Beauty amidst the engines: railway station gardening competitions in New Zealand

AG Clarke (garden)
Alan Clarke (1900-1960), railwayman and gardener. From Clarke family collection.

This is a paper I presented at the New Zealand Historical Association Conference, Wellington, November 2019.

Railway stations have romance attached to them: they are places of meetings and partings and beginnings of adventures. But they can also be bleak and utilitarian, especially in rural or suburban locations. They are industrial, with huge engines roaring through and sheds for goods and rolling stock; every country station once had its animal yards. With all of that comes dirt and noise and odour; the grime was worse in the days of steam engines.

Railway Station
A postcard of Feilding Railway Station, c.1910, conveys the contrast between the industrial space of the railway station and the garden next to it. Ruth McIntyre Collection, Feilding Public Library.

Some men working for the New Zealand railways in the early and mid-1900s made valiant efforts to transform stations into attractive environments, for their own sakes and for the benefit of the travelling public. These endeavours were promoted by railway station garden competitions.



Alan Clarke and friend at Makarewa. From Clarke family collection.

My interest in this ‘brilliantly niche’ topic, as a colleague calls it, began with curiosity about my grandfather. Alan Clarke’s entire working life was with the railways as a clerk and eventually a stationmaster. These photographs show the garden he made in the gap between two single men’s huts at Makarewa, a few miles north of Invercargill, where he worked in the late 1920s. This extraordinary garden was located right next to the railway line and beside utilitarian buildings. The surroundings of railway huts were often scruffy. What prompted the creation of the Makarewa garden? Aesthetics probably played some part. Alan was quite a snappy dresser: if he had to live in a hut, he would make it a stylish one. More importantly, he grew up in a culture of working-class gardening. The Caversham project, which studied life in the working-class suburbs of southern Dunedin, revealed the huge extent of home gardening there – even renters with small sections cultivated substantial vegetable gardens.[1] A photo of Alan with his son outside their Ohakune railway house in the 1930s provides a glimpse of a productive back section.

Alan Clarke with son Ross (b.1936) in the garden of their railway house, Ohakune. Clarke family collection.

Home gardening was frequently gendered, as some Caversham study authors write: ‘Fathers often produced impressive vegetables to feed the family, while mothers grew flowers and ornamental shrubs’.[2] But there was another tradition, too: working-class men were big participants in flower shows. Alan’s grandfather, bootmaker Walter Anderson, was a stalwart of the Tuapeka Horticultural Society. He won prizes for turnips and carrots and raspberries, but most of all for his flowers.[3] Alan spent his first few years in Lawrence, near this flower-growing grandfather, before the family moved to Christchurch. There the children were also encouraged in gardening at school. In 1911 Alan’s brother Erl, aged 8, won a prize for the floral buttonhole he exhibited at the Richmond School break up.[4] A photo from Alan’s album shows Erl standing proudly with vases of flowers, presumably prepared for a show.

W Anderson
Walter Anderson (1850-1938) in his Lawrence garden. Clarke family collection.
Erl Clarke
Erl Clarke (1904-1987) with flower display, Christchurch. Clarke family collection.

The immediate prompt for the Makarewa garden may have been the competition held by the Southland Women’s Club Garden Circle for the beautifying of Southland country railway stations. Makarewa took third place in 1929; the judges found its efforts ‘very pleasing’.[5] Why, though, did the Southland women run this competition?

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Otago Women’s Club dinner, 14 August 1924. Otago Women’s Club records, AG-682-01/12/001, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

Women’s clubs were very active in the 1920s: in 1926 the Southland Women’s Club had 287 members and the Otago one 800; there were clubs in many towns, including three in Wellington.[6] Although those numbers suggest they can’t have been extremely exclusive, their members certainly came from the more elite end of society. The judges of the 1929 Southland garden competition, for instance, were the wives or widows of a pharmacist, a land and insurance agent, and a doctor. The clubs held social events, raised funds for philanthropic causes and hosted talks; they entertained distinguished visitors, such as the wives of governors general. They had various interest groups: for instance, the Otago Women’s Club had literary, gardening, arts and crafts, civic and motor circles, among others.[7]

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Lady Ferguson and Sir Lindo Ferguson, 1925. Otago Women’s Club records, AG-682-01/12/002, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago.

It was the Otago Women’s Club that inspired the Southland club to take an interest in railway station gardens: the Otago gardening circle launched New Zealand’s first railway station gardening competition in 1925. The idea came from Mary Ferguson, the club’s long-serving president. Lady Ferguson was a woman of standing in Dunedin. She was the daughter of a merchant, educated privately in Dunedin and then in London. She married ophthalmologist Lindo Ferguson, who subsequently became dean of the Otago Medical School and thus an important figure in New Zealand. The Fergusons were involved in many organisations; both were charming and renowned for their hospitality.[8]

Ferguson had perhaps seen or read about railway station gardens in other countries; New Zealand came late to this practice. In Britain and in Canada, for instance, station gardens became popular from the 1860s. Railway companies encouraged gardening and rewarded their gardening employees through competitions. Gardens beautified railway property and provided wholesome recreation for railway workers, but there was more to it than that. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company used gardens to promote development: they demonstrated the fertility of the prairie, encouraging immigration and greater use of the railways.[9] In New Zealand, too, railways played a role in colonisation, promoting the development of agriculture, industry and mining. Most striking was the construction of the North Island main trunk line, which opened up the central North Island to Pākehā settlement; it provided a route into the Māori stronghold of Te Rohe Pōtae, the King Country.[10]

Gore Railway Station, 1900s. Joseph Crisp, the inspector of the permanent way, led the development of a garden there in the 1890s. Photographed by Muir & Moodie, C.014832, Te Papa.

However, it was in the south that station gardening competitions took place. Unlike many other countries, where railways were owned by private companies, in New Zealand they were government-run. The Railway Department paid some attention to publicity but it was subject to scrutiny over its use of taxpayer funds: some viewed gardens as an extravagance. When railway workers created a garden at Gore in the 1890s, it provoked grumbles. One local complained that surfacemen were distracted from their usual duties to load and unload wagons of soil; garden maintenance would take up the time of ‘an already hard-worked set of Officials’. It seemed, he wrote, ‘as if the Government placed more value upon the existence of macrocarpas, violets and pansies, than the safe conveyance of their patrons who have occasion to use the railway’.[11] Other community members were more supportive. On Arbor Day 1895 they turned out for the formal inauguration of the garden and helped plant 600 trees and numerous flowers.[12]

In a climate of taxpayer suspicion, the Railway Department didn’t devote significant funds to station gardens, but it was happy for others to contribute and offered support behind the scenes. Railway workers who wanted to develop new gardens received fencing materials, soil and manure (conveniently available from stock wagons) and the department offered free transport for plants and competition judges. It paid the Otago Women’s Club £10 each year in compensation for their provision of plants[13], and later supplied plants directly to station gardeners. It still had to defend itself over the gardens, though: in response to one enquiry in 1939 the Otago Daily Times noted that the railway gardens were ‘laid out and are maintained by the voluntary effort of employees at the particular station. There is no payment for the work done in the plots, and the only reward is the appreciation of the travelling public and a chance of winning one of the annual awards made by the Gardening Circle of the Otago Women’s Club.’[14] It was a labour of love for the gardeners.

Auckland Railway Station, 1930s. 1/2-071820-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Things were different in some large cities – at its grand stations in Auckland and Wellington, opened in the 1930s, the Railway Department employed gardeners. As the Railway Magazine pointed out, the new stations ‘gave the Department an opportunity for expressing the value it places on aesthetic considerations not only in the design of the buildings but also in their setting.’[15] The Auckland station had a plant nursery on its roof, where head gardener Roy Thornton raised flowering annuals from seed and nurtured native plants, including kauri, manuka, and ferns. Princess Te Puea Herangi took a great interest and brought him tree ferns for conservation.[16] The station also featured an experimental garden for testing New Zealand-raised dahlia seedlings.[17] Dunedin had the glitziest station, opened in 1906; it is now alleged to be one of the most photographed buildings in the Southern Hemisphere. For many years, though, its frontage could ‘not reasonably be termed picturesque’, as the stationmaster noted with considerable understatement in 1927. He asked if a lawn and flower beds could be developed but his request was denied; its manicured gardens were a later development, cared for by the city council.[18] In Auckland, the council took over care of the gardens from the Railways Department in 1948.[19]

The environs of Dunedin Railway Station, c.1910, were utilitarian by contrast with the grand building. Photograph by Muir & Moodie, C.012183, Te Papa.

Entries in the garden competitions for smaller stations depended entirely on the interests of the local staff, and since railways staff were a mobile group, the involvement of stations fluctuated. In 1932 the Otautau Standard reported just two entrants in the Southland competition: “This was due no doubt largely to the frequent changes in staff made recently since in past years as many as ten entries have been received.” The paper heaped praise on “the local staff for their painstaking work in creating a beauty spot in a flower garden and lawn out of what was a hole many feet deep. Mr Kelly has done hours of good work and promises better results for next year if privileged to be still stationed here.”[20] Kelly was the stationmaster, perhaps the person most likely to be interested in the station surrounds, but those who made station gardens came from a range of railway occupations. Ganger William Pickering was responsible for the Fairlie Station’s prizewinning garden of 1928, and bus driver M.A. Jackson for the Palmerston Station garden in 1947. George Johnson, an engine driver on the Southland line, created a prize-winning garden at Lumsden Station in 1929.[21] It was the signalman at Wingatui who produced a daffodil design which displayed the station’s name, the letters outlined with whitewashed stones.[22] In Waikouaiti the stationmaster’s father, James Rendel, tended the garden; in 1937 the department supplied  Rendel, who was about 80, with some piping and a tap for a watering system so he wouldn’t have to carry buckets of water to the garden.[23] Not all stations had a good water supply, making a big challenge for gardeners in drier districts.[24] At the smallest staffed stations, there was just the porter to create and tend a garden; the Otago competition had a special category for ‘very small’ gardens.

Wingatui June 1928
Wingatui won second prize in the Otago railway station garden competition in 1928; this sign was visible all year around, but filled with daffodils in spring. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1928.

Competition was a motive to create a garden, but it was not the only one. Charles Pope, a clerk, started a garden at Balclutha Station in 1918, before any competition; he had returned as stationmaster by the time Balclutha won first prize for its garden in 1930.[25] In Rakaia, stationmaster Hugh McDougall planted around 150 varieties of roses in the 1920s; he had retired by the time a Canterbury competition commenced, but others kept the garden going and Rakaia was the inaugural winner in 1930.[26]

Horopito garden
Porter M. Chapman with his garden at Horopito Railway Station. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 February 1931.

In the North Island, a few enthusiasts built gardens despite a lack of competitions. Some earned publicity in the Railways Magazine. A 1931 edition featured the station at Horopito, a small settlement on the main trunk line between Ohakune and National Park. The porter, M. Chapman, made a garden ‘under considerable difficulty, due to the presence of gravel’.[27] The Hawera Railway Station garden also featured in the magazine a number of times. A Wellington woman who described herself as ‘an old lady, very fond of flowers’, was moved to write to the stationmaster, Robert Allwright, after passing through Hawera on the train in the mid-1930s. ‘The bed of pansies and violas was wonderful and showed that even last summer’s heat had not killed them all, as in so many places. The hasty glance one had of other flowers made one realise that a real lover of God’s beauties must be trying to make one corner of His vineyard a place of joy and happiness.’[28] James Campbell, the Hawera mayor, was another fan: ‘Our citizens are as proud of the gardens as your own Department is’, he wrote.[29]

Hawera March 1937
Extensive gardens at Hawera Railway Station. New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 March 1937.

Local pride was significant in the development of the station gardens. It was probably the chief motive behind the involvement of the Women’s Clubs, and was undoubtedly the chief motive in Canterbury, where station garden competitions were run by the Horticultural Society. The Society had already been running competitions for home gardens for some years when it started offering prizes for station gardens in 1929; factory gardens were also added to the schedule.[30] Under the guidance of this thriving society, the railway garden competitions survived the longest in Canterbury, continuing until the late 1960s. Roses remained a popular feature of station gardens in the region. When Papanui stationmaster Norm Chapple departed in 1970 he earned a headline in the local paper: ‘Pruned roses before leaving’. He was known for his success in the garden competitions.[31]

The Otago competitions ended in 1948: when there were no entries, the Women’s Club withdrew its cup and it does not seem to have made any effort to revive the competition.[32] If railway workers were losing interest in gardening for their employer, the removal of the competition exacerbated that. I can only speculate about why workers lost interest in station gardens. In the post-war period, many New Zealanders turned their attention to home life; presumably railwaymen were among them. Gardening in their own patch may have held more appeal than gardening at work. The growth of the union movement, together with the industrial tensions of the 1950s, perhaps made voluntary work for an employer less acceptable. A growing range of new pastimes also competed for people’s leisure hours. One of the most time-consuming, television, arrived in New Zealand in the 1960s.

Gardens had always been at risk of falling into neglect due to changing personnel; with the end of the competitions, reports came in of former prize-winning gardens in a sorry state. In 1953 the Port Chalmers Borough Council complained that a station garden which ‘for many years was a place of beauty and afforded much pleasure to residents and visitors’ had fallen back; neither railway staff nor council were willing or able to commit staff time to its maintenance.[33] Middle-class voluntary organisations picked up some of the slack: beautifying societies, amenities societies and service clubs were among those who leased land from the Railway Department at peppercorn rentals and tidied it up. In 1970, the Minister of Railways announced a new scheme to dedicate the increasing income from outdoor commercial advertising panels towards beautifying areas around stations and on other prominent railway land, preferably in joint arrangements with local bodies. ‘Modern society … had become increasingly sensitive to the need for the preservation of natural environment’, noted the press release, and the department ‘intended to play their part to this end.’[34]

The railway station gardening competitions provide a glimpse into a largely forgotten part of the world of working-class men. The railwaymen who participated loved flowers and used them to transform parts of their grimy workplaces into oases of beauty. Gardening is a science and an art, and they demonstrated both aspects. They turned some unlikely places into flourishing gardens by building up soils and carefully feeding and caring for plants. Their creative talents were revealed in the designs of their gardens, from the selection of colours to the layouts of paths. The element of competition was highly significant, and huge pride associated with winning. When that incentive disappeared, railway gardeners presumably turned their energies to their home gardens, and perhaps to local horticultural societies, which provided, as they still do, a different venue for competitive gardening.

As I briefly mentioned after I presented this paper, the staff of New Zealand’s various railway workshops were also keen gardeners. In the 1930s and 1940s all of the workshops established horticultural societies and held regular competitions for vegetable and flower growing. Reports showed tinsmiths winning prizes for violas, fitters for sweet peas and boilermakers for gladioli. 

[1] Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare Time? Leisure, Gender and Modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law, eds, Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003), 172-173.

[2] Sites of Gender, 173.

[3] ‘The Gardens of Lawrence’, Tuapeka Times, 28 April 1897.

[4] Lyttelton Times, 22 December 1911, p.9.

[5] ‘Otago Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 4: 2 (June 1929), 50. The women were named with their husbands’ initials – names and occupations traced through various genealogical sources.

[6] ‘Women’s Clubs: Growth in New Zealand’, New Zealand Herald, 8 October 1926, 7.

[7] Otago Women’s Club reports, in their archives, Hocken Collections.

[8] ‘Mary Ferguson’, NZ History,; Rex Wright-St Clair, ‘Ferguson, Henry Lindo’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara,

[9] Edwinna von Baeyer, ‘Rise and fall of the Manitoba railway garden’, Manitoba History, 31, 1996.

[10] Matthew Wright, Rails Across New Zealand: A History of Rail Travel, (Auckland: Whitcoulls, 2003); Kerryn Pollock, ‘King Country region – Te Rohe Pōtae’, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand,; Nancy Swarbrick, ‘Rural services – Railways’, Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

[11] Bluegum, letter to the editor, Mataura Ensign, 13 August 1895, 2.

[12] ‘Arbor Day, 1895’, Mataura Ensign, 8 August 1895, 3.

[13] For instance, see Rona Allen, Hon Sec. Gardening Branch of Otago Women’s Club, to District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, 9 April 1937, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[14] ‘Answers to Correspondents’, ODT, 27 March 1939, 8.

[15] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937.

[16] Auckland Star, 30 July 1937, 6; 9 September 1937, 6.

[17] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937; ‘Gardening Circle’, New Zealand Herald, 5 March 1937, 3.

[18] Stationmaster, Dunedin to District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, 6 October 1927 and District Traffic Manager, Dunedin to Stationmaster, Dunedin, 11 October 1927, Dunedin – Station Garden file, R21983938, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[19] Southern Cross, 14 October 1948, clipping in Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; Auckland Star, 30 September 1941, 8.

[20] ‘Railway Gardens’, Otautau Standard, 5 April 1932, 2.

[21] ‘Lumsden Station Garden: A Visitor’s Impressions, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 July 1930.

[22] ‘Otago’s Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1928, 13.

[23] District Traffic Manager to District Engineer, 16 February 1937, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[24] For example, see Tablet Porter, Goodwood, to Traffic Manager, 20 February 1941, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office.

[25] ‘Railway Garden Cup Presentation’, ODT, 20 March 1930, 16.

[26] ‘A prize-winner among New Zealand station gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1930; on McDougall’s appointment and retirement, see Ashburton Guardian, 11 March 1920, 4 and 19 January 1926, 20.

[27] ‘An example of station beautifying on the N.Z.R.’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, February 1931, 57.

[28] ‘Railway Station Gardens’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, December 1935.

[29] ‘Beautifying on the Railways’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, June 1937.

[30] Colin Amodeo, ed., Wilderness to Garden City: A celebration of 150 years of horticultural endeavour in Canterbury (Christchurch: Canterbury Horticultural Society, 2001), 155.

[31] ‘Pruned roses before leaving’, Herald, 14 July 1970, clipping in Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

[32] District Traffic Manager, Dunedin, Memorandum No.1948/111, 28 October 1948, Station Gardens – General File, R21984788, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Office; Otago Women’s Club Annual Report, 1948.

[33] District Traffic Manager, Dunedin to Town Clerk, Port Chalmers, 20 November 1953, and to Stationmaster, Port Chalmers, 28 January 1954, Beautification of Stations file, R20397636, Archives New Zealand Dunedin Regional Office.

[34] Draft statement, 30 June 1970, and various newspaper clippings, Beautification of Railway stations also Railway gardens file, R21512449, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.


A Scotswoman and her sampler

Sampler stitched by Betsy Molison of Lethnot in the 1830s.

This 1830s sampler, made by a young girl in rural Scotland, eventually made its way across the globe and has been handed on down her family, together with her craft skills.

The sampler and its provenance

I got the history bug early, and when I was set a family history assignment at school I wrote to various elderly relatives for information. My lovely great aunt, Betty Holmes (née Stewart), passed on lots of details and stories. She was evidently impressed by my interest, because she generously gave me several family items, including the sampler. It was made by my great great grandmother, Betty Stewart (née Molison); Auntie Betty, her granddaughter, was named after her.

I’ve been thinking about the sampler recently, thanks to a new project of a history colleague, Tanja Bueltmann. Tanja, who’s based at Northumbria University, runs a blog about the Scottish diaspora. She recently set up a Scottish Diaspora Digital Museum, which includes items from various museums and libraries alongside community contributions. This is a great project and I decided to submit the sampler to it. If you have any intriguing items relating to Scots around the world, I encourage you to take part; all you need is a photograph of the item and a story.

Betty Molison probably stitched her sampler at school, where girls learned needlework as a valuable life skill. It’s what was known as a ‘marking’ sampler, showing the ability to stitch letters and numbers, used to ‘mark’ or identify linen or to decorate clothing. Auntie Betty thought ‘Gran’ made the sampler when she was about 10 years old. It showed her skill with cross stitch and eyelet stitch, together with the ability to create simple pictures and patterns. It was stitched in fine wool on coarsely woven linen. Some of the colours remain bright, but others are badly faded and difficult to read. I’ve had a go at transcribing the text, and this is how it reads:


P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 1 2 3 4 5

6 7 8 9 ? ? JM MM AM



?? ?S DS MS JS AM ?? IH








This reveals some charming irregularities which demonstrate young Betsy’s lack of proper forward planning! One of her alphabets ends abruptly at the letter R, another leaves out the letter J, and she ran out of room for her own name, having to put the last letter of Molison on the next line. She gave her name as Betsy; she appears as Betty in some official documents and Betsy in others. Agnes Molison, also named on the sampler, was her younger sister. One intriguing feature of the sampler is the three and a half lines of initials Betty stitched: this was typical of samplers made in Scotland. They are most likely the initials of her relations. Though Betty had a small immediate family, she had a large extended family with numerous aunts and uncles nearby and some of their initials are included.

While researching Scottish samplers I was delighted to discover my friend Donald Cochrane, who runs The Lothians blog, has written about two samplers which also made their way to Dunedin through his family! One was stitched by 16-year-old Helen Dougal of Lanarkshire in 1833, and the other by 9-year-old Marion Craig, also of Lanarkshire, in 1795. Helen’s sampler used quite a sophisticated design, but Marion’s shared several design features with Betty’s schoolgirl effort: the colours were similar and it included rows of letters and numbers divided by various geometric borders, the full name of the maker, family initials and simple pictures.

Who was Betsy Molison?

Betsy or Betty spent the first 47 years of her life in the parish of Lethnot and Navar, Forfarshire (now Angus), Scotland, where her family had been for generations. She was born at her parents’ farm, Townhead, in 1824. Lethnot is a glen surrounded by the Grampian hills; snow often lasted well into the spring, and the nearest market town, Brechin, was several miles away, requiring a trip on a rough road over a steep hill. It was very much a rural place; in his 1843 report for the Statistical Account of Scotland, the minister noted that ‘none of the population reside in towns or villages’. This report, together with the earlier Statistical Account from the 1790s, gave a good sense of life in this rural backwater. The farmers were all tenants, leasing their land from absentee proprietors (including the Earl of Fife). In the 1760s most tenants were given leases for life plus one or two periods of nineteen years, on condition that they build houses and enclosures and generally improve the land. By 1843 there were still tenants with life leases, though a 19-year term had become more prevalent. The farmers sub-leased plots of an acre or two to labouring families, who raised a few stock and provided labour at harvest and in the winter. Their children added to the family coffers by herding stock from a young age, while girls and women could earn money spinning. In the 1790s the parish school boasted ‘sometimes above 40’ scholars in winter but just a dozen in spring and summer. There was also a second school; the 1843 report noted this was ‘supported partly by a small mortification [charitable gift], and partly by individual subscription, and taught only during the winter season’.

My great aunt sent this postcard to her father, George Stewart (Betty’s son), while touring Scotland in 1931. The Lethnot church and manse are at front left, and she thought the house in the very centre of the image was Newbiggin.

The parish population was on the decline: in 1750 there were 635 inhabitants; in 1790 there were 505, living in 103 houses; and by 1841 there were just 400 in a parish of some 190 square kilometres. As in many parts of Scotland, considerable agricultural ‘improvement’ went on over this time, with arable land nearly doubled in size in the early nineteenth century. Though there was still plenty of work – that would change later, with increasing mechanisation – young people were tempted to leave by better wages in the south, or ‘for the sake of learning, a particular trade or art, as their genius leads them’. Farmers were taking back the leases of their sub-tenants and expanding their holdings.

Another postcard of Lethnot, sent to my great aunt by her cousin Aggie Seth in 1934.

The Molisons were well off, judging by the £2000 dowry given to Betty on her marriage. With just two children, her father James Molison could afford to be generous. James’s wife, Helen Ramsay, seems to have died when their daughters were very young. At the 1841 census, James, then in his fifties, lived on his farm Townhead with 15-year-old Betty, three agricultural labourers and a female servant. Betty’s maternal grandfather, James Ramsay, lived on the neighbouring farm, Newbigging, together with her uncle and several aunts. Betty’s sister Agnes, aged 14, was lodging in Brechin with the Stewart family, who may well have been relatives; James Molison’s mother was a Stewart. Betty’s husband David, whom she married at Lethnot in 1843, was also a Stewart. His family had been in the parish for many generations, and farmed the property Nathro. At the 1851 census David and Betty, with their growing family and three servants, were living at Nathro, where David was described as a farmer of 100 acres employing five labourers. His widowed mother, Ann Tosh, lived in another house on the property, and in yet another house lived his unmarried uncle and aunt (confusingly also named David and Betty Stewart!).

By 1861 David and Betty (the younger) plus children had moved into the main farmhouse and Uncle David, by then 82 years, boarded with them. They now farmed 140 acres and employed three labourers and a ‘boy’, along with a couple of house servants. In the meantime, Betty’s father, James Molison, had died. His will divided his property carefully between his two daughters. Agnes and her husband Alexander Mitchell had taken over his farm at Townhead, so he left his two other farm properties, Braco and Westside, to Betty and David. By 1864, when my great grandfather George Leighton Stewart was born, the family had moved to the Braco sheep farm. George was the youngest of Betty’s 12 children by quite a stretch. Four of the children died before George’s birth, three as young babies, and six-year-old Eliza Betsy from burns.

A postcard of Lethnot Church sent to Betty Stewart by one of her nieces or nephews in 1906.

Around 1872 David and Betty made the big decision to leave the parish that had been home to their forebears for many years and cross the world to Otago, New Zealand. Exactly what prompted this move is unclear, but it may have related to the end of their lease on the Braco property. Their two oldest sons, William and John, had migrated to New Zealand a couple of years earlier and presumably sent back good reports. On 14 August 1872 the family set sail from Glasgow aboard the iron clipper Helen Burns, arriving at Port Chalmers on 2 December after ‘a rather protracted passage of 110 days, owing to a continuation of light winds and calms’. It wasn’t a crowded migrant ship: the Stewart group of seven accounted for over a quarter of the 26 passengers! Along with David, then 59, and Betty (47), travelled Mary Ann (22), Helen (19), Agnes (17), James (15) and young George (7). Unlike many of my family, who came as assisted migrants, they paid the full £94 cost of their ticket; David and Betty would have been too old to qualify for an assisted passage. The daughters were all described as domestic servants on the passenger list. Oldest daughter Annie remained behind; she died in Dublin in 1875.

I’m uncertain what exactly the Stewarts got up to when they first arrived in Otago. Son William had a farm at Waiwera, South Otago, but his parents lived the rest of their lives in Dunedin. By the time David Stewart died, in 1888, they lived in City Road, Roslyn. He probably left the property to his unmarried daughters, Mary Ann (listed in the 1893 electoral roll as a mantlemaker, that is, dressmaker) and Agnes; when Mary Ann died in 1908 she bequeathed ‘to my sister Agnes Stewart my interest in the freehold property at Roslyn … held by the said Agnes Stewart and me as tenants in common’. By then the property must have been rented out. James and Helen had married and left home by the time of their father’s death, though James was staying with his mother at the time of his own death in 1892; George left home when he married in 1903. In the mid-1890s Betty, George, Mary Ann and presumably also Agnes moved to Cumberland Street, Dunedin, and about ten years later to 229 Castle Street (a house they named ‘Nathro’ after the Stewart farm in Lethnot). Around 1911 Agnes Stewart is listed at 403 Castle Street and Betty probably lived with her; it was there that Betty died at the grand old age of 93 in 1918.

A rare article about the sleepy hollow of Lethnot in the nineteenth century British newspaper archives, dating from 1875, is entitled ‘our old parishioners’, and notes the district’s reputation for longevity. Likewise, in his 1790s statistical report on Lethnot, Rev John Taylor noted that ‘in general the climate seems favourable to longevity. Within these last 16 years, four persons have died, who were above 90; one of them was 106’. Whether it was the climate, genetics, or just healthy living, Betty Molison lived up to this reputation! She did not, however, pass the trait on to most of her children, and just three of her large brood outlived her (William, Agnes and George).

Betty Molison
Betty Stewart (née Molison).

We have only one photograph of Betty, taken in old age, but it is a splendid one. Mairi Ferguson, my aunt, has a large copy hanging on her wall, and visitors often ask why she and her husband display a photograph of Queen Victoria. The standard response is to point out that the woman in the portrait is knitting a sock, possibly not an activity indulged in by the queen! An obituary of Betty in the Otago Daily Times reveals why she may have been photographed in this way: ‘Although advancing years gradually narrowed the range of her activities, it was not until three weeks ago when serious illness overtook her that she was finally precluded from enjoying in [sic] those useful works, especially knitting for soldier friends and others, which were her constant delight’. In wartime, knitting was a patriotic activity to take particular pride in. Betty was, according to this obituary, ‘very widely known. She was also very highly esteemed and greatly beloved’. Three former and present ministers of Knox Church, where she was ‘senior member’, officiated at her funeral. I have Betty’s Bible, which is inscribed ‘Mrs D. Stewart. Pew 64. Knox Church. 7/9/02. 229 Castle St’. In the spidery writing of old age she listed on another page the psalms memorised by Ruskin, with special note of those he said ‘well studied and believed, serve for all personal guidance’ and those which ‘contain the law of the prophecy of all just government’. She also noted that ‘Ps. 104 anticipates every triumph of natural science’.

Notes from Betty’s Bible.

Betty lived half her long life in Lethnot and half in Dunedin. She must have treasured the sampler she stitched as a young girl, for she brought it with her when she migrated; presumably it sparked happy memories of her schooldays. The handcraft skills she learned at school, and no doubt also from relatives, proved valuable to the end of her days. Though her mother died when she was young, she had plenty of aunts, grandmothers and cousins to teach her the skills commonly handed on to girls within families. These skills were then passed on down the family to present generations. There are many fine needlewomen – especially knitters – in the family, and I have even been known to knit socks myself, as has my young niece!

G & W Stewart
The last surviving of Betty and David Stewart’s 12 children were George (1864-1950), seated on the left, and William (1845-1931). Both brothers died at the age of 85 years.


Vivien Caughley, New Zealand’s historic samplers: our stitched stories (Auckland: David Bateman, 2014).

Family notes from Betty Holmes.

Family statutory registration, census, probate and church records at ScotlandsPeople.

John Taylor, ‘Parish of Lethnot’, Statistical account of Scotland, 1791-1799, Part 4, no. 1, 1-20.

Alexander Gardner, ‘Parish of Lethnot and Navar’, Statistical account of Scotland, 1834-1845, Vol. 11, 687-90.

‘Lethnot: Our old parishioners’, Dundee Courier and Angus and Northern Warder, 5 February 1875.

Patrick Henderson Shipping Company paying passengers to NZ ports, 1871-1880 (Auckland: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, 1993).

Shipping news in Otago Daily Times and Evening Star, 3 December 1872.

Stone’s Otago and Southland directory, 1888-1918.

Mary Ann Stewart probate file, 1908, Archives New Zealand, via Family Search website.

Betty Stewart obituary, Otago Daily Times, 17 April 1918.

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).