Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Margaret Kay (1904–1967)

by Jolanda Nayutah

This article was published:

Margaret Kay (c.1904-1967), keeper of Aboriginal relics, was born about 1904 at Broadwater, Richmond River, New South Wales, daughter of Jack Kay, butcher, and his wife Alice King, a Minjungbal woman of the Bundjalung people. When Margaret was aged 10 she was sent with her brother Jimmy to a welfare home at Parramatta under the powers of the Aborigines Protection Act (1909). By 1918 she had become nursemaid to the family of James Lennox Arthur who employed her first at Summer Hill and then at Centennial Park, Sydney. Called Peggy by the Arthurs, about 1930 she moved with the family to Quambetook, a Queensland station near Julia Creek, where she worked as maid and companion. Although she was a keen churchgoer, she maintained links with her own people. Bequeathed £50 when Mrs Arthur died in 1948, she retired in the late 1950s to a modest house at Tweed Heads. She had many friends on Palm Island whom she regularly visited.

Kay loved to paint and draw, and her correspondence was often decorated with unusual letterheads and borders. She created delicate sand paintings in bottles, using up to ten different coloured layers. Her creative flair was also expressed in sewing and crocheting. Proud of her Aboriginal descent, she joined the local historical society and was determined to preserve her culture. As her reputation spread, she turned the front part of her house into an Aboriginal museum—a mixture of the old and the new, the authentic and the replica, the commercial and the pragmatic.

From her brother, Kay took over responsibility for maintaining the nearby bora ground, previously used for initiation ceremonies. She had apparently been shown the site by her relations who had visited it with their people in the late nineteenth century. Finding that trees and shrubs dotted the ring, and that the encircling mounds had been worn down by the passage of years and lack of upkeep, she restored the area. In 1961 she obtained approval from the Tweed Shire Council for its preservation as a historic site, at a time when the conservation of places of Aboriginal cultural significance was uncommon. She became caretaker of the bora ground.

In her latter years at Tweed Heads, Kay was a notable local identity, often invited to state and church functions. At the opening of the Opal Hostel for Aborigines in Brisbane, she presented Governor Sir Henry Abel Smith with an official gift. Suffering from hypertension and diabetes towards the end of her life, she died of infectious hepatitis on 5 November 1967 in hospital at Murwillumbah and was buried with Anglican rites in South Tweed Heads cemetery. She had never married. The Lower Tweed River Historical Society stored her collection. In 1980 the National Parks and Wildlife Service took over management of the bora ground and surrounding bushland. Samples of Margaret Kay's work are preserved in the Minjungbal Resource Museum and Study Centre, Tweed Heads, which opened in 1984 and mounted an exhibition based on photographs and items from her original museum.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Nayutah and G. Finlay, Minjungbal (Lismore, NSW, 1988)
  • New South Wales Aborigines Welfare Board, Dawn, 7 Aug 1962, p 10, 17, Nov 1968, p 4.

Citation details

Jolanda Nayutah, 'Kay, Margaret (1904–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Broadwater, New South Wales, Australia


5 November, 1967 (aged ~ 63)
Murwillumbah, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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