Research in New Zealand

My application for a Leverhulme International Fellowship to spend three months at the University of Waikato (the subject of one of my blogs last year) was not successful but, nothing daunted, I set off for New Zealand anyway in July 2015. I headed for South Island, with the ambition of visiting four archives on the east coast. First stop was Christchurch, which was originally one of the most ‘English’ settlements in the country. Today, as one resident ruefully observed to me, it remains ‘munted’ after the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The city is reminiscent of Berlin after the fall of the Wall; there are building works everywhere, and local inhabitants are adopting an attitude of slightly-forced resilience. Nevertheless there is a certain doomed grandeur to the ruins of the nineteenth-century Cathedral and, walking over to the Christchurch branch of the National Archives of New Zealand in warm sunshine, I confess I did not miss the British summer.

Christchurch Cathedral

Christchurch Cathedral as it still looks, supported by scaffolding

My project involved gathering evidence of British medical practitioners who travelled or emigrated to New Zealand in the decades 1840-1890. I am particularly interested in doctors who suffered difficulties in transferring their professional lives to this specific colonial context, so I consulted the records of lunatic asylums, bankruptcy hearings, and private letters or memoirs, for evidence of career turbulence. The National Archives offices in Christchurch and Dunedin hold the records of the Christchurch, Hokitika and Dunedin asylums, while the Canterbury Museum and the Hocken Collection (the latter being the special collections of Otago University) mainly hold personal papers.
The story of medical men who were admitted to asylums as patients rather than staff turned out to follow a rather predictable pattern; they tended to have developed alcoholism, and so experienced relatively short-term admissions to asylums (where in modern terms, they had a chance to ‘dry out’). For example on 10 January 1881 Bernard Doyle, an unmarried thirty-five year old man originally from Scotland, was admitted to the optimistically-named Sunnyside asylum at Christchurch. The cause of his disorder on admission was said to be chronic alcoholism, and he was reported to have suffered several attacks over the preceding three years. His difficulties were compounded by epilepsy, and for four days after his admission he remained very ill indeed. By March, though, the medical superintendent noted with satisfaction and some righteousness ‘This patient has greatly improved so very much ashamed of himself & regaining his self-respect & losing the craving for drink’. Doyle was discharged on 2 April 1881, and did not return to Sunnyside, although of course we have no way of knowing whether he stayed on the wagon and out of other institutions thereafter.
The Hocken Collection was founded by a doctor, Thomas Morland Hocken, although fortunately for him he did not suffer mental ill health. It is probably the most southerly archive I will ever visit, as it is located in central Dunedin (‘the Edinburgh of the South’) but in this instance it is also the site of a missed opportunity. It was only after my time in the Hocken that I discovered it is home to the records of a private lunatic asylum, Ashburn Hall; most historical researchers have an anecdote about ‘the one that got away’ or the document they missed and this will be mine. Still, while I was there I did manage to read the autobiography of Samuel Hodgkinson, who provides an early and personal report of what it was like to suffer from depression. He recalled of 1854 ‘I began to feel out of health, & was prescribed for by Dr Barker, but became worse; my illness was a bad form of dyspepsia caused in a great measure no doubt by the coarse diet, & too much tea-drinking combined with over exertion. I suffered from great depression of spirits & mind; at Dr Barker’s invitation I went to Christchurch & stayed with him for some time; both he & Mrs Barker were exceedingly kind to me, but I did not improve in health & he advised me to try a change by going Home & seeing my relations again.’ He returned to England to visit his brothers and sisters, and got married in 1857. Hodgkinson clearly felt much better when he returned to New Zealand in 1858, and went on to be an elected member of the colony’s House of Representatives.
My visits to New Zealand archives were all too brief, but I have lots of material to write from and will aim to start teaching topics on the nineteenth century colony soon. Any takers for a Kiwi topic for Sources and Debates?

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