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

Chapter Fifteen: A mausoleum in Melrose

Chapter Fifteen: A mausoleum in Melrose

In 1921 Truby King was appointed Director of Child Welfare. This signalled the end of his time at Seacliff and a transfer to Wellington, after thirty-two years at the asylum. In essence, this was a vote of confidence in both Truby King and the Plunket Society. For King, now sixty-two, it represented a chance to work with central government, closer to the seat of power, something that he'd not experienced before. To accommodate him, the Health Department had been divided into two: Public Health and Child Welfare. King's empire now extended from the time before birth to the end of a child's schooling. Notwithstanding his other positions and titles, the wheel had come full circle with his additional appointment as Inspector of Mental Asylums.

In April the family moved to 25 Tinakori Road, once Frances Hodgkins' house. As ever, Truby King was in debt, but this still did page 174 not deter him. Bella was seriously unwell and would only live for another six years. Mary King was now sixteen, had finished high school and was about to embark on a two-year kindergarten teacher training course, doubtless with Truby's fulsome approval, as he would have seen this as a 'suitable' occupation for a woman.

King had sold the Catlins farms but kept the cottage at Karitane. Scorning the advice of friends and colleagues, he bought ten acres of exposed gorse-covered hilltop at Melrose, in the extreme south of Wellington, near the Zoo, overlooking Evans and Lyall Bays, with a view north to the Hutt Valley. Today it overlooks the busy airport; in Truby's day it was a very long tram-ride from the centre of town, and by those who didn't understand Wellington's capricious weather was considered one of the finest building sites in the capital. On a bad day it might have been considered one of the windiest, most frightfully exposed hilltops in the country.

In 1923 a Plunket Mothercraft Home was opened in Wellington in the same premises as the Plunket Rooms. The capital lagged behind New Zealand's other cities without its own Karitane Hospital. Truby King would soon rectify that. Meanwhile, in his new position he was always on the move, talking to whoever would listen, visiting Health Camps, preaching the Plunket cause, or even ranting about the evils of forceps delivery of babies. Relations with his department were less than cordial. He had grown used to the autocracy of his fiefdom at Seacliff, where he was in sole command with little reporting responsibility or monitoring from his masters. Directing an empire in Wellington was significantly different, and King had to adjust his approach from the mentally disturbed to the more easily disturbed. His civil servants would find him difficult in the extreme, and he suffered a myriad of frustrations. Appointments to bodies including the Prisons Board and Mental Degeneracy and Sexual Perversion Committee began to weigh him down. His workload did not diminish, but his output began to slow. As Inspector-General of Mental Health, appointed in 1924, King's profligacy was famous. One year he was reported to have run up £900 in taxi fares; on other occasions, he was reported to have cashed valueless cheques at page 175 hospitals that he visited. Whether this was arrogance or absent-mindedness is not known.

The Rotary Club of Wellington was formed in the year after King's return to Wellington. An American creation, based on service to the community, Rotary has slowly permeated the western world, and in the new millennium has even found its way to Russia, Moldova and beyond. Some of its achievements are impressive, including a major role in the worldwide eradication of polio. The membership of the
Byron Brown and Truby King at the Otaki Health Camp, c. 1926. Health Camps proliferated in New Zealand from the 1920s, coming under King's influence as Director of Child Welfare in 1927. His relationship with Health Camp people was frequently strained.

Byron Brown and Truby King at the Otaki Health Camp, c. 1926. Health Camps proliferated in New Zealand from the 1920s, coming under King's influence as Director of Child Welfare in 1927. His relationship with Health Camp people was frequently strained.

page 176 fledgling Wellington club read like a Wlio's Who: Ewen, Gray Young, Harcourt, Kirkcaldie, Marsden, Myers, Norwood, Odlin, Parker, Roberts, Stewart, Vickery and Whitcombe were familiar names among the inaugural luminaries. The club sought speakers to inform, challenge and stimulate the members at their weekly meeting. Who better in their first year than Frederic Truby King?

King had not long been appointed Director of Child Welfare and was a frail and stooped figure, but his ability to win over an audience, honed by years of selling his 'save the babies' message, was as good as ever. The Rotary Club was an easy audience for him to flatter, challenge and win over. In his address, he convinced the assembled members that they should undertake a project of magnitude and importance: the funding of Wellington's own Karitane Hospital and Mothercraft Training Centre. No doubt Wellington's rich and influential went home that evening full of the wonders of Truby King and the need to build a hospital to serve the capital's mothers and babies. Their wives would have been impressed, if perhaps a little bemused at their husbands' apparent enthusiasm.

Gray Young, who would also design King's house, was to be the architect. The Rotary Club undertook to raise the money. Rotary is very good at fundraising, but this was a mammoth undertaking that would take fourteen years to complete. Truby's contribution was to donate one quarter of his four-hectare Melrose property for the Karitane Hospital. Of the £25,000 raised, the club contributed £2000, the balance coming from Rotary-organised public fundraising projects. Rotary would never undertake anything quite like this again.

The foundation stone was eventually laid by her excellency, Lady Alice Ferguson, on 28 July 1926. The Queen Mother opened the home nine years later. Meanwhile, King had commissioned Gray Young to design him a house and the adjacent Karitane Products factory at Melrose. Gray Young was born in Oamaru in 1885 and educated in Wellington. He was articled to Wellington architects Crighton and McKay straight from school. At the age of eighteen, Young had designed his first house, a home for his father in Kelburn. At twenty-one he won a competition for the design of Knox College, page 177 Dunedin, and shortly thereafter began practice on his own account.

His domestic buildings were in various styles including English domestic revival, Californian bungalow, colonial revival and neo-Georgian. He died in 1962, a partner in the influential practice of Gray Young, Morton, Young, Calder and Fowler (the practice lives on as Calder Fowler). In a career that spanned sixty years, Young designed over 500 buildings, the best-known being Scots College (1919), Wellesley Club (1925), Wellington Railway Station (1936), AMP Chambers (1950), Christchurch Railway Station (1954), and various parts of Victoria University — Stout (1930), Kirk (1938) and Easterfield (1957). One of his nicest buildings is the first Georgian-style house he designed, the 1913 Elliot House at 43 Kent Terrace, Wellington. This was the residence and consulting rooms of Sir James Elliott, physician to the Governor-General. Naturally Truby King chose to consult the Vice-Regal Doctor Elliott as his own physician, and through him he would have gained an appreciation of Gray Young's work.

The Karitane Maternity Hospital was appropriately scheduled to take nine months from conception to completion. The hospital was premature, but delivered without fuss, thanks to efficiency on the part of architect and builders. Gray Young saw the design as 'simplicity . . . coupled with dignity and repose ... to afford rest and relief to the mind and to the eye, as well as the body'.1 Truby King had envisaged 'a temple to motherhood, built with an intangible sense of refreshment, regeneration and recreation'.2 Young used architectural features akin to those of the Wellesley Club as well as the Truby King house. Situated on a knoll at the southern end of the Melrose property, the hospital is a long rectangular building with two right-angled wings projecting eastwards at each end, enclosing a grassed court. The nursery wing comprised three 'heating' zones: a warm ward for incubating premature babies, a cooler 'weakling' ward and a large nursery. Wide, north-facing folding doors opened onto a roofed verandah, where babies would get their fresh air, sunshine and other King-stipulated essentials. The mothercraft wing comprised a series of six bedrooms connected to a wide balcony. Nurses and staff page 178 accommodation made up the remainder. Later, after Truby King died, Gray Young would design extensions to the Karitane Hospital, adding a three-storey accommodation block in 1941. Then, with the Second World War imminent, the hospital and King's house were commandeered by the Army as a training establishment. Army huts were erected near the tennis court and the nurses' quarters became barracks. Had Truby King lived to see such sacrilege he would have undoubtedly had something sharp to say. The hospital finally closed in 1978, along with its five sister establishments. This building has since been used as budget accommodation, a 'new age' centre, and now, under the name Capital House, it functions as a conference facility.

The Karitane Products factory, designed by Gray Young, was built at the same time as King's house (total cost for house and factory was given as £5600,3 all coming from his perpetually empty pocket). How Truby existed in a state of financial disarray speaks volumes for his mana, and for the tolerance of his bankers. It was well known that all his published writings were produced at his own expense, with any income going to Plunket. He appeared to survive in a constantly mortgaged state, hardly bothered by it all, until periodically taken to task by the bank. The Karitane factory occupied a lower position on the side of the hill, approximately 100 metres from the hilltop residence. While King's house bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a state house, the Karitane factory was delightfully art deco. Gray Young had taken advantage of the sloping hillside to design a three-storey factory so the manufacturing process could make use of gravity. He incorporated parts of the bungalow style of King's house in the reinforced concrete, design but it is likely the art deco appearance was the result of substantial extensions in 1938, doubling the floor area.

In its heyday the factory employed four men, with eight women involved in packaging the Karitane products Karilac, Kariol and Karil. At the top of the stairs was a photo of Truby King, along with members of the Karitane Products board. Out the back was the 'tin plant', a separate factory run by Mr Ritchie, making metal containers for Karil and Kariol, which because of their oil content required more page 179 robust packaging. An extended account of Karitane Products appears in Appendix Four.

The King house at Melrose is described by some as 'American colonial character, modest and unpretentious, plain, weatherboarded structure with casement windows and low-pitched galvanised iron roof'.4 That its horizontal weatherboards have strong connotations of a State house is, perhaps, not surprising since Gray Young was responsible for a number of State house designs. Commentators agree on a 'skilful exploitation of the dramatic qualities of the site, particularly with the design of the verandah, porches and windows'.5

The house occupies the crest of the hill, with ground falling away on all sides. It comprised four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two toilets, formal living and dining room, library and kitchen. The south-facing library features a unique sliding sash window with a lowering mechanism that allowed Truby to indulge in his hobby of astronomy. This feature was added later, not appearing on the original plans, but has all the hallmarks of a King-inspired idea.

A feature of the interior was the jarrah flooring in the living-room and study, which King admired in 'Olveston', the Theomin residence in Dunedin. A Gray Young trademark is the wooden panelling in most rooms. The living-room featured a handsome inglenook with built-in sofas alongside. The long verandah had French doors opening into several rooms. The doors and windows give views of the harbour, hills and open seas. Originally the property was terribly exposed, so one of Truby and Mary's first tasks was the planting of pine trees on the lower slopes at the property's extremities. They now partially obscure what would once have been breathtaking, if well-ventilated, views.

The house was completed in 1924 when King was sixty-six. Truby and Mary moved in before the builders had completed their work, having lost yet another servant at Tinakori Road. This time the reason for departure was quoted by Mary as insanity.6 It is not recorded who fell victim, but presumably it was the servant. Bella, in the meantime, had been in hospital for several months. She arrived at Melrose in time to make and hang curtains.

In an attempt to minimise the wind's intrusion, Truby devised an page 180
Melrose — The House of Windows, facing East.

Melrose — The House of Windows, facing East.

ingenious set of sliding metal screens to protect against the prevailing wind without impairing the view. Borrowing the idea of expanded steel mesh, used with reinforced concrete, he positioned similar panels of mesh so that the wind was deflected, but the view through the holes in the mesh was not substantially reduced. These screens are no longer at the house.

Wellington's reputation for extremes of weather is thoroughly deserved, and Melrose on a bad day would have been the last place a sane person would want to be. Not King, who staunchly insisted that 'there was always one side of the building that was totally sheltered'7 Many people wryly recall visitors arriving with umbrellas that had been blown inside-out. On a good day the Melrose property would have been spectacular, with panoramic views in air clear enough to see forever. The rest of the time only King's insouciance would mitigate against the elements. When hosting the New Zealand Institute of Architects in 1925, he praised Gray Young 'for securing page 181 the maximum amount of fresh air and sunshine without inconvenience from the various winds'.8 Whether he had to shout this into a howling gale was not recorded.

With the house complete, there remained a nagging problem, but for Truby King not an insoluble one: an unsightly neighbouring property. Where lesser people might have positioned a tree to obscure the perceived eyesore, he purchased the house, rectified the elements he found objectionable, had it painted, split it into three flats and let them out. It is questionable whether the rentals received justified the outlay in expense, but Truby was satisfied.

In January 1925 Truby King received his knighthood, Bella King was ailing and Mary King had completed her kindergarten training. Truby, meanwhile, received plants ordered from all over the world for his garden. Rhododendrons came in quantity from the Hutt Valley, from Taranaki, from Dunedin, from Australia, England and Holland. Dan Russell, the full-time gardener, was kept busy planting under Sir Truby's direction. (His gardening exploits are detailed in the
King and Plunket acolytes on the Melrose verandah.

King and Plunket acolytes on the Melrose verandah.

page 182 following chapter.) Truby dispatched Mary to accompany a woman with a sick baby to South America, which had dire consequences for Mary's health, causing her to break her return journey in Scotland to recover from a tubercular attack.

Two years later Isabella King died of a cerebral haemorrhage. She had been unwell for the past five years or more. Truby buried her in Porirua Cemetery alongside an old friend. He immersed himself in work, but it was apparent that he was severely diminished by Bella's death. Mary reported: 'He showed little sign of outward sorrow, but he was a broken man. Only those who knew him well realised what he was suffering.'9

Black and wite photograph of Truby King smoking a cigarette.

1 Anene Cusins-Lewer, The Karitane Hospital in Wellington: Swaddled Babies and Muffled Walls', Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture, p. 4.

2 Ibid., p. 4.

3 Chris Cochran, 'Truby King House', Conservation Report, Wellington, 1992, p. 8.

4 Ibid., p. 14.

5 Boffa Miskell, Truby King Park Conservation and Management Plan, Wellington, 1992, p. 8.

6 King, Truby KingThe Man, p. 300.

7 Ibid., p. 310.

8 Cusins-Lewer, 'The Karitane Hospital in Wellington: Swaddled babies and Muffled Walls', p. 1.

9 King, Truby King — The Man, p. 306.