20 April 2011

Bad meat and bad blood

Seacliff Asylum in 1910 © Turnbull Library

In 1893 a dispute between staff and the superintendent of Otago's Seacliff Lunatic Asylum led to disquiet in Dunedin. Public clamour for an inquiry into the management of the asylum led to a petition to Parliament, making the Seacliff case an example of the parliamentary petitions process bringing a local debate, of equal parts bad blood and bad meat, onto the national stage.


The young province of Otago, its booming economy fuelled by gold revenue and rapid immigration, quickly established a facility to house and treat ‘lunatics’ separately from incarcerated criminals.[1] Built on the site presently occupied by Otago Boys High School, the Dunedin Lunatic Asylum opened in 1863. It soon found its capacity sorely stretched by a considerably greater than anticipated number of patients. A larger facility was called for.

The eventual erection of the country’s largest lunatic asylum – indeed, the country’s largest building at that time – at Seacliff approximately 30 kilometres north of Dunedin, was an attempt to provide greater space for the accommodation of the mentally ill, while at the same time removing them from the centre of town life – a case of 'out of mind, out of sight'. The asylum also had 900 acres of associated farmland, so the patients would be afforded the beneficial disciplines of physical work, while at the same time off-setting the cost of their incarceration through the fruits of their agricultural labour.

In April 1889 Frederic Truby King, a talented 41 year-old Taranaki man with well-regarded Scottish qualifications in the relatively new field of the treatment of mental illnesses, was appointed superintendent at Seacliff. While he was later to become famous for his work in child health reform and for the establishment of the Plunket Society, Truby King’s years as Seacliff’s superintendent and his associated lecturing in mental diseases at the University of Otago also allowed him to stamp his authority on the formative years of New Zealand mental health practice.

The extremely detailed annual reports of the Inspector of Asylums, Dr Duncan McGregor, provide a volume of information relating to mental health treatment in the 1890s. The report for 1892 shows that the total number of registered insane persons in New Zealand at the close of that year was 1917: 1154 males and 763 females. Of these patients, 537 (28.0 percent) were housed at Seacliff. The institution also dealt with a broader ethnic cross-section of patients than in other institutions, counting among its 1893 patient population, for example, 15 Germans and 12 Chinese (all males).[2]

The operation of state-funded lunatic asylums required a great attention to detail, from both the superintendents charged with the duties of running the institutions, and from the Inspector himself. The Inspector noted in his report the complications of providing elaborate mental health facilities from a small public purse:

The prospect of my being able to provide separate accommodation for idiots, criminal lunatics and inebriates is I am afraid still very uncertain. It is a very heavy burden for a young colony to provide such accommodation for these classes as modern public sentiment demands, especially where as with us the whole cost falls on the Consolidated Fund.[3]

Indeed, despite the revenue raised by Seacliff’s farming operations, the cost of running Seacliff was by far the greatest of the six public asylums operating. It cost £13,270 19s 1d for the year 1893, when Auckland, the next largest establishment, cost £9,561 7s.[4]

Truby King, a vigorous and lively authoritarian figure, enjoyed the challenges inherent in dealing with the mentally ill – indeed, in his dotage he was known to rue the lack of contact with patients that he so valued. His liveliness has been frequently noted:

…King himself was a man who thrived on disorder. He ate at irregular times, paid no attention to the state of his attire, left travel plans to the last minute, was careless with money (once being declared bankrupt), talked interminably on his latest enthusiasm to anyone who would listen, and was impatient with opposition. There were many who found this total engagement with his latest mission attractive, while others found him irritating and eccentric.[5]

The Seacliff Diet

Superintendent Truby King devoted much of his efforts to refurbishing and modernising the Seacliff facilities, to improve the treatment and accommodation of his patients. One key early reform he initiated was the modification of patients’ diets and the cooking arrangements at Seacliff. First, cooking was centralised in a single kitchen in order to save on staff salaries. Second, the amount of meat available to patients was reduced (from an unlimited amount available, at every meal), and the availability of a broader range of vegetables was ensured. This caused public concern that patients were being starved to ensure their placidity. Truby King refuted these complaints, arguing that ‘the consumption of flesh by the insane should be limited … because it is desirable to lessen rather than to foster the animal propensities’.[6] The success of this measure was such that ‘the superintendents of other asylums were quick to follow suit, and by 1906 King’s dietary pattern was the norm throughout New Zealand asylums’.[7]

Changes made by Truby King to the kitchens at Seacliff had a beneficial effect on patient wellbeing. However, it seems food provided to staff was not always received with uniform approval.

The strange case of attendants Arundel, Impey and Clark

A discussion of the Seacliff diet is germane to the petition of Richard Brinsley and 1518 others, calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the management of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. David Pinkerton MP, one of the three representatives of the City of Dunedin electorate, presented the petition to Parliament on 28 September 1893.[8] The petition made no specific mention of James Arundel, Matthew Impey and John Clark, attendants at Seacliff, but Truby King’s dismissal of these men as a disciplinary measure for insubordination was the impetus for the creation of a sizeable petition to Parliament, and led to a fiery debate in the House of Representatives. In this fashion a seemingly minor dispute originating in a staff canteen entered the national political arena. It all began in the Seacliff kitchen.

An Inquiry by the Inspector of Asylums

On 23 November 1892 staff at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum were served a dinner that was, by all accounts, of inferior quality. It was later reported that ‘there was a good deal of dissatisfaction on account of the fact that the meat, of which the quality was always good, was often underdone, according to the taste of the majority of the attendants’.[9]

Some staff had long been nursing grievances about continually receiving poor cuts of meat from the asylum kitchen, but on this occasion a broader range of staff expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of the victuals provided. A dispute arose after a particularly vocal member of staff, James Arundel, made a complaint directly to the superintendent about the standards of food provided by the kitchen. In the dining room, tempers flared: Stanley Blacklaws, when serving a plate of fish, was accosted by attendants. The serving plate suffered the ignominious fate of being flung out the window to its destruction. Also, a dining room tablecloth was discovered to have three parallel rents of three or four inches in length, presumably from an attendant’s knife. Heated exchanges between certain staff and the superintendent resulted in a petition being circulated amongst attendants, although the contents and signing of the petition proved controversial. Later, three attendants were dismissed from employment at the asylum, and substantial numbers signed a public petition calling for an inquiry into Seacliff.

A seemingly exhaustive series of interviews with Seacliff staff, conducted by Dr McGregor in the high summer of 1892-93, tap into the disquiet of the incident. A copy of the memorandum signed by 25 Seacliff attendants is appended to the report. In it, staff outlined their complaints against the victuals provided, and against their superintendent’s handling of these complaints. The memorandum criticises several aspects of the food provided by Seacliff’s kitchens, and contests Truby King’s notion that statements made by attendant Impey in conveying these concerns were fictitious: ‘[Truby King] states that the discontent emanates from a very small number of malcontents, who have been a short time in the service; further, that we have no just causes for complaint’.[10]

In the Inspector’s hearing, Truby King frequently cross-examined his staff, eliciting statements from many attendants similar to that of James McConkey:

I am an attendant. I signed the petition [to the superintendent] merely to show we were unanimous about the food. I did not hear any expressions said to be used by Dr King. I did not hear [Dr King] call any of them “liars”. Dr King has never behaved harshly or tyrannically to me.[11]
Most witnesses at the hearings agreed Truby King addressed the concerns raised by staff regarding the dinner offerings on the evening in question. However, by generating the petition, questioning the superintendent’s authority and calling for an apology, Arundel, Impey and Clark were deemed inappropriate for employment as lunatic asylum attendants. In his summation of the inquiry, the Inspector noted that:

The dismissal of all three was justifiable and necessary; and the evidence is conclusive that the Doctor treats the attendants with every consideration. I cannot conclude without saying that in all my experience I have never known of a more deliberate and skilful attempt to make mischief in a public institution on the basis of such a frivolous grievance.[12]
Despite the finality of this verdict, the dismissal of the three attendants did not bring a close to the asylum controversy. On 13 July 1893 David Pinkerton MP moved a successful motion to place the extensive record of the inquiry hearings before the House. The details of staff grievances were therefore placed firmly in the public gaze. Vindication of Truby King’s handling of the matter must surely have been tempered by the publication of incendiary assertions such as those of another departed attendant, Sidney Maxwell. In his statement Mr Maxwell notes that:

I am afraid one of Dr King’s weak points is his inability to grasp and lay square the corner-stone, to speak illustratively, of his utter want of tact in dealing with the attendants. And until Dr King realises this essential feature in his government of the institution, it will be hopeless for him to succeed in superintending the asylum without clashing with the attendants in any other way than is indicated by the partial and sycophantic report that, somehow or other, he succeeds year after year in obtaining.[13]
A report including such censure can hardly act as total vindication of Truby King. A total of 1425 copies were made of the report, at a total cost of £13 10s: a substantial publication by either contemporary or current standards.

A debate in the House 

The publication of the official vindication of the attendants’ dismissal did not bring a close to public questioning of lunatic asylum policy and management. Seeking to capitalise on an issue of local importance, Henry Smith Fish MP, one of three MPs representing the City of Dunedin electorate, initiated a debate in the House on 1 September 1893. Fish enquired to the Premier:

Whether he is aware that, since Dr McGregor’s appointment as Inspector of Hospitals and Lunatic Asylums, at least five hundred employees in the latter department have either been dismissed or voluntarily left the service, and can he explain why if this is so?[14]
Fish also went on to decry the Inspector’s management of asylum attendants, drawing attention to the dismissal of one particular matron in Wellington, a Miss Finch, and arguing that he was ‘…free to confess his belief that a large number of the dismissals and voluntary retirements from the service only arose from one reason, and that was on account of the tyrannical and overbearing management by Dr McGregor of these institutions’.[15] Fish went on to lambast the £1200 salary paid to McGregor, pointing out that it was ‘£200 in excess of the amount received by the Premier of the country, and larger than that paid to any other Civil servant under the Crown’.[16]

The Hon William Pember Reeves, replying on behalf of the Premier, disagreed with criticism of McGregor, pointing out that turnover of 500 staff in seven and a half years should be seen in the context of a total staff of nearly 250. Many of the departees had left the service voluntarily, or because of their unsuitability for asylum work. In Reeves’ opinion ‘he had never seen a Civil servant of whom he had a higher opinion than he had of [McGregor]’, and ‘there was no more enthusiastic, skilful or devoted public servant in the service of the colony’.[17]

Among other members taking the call on the topic, Mr Fish’s fellow Dunedin representative David Pinkerton MP spoke briefly to draw the House’s attention to the preparation of a petition dealing with the matters being addressed by the House. Later, William Hutchison MP, the third Dunedin representative to speak, endorsed Fish’s criticisms of McGregor and called for a review of the practice of inquiring into asylum performance. Despite pointing out that he was a ‘personal friend’ of McGregor, Hutchison also questioned the worthiness of the attendants’ hearings being conducted with only McGregor and Truby King in attendance, and argued that ‘there ought to be persons representing all classes of the community present at inquiries of that sort’.[18]

To this, Eugene O’Conor (MP for Buller) noted that the debate in question was a ‘very great waste of time’; adding the cryptic statement that ‘it was unfortunate for the chief officer of the lunatic asylums in the colony that he was related to a member of that House who came from the same locality as the honourable member for Dunedin City, and who did not agree with him’.[19] Two other members attacked Hutchison’s notion of a broader range of classes of individuals conducting asylum inquiries, with Captain William Russell Russell (MP for Hawke’s Bay) asking ‘did anybody imagine for an instant that anyone without special knowledge of the subject could do much good by merely visiting the lunatic asylums?’, while Hon Thomas Fergus (MP for Wakatipu) savaged the idea of appointing ‘half a dozen nobodies to go out and interfere with the management of the various lunatic asylums throughout the country’.[20]

The debate closed after a lengthy rejoinder from Fish, laced with a whiff of scandal. He urged the House to observe the practices and occurrences at Seacliff:

Let them look at the inquiry last year [i.e. into the dismissal of Arundel, Impey and Clark]. Let them recollect the connection of the official head of the department with those interested in that inquiry. Let them recall the incident that took place in the railway carriage between the head of the department and the gentleman who was going to make the inquiry.[21]

With these unverifiable accusations aired, the debate adjourned.

A petition to the House

On Thursday, 28 September 1893 the public petition foreshadowed by Pinkerton was presented to Parliament. Presented in the name of Richard Brinsley by Pinkerton himself, the petition included 1519 signatures. The resulting Parliamentary debate the following day gave rise to heated disagreements in the House, and old enmities quickly emerged to the detriment of good order, as reported by the Otago Witness:

…Mr Fish followed [Mr Pinkerton,] urging an inquiry, and pointing to the very large number of dismissals of officials. Sir Robert Stout had not quite heard what [Fish] had said; whereupon Mr Fish said it would be better for the knight if he kept his ears open, and ‘it would be better if you kept your mouth closed’ said Mr O’Conor [MP for Buller]. The member for Buller of course withdrew, Mr Fish telling the House pathetically that either Sir Robert or Mr O’Conor was always offending against the rules of good taste and etiquette.[22]
Parliament took no action as a result of the petition. Perhaps this was an early case of labour agitation against a high-handed employer: after all, David Pinkerton was prominent in the Dunedin union movement. But despite the complaints made against his management of the asylum, Truby King remained in charge of Seacliff for another 27 years. He went on to found the Plunket Society, which has been devoted to promoting the health and wellbeing of babies and children since 1907. At his death in 1938, Truby Smith was accorded the honour of being the first New Zealand private citizen to be accorded a State funeral.


The word ‘lunatic’ was in common and formal usage at this time.  Its usage only declined after the passing of the Mental Defectives Act 1911, which rejected such terminology.  Source: Oxford History of New Zealand, 2nd edn., 1992, p 267.
[2] Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1894, H-7, p 10.
[3] AJHR, 1893, H-4, p 1.
[4] AJHR, 1894, H-7, p 14.
[5] Brookes, B., ‘King, Frederic Truby 1858-1938’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 21 May 2002, www.dnzb.govt.nz.
[6] AJHR, 1891, H-29, p 3.
[7] Caldwell, C., ‘Truby King and the Seacliff Asylum 1889-1907’, in B Brookes & J Thomson (eds.) ‘Unfortunate Folk’: Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992, Dunedin, 2001.
[8] The day on which the Electoral Law Amendment Bill, which granted women’s suffrage, was read a second time in the Legislative Council.
[9] AJHR, 1893, H-29, p 1.
[10] AJHR, 1893, H-29, p 15.
[11] AJHR, 1893, H-29, p 11.
[12] AJHR, 1893, H-29, p 1.
[13] AJHR, 1893, H-29, p 18.
[14] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 549.
[15] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 550.
[16] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 550.
[17] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 552.
[18] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 555.
[19] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 556.
[20] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 557-8.
[21] Hansard, 1 September 1893, p 560.
[22] Otago Witness, 5 October 1893, p 19.  Obtained from http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

[This article is an edited version of a research project I undertook in 2004, but which was not published at the time]
Post a Comment