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Helen Margaret (Marg) Henry (1934–2015)

by Peter Hempenstall

Margaret Henry, n.d.

Margaret Henry, n.d.

University of Newcastle

Margaret Henry, who died on 9 September 2015, was a prominent Newcastle personality and citizen activist, whose activities in education, heritage preservation, political campaigns and environmental concern, even at the age of 81, almost defy belief. Born Helen Margaret Gardner (but always known as Margaret or Marg) on 25 July 1934, she was the daughter of Miriam Dora Groth and William Gardner. Margaret grew up in Newcastle and was a prize-winning student of Newcastle Girls’ High School: she was Dux of her year in 1951. Her two elder sisters also attended the school which nurtured the careers of a number of extraordinary women of that period. She took a BA from the University of Sydney and a Dip Ed from the University of New England in 1955. In 1958 she married Brian Henry, a chemical engineer and they spent a year in the UK where Margaret taught in tough Manchester secondary schools. They returned to Australia and lived in Sydney for a brief time before returning to Newcastle in 1962. Margaret spent the rest of a busy life in Newcastle and its surrounds, with the exception of two other periods in the UK on sabbaticals with her husband Brian.

In 1964, the year her son David was born (two daughters preceded David – Catherine, born 1960, Alison, 1962), Margaret started the first playgroup in Newcastle, modelled on New Zealand Maori precedents. She taught current affairs to BHP trainees and apprentices, choosing unusual subjects for the age, such as aboriginal issues, civil rights and women’s issues. Motivated by her opposition to the Vietnam War, she joined the ALP in 1968, attending women’s conferences and gaining experience in public speaking. She was a delegate to annual conferences and once, when trapped alone with Paul Keating in the Sydney Town Hall foyer during the lunch break, scolded him for his devastating criticisms of party colleagues.

She also worked as a tutor in the History Department at the University of Newcastle.  Alongside local historian Sheilah Gray, Margaret helped subvert some of the more old-fashioned teaching techniques of a conservative, male dominated department that nonetheless demonstrated a commitment to free speech and to exposing students to as wide a range of historical interpretations as there were staff. In their classes Margaret and Sheilah were able to highlight the latest thinking around Australian history, including new debates about Australian national ‘character’, feminist revisions of the lamentably under-researched history of women’s roles in Australian history and the emerging research on positive Aboriginal contributions to colonial and national history.

Margaret’s tutoring style was a revelation in an age where the lecturer mostly dominated small group discussions. She taught two generations of staff how to allow student voices to be heard and to coax them into independent thought, even if the result was uninformed. Teaching a mixture of young and mature students how to think, especially after she transferred to the Department of Community Programmes, and how to make the transition to university skepticism were her specialty. She was one of the university’s early flagship operators of its equity and transition-to-university programmes and wove her influence into the lives of countless men and women wanting to learn the arts of critical thinking.

Margaret was also the perfect example of the university citizen who would not rest just doing a ground-floor teaching role. She kept the university under constant scrutiny through her union activities, while at the same time completing a Masters degree on the English Poor Laws through Loughborough University of Technology in the 1970s. Most of her writing was in defence of the causes and principles she never resiled from, but Margaret also authored several entries for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including Eirene Mort, artist and designer.

Margaret was appointed to the Council of the Newcastle College of Advanced Education by the Education Minister, 1981-83, supported the drive for an aboriginal education centre at the soon-to- be amalgamated university and CAE, constantly organized to bring leading women’s authors and activists to the city, and was elected one of two staff representatives to the University of Newcastle Council 1984-86.

In 1980 Margaret joined the National Trust and became very active in the Hunter Regional Committee, writing submissions, organizing media and being the driving force behind the annual heritage festival until her death. Her work lobbying for the preservation of Newcastle’s colonial-era buildings and public sites never flagged. She was involved in publicizing the discovery of Australia’s oldest industrial site in the convict lumber yard in Newcastle East and helped in the campaign to conserve it. In 1989 she stood upon mounds of rubble after the Newcastle earthquake urging citizens not to let the authorities tear down every historical building that had cracks showing. After the earthquake Margaret organized the community-based Citizens Earthquake Action Group, which worked to save culturally significant buildings from demolition by opportunistic developers. She quickly gained a reputation as a constant irritation to local authorities’ plans to reshape Newcastle away from its past. This did not stop her being elected as a Greens Councillor on Newcastle City Council in 1995, where she served for two terms and was deputy mayor in 1996 and 2000 (Margaret had resigned from the ALP in 1988 because of her dissatisfaction with how the party treated local members). Throughout she remained a strong advocate for community self-help groups, conservation issues around the city and women’s refuges. In 2009 she was made an Honorary Life Member of the National Trust.

Margaret and Brian divorced in 1984. In her later years she found contentment and active companionship as the partner of Keith Parsons, also a former ALP member and Greens councillor. Together they continued with inexhaustible energy to prosecute campaigns on behalf of citizens who had little voice in the political battles around public heritage, city council policies and civic responsibility. Margaret’s final high-profile campaign was in defence of the heavy rail line into Newcastle city proper, which the state government, ignoring local views, terminated well short of the city centre, leaving a community polarized over planning decisions and political corruption. Margaret’s civic anger at the self-interested acts of power elites in business and government never abated and she worked at trying to ameliorate their effects on ordinary people until she was taken ill with cancer. After a short period of treatment, she died at the home of her daughter, Catherine, with family and friends at her side. Her funeral took place in a packed Christ Church Cathedral on 18 September, with a wake that followed at her local bowling club in Wickham, where she had tended the community gardens as diligently as she ever fought her political battles.

Original publication

Citation details

Peter Hempenstall, 'Henry, Helen Margaret (Marg) (1934–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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