In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King
'What do you know about Truby King?' I asked the taxi-driver, hoping to avoid another dissertation on the parlous state of New Zealand cricket or rugby. 'He's the reason I have such a rotten stomach' was the unlikely reply. 'My mother fed me all that scientifically formulated stuff as a baby, and sentenced me to a lifetime of stomach trouble.'
When I was a child my parents encouraged me to collect stamps, perhaps as a calming antidote to more physical activities like rugby and soccer. I still recall grappling with the 1957 carmine image of Sir Truby King celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Plunket Society, aware that this man had played a part in the upbringing of my parents and of subsequent generations, but also feeling unease at his supercilious smirk emanating from the threepenny stamp.
Forty years later, after many years in the oil exploration business, I found myself developing a new career. Collecting roses had become compulsive, and our garden had grown to become one of the biggest collections of old roses in the land. I decided that the only way to justify this was to become an expert, or at least to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of the subject. Many of the world's old roses had their origins in France, and I travelled there in 1999. Strangely, this led me to a reacquaintance with that authority figure from the New Zealand establishment, Frederic Truby King.
The city of Orleans, strategically placed on the Loire with direct road and rail links to Paris, was an important centre of horticulture, with many pe-pinieristes (nurserymen) established on the Loiret, south of the city. Armed with Kiwi enthusiasm and high school French, I spent a fascinating month researching the nurseries and the nurserymen who became famous for their roses. The largest and most significant nursery was that of Barbier. He had produced many of the page 10 splendid climbing and rambling roses that we still value. From the beginning of the twentieth century, he created such wonders as Alberic Barbier, Albertine, Paul Transon and Francois Juranville, roses of surpassing beauty, fragrance and style. As was the fashion of the time, the breadth of his nursery encompassed a wide variety of trees, shrubs, vegetables and bedding plants, but the annual catalogue of over 100 pages confirmed his passion for roses.
On my return to New Zealand, I set about solving the puzzle that had challenged me for years. The rambling rose Alberic Barbier was common in Wellington. How had it become so established? On looking at old records supplied by a garden historian, I was surprised to discover that the same Dr Truby King, founder of Plunket, had been an ardent gardener. The surprise increased when I came upon King's vast and detailed plant orders from the Barbier nursery in Orleans, and deepened further when I discovered that although King had imported literally thousands of plants from Barbier, he had not purchased a single rose. Later, I confessed my growing fascination with Truby King to friend Frank Boffa, one of the founding fathers of landscape architecture in New Zealand. He surprised me by describing a similar experience, which had begun with a professional appointment to produce a conservation and management plan for the Truby King garden in Wellington, and ended up as a week-long trawl through the Hocken Library archives, under the spell of this Victorian icon. Frank's notes were all it took to set me on a path of research and revelation. My curiosity, born out of my own obsession, set me off on a journey of discovery.
These explorations have taken me back to my roots in Dunedin, to the Hocken Library's archives, to Seacliff where Truby King was for thirty years director of the country's largest lunatic asylum, and to places that before this I only vaguely knew. I was to discover a powerfully persuasive communicator but also a genuine eccentric, a hunchbacked dwarf, an accomplished scientist. I would also encounter a misogynist, a financial incompetent, a bully and a complex man with attitudes I had little sympathy with.
Throughout my journey I would be haunted by a childhood page 11 memory of sliding on the highly polished linoleum floors of the Roslyn Plunket rooms, risking the wrath of the guardian of Sir Truby's fortress, the imposing figure of the Plunket nurse. The authority vested in her by Truby and his army of upper-class women was enough to instil fear and anti-authoritarian loathing in a small child.
One early step I took was to devour his biography Truby King -The Man, published in 1948, ten years after his death. The author, Mary King, his adopted daughter, servant and apostle of Plunket, had devoted years of her life to an account that would set him on a pedestal. He would have been proud of the job that she accomplished. I was annoyed by it and frustrated. I felt even on my first reading that Mary had omitted any negative material, and I later discovered not only her rewriting of history, but that in an archivist's opinion she had expunged critical material before lodging papers with the archives. While there is a great deal of published material about the man and about Plunket, there are very few people still living who have any reliable recall of Truby King. My interpretation of what is still in the archives and the historical record is, I admit, very personal.
While the story of the Plunket Society and how Truby King conscripted the women of Edwardian New Zealand to it has been chronicled, paraphrased and discussed elsewhere, the origins of Plunket are less well known. I was surprised to discover Dr King making an early career decision to become head of the country's largest mental institution while still a young man. It was at Seacliff on the coast of Otago that King seized the opportunity offered by a sprawling baronial estate to develop skills in farming, landscape design and animal husbandry. Showing commendable disregard for regulations and rules, his stewardship of the country's largest asylum gave him the opportunity for considerable personal development as a farmer and scientist.
Behind King was his tiny wife, Bella. Her acceptance of a subservient role was pivotal to Truby's success. When in later life they moved to Wellington, his energies were directed into building a house, developing the Karitane baby food factory and assuming the mantle of Director of Child Welfare. He somehow found time to plan page 12 the development of his huge hilltop property, ordering tens of thousands of plants from all over the world. With characteristic fervour he set about developing a garden for his later years. Sadly, Bella would not live to share his dream. By the strength of his personality, the garden on Wellington's exposed hilltop took shape, with Truby often imposing exotic species on an environment to which they were hardly suited. With his personality and commitment, they had no option but to flourish.
On his death, the manic gardener who had narrowly avoided the irony of committal to an asylum was buried in his own garden. It took an act of parliament to sanction this, but it somehow seemed appropriate. This was a man who stole the best years of his adopted daughter's life, the first New Zealander to be given a state funeral, the first private citizen to be enshrined on a postage stamp.
Truby King was a paradox, an enigma. He was the son of a member of the first New Zealand parliament, he rejected a career in banking to train as a doctor, he was dogged by ill-health and a dread of tuberculosis. He married the landlady's daughter and never had children of his own. He was a fierce orator, capable of winning an audience or demolishing an opponent. Truby King's ability to influence people was instrumental in his founding of the Plunket Society, but even his triumphs were clouded in ambiguity. His treatment of women and his extreme and restrictive views on their education and role in life would be ridiculed today. Yet he created a society that empowered women and gave them a world-famous child welfare system.
My interest began with King the gardener, was captured by King the scientist, and was further stimulated by King the farmer, doctor, educator, goldminer and fearsome snob. There is much to admire in what the man achieved, but it is difficult to reconcile his achievements with the complexity of his shortcomings.page 13 page break