2016 – a year in reading

readingI didn’t have a lot of time for ‘recreational’ reading in 2016, as I was too busy writing – not for this blog, unfortunately! However, I kept a list of all the books I read and gave them scores for both content and writing. I thought I’d mention a few of my favourites here for those looking for a good read.


The novel I enjoyed most this year was Life after life by Kate Atkinson (published 2013). It’s the fabulous tale of Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910 and destined to live her life many times over (at varying lengths). At its heart lies the devastation of World War II and Ursula’s attempts to prevent it. Atkinson notes that the book was sparked by that favourite ‘what if?’ scenario: what if Hitler didn’t come to power? But it’s more than that – a grim but witty meditation on the little things of life, gripping and beautifully written.

I like a bit of speculation and science fiction, and another of my favourites this year was The book of strange new things, by Michel Faber, famous for his Victorian blockbuster The crimson petal and the whiteStrange new things tells the story of Peter Leigh, a Christian missionary to the indigenous population of the planet Oasis, colonised by a mysterious American corporation. Like all fiction set beyond Earth, it’s really an exploration of humanity and all our foibles. It’s tinged with sadness and was obviously greatly influenced by Faber’s own circumstances – he wrote it while his wife was dying. I heard a great radio interview he did with Kim Hill when he visited New Zealand for a writer’s festival (warning – it’s a tear-jerker!).

These two novels were both imaginative and written beautifully, and if it’s those qualities you want it’s hard to go past New Zealand’s own Elizabeth Knox. Her work defies easy categorisation – she writes fantasy and horror among other things – but is always intriguing and unpredictable. Her ability to imagine new worlds is remarkable, yet she is also very good at depicting real places. She’s certainly one of the most creative writers out there. I loved her recent novels and have been slowly working my way through her back catalogue. This year I enjoyed Treasure (1992), Black oxen (2001) and Daylight (2003).

A new discovery for me this year was the Australian (US-based) novelist and journalist Geraldine Brooks. I started out with Year of wonders (2001), set in an English village isolated by the plague in 1666. I immediately sought out her other books and I’ve since read Caleb’s crossing (2011), the story of the first indigenous American to graduate from Harvard, in the 1660s; March (2005), on the U.S. Civil War as experienced by the father from Little women; and People of the book (2008), the tale of a Jewish text and its journeys through history, from medieval Spain to the 1990s Bosnian war (it gets bonus points for featuring librarians and conservators as heroes!). They’re the best sort of historical fiction, with compelling characters and page-turning plots bringing the past to life.

Rewriting literary classics seems to be all the rage these days, and over the last few years I’ve followed with interest the projects where well-known authors rewrite works by two of my favourite writers, Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. The results have been mixed, but I thoroughly recommend one I read this year, The gap of time, a ‘cover version’ of Shakespeare’s The winter’s tale by the fabulous Jeanette Winterson.


It’s all been about New Zealand history for me this year. There are so many great books coming out it’s impossible to keep up! Three I read in 2016 really stood out, and should be compulsory reading for all who wish to understand better this country’s past and present.

I couldn’t help but like A history of New Zealand women by Barbara Brookes. Not only does it chime with my own historical interests, but it was written by the excellent supervisor of my current project! Putting aside any bias, this really is an important book. The culmination of many years of research and thought, it is a compelling and clearly written account of this country’s past as experienced by women. It’s also well-illustrated, and some of the women’s art works included are a revelation.

Tangata whenua: an illustrated history, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris, assisted by several others, is another ground-breaking book. It tells the history of Māori from origins to the present in a scholarly but very readable way. I especially enjoyed the earlier sections, by Atholl Anderson, which share the latest insights of archaeology (including DNA analysis) into the origins of Māori and their early years in Aotearoa. However, the entire book is fascinating, and the illustrations are, again, excellent.

The great war for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 by Vincent O’Malley is yet another landmark publication. There has been much discussion in recent years about New Zealanders’ ignorance about our own past, especially when it comes to the wars of the 19th century. We are forever hearing about our involvement in World War I in this centenary period, while the 150th anniversaries of events of the New Zealand Wars, conducted on our own soil, pass quietly by. I was fortunate to attend an enlightened school – Naenae College, a big state school – way back in the 1970s, when the history teacher chose the New Zealand option in our senior year. We studied the NZ Wars and I will never forget the field trip where we visited various battle sites, including one just a block from school (from the battle of Boulcott farm) and others at Pauatahanui and around the Porirua and Hutt Valley districts. Such exposure to NZ Wars history is a privilege all too few New Zealanders have had, but in this book  – and his blog at The Meeting Place – Vincent O’Malley helps put that right. He has been researching and writing about Māori history for quite some time now, often in the context of Treaty of Waitangi claims, and The great war for New Zealand brings together that and new research. It is a clear and detailed account of war in the Waikato, placing it in a very broad context from first contact between Waikato Māori and Europeans to the present day, when the consequences of the massive land confiscations following the conflict continue. A must read for all thinking Kiwis and, again, beautifully illustrated.

Kudos must go to the wonderful Bridget Williams Books, publisher of all three of these significant works. My only complaint is that they are huge books and absorbed a very big part of the time I had for reading this year. Tangata whenua and The great war for New Zealand are also heavy (literally) and I had to sit at the table to read them! There is now a more manageable paperbook version of Tangata whenua and both are available as e-books. Still, the hardcovers are beautiful objects and I enjoyed the physical heft of them, despite the awkwardness.

Other non-fiction

Bridget Williams Books is also responsible for my other favourite non-fiction reads this year, thanks to their excellent BWB Texts series of ‘short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’. They provide a good contrast to BWB’s other massive tomes! I have a subscription and the ones waiting to be read are piling up, but I made it through several in 2016. I especially enjoyed Why science is sexist by Nicola Gaston (spoiler alert – it’s unconscious bias) and Silencing science by Shaun Hendy. I’m no scientist but I like to keep informed about the latest in science and the environment – mostly via the wonderful RNZ National. These two books raise important issues about how we learn about science. I also thoroughly recommend two BWB Texts on politics and society – Ruth, Roger and me by Andrew Dean and The interregnum: rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfrey.

Finally, I’m now a dedicated fan of Auckland University Press’s Tell you what series. Susannah Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood edit an annual volume of ‘great New Zealand nonfiction’, gathered from all over the place: magazines, newspapers, radio scripts, blogs … and elsewhere. The topics are wildly varied but always interesting, and the writing is lively. I enjoyed the 2016 edition and have now started on 2017’s. One minor irritation – why is a volume published in 2015, made up of items that appeared in 2015 (sometimes earlier), the 2016 volume? Since that pattern was set with the first edition in 2014, I guess they’re stuck with it!

Happy New Year, and here’s to more good reading in 2017!



Drama at Victory Beach

026Victory Beach, a 3-km long straight beach at Wickliffe Bay on the Otago Peninsula, is one of my favourite places. It’s never crowded – the 2-km walk from the road no doubt puts some people off – and I’ve never seen anybody swimming there. But for those willing and able to make the effort, it’s a beautiful beach to walk along and offers the opportunity to see some of Dunedin’s intriguing wildlife, including yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) and New Zealand/Hooker’s sea lions (whakahao). If you look closely, you may also spot some interesting clues to its past, for this apparently peaceful spot has a dramatic history.

The smaller of the Pyramids, Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

The drama started millions of years ago, with the volcanic eruptions which created the landforms of the Otago Peninsula and Dunedin district. The final major eruptive phase of the Dunedin volcano created the lava domes which form many of the prominent peaks around Otago Harbour. The eruptions produced extensive flows of basalt, the most common volcanic rock. As basalt cools and dries out it can crack to form symmetrical patterns, and there is a striking example of this at the mounds known as the Pyramids, adjacent to Victory Beach. On the seawards side of the smaller Pyramid (Te Matai o Okia) you can clearly see the tubes known as columnar jointing. For added intrigue, some of the columns are oriented diagonally from the ground.

Some of the remarkable columnar basalt at Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

Fortunately, all this volcanic activity took place long before people lived here, but the beach and the swampy flat land adjacent to it, known as Okia, have been walked by Māori for generations. As local kaumātua Edward Ellison explained in the management plan for what is now a reserve, this district was home first to the Waitaha people, later followed by Kāti Māmoe and then Kāi Tahu, who migrated from the north: ‘An old settlement dating back to the earliest times was located at Okia, a place where generations lived, hunted and celebrated life. The hunter gatherer lifestyle was centred around numerous mahika kai resources that were available on the Peninsula and surrounding districts’. Of course, though they later intermarried and made peace, new iwi were not simply welcomed to an already occupied district, and numerous battles were fought. One important tradition concerning Okia, possibly dating from the 18th century, concerned Kāi Tahu warrior Tarewai. Kāi Tahu anthropologist Atholl Anderson details the story in The Welcome of Strangers. Kāti Māmoe lived in some numbers at Papanui Inlet (which drains into the sea at the southern end of Victory Beach), while Kāi Tahu had a pa at Pukekura (at the tip of the Peninsula); some Kāti Māmoe also lived at the pa. A dispute arose between the two groups over the use of Papanui Inlet to launch fishing canoes. Papanui chief Whakatakanewa devised a scheme to extract revenge for the destruction of some canoes. He began constructing a house near the Pyramids, at Kapuketuroto, and asked his Pukekura neighbours for assistance. Several of the Kāi Tahu men who came to assist were killed, and Tarewai only just escaped into the bush. After dark he returned to the Papanui camp and by impersonating a local managed to retrieve his patu (club), then used it to kill two Kāti Māmoe before escaping back into the forest. After hiding out in various places Tarewai returned to Pukekura. Kāti Māmoe were then defeated by Kāi Tahu and fled to Fiordland; Tarewai was among a party that pursued them and he was eventually killed at Matauira Island (Preservation Inlet).

Some sources suggest that a cave at the base of Te Matai o Okia was one of Tarewai’s hiding places. It was certainly a location of some significance to Māori. Another tradition, told to Ellis Sinclair in the 1930s, was that the cave was the site of a massacre of some of the Pukekura Pa residents by Te Wera in the mid-1700s. Sinclair uncovered the cave in 1934 and carried out an archaeological excavation with his brother a few years later. They discovered woven flax matting, the remnants of kaimoana (seafood), and the bones of birds, a pig, and people; Sinclair thought the way the bones were broken and the absence of larger bones suggested cannibalism. John Riddell, a Pākehā farmer whose family had been in the district a long time, informed Sinclair that several human skulls had been found at the cave entrance about 50 years earlier. Sinclair also found in the cave a carved wooden atua (god) figure about 20cm high, which he deposited at the Otago Museum. In 2014 the figure was loaned, together with two Pacific atua from the museum collection, to an acclaimed touring exhibition of the National Gallery of Australia, Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia.

The land at this end of Otago Peninsula was native reserve, retained by Māori at the time of the sale of the Otago block to the New Zealand Company in 1844. Nevertheless, some colonial families settled in the district by leasing land from the Māori owners. They ran stock in the Okia Flat area, as had some of the inhabitants of the earlier Peninsula shore whaling community before them. They named the bay Wickliffe Bay in honour of the migrant vessel John Wickliffe, which brought the first settlers of the official Otago colony from Scotland. The John Wickliffe had anchored in the bay for a couple of days when it first arrived at Otago in March 1848.

Another ship found the bay less welcoming. The SS Victory ran aground here on 3 July 1861 – that’s how the beach got its name. The Victory was a 3-masted single-screw steamship, 145 feet long and 426 tons when first launched at Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1849. In 1860 the ship had a major refit and was lengthened to 215 feet; it was now 501 tons net and had the latest and most luxurious fittings, from rich crimson velvet seats to oil paintings ‘of no mean order’. It was owned by the Inter-colonial Royal Mail Packet Company, which prided itself on punctual mail delivery; it was put on the Melbourne-Canterbury-Otago run, making its first visit to Otago in January 1861. The Victory next arrived at Port Chalmers from Lyttelton on 1 July 1861, bringing a dozen or so passengers. Her mixed cargo included some items clearly destined for the new goldfields (63 camp ovens and covers, 9 bundles shovels), along with tapioca, arrowroot, pimento, glass, cement, fruits, candles, hops, butter, drapery, a horse and ‘sundry pkgs merchandize’. At Otago she loaded up with 4 casks of brandy, 27 bales of wool, a box of stationery and a package of drapery, plus 5 passengers, and departed bound for Melbourne.

The Victory cleared the Otago Heads and set a course designed to take it past Cape Saunders. The captain, James Toogood, headed below for tea, leaving the third mate in charge until George Hand, the chief mate, took over. A few minutes later, at 6pm, in the dark, the ship ran aground at the southern end of Wickliffe Bay, fortunately on the beach rather than the rocks not much further along the coast. Reversing the engines proved no help: the Victory was well and truly stuck and around midnight a boat was lowered and the passengers, baggage and mails safely landed. According to several witnesses, Hand was intoxicated and he had also deserted his post just before the wreck; he was sentenced to 3 months in prison. Though Captain Toogood protested suggestions that he held some responsibility, it seemed unlikely that Hand could have prevented the wreck, for the Victory was clearly on a dangerous course; the compasses were inaccurate and there were also claims of lax discipline on board.

The remaining wreckage of the SS Victory, as seen at low tide, February 2016.

Three weeks later the Victory and her cargo were sold at auction; R.B. Martin bought the vessel, complete with machinery and fuel (300 tons of coal). Though there was no suitable equipment available in New Zealand, there was still confidence that the ship could be salvaged in working order, a company was set up for the purpose and engineer Mr Scott arrived from Sydney the following year to undertake this mission. After months of work, including several almost-successful attempts, he was forced to abandon the task in November 1862 after the re-floated Victory, just preparing to steam away, washed back onto the beach when the anchor broke. This time the vessel was split and filled with water. The wreck was auctioned again – what had sold for £570 a few months earlier was this time knocked down for £200 to Scott. The determined engineer suffered ‘another sad mishap’ the following month when a small schooner taking away some of the Victory‘s parts was also wrecked on the beach. The moveable parts of the vessel and its contents gradually disappeared, but the bones of the ship remained for the surf, the tides and the weather to slowly erode away. Even now, 155 years after the Victory ran aground, her iron flywheel is still visible, coated with barnacles, in the surf at low tide. The boiler ended up at Lower Portobello and some of the timber helped build the byre and stable at John Kerr’s farm, which overlooked the wreck. Kerr, who died in 1930 aged 96, told a story of a lighter broken in two while going to remove cargo from the stranded vessel, leading to the loss of two lives; I haven’t been able to confirm this tale as yet.

The beach remained relatively peaceful in subsequent decades, though there was the odd exception. By the late 1870s the Portobello Rifles, a volunteer company, had a shooting range (‘butts’) at Wickliffe Bay. I can just imagine the conditions in January 1882, when they competed for their district prizes: mist ‘settled down so thickly that the target was scarcely discernible’. I’ve been there when the Otago Peninsula was drenched in bright sunshine, but Victory Beach was covered with a sea mist, creating a distinctly eerie feeling. Some locals later used the beach for exercising racehorses. One of them, James Riddell, who lived nearby, was killed at the beach in 1932 when a stirrup broke and he was thrown from his horse.

Victory Beach entered a new stage of life in 1991, when the Dunedin City Council and Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust purchased the adjacent land to create Okia Reserve, which is jointly managed by the council and trust, together with the Department of Conservation and Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou. With the removal of grazing stock and a little strategic planting, the reserve is slowly reverting to native bush and should one day be covered in coastal forest. It is home to numerous birds, including little blue penguins and the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. Seals and sea lions also visit, and there was much excitement among conservationists and zoologists when a small breeding colony of the endangered sea lion developed here. ‘Mum’ gave birth at Taieri Mouth in 1993 and then brought her pup to Victory Beach – this was the first recorded sea lion birth on the mainland for many decades. The story of sea lions is a fascinating one, but I’ll save that for a later post …

It’s pretty clear that Victory Beach isn’t just a beautiful location: it is also a place with an intriguing past!

A sea lion on the move at Victory Beach, February 2016.



D.G. Bishop and I.M. Turnbull, Geology of the Dunedin Area (Lower Hutt: Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, 1996).

Okia Reserve Management Plan 2009-2019 (Dunedin City Council, 2009).

Atholl Anderson, The Welcome of Strangers: An ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D.1650-1850 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1998).

Ellis D. Sinclair, ‘Excavation of cave on Okia Flat, Wickliffe Bay’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 49, 1 (1940), 137-43. For an edited online version see http://polynesianresourcecenter.com/history/item/excavation-of-cave-on-okia-flat-wickliffe-bay-by-ellis-sinclair-2

John Gibb, ‘Otago Museum artefacts in touring exhibition’, Otago Daily Times, 8 May 2014.

Bruce Collins, Rocks, Reefs and Sandbars: A history of Otago shipwrecks (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1995).

The Inter-colonial R.M. Steam Packet Company’s ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 1 September 1860.

Shipping news’, Otago Witness, 6 July 1861.

The SS Victory’, Otago Witness, 13 July 1861.

Inquiry into the loss of the S.S. Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

Sale of the wreck of the steam-ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

‘Shipping news’, Otago Daily Times, 25 to 29 November 1862; ‘Commercial’, Otago Daily Times, 29 November 1862.

Shipping intelligence‘, Otago Daily Times, 25 December 1862.

‘Obituary: the late Mr John Kerr’, Otago Daily Times, 24 October 1930.

District prize firing’, Otago Witness, 21 January 1882.

‘Fall from a horse: elderly man’s death’, Otago Daily Times, 15 November 1932.

A swimmer’s delight

Looking towards the pool in its early years. Image courtesy of Dunedin City Council archives, Ocean Beach Domain Board Series, reference acc1995/16/1.

I thought it would be fun to write an occasional post about the history of some of my favourite places in Dunedin. The St Clair salt water pool is right up there. I head there to swim laps once or twice a week, no matter the weather. In fact I prefer it when it’s raining or cool because there are fewer other people there – twice I’ve had the whole pool to myself! It’s a shame it’s only open for six months of the year, but I guess there isn’t the demand to warrant it in winter. The water is a balmy 28 degrees, though occasionally it drops a little if there’s a big sea and waves have crashed into the pool. There’s something special about swimming outdoors in salt water, but with the benefit of heating. There’s quite a community of regular swimmers of all ages and shapes and sizes. A couple of times I’ve swum my laps alongside the mighty Highlanders rugby team, who occasionally book half the pool for training.

There’s been a swimming pool at this spot for 136 years – since 1884 – but people were, of course, making use of this beautiful location long before that, and perhaps some swam on this spot. Māori developed a walking route around this section of coast, with some of their camping sites identified nearby. They had an urupā (burial ground) somewhere on the cliffs above. Once the Otago colony was established, it wasn’t long before the Ocean Beach, as it was then known, became a popular recreational spot. In 1851 William Valpy, a large landowner who developed a farm he called Forbury, put on a ‘harvest home’ celebration for his workers and friends. The Otago Witness reported that one group of party-goers ‘betook themselves to the Ocean Beach, and amused themselves in the interval betwixt dinner and tea with leaping, racing, and other manly exercises’.

Turkish baths
Advertising for the ‘greatest luxury of the age’, the Turkish baths in Moray Place, Dunedin. From the Otago Daily Times, 30 December 1874, courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

As Pamela Wood explains in her excellent book Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia, some Dunedin entrepreneurs set up ‘bathing establishments’ to provide the 19th century public with facilities for swimming and washing. To start with many residents had no public water supply or drainage, and even once those arrived people often had just wash basins or a tin bath in front of the fire to soak in. Premises such as the ‘Turkish’ baths set up in Moray Place in 1874 offered not just swimming, but a whole range of baths (there’s an intriguing piece about their history in the 1905 Cyclopedia of New Zealand). Local councils, more reluctantly, also provided facilities. In 1867, with the harbour ruled unfit for swimming, provincial government subsidised the building of baths at Pelichet Bay and in 1884, when those became run down, the Dunedin council opened new baths at Logan Point (these areas are now reclaimed land).

Also in 1884, the council contributed to the Caversham Borough Council’s new salt water baths at St Clair. The baths were pretty low-tech to begin with: a natural depression in the rocks at the end of the beach was enlarged to create a pool of nearly a quarter-acre, and each high tide conveniently flushed it out. A shed provided a little privacy for changing. At the official opening on 13 December, the mayor of Caversham surprised the 300 onlookers at the end of his speech when he ‘divested himself of his overcoat, and showed himself to be arrayed in Nature’s garb, with the exception of a pair of bathing-trunks, and without more ado took “a header”, followed by about a dozen similarly-attired persons’. With St Clair on the tram route, the baths quickly proved popular. As one councillor explained as funds were being raised, there had been a ‘number of accidents which had occurred from bathing in the open sea’; these ‘proper baths’ would be ‘universally beneficial to the community’.

ES 30 Jan 1885
An advertisement for ladies’ hours at the pool from the Evening Star, 30 January 1885. Swimming was strictly segregated by gender in the early decades of the baths. Image courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

A new concrete retaining wall, added in 1891, was the first significant improvement to the pool, which has been through a seemingly endless cycle of deterioration and renewal in the decades since. Perhaps the most important innovation was heating. In 1910 the Ocean Beach Domain Board, then responsible for the pool, installed three hot water baths, designed and constructed by A & T Burt. For any readers of a technological bent, here’s a description from the paper: ‘Water from the ocean was pumped up to a 600gal elevated reservoir by a Worthington Duplex pump, working with a steam pressure of 25lb. The circulator beneath the reservoir contained 250 gallons, and was filled with internal copper coils for heating by steam’. The plant was capable of heating further baths and later they grew to 18, enclosed in a building adjacent to the main pool. A telephone, installed in the caretaker’s house in 1910, allowed patrons to book a hot water bathe. A massage room was added in the 1920s, and later (perhaps the 1940s), a heated ‘therapeutic’ pool measuring 26 by 12 feet.

St Clair
This photograph of St Clair, taken by Sydney Charles Smith about 1923, shows further developments at the pool, visible in the distance. The buildings housed the caretaker, changing rooms, hot baths and a massage room. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-047673-G.
Meanwhile, the outdoor pool remained unheated, the only improvement being further additions to the wall which protected it from the sea. Regular work was needed to remove sand and debris from the base of the pool, but by the 1950s it had fallen into serious decline. Finally, in 1968, after years of campaigning and fund-raising, a brand new outdoor pool opened, all lined in concrete, complete with heating and chlorination. A paddling pool for youngsters was also added, but more ambitious plans for a diving pool and hot curative pool never eventuated due to lack of funds. The most recent upgrade, including a new heating system and changing facilities, was completed in 2002 after another long campaign. The improvements cost a cool $2 million, over half of it raised by a special trust and the rest by the council. Through the years the pool has been leased and run by various people and trusts; it is now fully managed by the city council, which employs the lovely lifeguards (one of them, Katherine, recently featured in the ODT’s regular careers series).

St Clair pool
St Clair saltwater pool in January 2016.

A big part of the appeal of the pool is the contrast between this piece of modern civilisation and its wild outdoor setting. The Pacific Ocean is a powerful force and St Clair beach is sometimes hit by big seas; erosion has created challenging problems for the council, and those problems are bound to become worse with rising sea levels. Sinkholes have occasionally appeared on the esplanade, access ramps have been seriously damaged, and there have been recent warnings about the risks of being swept out or thrown against the rocks at high tide or by rogue waves. None of this seems to put the surfers off, though, and it’s a long-time popular location for them, regardless of the cold. It isn’t only people that enjoy the waves – once I had the special treat of seeing a seal surfing in confidently on a St Clair wave as I wandered to the pool. Last year I spied a crested penguin, who sat on the rocks next to the pool for a few days while he or she was moulting. However I missed the famous occasion when a sea lion came in through the automatic doors and actually swam in the pool!

i met this wee creature, who’d come ashore to moult on the rocks right next to the pool, in Feburary 2015.


Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare time? Leisure, gender and modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law (eds), Site of gender: women, men and modernity in southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland University Press, 2003), 159-189.

Barbara Newton, Our St Clair: a resident’s history (Dunedin: Kenmore Productions, 2003).

St Clair salt water pool 1884-1984 (Dunedin: Queens High School, 1984).

Pamela Wood, Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia (Auckland University Press, 2005).

Old newspapers on Papers Past, with quotes taken from the following –

Otago Witness, 5 April 1851

Evening Star, 21 May 1884

Otago Daily Times, 15 December 1884

Otago Daily Times, 11 August 1910

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).

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.