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Margaret Colbourne (1868–1948)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Margaret Colbourne née Mitchell, also known as Margaret Colbourn (1868-1948), dye finisher, school cleaner, trade unionist and political and charity worker.

Birth: 1868 in Sydney, New South Wales, daughter of native-born parents James Mitchell, compositor, and Jane, née Thomas. Marriage: 30 April 1894 in St David’s Anglican church, Surrey Hills, Sydney to Queensland-born Robert Colbourn (1867-1918), a painter. They had five sons and a daughter who died in infancy. Death: 29 November 1948 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, Sydney, NSW. Religion: Anglican. 

  • Gave her occupation as dye finisher on her marriage certificate.
  • Most prominent woman in early history of Miscellaneous Workers' Union, which she joined on 21 January 1911, the ninth woman to join the union, when, needing to care for her ill husband, she began to work as a cleaner at Glebe School. One reminiscence states she 'provided the impetus... needed' to start the union. In 1913 she was union delegate to the Labor Council and also represented ‘the workers of the dawn’ [female school and office cleaners] on the union executive, both positions held for the next thirty years.
  • Was among the earliest women to be appointed justice of the peace in NSW, on 3 October 1923.
  • In 1927 was a federal councillor of the Miscellaneous Workers' Union and also won the trade union movement's ‘Most Popular Lady’ competition. From 1931 to 1933 was federal vice-president of the union.
  • Known as 'Granny' Coulbourne, she was active in the right-wing of the ALP, holding 'militantly conservative trade union views' which caused her to argue with left-wingers, occasionally with the aid of her umbrella.
  • Persuaded the NSW branch to withdraw from the Labour Council in 1931 after glasses were broken in an argument with a radical unionist. A pragmatic political operator though who, on occasion, could side with Communist Party of Australia delegate to thwart left-wing Labor elements in NSW branch of FMWU. According to her obituary, she “made and unmade the careers of Labor aldermen in Glebe, during her long association with the Labor movement”.
  • Gave up her school job in 1935 but not her interests in the Glebe district. She was a foundation member of the Glebe Parents and Citizens’ Association and a member of the NSW Women Justices’ Association. In over 25 years as a JP she signed thousands of documents, witnessed hundreds of wills.
  • Interviewed in 1946 she recalled that it was ‘hard looking after an invalid husband, five boys, and the school” and was proud that she gave each of her sons a trade: “two became boilermakers, one a fitter, two oxy-welders”. Her ambition was to see women selected on juries and to be one of the first women jurors herself.
  • Cause of death: chronic myocarditis, chronic nephritis and pneumonia.

Federation News, July 1985; Margo Beasley, The Missos: A history of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (Sydney, 1996); Vance Marshall, The World of the Living Dead (Sydney, 1969) pp. 126-128.

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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Colbourne, Margaret (1868–1948)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mitchell, Margaret
  • Colbourn, Margaret

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


29 November, 1948 (aged ~ 80)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism