Story: Buxton, Mary Ann

Page 1 - Buxton, Mary Ann

Buxton, Mary Ann

1795/1796?–1888

Teacher, businesswoman

This biography was written by Rollo Arnold and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Mary Ann Streetin was born in England probably in 1795 or 1796. About 1827 or 1828, possibly at Stoke Newington, Middlesex, she married Harry Bridger Buxton. They had five children: Sophia Streetin, John Parker, Henry, and two who died in infancy, Bridger in England, and Martha on the Adelaide when the family emigrated to New Zealand in 1839. A staunch Anglican with teaching experience in England, Mary Ann Buxton conducted a private school in Thorndon, Wellington, from 1841 to 1878. This long teaching career is best understood in the context of the family's plans and their collapse with the untimely death of its male members.

Before emigrating Harry Buxton was a gardener, and the family were living in a cottage next to the tile kilns in Green Lane, Stoke Newington, just north of London. By residence and occupation the Buxtons were therefore working class, in what was then a predominantly middle class village. They aimed to move up the social scale by becoming landed proprietors in the new colony. They quickly set about accumulating capital, Harry by combining the occupations of gardener, sexton, and night-school teacher, Mary Ann by establishing a dame school. In 1841 Harry acquired and stocked a small property near Johnsonville, on Wellington's outskirts. His will left this land entailed, in the English landed tradition of primogeniture, although Mary Ann inherited a life-interest in the livestock. Following his death in 1847 she began a bold campaign aimed at fulfilling their dream.

With her Thorndon home and school as the sheet anchor, building on her husband's small pastoral venture and astutely enlisting assistance as a widowed pioneer settler, Mary Ann Buxton entered the scramble of the early 1850s for Wairarapa runs and secured a 25,000 acre property at Whareama. Thomas Guthrie of the neighbouring Castlepoint run helped secure the run and initiated her sons into pastoralism. By the late 1860s the property was well developed, largely freeholded, and running 4,000 sheep. Yet it proved disastrous to the family, for the Whareama River claimed both sons, John early in the venture, Henry in 1868. Both died without issue and the run was sold in 1870. The entail descended to the unmarried Sophia Buxton and expired with her death in 1886. In the end it was Mary Ann Buxton's school that preserved the family name.

Among Wellington's private schools Mrs Buxton's stands out for its longevity, quality and influence. She probably drew on the working class dame school tradition when launching her venture in one of the New Zealand Company's immigration depots at Thorndon. Three moves around Thorndon brought the school to its final home at 194 Tinakori Road, which she purchased a year or two after her husband's death. In the early years she encouraged her pupils to assemble on Sunday mornings to be marched to St Paul's Church. The school grew steadily in status, aided by the Buxtons' close links with the church, their enhanced standing as landowners, and the advantages of a position at the fashionable end of town. It became popular with leading citizens as a beginning school, and as a finishing school for their daughters. Mrs Buxton took the beginners in the kitchen, which was furnished with miniature chairs and stools rather than the more plebeian desks. She provided a solid regime of reading, writing, spelling and 'manners'. After a year or two the boys moved on (from 1852 mainly to the Thorndon Church of England School), but many of the girls stayed on, in the other class which Sophia Buxton ran in the parlour. The curriculum included sewing, embroidery and deportment, supplemented with French from Mrs Buxton for those who desired it. This provided a colonial adaptation of the contemporary English middle class tradition of a female domestic education in accomplishments.

Mary Ann Buxton was of medium build. Her enormous crinoline features in old pupils' reminiscences. In earlier days she wore her hair in corkscrew curls, in later years in a big twist with a large black bow on top. As a widow she invariably taught in a black dress, with a small black satin embroidered apron. She affected a no-nonsense severity of manner, but her kindness and equanimity won the lasting affection of her pupils. She lived in her Tinakori Road home until her death on 18 October 1888. A careful businesswoman, she owned several other properties in the Wellington area and, having outlived all her children, left bequests to friends and associates, and to Wellington Hospital.