A Victorian heroine

Mary Graves (nee Leslie) with her daughters Sarah (left) and Barbara (right). Photo courtesy of Annie Wrigley.

Mary Leslie (1863-1927) was a true working-class battler; she is one of my historical heroines. A recent visit to a remarkable medical museum – of which more later – brought her to mind. In 1890 Mary gave birth to a daughter in New Zealand’s first ‘successful’ Caesarean section; that is, one in which both mother and baby survived. I told her story in my history of childbirth, but I think it deserves to be better known. A word of warning though – anybody squeamish might like to stop reading now!

Mary, a servant from rural Aberdeenshire, arrived in Otago in 1884 as an assisted migrant. I am suspicious that she may have been pregnant on arrival. Some unmarried women managed to hide their pregnancy from immigration officers and thus escape from an intolerable situation at home, perhaps banished by their family, rejected by a lover or escaping a bad relationship. Unfortunately no admission records for Dunedin Hospital from this period survive, but at some stage after arriving in Otago Mary gave birth there. Hospital birth, like all hospital care, was reserved for the destitute in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Most women gave birth in their own home, assisted by a midwife or doctor, and many of the women who gave birth in hospital were unmarried servants who had no other place to turn. It was perhaps just as well that Mary did attend the hospital, where expert medical care was available, for all did not go well. She had a very narrow pelvis and the labour was obstructed: she could not give birth naturally. She therefore underwent the most common procedure used in this period when a woman could not deliver her baby: a craniotomy. Essentially, this horrific procedure involved the doctor introducing instruments into the womb and crushing the baby’s head so it could be delivered. The baby inevitably died but the mother’s life was often, though not always, saved.

In 1890 Mary, by now 26 years old and a servant in the Catlins, South Otago, was again pregnant. She came back to Dunedin and was admitted to the Otago Benevolent Institution (this now housed the lying-in ward for destitute women, which had previously been at the hospital). When her labour failed to progress, she was fortunate to come under the care of Dr William Stenhouse. Stenhouse had been for some time uneasy at the use of ‘destructive’ operations, as they were sometimes called, in obstructed labour. The Caesarean section was obviously a better option for the baby, but considered highly dangerous due to its very high mortality for mothers; it was generally only performed as a last resort when the mother was already close to death. Stenhouse resolved that when ‘a favourable case’ came before him, he would recommend a Caesarean rather than a craniotomy. Mary Leslie proved to be that ‘favourable case’: she was a strong and healthy woman who had previously required a very long operation to deliver her baby. She left the choice between craniotomy and Caesarean to Stenhouse. Of course, she lacked any real power in this situation, for she had no support people and was completely dependent on him and the Benevolent Institution for help. Stenhouse, with the assistance of two other doctors and a midwife, went ahead with the Caesarean and Mary and her daughter both survived the procedure. We know a lot about this incident because Stenhouse wrote a detailed article about it for the New Zealand Medical Journal, as part of his campaign to promote the Caesarean section as a viable option. It was a wee while before Caesarean section picked up in popularity, but by the mid-1930s over 100 New Zealand babies were born this way each year. I suspect William Stenhouse would be rather surprised, though, to see how very commonplace it later became, with Caesareans now accounting for around a quarter of New Zealand births.

I don’t know what became of Mary and her baby, named Barbara, immediately after their discharge from the Institution, six weeks after the birth, and neither do her descendants, but three years later she was working as a housekeeper in the Wakatipu district. There she married John Graves, a gardener and rabbiter. After her marriage Mary gave birth to two further daughters; Jane died at eight days but Sarah survived. Sadly for Mary, her troubles were not over, for her husband John died three years later, leaving her with two young daughters to support alone. She continued working in the Wakatipu and Cromwell districts in domestic positions until she died of heart problems in 1927, aged 64. Her family remembered her as a woman who worked hard all her life. Much of Mary’s story remains hidden. The fathers of her first two children are completely absent from the surviving records or her descendants’ knowledge, and neither do we know how she delivered her youngest two babies.

I see Mary as a heroine because she was willing to put her own life at risk and undergo a dangerous and somewhat experimental operation in order that her unborn baby’s life would not be sacrificed. When we consider the difficulties that a destitute unmarried woman could expect in bringing up a child during this era her decision seems even braver. Ironically, the survival of both Mary and her baby resulted from her dire social situation. Had she not been forced to turn to the Benevolent Institution for charity her baby, and perhaps Mary also, would have died. Though institutional childbirth carried its own dangers, for institutions were prone to outbreaks of puerperal fever, such places could also offer skilled care to birthing women. The annual reports of medical officers of the Otago Benevolent Institution sang the praises of Lucy Mee, who was the wife of the institution’s manager and ran the lying-in ward, serving as midwife. Expert medical care was also at hand. This was a much higher level of care than might be received by a poor woman who could not afford to employ a doctor or midwife, and depended on a friendly neighbour for assistance at a birth.

Set of Simpson’s forceps, Cotter Medical History Museum.

While in Christchurch recently I visited the Cotter Medical History Museum, where I saw some of the medical equipment available in Mary’s time. This collection started with artefacts and archives collected by Christchurch surgeon Pat Cotter, with material added by many other donors since. It is managed as a trust, with a group of enthusiastic volunteers (mostly retired healthcare workers). It has display cases around various Christchurch sites – I saw some at the medical school building – with the main collection store at Hillmorton Hospital. Bramwell Cook, a retired gastroenterologist who is an expert on the collection’s historical instruments, kindly assembled and described for me some of the childbirth-related items. These really brought home to me the horrors faced by nineteenth-century women who encountered problems giving birth. The most benign items are the obstetrics forceps, with design slowly improving through the years. Less benign – and now, thankfully, obsolete – is Frommer’s dilator, dating from around the early twentieth century. This was used to dilate the cervix in cases where an urgent delivery was required; if a woman had eclampsia, for instance. Once the cervix was sufficiently dilated the doctor used forceps to deliver the baby as quickly as possible. The major problem with dilators was the high risk of laceration. As Caesarean section became safer, it took over from ‘accouchement forcé’ (as it was politely known) for emergency deliveries.

Frommer’s eight-pronged cervical dilator, shown expanded. From the Cotter Medical History Museum collection.
Perforators at the Cotter Medical History Museum.

Perhaps the saddest instruments in this collection, though, are those designed for craniotomy, sometimes known as embryotomy or perforation. This is the operation Mary Leslie underwent at Dunedin Hospital in the 1880s. It could be a tricky process, with Mary spending 9 hours under chloroform for her procedure. As Bramwell Cook writes in his fascinating book on the items held by the Cotter Medical History Trust: ‘Destructive instruments were kept by every accoucheur for the 1 in 400 deliveries that they were required to save the life of the mother.’ They included perforators for piercing the baby’s cranium and crochets for taking a hold inside the cranium ‘to seize and extract’ it. If a crochet couldn’t do the job, a cranioclast or cephalotribe might be used to further crush the skull. The horrific decapitating hook was, thankfully, ‘very rarely required’; it might be used to cut up a dead unborn child lying crossways in the womb and unable to be turned.

A crochet and hook from the Cotter Medical History Museum collection.
Ramsbotham’s decapitating hook, from the Cotter Medical History Museum collection.

No wonder William Stenhouse and others were keen to promote the use of Caesarean section for emergency and obstructed deliveries! My thanks to Bramwell Cook and the other friendly volunteers of the Cotter Medical History Trust for their help. I am also grateful to Annie Wrigley, Mary Leslie’s great granddaughter, who got in touch with me after my book was published and kindly shared the photograph (which we managed to sneak into the e-book version!).


H. Bramwell Cook, Silent treasures tell their stories: Cotter Medical History Trust collection, 2nd ed. (Christchurch: Cotter Medical History Trust, 2012).

William M. Stenhouse, ‘Successful Case of Cesarean Section’, New Zealand Medical Journal, 3 (1890), 225-30. [This article describes Mary Leslie as ‘ML’ – I identified her through the Otago Benevolent Institution Inmates Book at Archives New Zealand Dunedin Regional Office.]

Biographical details of Mary Graves (nee Leslie) from birth, death and marriage registrations, Otago Southland Assisted Passengers list, Otago Benevolent Institution Inmates Book, family information, obituary (Cromwell Argus, 25 July 1927).

First footers and Christmas pudding

Plum pudding
Can label from Dunedin’s Irvine & Stevenson’s St George Company, 1890s-1940s. Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Eph-B-FOOD-1940s-01

Over on the History interests and publications page I’ve attached the text of a talk I gave at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum on the history of Christmas, New Year and Easter in nineteenth-century Dunedin. It considers how colonists from different ethnic and religious backgrounds adopted and adapted their holiday customs to fit with their new cultural and physical environment. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

The quest for black bun

OW 21 Dec 1899 p 57
Recipe from the Otago Witness, 21 December 1899, p.57, from Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

Will you be eating black bun this New Year? I’ll be trying this Scottish delicacy for the first time, having just done a little research on its history in New Zealand. It all started when somebody asked me if I’d be mentioning black bun in a talk I’m giving soon about seasonal festivities in nineteenth-century Dunedin. Michael mentioned that his grandmother and aunts made it as ‘the proper thing to eat at New Year’. I hadn’t come across it previously, so this got me curious and I set out on my quest for black bun.

A straw poll at work revealed that New Zealanders under 60 haven’t heard of black bun. When I checked with my mother, she couldn’t recall it ever being made in our family, but remembered a Scottish migrant friend, Flora, making it and commenting that most New Zealanders didn’t like its peppery taste! I ventured to Wikipedia, which informed me that black bun only acquired that name in 1898 – it was more often known as Scotch bun until more recent times. I’m happy to say that the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed Wikipedia’s date, defining black bun as ‘a rich fruit cake in a pastry case, eaten esp. in Scotland at New Year’.

Armed with this alternative name, I found plenty of references in old New Zealand newspapers. The earliest advertising I’ve found so far is from 1868, when Dunedin pastry cook and confectioner J. Proud included Scotch bun and shortbread among the items he offered for sale for Christmas and New Year. Five years later a Scotch Bun featured as third prize in a ‘Christmas gift enterprise’ draw, run by Parnell confectioner Charles Burton (in case you’re wondering, first prize was a wedding cake, with a gold wedding ring inserted, and second was an iced cake). Advertising was often directed at Scottish migrants, as when William Hogg of Whanganui, a district with a significant Scottish population, had on view for his ‘Brither Scots … several samples of their favourite dish’ in time for New Year 1897.

Scotch/black bun sometimes appeared among food items entered into competitions at A & P shows, or as an item for sale in Scottish-themed stalls at fundraising events. At a ‘pageant fair’ in Palmerston North in 1912 the Scottish stall was ‘filled with many fascinating wares such as snowy table linen, Scotch woollen goods, shortbread and most dainty sweetmeats. Also Scotch bun which sold very readily, owing to its novelty’. In the same year Scotch bun featured at a Burns supper in Glenham, Southland: ‘Oat cake, Scotch bun, and haggis were among the national viands prepared for the guests’ delectation’. Evidently in New Zealand it featured when a distinctly Scottish dish was required, and not only at New Year.

Ellesmere Guardian 19 Oct 1937 p5
The account of a Women’s Institute meeting in Brookside, Canterbury, shows how Scotch bun sometimes appeared at Scottish-themed events in New Zealand. From the Ellesmere Guardian, 19 October 1937, p.5, on Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

New Zealand newspapers published recipes for Scotch bun. The recipe at the top of this post appeared in the Otago Witness several times in the 1890s. It was for an older version of the bun, where fruit and spices were added to three-quarters of a buttery bread dough mix, which was then wrapped in the remaining plain dough. Later recipes called for a rich fruit cake mix to be cooked in a pastry case. Four such recipes appeared in the ‘information exchanged’ section of the New Zealand Herald women’s page in 1935, in response to a request from Mrs D.M. of Epsom. The readers who responded were Mrs D. Robb of Bay of Plenty, Mrs Kelly of Epsom, Mrs R.H.S. of Opotiki and ‘Interested’ of East Tamaki, ‘who has been married to a Scot for 11 years’. The latter confessed that she usually omitted the pepper, one of the distinctive features in the traditional recipe, and two of the other recipes made no mention of pepper.

Hutt News 13 Dec 1928 p2
Recipe from the Hutt News, 13 December 1928, p.2. From Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand

Some might suggest that only Scotland, home of the deep-fried Mars bar, could create a recipe combining a rich cake with pastry! It is, however, a very old dish, and it is likely that the pastry was once discarded. A 1904 article in the Mataura Ensign, on ‘a quaint New Year custom’ in the ‘Land o’ Cakes’, noted that Scotch bun was ‘ensconced in a crust which is not eaten’. In medieval times many foods were cooked in pastry (or ‘paste’) that wasn’t intended for consumption – in the absence of fire-proof containers, it was simply a case in which to cook things. That may well explain this recipe. The pastry case of course helped retain moisture and made the cake longer-lasting. Like Christmas cake it improved with keeping and in 1939 Wellington’s Evening Post included a recipe for Scotch bun among those recommended as ‘transportable fare for soldiers’.

Scottish folklorist Marian McNeill suggested black bun had originally been ‘the Scottish Twelfth Cake’, eaten on Twelfth Night, the last of the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ (6 January). As Otago anthropologist Helen Leach and her co-authors explain in their wonderful book on the history of Christmas cakes, this modern Christmas delicacy evolved out of an older twelfth cake tradition. Sadly they make no mention of black/Scotch bun in this book (I can, however, personally recommend its recipe for Howick Christmas cake, with its ‘secret’ ingredient of blackcurrant jam!). In Scotland, where the religious holiday of Christmas fell out of favour after the reformation, many of the festive aspects of the season shifted to New Year, and Scotch bun seems to have been one of them.

On Hogmanay – New Year’s Eve – food treats were often associated with first footing. There’s a great description of first footing in the Catlins district in the diary of Charles Hayward. He was an English ship’s captain who settled in the south and married a Scottish migrant; he commented in his diary on the goings-on of this largely Scottish community. At New Year 1866 Hayward wrote:

Robt & I were out early this morning, to take the round of the Flat to wish them all a happy New Year, this though not practised in England, is the regular custom in Scotland, and is called the first footing. The person calling must manage to be at the house or houses at which he intends to call as early as possible to prevent being forestalled by anyone else, and he is also supposed to take with him a bottle of spirits and a piece of cake, and to help everyone in the house to the same.

In their history of the Scots in New Zealand, Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon note seed-cakes, buns and shortbread as traditional foods served on the traditional occasion of Hogmanay. They were part of a fondness for baking among the Scots, whose major contribution to New Zealand cuisine may have been ‘an overdeveloped fondness for sweet things and baked good of all kinds’, suggest Patterson and co. The ‘Land o’ cakes’ has a lot to answer for!

First footing probably didn’t survive much past the first generation or two of Scottish migrants in most parts of New Zealand, though it lasted longer in some families and a few communities. I suspect the same applies to Scotch/black bun, which became a curiosity to most New Zealanders.

Black bun mixture in the tin, waiting for its pastry lid.

In the interests of thorough research, I decided to have a go at making black bun myself. I selected a recipe in the cookbook put out by the Gaelic Society of New Zealand (now defunct, sadly) in 1998. Betty Ferguson contributed this recipe and it appealed to me as it had metric measurements and a good measure of whisky! It has all the classic ingredients, among them raisins, currants, peel, almonds, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper. The result looks and smells good. Now I’m waiting for it to mature so I can have my first taste of black bun, and inflict it on my family.

The finished product looks quite edible and smells good. I’m waiting for it to mature before the big taste test.

A big thank you to Michael Wallace who set me off on this quest. Do you have a black bun tradition in your family? If so, I’d love to hear about it!



Charles Hayward diary, AB-023, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.

Old New Zealand newspapers on Papers Past.

Celtic cookbook (Dunedin: Gaelic Society of New Zealand, 1998).

Helen Leach, Mary Browne and Raelene Inglis, The twelve cakes of Christmas: an evolutionary history, with recipes (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011).

F. Marian McNeill, The Scots kitchen: its traditions and lore with old-time recipes (London & Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1929)

F. Marian McNeill, The silver bough: a calendar of Scottish national festivals Hallowe’en to Yule (Glasgow, William Maclellan, 1961).

Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, From petticoat tails to Arbroath smokies: traditional foods of Scotland (London: HarperPress, 2007).

Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon, Unpacking the kists: the Scots in New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013).

William Sitwell, A history of food in 100 recipes (London: Collins, 2012).

Another blog!

Nau mai haere mai – welcome to my latest blog venture! I’ve been blogging for a couple of years at University of Otago 1869-2019 about my current major project, a 150th anniversary history of that university, and I also write the occasional post for The Hocken Blog, as I work there part-time. The inspiration to start the university history blog came from my experience with my previous book, Born to a changing world: childbirth in nineteenth-century New Zealand. After the book came out people got in touch with fascinating additional information on some of the women I’d written about, and helped me identify a photograph of a previously unidentified woman and baby. This brought home to me the value of sharing research before formal publication! Blogs are also handy for sharing stories that will probably never make it into print.

I’ve started this blog so I can share stories about some of my ‘other’ research – in other words, not the history of the university stuff. Sometimes it will be information relating to new projects, and sometimes something new on an older research topic (you can check out what my history interests are on the ‘historical interests‘ page). Sometimes posts will simply relate to some obscure topic or other I feel the urge to write about!

Happy reading, and your comments on anything I write here are most welcome.