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

Chapter Thirteen: Taking Plunket abroad

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Chapter Thirteen: Taking Plunket abroad

In mid-1913 Truby King, with Bella and Mary, set sail for London to represent New Zealand at an infant welfare conference. After the conference, Truby and Bella worked with the poor in London, to demonstrate 'the New Zealand way'. With two nurses, babies were visited, weighed and the mothers instructed. Essentially they were preaching breast-feeding, regularity, measurement and fresh air. Staying until Christmas, they left behind mothers and babies flourishing under a common-sense regime. The Kings proceeded to Vienna and Berlin to confer with Europe's infant specialists before returning to New Zealand via London. Truby did not turn down the opportunity to preach the gospel of infant welfare and correct feeding, and probably managed to slip in some more blunt observations on over-pressure in schools and whatever bee currently lodged in his bonnet.

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They all returned home to Seacliff. The Great War raged in Europe, but things were otherwise 'normal'. Plunket was consolidating and Truby found other outlets for his surplus energy, notably in the Catlins, where he further refined his farming ideas on his newly acquired acreage.


Sir Evelyn Wrench, founder of the Royal Overseas League, with his sister Winifride had visited New Zealand in 1913, and had been given the full Truby King VIP tour, being shown Seacliff, Karitane, Dunedin, Plunket hospitals and a bevy of bonny babies. They departed indoctrinated and impressed.

This was an invitation that King could not turn down. He wrote to the Minister:


Re the cable of the Marlborough School for Mothercraft requesting me to establish work at Home on our New Zealand lines, and placing the institution at my disposal as a teaching centre, under control of a matron to be selected from among our specially trained nurses, I have to report as follows: -

If I were allowed to go Home in the course of a few months, my services would be of infinitely more value, from a broadly National and Patriotic point of view than if I were to be kept continuously in New Zealand. This opinion is founded on the deep conviction that the results of a practical campaign, properly organised on New Zealand lines so as to lead to the establishment of 'Plunket Committees' throughout the Old Country, with the centre at London, would result in the saving of from 5,000 to 10,000 lives a year in a page 153 very short space of time, and a further progressive reduction afterwards.

Judging from an informal conference which took place last Tuesday between the Inspector-General of Mental Hospitals, the Civil Service Commissioners and myself, it appears that my services could be suitably provided for by arranging for the recall of some Senior Medical Officer of the Department now at the Front.

Provided you can approve and arrange for my absence for, say, fifteen months, without any breach in the continuity of my relationships to the Mental Hospitals Department and the Superannuation Fund, I am prepared to undertake the service required.

Regarding salary, I am not in a position to offer my services free, as I should like to do, but I should ensure that my total emoluments would be below rather than above what I receive in New Zealand.

Nurse Pattrick would be the ideal matron, and is willing to accept the Home position, provided it can be arranged for her to be spared from the Army.

Regarding the professional ability of the Marlborough School for Mothercraft, I may say that there are included on its list of Medical Officers Sir Betram Dawson, three leading London specialists on infancy and the care of young children, and Professor Kenwood, who is one of the most noted authorities on Hygiene in general. Benjamin Broadbent is, as you know, the leading spirit in England as regards reform in connection with the welfare of mother and child.

As I was asked to reply by cable, I shall be glad to be enabled to do so as soon as convenient."

The Minister replied:

In accordance with the telegram I have despatched to you today, I have to inform you that your request for fifteen months' leave of absence was considered by cabinet yesterday. It was then resolved to grant you twelve months' leave without pay. I have no doubt that if you find it page 154 necessary to have the leave extended by three months in order to complete your work, a request to that effect later from Great Britain will receive the careful consideration of the Government.

I may add, as Minster of Internal Affairs, for your information, that it will not be possible for me to recommend His Excellency the Governor-General to issue a passport for Mrs King, if it is desired that she should accompany you to Great Britain. The Imperial Government have issued strict instructions that no women desirous of travelling through the danger zone should be allowed to leave New Zealand, excepting under circumstances of exceptional necessity and urgency.

Allow me to congratulate you upon having been invited to undertake this important work, and to wish you every success in it.

Yours faithfully

G.W. Russell

Minister in Charge of Mental Hospitals3


Winifride Wrench wrote to Truby from the Marlborough School of Mothercraft in London:

Your cable reached me yesterday, and I need not tell you how delighted I am to think that there is a chance of your coming here and starting your work in London. And it is splendid to think that you have the ideal Matron as well. Since my return in 1913 from travelling round the Empire with my brother, 'I have been working continuously in Infant Welfare work and have been in close touch with the people chiefly interested in this question in London.

From what I know and what I have learnt, I am convinced that our greatest need in this country is a Training Centre on Karitane lines. In spite of all the excellent individual work being done in all parts of the United Kingdom, there is no training school for doctors and nurses page 155 who wish to specialise in the care and feeding of babies — with the natural result that the standard of knowledge among the leaders of the movement is a low one.

You will find the nucleus of good work awaiting for you to expand and develop, and you will have an absolutely free hand so far as we are concerned. Our School of Mothercraft consists of two large private houses in Trebovir Road, Earl's Court, thrown into one. The rooms are lofty and airy and all have large French windows. We face north-east and we look out over gardens at the back.5

Truby King left New Zealand at the end of 1917 aboard the Niagara. Since Bella was not permitted to accompany him, she and Mary went to live in Nelson, where Bella had friends. Mary went to school at Nelson Girls' College.

Travelling via Honolulu, Truby spent five weeks in America, crossing the country, delivering lectures, meeting doctors and giving a first-class impersonation of a one-man tornado. He travelled down the Pacific coast from Vancouver to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, before crossing to Chicago and New York for a triumphant meeting as the guest speaker at the Academy of Medicine. The American trip was highly successful, with King benefiting from warm and indulgent receptions everywhere. America in 1918 was booming, largely unaffected by the European war. It could not but infect him with its brash confidence. He departed New York in March in high spirits, ready to continue his triumphant journey.

The contrast with wartime Britain was not good. Most commodities were subject to rationing; this, combined with the inevitable red tape, were harbingers of a difficult future. Truby was met by the loyal Miss Beswick, his old matron at Seacliff, who had retired to live on the south coast of England. She wrote to Bella that Truby had arrived 'looking wonderfully well, although he is too thin'.6

London in early spring, with bombers overhead at night, was not quite the same as America. Truby King was lonely, ensconced in the Waldorf Hotel, which, despite its exclusive reputation, he found unsuitable. The weather was cold and damp, his spirits bleak, his page 156 health not much better. Always inclined to hypochondria, and without Bella to buoy him up, he did not have an easy time. After weeks of suffering he wrote to Bella: 'I had been living at the Waldorf Hotel and was getting more and more sick of being a mere number. You know how neither of us has ever cared for hotel life for long, but nowadays every objectionable feature of such places is accentuated, owing to the incompetence and independence of the residential staffs, made up largely of amateurs and casual rejects.'7 He moved into lodgings in Gypsy Hill, paying £1 a week for a front sitting-room and bedroom, with breakfast costing 2/- and dinner 2/6. This improved his spirits somewhat.

Professionally, things were patchy. In May he gave the first of four lectures at the ultra-prestigious St Thomas' Hospital, near parliament and Westminster Abbey, to a packed audience of doctors, nurses and medical students. His fame had preceded him, and the attention and flattery he was accorded were gratefully received. More flattery followed, with the prestigious American Paediatric Society making him an honorary fellow later that month. This he valued highly.

Miss Pattrick and two Kiwi nurses were established at Earl's Court, but they too found things difficult. Truby's letter to Bella tells the story:

My Dearest Wifie

You must wonder at my not having given you any account of the work here from the Society's point of view. Well the fact is that from the first moment of my arrival in London things have been more or less impossible to explain or describe, and while progress has not been satisfactory I have been overwhelmed with far more than anyone could overtake. If I wrote to you for a whole week I could scarcely convey the situation, and hitherto I have not felt that it was really desirable to page 157 convey most of the intimate side as concerns the organisation which got me to England.

Never in my life have I been in so embarrassing and uncertain a position as I was in for some months after arrival. On the physical side I was far from well and yet I don't think that anyone supposed I was ill, but I had a cough which I could not throw off, and, living in the heart of London in a very heartless hotel without a vestige of bright sunlight by day and with groping darkness in the streets by night, one felt a bit spiritless and as near pessimistic as one's temperament would allow.

The splendid reception I had had throughout the U.S.A., and the warm friends I made everywhere, including the trip across the Atlantic, made London seem very dull, grey and depressing in the winter and early autumn. The contrast with London we had known was extraordinary, and you must remember that ever since I arrived we have had one long monotonous series of depressing messages as regards the war. A few days after arriving I got up early and intended to run out to Beckenham to see the Stillwells but found Victoria Station crowded with soldiers in khaki with their rusty iron helmets and their war-kits on their backs, blocking the line for some hours. It made the whole thing very real and near — and this is the daily state of matters. Not any pomp or circumstance of war but evidence everywhere of its cruel drudgery and ever present tale of hardship and suffering for those who are bearing the brunt of it. Day after day one would see the long line of motor ambulances stretching from Charing Cross station down Villiers Street, and of course this was only one of many such — especially after the big fights. On the other hand, the civilian population of London suffered practically nothing but trifling inconvenience, and is largely better off than it had ever been before and was spending money recklessly.

All this was not an exhilarating background, but such backgrounds alone do not dominate the individual life though they tend to render everything more or less sombre, especially after coming from the bright optimistic hustle and 'go' of America where I had been presented for the most part with the best and most progressive side of things. Of page 158 course I saw plenty of the seamy side of their great cities, but I saw it mainly with people who were working enthusiastically to bring about a better state of affairs and who were really doing very effective work.

I expected to get straight to work with the Marlborough School of Mothercraft and the other organisations which had been referred to in Lord Plunket's cablegrams. No enthusiastic Committee came to welcome me, but a rather prosaic secretary of the Overseas Club came to the Waldorf Hotel in the evening and said that both Lord Plunket and Miss Wrench were ill. There was no social welcome at all; and when I saw the New Zealanders — Miss Pattrick, Mrs Harris, Mrs Hosking and Miss Beswick — they disillusioned me very thoroughly. Miss Pattrick had been snubbed for every suggestion she made, and as they took no notice of her views and opinions and wanted her to back their utterly absurd proposals as regards developing and getting ready a place which Lord Leverhulme had offered to let the Committee have the use of for the term of the war, Miss Pattrick played a very masterful game by retiring back to the safe stronghold of her former position in the Army, pending my arrival.

All references to New Zealand were considered bad form, and as the New Zealanders were never consulted and had no say on the Committee, they had ceased to attend the meetings.

When I saw Lord and Lady Plunket they told me, to my amazement, that they wanted me to keep in the background for two months, while Sir Bertrand Dawson got me patronised and rendered acceptable as it were by the elite deadheads of the profession.

Meantime, letters were coming in from the provinces and elsewhere asking me to give addresses, etc. Then came the first meeting at which Lord Plunket introduced me to the Committee, the meeting taking place in their home in Sloane Square. I was to be very much the humble servant to carry out the instructions of the Committee. Lord Plunket said that he had cabled me that the Marlborough School had been placed at my disposal; but that they had decided that it ought to page 159 be at the Committee's disposal, etc. I was not to do anything without the consent of the Committee, and especially I was not to grant any interview or do any propaganda work without their leave. How I wished I were back among the real, earnest disinterested workers in New Zealand.

Poor Truby, betrayed by the very people he aspired to, neutered by the Committee, frustrated by the Establishment. How shattered he must have felt, adrift in the country he called 'Home', betrayed by the people he thought he understood and knew how to manipulate. But it was worse than that. It transpired that the Plunkets were at the heart of the conspiracy. On their return to England, they had redefined the concept of the Plunket movement from Truby's creation to their own, casting themselves as the saviours of babies, relegating King to a supporting role, merely the doctor who implemented their wonderful scheme.

King George V had just conferred the Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George on Truby King, but that wasn't sufficient for him to defy Lord Plunket and his Committee of English aristocracy, and he knew he was in a tight spot.

In the end the Kiwis triumphed, with the resolute Miss Pattrick adding steel to Truby's resolve. She would go on to play a pivotal role in Plunket back in New Zealand at the end of her sojourn in London. Truby continued in a letter to Bella:

Things have been pretty sultry sometimes at Committee meetings. Once I took the gloves clean off and denounced our erstwhile patrons and said it was disgraceful to have misrepresented matters — that I have been 'got Home under false pretences'. Their anxiety at the start was, of course, that I might give them away by letting out the fact it was the Committee and not the Plunkets who had made the society in New Zealand.8

In time the rift healed and Truby King finessed some more sympathetic people onto the Committee. The Chairman, said Truby, 'is a Sir Alexander Roger who has, if anything, too much faith in me page 160 and is too sanguine of success.' He also conscripted Mrs Harris, wife of philanthropist Wolf, who had played such a supportive role of the Plunket Society when they lived in Dunedin. Eventually King came to terms with the British way of doing things and progress was achieved. In the end, his antipathy towards the Plunkets subsided. When Lord Plunket died in 1920, Truby King sent a warm letter of sympathy, as did the Plunket Society. Lady Plunket reverted to Lady Victoria Braithwaite and continued her interest, eventually revisiting New Zealand. On her ninetieth birthday the Society recognised her with a presentation.

Professionally, things were looking up for Truby King. He went to Downing Street. He was in demand for speaking engagements; visited Ireland and travelled widely in England. He was appalled at Ireland's infant mortality, much higher than New Zealand; he noted that the rate in the country, where despite poverty, healthy outdoor living and breast-feeding were the norm, was three times lower. His rationalisation of the high infant mortality in the cities was the poor housing and drunkenness.

With the end of the Great War in sight, King was given a military rank so that he could participate in advice on post-war rehabilitation. Major Truby King was an unlikely sight. There are stories of the slight, uniformed gent walking out of Trebovir Road incongruously clad in khaki with a trilby hat, with Miss Pattrick in pursuit to exchange it for military headgear. Truby King would not have struck fear into the heart of the Hun.

In September 1918 King went to France. The American Red Cross bent over backwards to help him, remembering his visit to the States and the impact that he had made. The contrast between the laid-back American organisation and the chaos he had endured at Home was once more highlighted. Returning to France in October, he persuaded the Army authorities that, with his mental health expertise, he should visit the front. Despite his poor health and slight physique, he was never one to shirk a challenge. His descriptions are poignant.

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Instead of hedgerows and avenues of trees, there were merely splintered and shattered trunks, or stumps a few feet high. The solid earth had been riven and hurled into the air, leaving a jumble of deep craters and mounds, without a trace of fields, plantations or buildings of any kind, save here and there a few stones where some cottage must have stood. Here and there were remains of a horse; and sometimes we passed a trooper trudging his way back towards the fighting front. The whole impression was one of sad, grey desolation, infinitely pitiable and depressing.

The losses and sufferings of the French peasantry give some idea of the guilt and cruelty of unprovoked war waged in a peaceful country. As for our troops, their endurance and heroism, living in mud and filth, passes all understanding.9

Having glimpsed the horrors and stupidity of war, King went to the American Red Cross Conference on Infant Welfare in Toulouse, then back to England, where his year's secondment was up. The New Zealand government granted Truby an extension 'to carry on the work and render it permanent and progressive', whatever that meant. The British infant mortality rate was 103 per 1000 live births, compared to forty-eight in New Zealand. At an important post-war medical conference, valuable resolutions were passed on the need for thorough and consistent teaching of the medical profession, nurses, midwives and the general public on the promotion of health and fitness of mother and child. King felt some progress was at last being made. Feeding and the Care of Baby was becoming widely available, and was even being translated into foreign languages. The message was finally getting out.

Early in 1919 Truby King was appointed as one of three representatives of the British Empire at the Child Welfare section of the three-week-long Red Cross conference in Cannes, on the French Riviera. The big issues were famine, starvation and typhus, but for King the greatest impact was the collegiality of it all, being able to confer with many of the top names in child medicine. He took particular interest in the Rollier Institute in Switzerland, and the page 162 pioneering work they were doing on solar therapy, especially for sufferers of tuberculosis. This accorded with his holistic 'fresh air and healthy living' philosophy he had developed at Seacliff. Later, he would refer a Wellington society friend suffering from bovine TB to the Rollier clinic. Leaving France, King visited Austria, Switzerland and Poland, seeing the effects of war-induced malnutrition and poor diets, before returning to London.

The frustration of working with the British soon told on Truby. He deplored the waste and the bureaucracy, and missed the devotion of his New Zealand Committee. Bottle-feeding was rife, with strong preference from the medical profession towards artificial feeding. A depressed Truby wrote to Bella:

You know, dearest, how I long to be back with you, but I can no more turn my back on all this and the appalling conditions on the Continent 'than I could turn my back upon a well into which my children had fallen'. It touches the fate of millions — indeed the density of humanity — and nothing can prevent my probing it to the depths, and getting at the back of things so far as lies in my power. I can no more fail to make use of what has become built up in me, and further perfect my knowledge and powers in this connection than you could give up writing the weekly baby Column. It is all one story.10

King seized the opportunity to capture the 1000 post-war wives and babies bound for Australia. He saw the five sailings per week as laboratories where his rapidly trained apostles could spread the gospel of 'saving the babies'. Truby, Miss Pattrick and her team turned young ships' doctors into their missionaries in quick time.

By the autumn of 1919 Truby King had had enough. His secondment was finished and the English were beginning to embrace his ideas, although not as fast as he would have liked. He was under pressure to spread the gospel as he returned. The Governor-General of South Africa requested he return via the Cape. The wife of the Governor of Victoria insisted he come to Melbourne. He compromised, delegating the South African trip to his trusty Scottish nurse Miss Paterson, who had worked with him in Warsaw. On her page 163 arrival in New Zealand she would become the bane of Truby's existence, trying unsuccessfully to get him to finish his book on infant feeding and care for the medical profession. He never did.

He arrived in Melbourne at the end of November to be greeted by a civic reception from the Lord Mayor. His speech, 'Key to the Future of Australia', is worth examining for what he had absorbed in two dismal years in England without Bella.

You want to keep Australia white; but if you find the Eastern nations more moral, nobler and more willing to make sacrifices for the continuity of the race, you know the results must be the same as has been the case with great civilisations of the past. Greece and Rome went down, not through any failure in the valour and courage of their young men, but because of the increase of luxury, the repugnance to rearing families, followed by decadence and sterility and eventual extinction. If the population of Australia does not do its duty to the race then there cannot be any resistance to other races coming in and populating this fair land.

To produce a hardy virile race, it is necessary that the young womanhood of Australia be re-taught lessons which have come to be regarded as old-fashioned. Mothers must be taught the nature of the education which they must give to their children. Ever)' girl ought to be brought up with the realisation that she cannot afford to live for herself alone; that she is part of an infinite past and an infinite future. She should be taught how to safeguard that which has been given her — a miraculous body with the power to reproduce — so that the next generation might be better than the one that has gone before. A woman should be safer, happier and healthier in pregnancy than at any other period of her life.

Education is, for instance, vitally necessary with regard to the care of the teeth. Few people realise that when an infant is born its first set of teeth are already formed in the gums and that the state of those teeth depends very much on the health of the mother during pregnancy. There is hardly a person today who is not deficient to some extent with page 164 regard to teeth, jaws, palate or nasal region — the whole region by which our bodies must be nourished. Decay of the teeth is one of the gravest diseases of mankind.

The happiest children, [he pointed at a chart of infant death-rates] are those born into large families, and there is something radically wrong where we find that families of the present generation are so much smaller than those of the past. If girls were properly instructed, they would acquire the right ideals and be proud to become mothers. Neglect on the part of mothers today arises mostly through thoughtlessness, and lack of imagination regarding life's true values. There is nothing worse for our girls than going night after night to picture shows. A certain amount of recreation in this way is beneficial, but the confirmed 'picture fan' does not make for her own future happiness nor for the future greatness of her State.11

What the audience in Melbourne thought of that is not recorded. Here we find two new themes entering the King lexicon: the care of teeth, and the obsession with picture shows. 'Teeth' came about via King's meeting at Cannes with Dr Wells of the British Lister Institute, who were leaders in nutritional research. How Truby became agitated about the influence of movies on children is unclear. In 1921 he published under the Plunket banner a fifteen-page pamphlet 'Picture Shows — Their Evil Effects on Children and the Need for Reform, Regulation and Control'. This purported to be a discussion of resolutions passed at the 1920 Plunket conference, but was in essence Truby's stage-managed crusade against moving pictures, featuring 'An open letter by Dr Truby King'. It is presented in Appendix Six.

On a more sane note, Truby King's addresses around Australia resulted in the setting up of committees with the 'Welfare of Mother and Child' as their motto.

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1 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 232.

3 Ibid., p. 233.

4 Ibid., p. 234.

5 Ibid., p. 234.

6 Ibid., p. 243.

7 Ibid., p. 245.

8 Ibid., p. 255.

9 Ibid., p. 264.

10 Ibid., p. 277.

11 Ibid., p. 281.