Vale Marie Pepper, an unwavering vegan and treasured friend

Marie Pepper (on the right) attended countless protests, rallies and demonstrations over multiple decades. This was in June 2019. Photo: Melissa Deacon.

The Sentinel‘s vegan editor Elizabeth Usher shares a personal tribute to the late Sydney vegan hero Marie Pepper, followed by a condensed version of her eulogy.

I was not ready for the news that came in March. It was the type of news that you can know is coming and can even be braced for in advance, yet you still don’t feel ready when the call comes through. Cancer had claimed another life and a funeral was being planned.

This photo from June 2016 might be a bit blurry but captures the camaraderie of activist friends coming together for a protest despite inclement weather. It also represents how the news of losing a friend can shake your world. Marie is in the centre. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

Chances are that the vast majority of Sentinel readers and even the vegan population in Sydney, do not know the name Marie Pepper, despite her decades of unwavering veganism and support of various charities and causes, as well as hands-on work with rescued and adopted cats.

She never sought the limelight but for those who knew her, Marie’s commitment was inspiring, her humour was entertaining and her friendship was incredibly valued.

Further down this page is an edited excerpt from her eulogy, which will give you just a taste of her incredible life story, with enough different careers to fill multiple lives over! But first, I want to share some personal memories from our friendship circle and the vegan world.

Marie came around in October 2008 to whip up some homemade vegan meringues and macaroons together – well before the Great Aquafaba Revelation! Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

Before anything else – it has to be said that Marie loved vegan food! My favourite dish from her repertoire was her simple yet delicious mac and cheese. She would also rave at length about finding new vegan treats, and the increasing rate over the years at which vegan options were becoming more accessible in supermarkets and dining outlets was always a positive topic of conversation!

Often, she would regale us with stories of buying multiple packs of the latest new item, to ensure the store would see there was demand for vegan/plant-based products and then add further vegan supplies to their next restocking order!

Dinner with friends at Little Turtle Restaurant in March 2019 (Marie is on the right). Photo: Asha.

Marie had a wise philosophy in regards to menu choices when dining out. In the words of a close mutual friend, shared in a private conversation in recent weeks, “Marie didn’t believe in ordering steamed rice to go with curries, etc. She said it was a waste of stomach space and always ordered fried rice!” More than one friend has since put this approach into action after seeing Marie’s strategy!

Marie loved the pineapple fried rice at Little Turtle Restaurant! This was in March 2019. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

When it came to dessert, I think Marie was the only person I’ve ever known to have more of a sweet tooth than I do! She was renowned at events like the Sydney Vegan Market for buying literally dozens of vanilla slices and the like. She would be well-prepared for this endeavour, with cooler bags and baskets and tubs of various sizes.

The Socially Vegan Cakes stall at the Sydney Vegan Expo in May 2015 – this must have been before Marie cleared out their cream horn supplies! Photo: Socially Vegan Cakes/Instagram.

One stand-out item that she used to buy by the dozen was the cream horn from Socially Vegan Cakes. Emilia Gevorkian had made a big effort to translate the treats her own family were used to eating into vegan options. Marie also had strong childhood memories of eating cream horn and had told Emilia that when eating the Socially Vegan Cakes ones, “It is like I’m really going back in time.”

Marie said that the cream horns from Socially Vegan Cakes were an exact match for her childhood memories. Photo: Socially Vegan Cakes/Instagram.

I also reminisced with Tracey Keenan and Mick Still of Peanuts Wellbeing Sanctuary about Marie’s habit of entrusting her precious haul to stay under their table for a few hours so that she could continue her exploring unencumbered round all the other stalls. Mick is another sweet-toothed vegan and would compare notes with Marie about all the fabulous new foods on offer.

The Peanuts Wellbeing Sanctuary stall at the Sydney Vegan Markets in December 2019. Photo: Peanuts Wellbeing Sanctuary/Facebook.

We laughed together about Marie’s insistence on buying a new stuffed toy for her Mum every time she saw them at the Peanuts stall. Mick’s own Mum used to knit them (using acrylic wool of course!) to raise funds for the sanctuary, and at one point Marie’s family said that it was time to stop bringing any new toys in because there was no space left on the windowsill for any more to be included in the line-up. Marie’s cheeky humour kicked in and thereafter, she went out of her way to keep adding to the menagerie! Indeed, when Mick let her know that his Mum would no longer be able to knit any more of the toys due to worsening arthritis, Marie’s response was to snap up “a whole heap in one go to make sure she didn’t miss out”!

An example of one of Mick’s Mum’s knitted toys providing comfort to a rescued lamb, Timmy – what a coincidence with the story below of Timmie, the sheep Marie rescued so many years ago! Photo: Jo Chalker/Peanuts Wellbeing Sanctuary/Facebook.)

Marie was a constant face over the years at fundraisers, rallies and protest marches, and I was also grateful for her support at several of my MC Pony single launches. She stayed informed and active across many issues and never backed away from an opportunity to speak up about injustice.

Marie Pepper came to support me when Mother and Child was selected in the Flicks4Change Film Festival in March 2018. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.

Her ultimate priority, however, was always her rescued cats. She was the most dedicated cat guardian you could imagine and no expense or effort was spared when it came to their care. Even though Marie did not chase fame or the public eye, her legacy will be cemented with Peanuts Wellbeing Sanctuary’s “Meow Town” to be renamed as “Peppers Meow Town” in her honour. I couldn’t think of a more fitting tribute to this wonderful woman.

Screenshot of the Peanuts Wellbeing Sanctuary ‘Meow Town’ sponsorship item – to be renamed “Peppers Meow Town’ in Marie’s honour.

Vale Marie Pepper. I’ll always treasure the memories.

You can donate in Marie’s memory at

Some resources for anyone struggling with grief or other issues:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
Headspace 1800 650 890

Elizabeth Usher is the vegan editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

Thank you to the family for allowing us to reprint a condensed version of Marie Pepper’s eulogy, written by her father Ross and sister Karen, and read at the funeral by close friend Gail Galea. I was in isolation and unable to attend the funeral but was grateful to be able to watch via the livestream.

Marie was born to Ross and Isabel, the eldest of 3 girls – her sisters are Anne and Karen. 

  • At two years of age, we walked into a fish shop on Blaxland Road. They had a fish tank. She said: “What are they?”

    I replied, “Fish.”

    She said, “Fish have eyes. I don’t eat fish.” 

    Then on learning at about the age of four what meat was from her Nanna Vera, she became vegetarian, never eating meat again. Imagine that at age four! Later in life becoming vegan.
  • I think every bird or dumped kitten found their way home.
  • The terrible teens followed and Marie left school at fifteen.
  • Marie took a job in a newspaper completing artwork for them and actually did an album cover for a leading band at the time.
  • She joined the NSW Rail in 1982 and became a driver in 1984 under the instruction of Ken Onions. They became known as the Pepper and Onions Express, becoming best friends for life. And indeed, Ken was there for Marie’s passing sleeping in a chair in her room as he had promised her. Ken and Maria and their family were like Marie’s second family, spent holidays and had overseas trips planned. They loved her, as did her own family.
  • Marie drove the goods train and at this time there were only three women in NSW qualified. They were constantly met with adversity, with chauvinism and vilification as women in a predominately male work environment.
  • Today there are 500 women driving trains, so Marie and these two other women were the trailblazers. The other two drivers ending up taking their cases to court taking on State Rail. Marie took on the whole NSW Government and won.
  • During her time as a goods train driver, Marie rescued many animals including a sheep she found alongside the tracks who she called Timmie.
  • At one time, Marie was expected to ship large containers which were overfull of cattle, breaching both humane expectations as well as the law. When Marie refused, wanting the animals watered and numbers reduced, the railways attempted to back an engine to the rear of the train to tow the cattle away. Marie blocked the attempt and would not allow transport of the cattle, waiting for authorities to arrive and in fact forcing the hand of authorities. 

    The following day, it was written up as a major sting operation run by authorities. Little did the public know it was actually just one woman’s crusade.
  • After the railways, Marie moved on to painting and decorating, completing an apprenticeship and commencing her own business. Marie was committed to this work and completed a Masters Degree in Heritage Restoration at Sydney University. She worked on the restoration of Vaucluse House, Hyde Park Barracks and CBA at Martin Place, to name a few.
  • Marie was passionately involved in animal activism, attending many rallies, signing and forwarding petitions, and writing many insightful and complex documents to various Ministers about animal welfare/animal rights, and changes that needed to be made to the law.
  • On the 14th of January, Marie had radiotherapy and then attended our dear friend Ronnie’s funeral. Marie refused to stay home. Marie was loyal to her friends no matter the adversity.
  • Marie loved life and had so much more to do had she been given the chance. She was a feisty, fun-loving daredevil who made fun of most situations, always making you laugh. She had the courage and confidence to make the world a better place. She will be missed.
Marie Pepper (left) in March 2017, almost five years before she passed away, sporting one of her many ‘message T-shirts’ at a rally. Photo: Elizabeth Usher.