Margaret Lawrence

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Margaret Lawrence was born on 2 May 1914. Her ninety-and-a-half years of life were full of interest, action and good deeds, and it was a privilege to know her. 

Margaret was an only child and spent her early years in Colac in Victoria’s Western District. Her mother died when Margaret was five years old, and she was raised by her father and stepmother. Margaret was fond of her stepmother, a very strong woman who worked as a real estate agent in Sydney and whose independence and adventurousness were early influences on Margaret. The family moved to Sydney and her father ran Blue Ark, a successful importing and exporting business dealing in “flavours and fragrances” (essences) that mainly supplied the brewing industry. Margaret’s grandfather, Alfred, had established the company in 1882. 

Margaret attended Frensham, a private girls’ school in Sydney, until after her intermediate year (Year 10) and was an outstanding student. She received a scholarship to Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne and was a boarder for her leaving and matriculation years and, I think, dux of the school. She then went to The University of Melbourne in 1932 and graduated a few years later with a Master of Arts from the School of History and Philosophy.

During the Second World War, she worked in Sydney for the government agency responsible for sifting intelligence reports and other classified materials from the United States. She was, in some ways, unusual for the time, in that she was a woman with a university degree who made herself available for the service of the country. They obviously put her through the third degree to make sure she was confidential – I can’t imagine anyone more confidential than Margaret. 

Immediately after the War she commenced further studies at The University of Melbourne, but she did not complete them, instead accepting an offer to go to New York City and work as a journalist. Her life in NY was full of fun. It was an incredible city and the pace of it enthralled her. Her job was to record events by writing articles. At one stage she was writing society pieces, with a focus on women in society and business. She told me how she loved to interview people to find out about them in more detail. She was often interested in the lives of women – we got on well because she was interested in the fact that I was a senior woman in a corporation.

After her father died in the mid-1950s, Margaret returned to Melbourne and took up the active management of her inheritance. After a few years, when she had these affairs in order, she continued to travel widely throughout the world. Over three decades, she travelled in an adventurous but modest way. Often with a girlfriend, but sometimes alone, she visited many parts of Europe, Russia, the Middle East, India, northern Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States and southern Asia. Her focus on these travels was on culture, history and art.

Margaret had an extraordinary memory and a prodigious knowledge of what seemed like nearly everything. She won many general knowledge quizzes and, in fact, became quite a famous television personality in the early 1970s through winning a number of contests. She told me “I’d go down the street and people would say Hello, Miss Lawrence,” and she quite enjoyed the notoriety. Margaret was strong on history, geography, politics and science. She was also knowledgeable about sport. It was in these areas that she beat many people – mostly men, something in which she took particular delight. There is a wonderful letter written in November 1971 by Margaret to her cousins in the United States, which tells in great detail how she won the Money Makers quiz show. It makes wonderful reading, and it is reprinted here

She was obviously incredibly bright. She had an great intellect and evidently knew so much about everything. She kept up to date with current affairs and knew what was going on all over the world. She admired women who were strong in a man’s world, and her way of being strong was to use her intellect to win on quiz shows. There, she could demonstrate her knowledge through her ability to answer questions, and she was quietly but strongly confident in that realm.

There is a story about Barry Jones and Pick a Box. When Margaret won Quizmasters, the producer said to her, “I really want to organise a showdown between you and Barry Jones”. Barry Jones was the reigning king of Pick a Box. Margaret was agreeable, because she thought there was some possibility that she might beat him. Her producer tried to set up a showdown through Barry’s producer, who would not agree (I now know that Barry was never aware of this). Margaret’s producer told her, on the quiet, that he was sure that they were scared she would beat him. She got a good giggle out of that. 

Margaret was passionate about the Carlton Football Club, of which she became a member in the early 1930s when she was at The University of Melbourne. When I met her, nearly seventy years later, she had not missed a Carlton match during the times she was resident in Melbourne. She had even travelled to Sydney and Adelaide to support the team in the years after the commencement of the AFL. She has the most amazing scrapbooks on Carlton spanning many years. Anything about Carlton was ripped out of the newspaper and stacked up in a big pile in her home. At the Carlton football ground she became very good friends with the Johns family, who occupied the seats next to her. They all sat together at Carlton, whether in sun, rain or hail. When she passed away, she left them a significant amount of money. They could not believe it – they had no idea of her wealth. It was the best news I have ever had to give anybody.

Margaret often appeared quiet and withdrawn, but when you got to know her she was not that way at all. She could be quite funny. She was quite private; she did not want people to know she had much money. She looked quite humble; you would not suspect that she had such a brilliant mind and was such a wealthy woman. She was aware of this. I don’t think she did it deliberately, she was just who she was. She was very well organised. She had an account manager for her investments and she would write letters to him to say what she would like to do with her investments and so on. When there were meetings, she would write her own hand-written notes and then send them off or keep them in her file. She would come, in her green hat and her brown coat, to our appointments in all weather – nothing was too much trouble. She was unfailingly polite to everybody.

Margaret’s major personal interest, certainly in her later years, was collecting ceramics. Her collection, which spans eight decades of Australian artists, is one of the most extensive private collections of Australian ceramics. You can read about her collection here. She was an avid collector. In her tiny flat it was wall-to-wall books, ceramics, art and newspapers. She was thrilled to be able to donate her collection to the Victorian College of the Arts, and it is now exhibited on rotation in the Lenton Parr Music, Visual and Performing Arts Library at Southbank.

Margaret’s benefactions have assisted many organisations that work with those most disadvantaged in our community, and her support of the arts has enabled many projects to be realised. She provided a scholarship to a master’s student at the VCA and also provided support to enable the College to manage its entire collection and gallery. The charitable foundation we put in place in 2001, the Margaret Lawrence Bequest, will stand in perpetuity to benefit many in the community over the next century and beyond. 

Jan Cochrane-Harry
Co-Trustee of the Margaret Lawrence Bequest (with Perpetual) and friend of Margaret Lawrence.