To New-Ulster, from Ulster: Part I – Auckland Asylum

For part II of this story see To New-Ulster, from Ulster: Part II - Sarah Mackey’s journey to NZ


Death

“A woman named Sarah Newdick, an inmate of the Lunatic Asylum, died somewhat suddenly on Sunday last. An inquest will be held upon the remains by Dr. Goldsboro' at 2 o'clock to-day, at the Asylum.” Thus ended the life of my 3x great grandmother, Sarah, as reported in the Evening Star on 21 June 1870.

Sarah’s family also chose to record her place of death in her funeral notice in the Daily Southern Cross , stating that she had died “On June 19, at the Lunatic Asylum…. beloved wife of the late Richard Newdick of Newmarket”. Here Sarah’s age is given as 48 but she was actually 50 years old.

Auckland City Libraries’ database Cemetery records - Symonds Street and St Stephens tells us that Sarah’s funeral took place at St Paul’s Church, in Emily Place, where Sarah and Richard married in 1843 and their first five children were baptised.

St Paul’s Church, by Felton Matthew, Dec 1845. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries,7-A4045.St Paul’s Church, by Felton Matthew, Dec 1845. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A4045.

Sarah was buried in Symonds Street Cemetery on 22 June. Her grave was likely one of those dug up and reinterred to make way for the Auckland Southern Motorway.

Melancholia

Sarah was first admitted to the newly established Provincial Auckland Lunatic Asylum, situated in the buildings of Auckland Hospital, on 20 October 1854. The records state that she was 31 but she was 34 years old. Entries in the Committed patient file - Sarah Newdick (R23545527), held at Archives New Zealand in Auckland, record the nature of her illness as “Melancholia” (or depression). She had been “in the same low state for several months, until having attempted to drown herself, and showing other symptoms of unsoundness of mind, she was removed to the Asylum.” It was noted that she was “very quiet and dispirited” and her periods had been absent for five months. Her children, Elizabeth (ten), Alfred (nine), Richard (seven), Sarah (five) and John (two), are not mentioned in the file.

During November her condition improved and at the start of December she was “removed by her husband” to convalesce. Although it was Richard who took her from the Asylum, she did not go home with him, but stayed with her brother Hugh. Hopes for her recovery were crushed when only two weeks later her family had to take her back to the Asylum suffering the same symptoms.

Drawing by Charles Heaphy looking south from the Domain, showing the Colonial Hospital at the centre top, the Lunatic Asylum on the slope below and Grafton Road on the right, ca 1850s. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-5179.Drawing by Charles Heaphy looking south from the Domain, showing the Colonial Hospital at the centre top, the Lunatic Asylum on the slope below and Grafton Road on the right, ca 1850s. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-5179.

The middle of January 1855 saw an improvement in her mental health. By the start of February, however, Sarah was refusing medication and her condition worsened. Her “medication” was such that her refusal of it was more likely an indication of her deteriorating mental state than the cause of it. Instructions on Sarah’s file show that her only medication at this time was a compound decoction of aloes, which was thought to help constipation and amenorrhoea. In addition, her feet were to be bathed in hot water every night.

In the 19th Century medications were limited and were primarily given to alleviate physical ailments. Asylums concentrated on providing a comfortable environment for patients to recover from mental illness. Routine was considered important, with female inmates being employed in traditionally female tasks such as cleaning, cooking and sewing. Men, who were allowed to garden and maintain the grounds, benefited from fresh air and exercise. Good food was also recognised as vital.

Attempted escape

On 1 March 1855, while walking with the Matron and another patient, Sarah “ran away and after much difficulty was brought back to the Asylum”. An order was put in place stopping her from leaving the building until the recreation yards were enclosed. Seven weeks later, Richard “wishing to have her at home, obtained an order from the Superintendent and she was discharged”. It was not unusual for husbands to request their wives be discharged from the Asylum before their doctors believed them to be ready. Women, especially those with young children, were needed at home. The timing, however, so soon after her attempted escape, seems to suggest that Richard was responding to Sarah’s desperation to leave.

The Newdick family lived in Ponsonby Road in the 1840s and early 1850s. Looking north over Auckland from the junction of Hepburn Street and Ponsonby Road by James D Richardson, ca 1850s. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-8982.The Newdick family lived in Ponsonby Road in the 1840s and early 1850s. Looking north over Auckland from the junction of Hepburn Street and Ponsonby Road by James D Richardson, ca 1850s. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-8982.

At home in Ponsonby and Newmarket

In 1928, son Alfred would tell readers of the Auckland Star that Auckland in the early 1850s “was a very small town. Most of the houses were along High Street, and you did not have to walk far before finding yourself right out in the country”. Alfred identified the Newdick house as being “where the West End Theatre now stands”. This places their home at what is now numbered 160 Ponsonby Road, about a 35 minute walk from the Asylum. Alfred recalled that in his childhood:

[…] there were only three other houses in the Ponsonby district. One was the farm of Mr Alimore, at Herne Bay: another on the farm of Captain Maine at Shelly Beach; and the third on Mr Taylor’s large block of ground, on College Hill. To St Matthew’s Church School in those days the track led across Nairn’s gully, down which a creek ran from Newton to Freeman’s Bay.

Crown Grants Registers held at Archives New Zealand show that in March and April 1855 Richard purchased two large pieces of land; 245 acres by the Mahurangi River and 210 acres by the Ararimu Stream. The family appear to have moved from their Ponsonby Road home to what is now Newmarket at around the time Sarah was admitted to the Asylum. Advertisements placed by Richard in the New Zealander in May and June 1855 state that he lived “near Major Matson’s, Parnell” and from February 1857 the family were giving their address as “Remuera” or “Newmarket”. This is likely to be the “house and about eight acres on the Remuera Road” that was advertised for sale in 1871.

This image shows a view of Parnell from the Auckland Domain, showing Major Matson’s house (now the corner of Birdwood Crescent and Parnell Road) and Rangitoto Island. The Newdick’s farm was off to the right of this image. Warre, Henry James, 1819-1898. [Warre, Henry James?], 1818-1898: Brookside; the residence of Major Matson. [1850s?]. Ref: B-061-006This image shows a view of Parnell from the Auckland Domain, showing Major Matson’s house (now the corner of Birdwood Crescent and Parnell Road) and Rangitoto Island. The Newdick’s farm was off to the right of this image. Warre, Henry James, 1819-1898. [Warre, Henry James?], 1818-1898: Brookside; the residence of Major Matson. [1850s?]. Ref: B-061-006

Return to the Asylum

In May 1857 Sarah gave birth to another son, Phillip, and he was baptised at St Mark’s Church, Remuera. Nineteen months later, on 9 Dec 1858, Sarah was readmitted to the Asylum. The Daily Southern Cross, 10 Dec 1858, records her re-entry into the asylum: “Sarah Newdick, charged with lunacy. On the depositions of Drs. McGauran and Franklyn, Sarah Newdick was committed to the Public Lunatic Asylum, she being of unsound mind and unfit to be at large.” Archives New Zealand holds a signed statement by McGauran and Franklyn stating that she was “insane and dangerous to herself and others”. Hormonal changes and stress may have exacerbated her condition at this point but Sarah would continue to suffer from episodes of psychotic depression for the rest of her life.

Sarah was to remain at the Asylum for her final eleven years. During this time her children grew up and had families of their own. In 1861, sixteen year old daughter Elizabeth, who was probably responsible for looking after her younger siblings and the house, gave birth to a son. She moved to nearby Mechanics Bay, presumably to live with the father of her child, William Allen. They had another child the following year but remained unmarried. By 1863, 18 year old son Alfred was sawmilling in the North and in 1867 began a 45 year gold mining career in Thames, a move his brothers followed.

On 8 March 1867 the Asylum’s ten staff and 41 male and 17 female residents relocated to “a very conspicuous and imposing building” and extensive grounds on the Great North Road. On the day of the move the Daily Southern Cross reported that the “poor lunatics will reap many benefits from the change of abode”, including “increased comfort, and the separation of those subjects whose peculiar kind of mania requires their seclusion from those having diseased minds of a different and opposite character”.

Looking south at Avondale Mental Asylum (subsequently Oakley Hospital) showing the east wing, 1877-1881. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A10156Looking south at Avondale Mental Asylum (subsequently Oakley Hospital) showing the east wing, 1877-1881. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A10156.

Three months after this move Richard died of cancer of the neck and it fell to his brother-in-law and two eldest sons to pay the “money due for the support of Sarah Newdick in the Lunatic Asylum”. Less than a year before her death there was some dispute about payment for Sarah’s care, with brother Hugh claiming that he was “too poor, having a family of ten to support of my own”. The Daily Southern Cross, 20 Aug 1869, reported that the court ruled against Hugh, stating that the Lunatics Act of 1866, passed by the Provincial Council, provided that the brother of a patient in an asylum was liable for support of their sibling.

Maniacal Insanity

There are no entries in the register to inform us about Sarah’s condition or treatment after her readmission in 1858 but the file Inquest Proceedings on Sarah Newdick (R24283383), held at Archives New Zealand, continues her story. In his statement, Timothy Lowry, Chief Keeper at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum, said that Sarah had been “at various times been very violent and boisterous, but latterly not so violent, but accustomed to use very bad language.” The Acting Matron of the Asylum, Mary Lawrence, stated that Sarah had been healthy and ate well until three months before her death. For the last week or so she was bed bound and would only have a little wine and egg. In the six months she had been in the role she had observed Sarah to be “noisy” but not violent.

Francis Aickin, the Resident Medical Officer, saw Sarah daily from the end of November 1869. He said that during this time she was “maniacal, very much broken down in constitution, greatly emaciated, but exhibiting no symptoms of organic disease.” He noted that she was unwell for the last month and ate little. He concluded that “her death was produced by sheer exhaustion, the deceased being reduced to the last stage of emaciation”. Like the Matron, he said that she had not been violent or dangerous to herself or others since he knew her but she “used very offensive language to herself but in a low muttering manner”.

The Coroner, Charles Field Goldsbro, found that Sarah “did languish under a grievous disease of the body to wit Maniacal Insanity” and that she had died of natural causes. One of her daughters was with her when she died.

A lesson from history

Looking back at history allows us to see the ways in which life in New Zealand has changed. At times that may cause us to mourn what we have lost but it also reminds us to truly value the advantages we enjoy now. As much as family, doctors and nurses wanted to help Sarah, she was born in an age unable to deal with her illness. With a better understanding of her condition, and appropriate treatment, Sarah’s life might have been both happier and longer.

Next week I will explore Sarah’s early life and retrace her journey to Auckland from Ireland in 1841. Where did she grow up and who were her family? Why, and how, did the young Irish woman sail from her homeland forever, to the other side of the world?

By Helen Smith

Helen is a Research Librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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Kirsty Willis August 22nd at 12:39PM

A somber subject but a really interesting read. Look forward to the next installment.