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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Buchanan, Florence Griffiths (1861–1913)

by Kay Saunders

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Florence Griffiths Buchanan (1861-1913), missionary and teacher, was born on 16 September 1861 at Canterbury, Kent, England, daughter of Captain Neil Griffiths Buchanan of the 93rd Highlanders and his wife Elizabeth Jane, née Griffiths. Orphaned when young, Florence became the ward of a relation at Torquay, Devon. Despite her extremely delicate constitution and near-blindness, she devoted herself as a young woman to both practical charity and prayer. After a physical breakdown in 1887, she accompanied her two brothers to Bundaberg, Queensland, where they purchased Oakwood, a substantial cane-farm. Seriously injured in a riding accident in 1888, she was left permanently crippled. After teaching her Melanesian servants English and Bible stories, she later assumed responsibility for the fundamentalist non-denominational South Seas Evangelical Mission (also known as the Queensland Kanaka Mission). In addition she served as Queensland secretary of both the International Scripture Union and the Young Women's Christian Association, and maintained at her own expense a hostel for English migrant girls.

After Oakwood was destroyed in the 1893 floods, Florence Buchanan lived at Townsville and competently helped Bishop C. G. Barlow to administer his diocese. Two years later she worked among the multi-racial communities of divers on Thursday Island. Forced to go to London for surgery, on her return she met Kashiwagi Taira, an educated storekeeper who introduced her into the usually closed Japanese community. Though only modestly successful in proselytizing them, she was revered and respected by everybody on the island for her generous hospitality, friendliness, humour and compassion.

In 1906 Miss Buchanan was engaged first as a teacher and later as acting headmistress of the famed Singapore Chinese Girls' School; she also taught the orphans at St Mary's Home in Singapore. In 1907 she again underwent major surgery in London and, upon recovery, returned to Thursday Island and was ordained a deaconess in January 1908. In May she went to Moa Island and conducted the Anglican mission, taught school, and tried to inculcate skills necessary for economic self-sufficiency. Her former work among Melanesians stood her in good stead, for the mission included Pacific islanders deported from Queensland.

Florence Buchanan resigned her charge of the mission in 1911 because of deteriorating health, but she stayed on as a teacher. She was disappointed at missing the dedication in August 1913 of St Paul's Church, Moa, by her devoted friend Bishop Gilbert White. In September she performed her last public function when she spoke on 'The mission field as a vocation for women' at the annual congress of the Church of England in Brisbane. She died of tuberculosis in St Helen's Methodist Hospital on 30 December and was buried in Toowong cemetery. Her death was profoundly mourned throughout the Torres Strait. The church on Moa installed a memorial stained-glass window, with her face as the gentle but indomitable St Catherine of Genoa to whom Bishop White likened her.

Select Bibliography

  • G. White, Thirty Years in Tropical Australia (Lond, 1918)
  • E. Jones, Florence Buchanan: The Little Deaconess of the South Seas (Lond, 1921)
  • J. Baynton, Cross Over Carpentaria (Brisb, 1965).

Citation details

Kay Saunders, 'Buchanan, Florence Griffiths (1861–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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