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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Chapter Nine: The adoption of Mary

page 113

Chapter Nine: The adoption of Mary

From A multitude of sources arose four conflicting stories of Mary's adoption.

Mary herself explains in her book: 'It was a great sorrow to them both that Mrs King was incapable of child-bearing, and so, on 17 February 1905 they adopted a baby girl, whom they called Mary -the child of esteemed friends.' The Kings had just returned from a six-month convalescent visit to Japan.

Then in her oral history recorded by Jim Sullivan in 1992, Mary White (nee King) at the age of eight-eight recalled her youth. Her mother, she said, was a maternity nurse, her father a painter at Seacliff. Father had died and mother couldn't cope with new-born Mary, who was the second of two children. 'Fred [Truby] and Bella were off to Japan, collected [me] when they returned.'According to Mary, she was born on 25 January 1904. Truby and Bella returned page 114 from Japan in February 1905. Is it possible that Mary had been boarded out for the best part of a year?

Mary's account of how Truby and Bella forbade contact with her mother or sister Ngarita is heart-rending. She was instructed to return gifts of a New Testament and wrist-watch, and was forbidden to communicate with her blood relatives. While at Archerfield boarding school in Dunedin, she would sometimes see her birth mother at Knox church, where she came hoping to catch a glimpse of Mary with the other schoolgirls.

The second source is from the great-aunt of a personal friend of the author's, who at the age of 101 was still regarded as having keen and reliable recall.1 She trained as a Karitane nurse, both at Karitane and at Christchurch, and met Truby King half a dozen times, remembering him as 'a wee man, very kind and gentle, the kind of person who would come into a room very quietly, and be noticed'. She remembers stories of Mary being a twin, her father being a warder and unable to afford the expense of two children. People, she said, were very much against Truby adopting only one twin and Mary was apparently the more delicate of the pair. I have been unable to corroborate this information through birth records.

Mr Moss, who was on the staff at Seacliff, had a very different perspective on Mary's adoption. He has it that one O'Connell, an attendant at Seacliff, had been found drunk on duty. In order for O'Connell to retain his position, King 'persuaded' him to allow one of his many children to be adopted by the Kings, who had no children of their own. This theory also cannot be verified from legal records of births.

Lastly, Dr Eleanor McLagan, one of New Zealand's first women doctors, whom Truby employed at Seacliff, tells another story:

A favourite male attendant had married a favourite female attendant. He got acute diabetes, and insulin being unknown at the time, died in a very short while. The widow with her baby was taken back on the staff. One of my duties was to watch the baby carefully and see that all was well with it. Eventually the Kings, who had no children of their page 115 own, adopted that baby. Dr King trained the widowed mother in the routine he had evolved for artificial baby feeding, and put her in Dunedin to give free advice to distracted mothers on a salary paid out of his own pocket. Some years later he told me he could not have done this if he had been in practice himself, but as a civil servant, and out in the country, he could do it without infringing medical ethics.2

Which, if any, of the stories do we believe and what information can we deduce even from the more improbable sources? While there are elements of truth in McLagan's story, my research suggests that she had confused the widowed mother with another King acolyte, although the diabetic death is likely.

Truby was at the time, along with his mentor, MacGregor, a propounder of the Eugenic theories which were very much in vogue. Whether a true eugenicist would consider adoption is arguable. Whether King would steal the child of a drunken attendant, given his distaste for drunks, is even less believable.

Adoption at the beginning of last century was shrouded in the stigma of illegitimacy.

In April 2002 Mary White died in Adelaide, aged ninety-eight. Some months later I was fortunate to make contact with both of her sons. Michael had been made aware of my interest by a third party, while Stephen had become friendly with a nursing acquaintance of my wife, who was then located with her doctor husband in a small Australian opal-mining town where he lived. Until this time, my research had been almost entirely deductive. The role of the biographer can become complicated when forced to confront the subject's relatives, and while I am grateful for their candour and willingness to pass on information, I must confess discomfort when confronted with opinions with which I cannot agree. I am aware of Robert Graves' scornful assessment of biography in his poem 'To Bring the Dead Back to Life' where he suggests that biography is a branch of character-acting in which the subject is diminished by the biographer's limited acting skills. The information provided by the White brothers gave this impoverished actor further evidence to page 116 dissect and more puzzles to solve.

While some of the pieces of the jigsaw remain stubbornly misplaced, I feel that the adoption of little Mary sheds significant light on Truby King. With the blessing of his superiors, he was in 1904 about to go off to Japan on sick leave. His fifteen years work at Seacliff had established him not only as a talented if dogmatic asylum director, but also as a scientist and farmer. His Feeding of Plants and Animals would be published in the following year, and there is no doubt the thinking that would lead to the foundations of Plunket was well advanced.

Bella and Truby King were childless. Bella was aged forty-three, and apparently unsuited to the rigours of childbearing due to infantile rickets. Without children, King's credibility in infant welfare may have been compromised. Sources close to the family suggested that King sought to adopt a child to validate his position. As a physician his choice of adoption subject would not have been limited, and given his Caledonian predisposition, it's hardly surprising that he chose the child of a Scottish-born mother.

Esther Loreena Gordon was born to Leilah and William Gordon in Dunedin on 25 January 1904. She was the younger of two girls, her sister being christened Ngarita Inez (hardly Scottish names). They met while working at Seacliff where Leilah was a nurse/attendant and William, Irish by birth, was a painter. Before their second child was born, William developed diabetes and soon after the birth he departed to Dunedin to live and eventually die with his mother. Leilah, who later became celebrated as a nurse, midwife and welfare worker, was put under considerable pressure by Truby King to yield up her youngest for adoption. As the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography notes:

She was left in financial difficulties and was vulnerable to pressure when the superintendent at Seacliff, Frederic Truby King and his wife Isabella, both in their mid 40s, offered to adopt baby Esther around July 1904. King was impatient and insistent, and Leilah Gordon had few other choices. Consenting to the adoption was a decision she was

page 117
Mary King in her early twenties.

Mary King in her early twenties.

bitterly to regret — it became the 'lasting event' of her life. Before the adoption papers were signed, the Kings went to Japan for six months leaving the baby in care and Gordon working as a nurse at Seacliff.3

Leilah Gordon unsurprisingly left Seacliff, returning to Dunedin where she enrolled as a midwife. It is unlikely that she did so with King's support, as he took the strange and unusual step of a court order forbidding any communication with the child now known as Mary King.

Recent American research has highlighted the trauma of infant-maternal separation, christening it the 'Primal Wound'. Statistics have shown a very high incidence of social problems in adopted children, leading to the conclusion that the severing of the bond established in utero can give rise to depression, anxiety and behavioural problems in those adopted. It is not my proposition that Mary suffered any of page 118 these difficulties, only to stress that her start in life was far from normal. Adoption, yes; but being boarded out while the Kings were in Japan for six months, then injunctions against communication with her birth mother, does not impress with normality. Mary's children talk of her in the most devoted and loving terms, but a nervous breakdown before she eventually married suggests some residual difficulties.

As Truby King's life unfolds, we will see Mary playing a number of pivotal roles in support of the great man. She appeared to enjoy a privileged childhood: boarding school, doting parents, training as a kindergarten teacher; then with Bella's death, she was thrust into a number of supporting roles as social secretary, companion, taker of dictation, interpreter of commands and edicts.

Mary's birth mother, still regretting the surrender of her daughter, tried to persuade her to rejoin the family when she turned twenty-one, but by then Mary was too involved with her adoptive father and declined.

page 119

1 Hamish McDoull's great aunt, via Hamish, personal communication.

2 McLagan, Stethoscope and Saddlebags.

3 Eliza Gordon, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Auckland University Press, www.dnzb.govt.nz