• Tarsha Cameron

The Peggy Buxton Story

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

In February, 2019, Tarsha was invited by InkPot Art to find the voice of Peggy Buxton, a woman who was notoriously killed in 1884 in Nairne, South Australia. Following the research, she will then present her story through embodiment of her character (acting her) and/or using video/sound art. This will be presented in May 2019, as part of their “Whispering Walls” production.

The artist is currently in the research phase of this project, and more information will be added shortly.

Creative’s notes – Tarsha Cameron – what inspired me

Margaret (Peggy) Buxton (nee Deviny) was notoriously murdered in 1884, but little else is known about her. To find her “voice”, then, wasn’t a simple process. What were her origins? When did she arrive in South Australia? Who was she really? State records, newspaper articles on Trove, passenger lists, and Irish workhouse lists (Sligo), and networking with South Australian Genealogy & Heraldry Society, Unley Family History, local councils, and Debbie McKay from the Nairne Museum helped to sort fact from fiction.

There was no evidence of Peggy before marriage, no record of her on a ship to South Australia. She may have been an Irish Orphan if she changed her name from Mary to Margaret. I wondered about this for a while because I found a family of Devine’s in a Sligo Workhouse (Frank (father), and two children Marg’t and Mary) who voluntarily left less than a month before the Irish Orphan ship, Elgin, left for South Australia – it had a Mary Devine on board. At at around the same time another ship left for America with a Marg’t Devine. Did they swap identities for some reason and when “Mary” arrived she reverted back to her former name? This could never be confirmed, but it gave me a premise for her possible origin, particularly as the facts surrounding her suggested she was poor.

“Whatever happened aboard the Indian on the way to the colony, I’ll not know” (Peggy Buxton, 2019)

Her husband, William, arrived aboard a ship in which the Captain, Steward and Doctor were accused of assault, sodomy (and other crimes) by 49 of the passengers. The Indian arrived the same year as the Elgin, 1849.

At the time, settlers were camped in Emigration square (just went of the junction of north and west terraces along the banks of the Torrens). Perhaps this was where William and Margaret’s story began. Residents were moved to the newly built destitute asylum in 1851. Margaret and William possibly lived there, briefly, until they were married in late 1852. William was dead by 1861 and Margaret was left with 3 children – Hannah (7), Mary (4), and John (22 months). Margaret received rations from the destitute board from the time her husband arrived in the destitute asylum, and until 4 years after he died of “disease of the brain”; not long after her daughter Mary had died.

One can only imagine the hardship she must have endured. Alone, and having lost both her husband and second-born within a short timeframe.

Between 1864 (the last of the rations) and 1880 nothing could be found about Margaret or her family until Hannah married Charles Raison in a Methodist church. Further research about them found that these two were instrumental in the Methodist movement in Mount Barker. The Methodist carried with them the temperance rules, so one can only imagine how Hannah would have frowned upon her mother’s behaviour.. It was of interest to me that Peggy was not mentioned with marriage, nor death notices, but both of these notices mention the late William Buxton.

Then, soon after Hannah was married, the fines for drunkedness began with her being imprisoned for one month for being a “habitual drunked”. Clearly, the temperance movement was in play and Hannah either loathed her mother, or wasn’t “allowed” to associate with her.

John married Sarah Harris in Parkside in 1882. Records of John indicate that he was a social climber. So, he too, would have frowned upon his mother, and would have been especially resentful of having to financially support her (once a month - as per the “poor law” described below).

Then, murdered in 1884, with a net worth of 50 pounds. John, was soon to move into her residence after posting, via his lawyer, claim notice (assumedly directed at her sister – they, too, mustn’t have been talking).

Sociopolitical history was discovered along the way through networking but, in the end, it was predominantly Brian Dickey's “Rations, Residencies and Resources. A History of Social Welfare in South Australia since 1836” (a resource recommended by the State Library) the fleshed out her story.

Peggy was a woman who was uneducated, poor, and Irish Catholic – all of these things were disparaged in the 19th Century. Poverty in particular, in South Australia, was scorned. Despite early settlers being invited to SA to discover a better life where work would be provided, within 6 years of settlement the bourgeoisie SA Government reneged on this law, and practically re-implemented the Poor Law (from the UK) where there was the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. For example, the poor had to seek handouts from 3 generations of family before any support would be given. This would explain why her son, John, saw her “once a month” (as in court reports) and why the destitute board supported her only when her husband was in the asylum and once widowed.

All the pieces of the puzzle showed me that Peggy was born into a world where, in Ireland, the poor were sent to workhouses as a result of industrialisation. Where once, upon feudal law, they lived on the land freely as peasants farming for sustenance, they were now forced to work long hours in overpopulated houses for a wage. South Australia immediately instituted similar policies at settlement but without the infrastructure, at first, and the poor had to find work wherever they could.

Margaret’s husband, William, was a labourer, and assumedly her found work here not long after settlement and married Margaret in the Mount Barker St Francis de Sales Catholic Church. So upon arriving to the “free” country both Margaret and William found that they were not “free” and, once institutions were built, both Peggy and William were sent to them (William the asylum and Peggy the Adelaide Gaol).

In later years, after no more rations were forthcoming, Peggy began to get fined for drinking and foul language – given the level of scorn she would have attracted I would imagine anything she said while being drunk would have been seen as offensive.

One mystery, she was worth 50 pounds when she died.

I have found no evidence of her being a prostitute. But, there are more nooks to research and this may be possible. Particularly given, in the end she was a lonely ostracised woman with little support. Not only would it have satisfied her need for attention, but it would have brought in the coffers.

However, cemetery records have both John and Margaret buried at the Mount Barker Catholic Cemetery. So, for her to be given a catholic burial she, assumably, mustn’t have been a prostitute.

The performance consisted of:

(Lead, Kindly light -sung)

Lead, kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom

Lead thou me on

The night is dark and I am far from home

Lead though me on

Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene

One step enough for me

So Long thy Pow'r has blest me,

Sure it still, will lead me on

O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent til

The night is done

And in the morn those angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since and lost awhile

(Lead, Kindly Light is a hymn with words written in 1833 by John Henry Newman as a poem titled "the Pillar and the Cloud").


'Hard times will come again no more

Now to join my husband Will

Who left me many years ago

After they took him to that horrid place

William was not well. Whatever happened to aboard the Indian on the way to the colony, I'll not know, but he was a poor lost soul. Not right in his mind. I thought our love would be enough to support him. They tore him from me again, and again. That last time they took him, within 4 short months he was dead.

And then Mary, my poor darling Mary, she too joined him in heaven not long after he parted.

I thought that God had betrayed me, forgive me for saying. William had come to this country with the promise that he’d get work and support but this was denied him. Lucky he found work up here, otherwise we would have not survived those early days. Then, he left me, and I was alone, alone. Isolated. Destitute, with 3 mouths to feed. I had nothing but the roof over my head.

Like a leper I had to beg for rations from the destitute board, or starve. And then that stopped. Poor young John, so little, had to work in William’s stead otherwise we’d have starved to death.

Then, my beautiful Hannah, oh Hannah. Mary had already left me, and then Hannah met that protestant man, Charlie Raison, and she, too, was gone. ..

John, after he were married, would look upon my shabby state with disdain, would give me a pittance each month and chastise me for me drinking. It raised my spirits. What else was I to do I was nothing.

If ever I said I word. Ever uttered my hurt. They’d fine me and even throw me in prison.

The things I saw in prison Ah! The torments. The evil I saw there….(pause to reflect). Oh, I wouldn’t wish that on any man. Oh William, the things you must have endured before you died.

Alone no more. I’m ready. Off to be me with William and Mary and my saviour. I’m coming. Here I come.

No longer alone.

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