member of the Public Library of New South Wales, and later, from 1967, a member of the Prison Parole Board of New South Wales.

In 1960 she received the OBE for her services to education.

Her retirement

In August 1966 "Peg" Telfer, as she had become known, informed the Senate that she wished to retire. Her resignation was received with much regret by the Senate. In May 1967, at the time of her retirement, Professor O'Neil wrote:

"... Miss Telfer is a traditionalist. She works not only within the traditions of this University but also within the tradition our motto embraces for us. ... In these days of change we owe her a great
debt for so constantly reminding us whence we came and where we originally set out to go. In many ways she has been a trimmer of the boat, trying to keep a proper balance of weight between the Senate, the Administration, the Professorial and non-professorial staff and students. Her consummate skill in this has been admirable. 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."

Sadly, Margaret Telfer did not long enjoy her retirement. She died suddenly at her home in Wollstonecraft on 24 May 1974. A generation of graduates and undergraduates and staff mourned her, and still today honour her memory as a Registrar par excellence.

From an article by Ursula Bygott, University of Sydney Archives 'Record", March 1992

Margaret Telfer and Hugh McCredie

Margaret Telfer with Hugh McCredie in 1967 at the farewell dinner for Miss Telfer by administraion staff, photo G3_224_0449_3, University of Sydney Archives.

Doctor of Letters (honoris causa)

In 1969 the University conferred on her the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).

Margaret Alison Telfer

Margaret Telfer who received the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) on 30 April 1970, photo G3_224_1427, University Archives.