Giving Birth in the Early Days
1. The Sainsbury family.
Lavinia Smith, shown in the photo above, was born in 1852 and at 17 years old she married Egbert Sainsbury, a gold-miner. They lived at Sainsbury Terrace on Skippers Road for 25 years. Lavinia gave birth to 13 children. When the photo above was taken, their eldest daughter had died. They later had two more children.
Maternity services have been on our minds recently. The former maternity hospital in Sydney Street, Queenstown which served us well from 1947 to 1989, has just been demolished. It was a homely cottage-style hospital which closed when the hospital at Frankton was rebuilt with a maternity wing. Also this autumn our community midwives and their supporters have marched in Queenstown, protesting at their clearly inadequate pay.
Now let’s look back in time.
In 1862 when Mrs Mary Flint, wife of shepherd James, was expecting her first child, the question arose what to do if the birth was difficult. The entire population of Queenstown Bay was about 20 people including several other women, and the journey by lake and land from Invercargill was impossibly long for help to arrive. However, Nicholas von Tunzelmann, who owned what is now Mount Nicholas Station across the lake, was a qualified veterinarian, so he was invited to come and stay. In fact, the birth went well, and he wasn’t needed. The baby, named William Wakatipu Flint, was the first pakeha child born in the district.
During the gold-rush and thereafter, home births were the norm, sometimes unaided, but usually with assistance from other women, husbands, older children, and sometimes a doctor. Doctors charged fees for their services, but in many cases were never paid in money.
Some mothers from outlying areas such as Skippers and Macetown stayed in Arrowtown or Queenstown from late in pregnancy. Others might have intended to, but their babies arrived early, or as in this case the weather prevented travel from Bullendale, beyond Skippers: ‘When frozen snow prevented Mrs Jemima Cotter from travelling to Arrowtown for the birth of her baby, midwives assumed responsibility, ordering the prospective father, Tom Cotter, to boil water and keep out of the way. In due course, twin daughters were successfully delivered. That was a surprise for Jemima who did not know that she was carrying twins. Incidentally, Tom Cotter complained later that he was the only man sober in the town that night. All the others celebrated at Bullendale's Phoenix Hotel. After leaving Bullendale the Cotters brought up their twelve children in a small cottage opposite Skippers on a high promontory known as Packers Point. Because of her experience in childbirth, Jemima was sometimes called on to assist in delivering babies in the Skippers district.’ (‘Call the Doctor’ by Danny Knudson in Queenstown Courier magazine Issue 89 2013)
Jemima Cotter with four of her twelve children including the twin girls
The first midwives (originally meaning ‘with woman’) were local women who had no training but did have a skill, often from their own extensive experience in the days of multiple pregnancies. It was a case of ‘Call the Midwife’, and they would come at any time of day or night in any weather.
One of the early such midwives was Mrs Elizabeth Cockburn, as her granddaughter Mary Salmond relates: ‘A child would come knocking at the door on a stormy winter night with a message, “Mum wants you.” She would light her hurricane lamp, collect her bag, and probably a blanket to wrap the new-born babe in if the call was from one of the many very poor and ill-equipped households there were in those days and set off on foot. She was very proud of the fact that she had never lost a mother or child, and when legislation was passed in about 1905 that only certified midwives could attend births, she was most upset, and particularly heart-broken when she could not deliver her daughter’s last child because of this law.’ (QC Issue 2 1967) Because midwives sometimes stayed at the patient’s house after the birth to nurse the mother and baby and run the household, they could be away from home for days at a time. In Mrs Cockburn’s case, her daughter Sarah (later Salmond) left school at eleven years old in order to look after her father and siblings because her mother was so busy being a midwife (Dictionary of NZ Biography Vol 2 p.439) The first maternity homes were simply houses where the unofficial midwives could have several women staying. ‘The first three bedrooms one in Queenstown was opened by Mrs Catherine ‘Granny’ Philp in Athol Street. She had lived first in Arrowtown where she worked with Doctors Dutton and Thomson at the hospital there. She was still nursing in the 1930s.’ (Ibid) The last of the private maternity homes in Queenstown closed in 1944, and the Southland Hospital Board took over at ‘Tutuila’ which is now ‘Hulbert House.’ The Maternity Hospital in Sydney Street opened in 1947.
Midwife Catherine Philp
Unmarried mothers were in a very difficult situation both practically and socially. If the woman had a supportive family, her mother or a married aunt or sister would sometimes claim the child as her own. But friendless women were in dire straits. In 1875 one such woman, Kate Walders, a solo mother who worked at a hotel at Arthurs Point, was charged in the Queenstown District Court with concealment of a birth and infanticide. It was rumoured that she had thrown a new-born baby into the Shotover River. She pleaded not guilty. Doctor Douglas stated that although she had been pregnant, he could not swear that she had given birth to a live baby. The jury duly acquitted her. Not all such cases were so fortunate.
Now New Zealand’s maternal health care is much improved with low rates of mortality in childbirth and of new-borns compared to those early days. As our population grows, we will continue to call for more medical services in this district, and better pay for our well-trained, always-on-call midwives.
For more about early medical services, see articles in the Queenstown Courier magazine online at www.queenstownhistoricalsociety.org.nz. Go to Magazine Archives and search the index.
Always Plenty to Do – Women in the Wakatipu 1860-1920 published by Lakes District Museum Duncan, Alfred H. The Wakatipians first published in 1888, reprinted by Lakes District Museum Lake Wakatip Mail and Lake County Press September-October 1875 accessed from PapersPast www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
‘Salmond, Sarah’ Dictionary of NZ Biography Vol 2 1870-1900, Dept of Internal Affairs 1999
Photographs: Courtesy of the Lakes District Museum, Arrowtown
For more information visit: http://www.queenstownhistoricalsociety.org.nz