The second Penrose & Pyke Mystery, Murder Most Melancholy, is set in and around Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand. I hope this post will help readers to get a feel for the locations in the story, for those who don’t know the area.
Dunedin is known for its steep terrain, scenic harbour, wildlife, Scottish heritage and Victorian buildings, amongst other things.
This harbour photo was taken at Signal Hill (328m), well below the peak of Mt Cargill (676m).
In the story, Anne Macmillan’s house is on High Street, which had several real resident doctors and was not far from the city centre. The photo on the left shows Dr Colquhoun’s house, built in 1895. The middle photo gives a sense of the layers of houses strung up hillsides. While it doesn’t feature in the story, residents and visitors all know Baldwin Street (right), which is famous for being the steepest street in the world (or infamous, if you suffer from vertigo or weak thigh muscles).
The fictional action begins on the train between Dunedin city and the small coastal settlement of Waitati (about 20km north of the city). The main railway line north of Dunedin, completed in 1878, was a feat of engineering over rugged terrain. At the sheer cliff featured in the story, a rock shelf for the train tracks had to be hacked out from the cliff using picks and chisels by men slung down from the top on ropes. You can see the modern tunnel on the centre-left of the photo and the cut of the train line running across the cliff, towards the entrance to the inlet, with its sandbar and island.
“The dizzy depths of the sea below which washes the foot of the rocks are enough to appal [sic] weak nerves, and I would suggest to all tremulous people who may happen to travel on this line to keep well inside the carriage doors. Having rounded the cliff, which is quite a quarter of a mile in extent, the dangers are not yet over, as the track has been hewn for some yards out of an almost perpendicular mountain side.”
At one point, the train travelled over girders, through which the sea could be seen below. The more enthusiastic train drivers of the era sometimes ignored the strict speed limit, such that “Some prudent travellers chose to go by sea rather than risk their lives.” This section was later made safer with an extra tunnel.
On the other side of the cliffs, the train descends to the village of Waitati, crossing the water of the river and inlet over two substantial bridges. The fictional Stillwaters Sanctuary in the story sits between the cliffs and Waitati, looking out over the inlet.
On the north side of the village, the train crosses a causeway over the inlet, after passing the Saratoga Hotel. The photo is from the 1880s, courtesy of the National Library collection.
The last photo shows the coastal countryside around Seacliff, before the rail route heads north to Oamaru and Christchurch.
The latest Penrose and Pyke Mystery, Murder Most Melancholy, is set in 1891, when mental health care was rather different from today. The asylum in the book is fictional and not based on any specific institution, but the story incorporates some real aspects of care at the time. The attendant uniforms and duties, the power of the superintendent and matron, the ubiquitous sets of keys hanging from their belts, jangling as they walked, as well as the adherence to the Rulebook and daily regime, and the medical treatments available at the time.
However, the fictional Stillwaters Sanctuary, being a private institution for young ladies, is also a far cry from the real public asylums of the era. So, what was it really like back then?
The mental health of colonial settlers in New Zealand reflected the short history of European colonisation, which only began in earnest after the signing of a treaty with the indigenous Maori population in 1840. By the 1890s, the European population had increased to over 620,000, all of whom had endured a months-long sea voyage to the other side of the world. (Of course, the indigenous population suffered far worse, through land confiscation, war and disease.)
For some settlers, the anticipation of a better life turned into despair and alcoholism, as they experienced the realities of an often harsh and lonely life in a new country, away from family. Mentally ill people (known back then as “lunatics”) who were a danger to society or themselves were at first cared for in gaols, then in small purpose-built asylums, which were overcrowded and little better than gaols. By the late 1870s, policy shifted in favour of larger institutions, which were built in country areas with their own farms and gardens.
One of these was the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, north of Dunedin, which was the largest building in the country. It was so huge that there was said to be over 1,000 keys to open the many doors, and close to 1,500 patients. Even this huge asylum was soon overcrowded, used as a dumping ground for every manner of person from the criminally insane, to chronic alcoholics, epileptics, elderly people with dementia, unwanted or difficult people (including “hysterical” women who failed to conform to the subservient, modest standards of the time), and everything in between.
Minimally trained staff worked extremely long hours with challenging patients and inadequate funding and staffing levels. At one asylum, attendants worked 12 hours daily in summer and 11 in winter, less 1.5 hours for meals. They were off duty for only one weekday and one Sunday and a half every five weeks. No overtime was paid. Standards were set out clearly in staff rulebooks and unquestioning obedience to their superiors was expected.
Nevertheless, the underlying philosophy of “moral management” of the late 19th century was ahead of its time.
As noted by James Hume, the lay superintendent of the Dunedin Asylum: “Patience, gentle treatment, nourishing diet, cleanliness with light employment or exercise goes far to recover the Lunatic and in Chronic Cases serves to make them comfortable or even happy. Amusements for the insane are indispensable …and where space can be found in an asylum, a weekly concert with dance – both sexes carefully chosen can join in the entertainment and conduct themselves with the greatest decorum. Good example in the attendants is the greatest guide, and gives confidence to the patients.”
The food at Seacliff, under the direction of Dr Truby King, was far more nutritious than the meat-heavy (and alcohol-soaked) diets of the general population. Combined with outdoor work, exercise, and a relatively safe roof over their heads, the regime was far healthier than many patients had had in their previous lives, especially considering the derision and abuse levelled at ‘lunatics’ in the community.
The large asylums also provided a social hub for the wider community, known for their dances and balls, musical entertainments, sports days and picnics. Seacliff even had a football team in the national competition, taking home the trophy in 1923. [The concert clipping is from the Otago Daily Times, 5 July 1890; the football photo is from the Hocken Library.]
If that all sounds more charming than you might have expected, then spare a thought for what sensitive souls must have suffered, being locked up with the criminally insane with minimal privacy, far from their families. Readers of one of New Zealand’s best-known writers, Janet Frame, will appreciate the anguish she suffered, being forced to use the toilet and bathroom with no privacy. She was held at Seacliff Asylum during the 1940s, when treatment included brain surgery and shock treatment. Frame narrowly escaped a lobotomy after being wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic.
As she notes in her autobiography (An Angel At My Table): “There was a personal, geographical, even linguistic exclusiveness in this community of the insane who yet had no legal or personal external identity – no clothes of their own to wear, no handbags, no purses, no possessions but a temporary bed to sleep in with a locker beside it, and a room to sit in and stare, called the dayroom. Many patients confined in other wards of Seacliff had no name, only a nickname, no past, no future, only an imprisoned Now…”.
As you might imagine, Seacliff Asylum had its share of challenges over the years, and not just from its patients. The building began to sink almost as soon as it was completed, as it was built on unstable ground, causing drainage and plumbing issues, while a fire in 1942 killed 37 female patients. All that can be seen of Seacliff now are a few ruins in the Truby King Reserve, on the coast road between Karitane and Waitati.
Seacliff wasn’t the only grand building used for mental health care during New Zealand’s history. Larnach Castle (now a tourist attraction) was used as a hospital for mental patients and for shell-shocked soldiers in the early 1900s, while the Chateau Tongariro (now a luxury hotel) was requisitioned for the patients of the psychiatric hospital at Porirua, which had been damaged in the 1942 earthquake. Its use was short-lived, due to the 1945 eruption of Mt Ruapehu.
I am grateful for the very detailed account of mental health care in Warwick Brunton’s PhD thesis (A choice of difficulties: national mental health policy in New Zealand, 1840-1947, University of Otago, Dunedin, 2001). Additional historical details were taken Te Ara (https://teara.govt.nz/en/mental-health-services) and Heritage NZ (http://heritage.org.nz/). Thanks also to the Hocken Library and National Library for their wonderful collections of old photographs and to Papers Past for news clippings.
The Penrose & Pyke Mysteries are set in and around Dunedin, New Zealand. Readers who haven’t been lucky enough to visit (yet) might like to know a little more about the city.
Dunedin is built on the collapsed remains of a volcano, so the views are stunning. Fortunately, it’s a long extinct volcano, unlike our biggest city, Auckland, where the youngest of about fifty volcanoes is only 600 years old. This fiery past contributes to several outstanding features – very steep streets, beautiful black rock for building, and a wonderful harbour ringed to the south by the green hills, steep cliffs and beaches of the Otago Peninsula.
If you think I’m exaggerating the steepness, check out this video of the much-loved Jaffa Roll. In the past, thousands of the little round sweets were rolled down the steepest street in the world each year, but no more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F42VcDVQ7Ro
The Otago Peninsula is known for its scenery and wildlife, especially the Royal Albatross colony, where you might see the birds soaring with their three-metre wingspan. Rare yellow-eyed penguins, blue penguins, seals and sea-lions are some of the other treats for lovers of fur and feather. And don’t miss the chance to visit the historic homes and gardens, like Glenfalloch and Larnach Castle (see previous blog post), built on the peninsula in the heyday of Victorian wealth.
Hard to believe now, but Dunedin was once the wealthiest and largest city in New Zealand, after settlement by Scottish, English and other immigrants was turbo-charged by the discovery of gold in the 1860s and the on-going wealth that flowed from sheep farming. The distinctly Scottish vibe are a legacy of those golden years. It’s not called the “Edinburgh of the South” for nothing.
Dunedin city is a treasure trove of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, from worker’s cottages to mansions, churches to civic buildings, hotels to factories, and the oldest (and prettiest) university in New Zealand. Hours of fun for the history buff, thanks to the relative lack of modern “development” compared to other cities. And all those students make for a lively place (not just for their infamous couch-burning parties).
Visit the railway station and shout for joy that a functional place can also be made beautiful.
Sadly, the only passenger trains these days are the tourist routes up the coast and into Central Otago via the Taieri Gorge – both must-do excursions with fabulous views, on routes hewn from rock in the 1800s.
The end of the Taieri line is a great place to start a cycling trip through Central Otago, along the old railway route all the way to Clyde, then back down the mighty Clutha River.
Apologies for the adjectival-overload … I admit to being just a teeny bit gushy about one of my favourite regions of New Zealand! I can’t resist adding some pics of my last bike trip thru Central Otago, as a bonus lure to come visit. Oh, the smell of wild thyme, hot from the sun on the rocks.
If you visit, bring a warm coat, stout shoes, and a sense of adventure.
I have to admit a fascination for the Victorian era. Industrial innovation, scientific advancement and exploration made for a heady mix of momentous change. And how those successful nouveau-riche Victorians loved to flaunt their newly-minted wealth!
One such man was William Larnach, who built New Zealand’s only castle in 1871. If you are in Dunedin, I’d highly recommend a visit. According to their website (https://www.larnachcastle.co.nz/), “It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the Castle shell and master European craftsmen spent a further 12 years embellishing the interior.”
While the castle is glorious and the location is spectacular, it is all the interior detail I loved the most. Birds in domed display cases, sumptuous furniture and accessories, and totally over-the-top interiors are just some of the delights.
As the website says: “Materials from all over the world were used – marble from Italy, slate from Wales, floor tiles from England, glass from Venice and France. No expense was spared in creating Larnach’s dream home! Many New Zealand native woods were also used – kauri ceilings, rimu floors and honeysuckle panelling. In 1885 a 3,000 square foot Ballroom was added.”
Since 1900, the castle has had many uses, “as a lunatic asylum, a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers and a nuns’ retreat. The Ballroom was once even used as a sheep holding pen!”, before falling into decline.
Three cheers for the Barker family, for six decades of dedicated renovation to bring the derelict mansion back to its current extraordinary state.
William Larnach doesn’t appear in my latest novel, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, but he does provide some inspiration for the characters and locations.
His own history would scarcely be believed if it was written as a novel. He started as a banker (his bank on the Australian goldfields was “a tent and his equipment consisted of dogs, a gun, and strong boxes”), before moving to New Zealand when gold was discovered in the 1860s. From there he expanded into shipping, farming, landholding, politics, speculation and a career in politics.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end well. Economic depression led to financial difficulties, drinking and depression. In 1898, Larnach locked himself in a committee room at Parliament and shot himself with a revolver. His final legacy to the world of Victorian excess was the enormous mausoleum in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery, a miniature replica of Robert Lawson’s First Church.
Agog as I am at the ostentatious wealth of the era, my own interest is at the other end of the spectrum – the tarnished reverse side of the shiny coin of economic wealth. The machinery of mass production put many skilled workers out of a job or forced them into unskilled labour or, if things got really dire, workhouses. Others took the courageous decision to emigrate to British colonies, like New Zealand – a migration that had profound consequences for the indigenous population as well as the new immigrants.
While the divide between rich and poor persisted in New Zealand (as it still does), the balance of power was tipped towards workers, who were a scarce resource, and women, who were an even scarcer resource.
Thus, the late Victorian era was also a time of great social change here, achieving advances in workers’ rights and women’s suffrage that would not have been possible in other countries.
A great source of pride to Kiwis and, happily for me, a rich vein of background material to plunder for the first three books in the Penrose & Pyke Mystery series. The first book (with a workers’ rights theme) will be released this week. Thank you to all the lovely readers who have pre-ordered it. I hope you enjoy it!
The next time you’re burning the midnight oil at work, spare a thought for how it used to be, when the ‘midnight oil’ was a feeble lamp lighting the piecework taken home by women after a long day on the factory floor. And give thanks to the campaigners for workers’ rights, who fought hard for better conditions (and who still do so).
My new book, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, was inspired by the events of 1890, in New Zealand’s biggest and wealthiest city (at the time), Dunedin. Many workers slaved for long hours in appalling conditions, although arguably with better conditions than they had faced in Britain, from whence most of the population had immigrated since 1840. Some workers even managed to get an eight-hour day, as first celebrated fifty years later, in October 1890, by our first Labour Day. (The cartoon lampooning the Employers’ Union Labour Day float is from the Alexander Turnbull Library.)
After the depression years of the 1880s, any job was better than none, even if the pay scarcely covered a subsistence living. Families often fended off starvation by sending their women and children to work.
Enter the Reverend Rutherford Waddell and his widely publicised sermons on the ‘Sin of Cheapness’. Waddell was the minister of the St Andrew’s parish, in an area so notorious for drinking and debauchery that it became known as the Devil’s Half Acre. It was so bad that Walker Street, which is the epicentre of events in the story, was later renamed Carroll Street in an attempt to blot out the taint. (Waddell photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)
Waddell’s powerful advocacy helped to establish the first union for working women, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. The first vice-president of the union was Harriet Morison, one of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) pioneering feminists, who later played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. (Harriet Morrison photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)
The government responded by setting up the Sweating Commission, which first convened in Dunedin on the tenth of February 1890, with Waddell as one of the commissioners.
Here’s a sample of one inspection by the Sweating Commission: ‘Factory crowded to excess. Badly lighted, and not ventilated. The building has three flats. In the upper one the sewing girls and clickers are in one room, and some of the employees are juvenile in appearance. The ground-floor is crowded with machinery and men, and the cellar is utilised as workroom for considerable number of men. The cellar from floor to ceiling is not more than 6ft. high, and two boys there are practically working in the dark.’
The photos below, of women working a clothing factory and looms at a woollen mill, are from the early 1900s, when conditions had improved significantly (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).
The commission concluded that sweating did not exist, in the sense of the accepted definition, albeit with three dissenting commissioners, including Waddell. However, the evidence of long hours, poor conditions and inadequate pay was undeniable. The Liberal government subsequently made significant changes to labour laws, including the Factories Acts of 1891 and 1894.
For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend Ian Dougherty’s fascinating biography of Waddell – Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner, Rutherford Waddell (2018, Saddle Hill Press, Dunedin, New Zealand).