Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dr. James Frederick Carolan

While I was in Matamata, I felt too tired to continue the main day of the historical conference there and attend the scheduled dinner, so I elected to return to my motel room, enjoy a meal of Chinese takeaway, and spend the evening reading Joan Stanley's Matamata: Growth of a Town (1985) instead. Granted, I've heard from those who went to the Kaimai Cheese Factory building and attended the dinner that they had a wonderful time, topped off by movies shown on a wall including shots of troopers leaving our shores bound for the 2nd Boer War, but -- my greatest enjoyment at Matamata was doing something I've come to realise of late is a real passion of mine. Which is, exploring local history, even of districts that aren't Avondale or Waterview, my home turf. Reading Joan's wonderful book, I was able to do just that. It partially made up for not getting much of a chance to check out the Matamata Historical Society archives while I was at the Tower Museum -- time was very much against that, which was disappointing as I'm not sure financially whether I'll be able to get back to Matamata to have a look. C'est la vie.

But, the consolation is definitely Joan's book (if you read this, Joan, again -- my deepest thanks). I enjoyed reading it because it answered a number of the questions that had come to mind while I'd walked around the township before the conference-proper began. It also gave me a sharp jolt when I recognised a name: Dr. J. F. Carolan.

According to the book, Dr. Carolan settled in the Matamata district some time before the First World War, the third of three early doctors identified as serving the community there. His wife opened a private maternity hospital called "Kapai Whare", and both husband and wife worked hard during the 1918 influenza epidemic, bringing bowls of hot soup to one family with nine sick children. Dr. Carolan became ill but still either attended to his patients, prescribing for them either at his surgery or over the telephone, while his wife nursed many patients. Similar to the work of our Robert Allely here in Avondale during the same crisis.

The real link, though, is that, for a brief time, Dr. Carolan was a doctor living in Avondale, around 1906-1908* at least, one of our earliest medical practitioners. (*Found in May 2009 - references to Dr. Carolan at Avondale appear in the Leonard Pauling diaries, those of a Te Atatu farmer in the early years of the 20th century, on 4th, 9th, 16th December 1909, 6 January and 19th September 1910.) He certainly moved around, though, from when he first appears in documentation here in New Zealand, until his death.

It was Joan, again, who pointed me in the direction of a Cyclopedia of New Zealand entry for him, with further information on his biography. Born in Surrey 1851 of Irish extraction, he qualified with the Royal College of Surgeons in 1872. While he was here in New Zealand, he was alternately referred to either as a doctor or a surgeon: he fulfilled both roles. The 1902 Cyclopedia describes him as being in the colony for 19 years: he may have arrived, therefore, sometime around 1883. He registered as a medical practitioner in this country in 1885, appointed public vaccinator at Waipu in 1886, and held the same office for Mahurangi, Albertland, Mangawhai and Matakana in 1888. The earliest newspaper reference I found online was 1888, when he was firmly part of Warkworth and district's community, a fine singer (and piano player) at the local socials. As at 1890, he was vice-president of the Mahurangi Cricket Club, but in August he left the North for the Franklin District.
"Our doctor is taking his departure for fresh fields and pastures new. In many respects his loss will be felt here, not only in a business but in a social point of view, being always ready and willing to use his musical abilities for the amusement and benefit of the public. I heartily wish him (Dr. Carolan) every success and prosperity in his new home — a wish which all settlers around echo. He makes Bombay, I understand, his headquarters."
(Observer, 9 August 1890)

In his new home, he became involved with the local volunteer units, most likely as their medical officer. He was very proud of the wearing the uniforms he was entitled to: hence the photograph above, from the Cyclopedia. He was an honorary member of the South Franklin Mounted Infantry, then surgeon-captain to the Waiuku Cavalry.

In 1895, he moved back north, this time up to Kawakawa, as native medical officer and public vaccinator for the Bay of Islands district, and later surgeon to the Bay of Islands Coal Company. In 1898, he was on the move again, shifting to Rotorua (Observer, 1 October 1898). In March 1899, he was up north again, in Matakohe and remained there until 1903.
"In March, 1899, he removed to Matakohe, Kaipara, where his residence, “High Combe,” is conducted as a private hospital and Convalescent Home. Dr. Carolan is Medical Officer of Health for the county of Otamatea, and was elected surgeon-captain to the recently formed Otamatea Mounted Rifles, which have their headquarters at Paparoa. Possessing a fine tenor voice he has been much in requisition at all leading concerts and entertainments. Dr. Carolan is married to a daughter of Mr. S. H. Reid, J. P., of Papakura Valley, and niece of the late Rev. Alex. Reid, principal of Three Kings College, Auckland, and has four sons."

1903 was a move to Auckland this time, first at Birkenhead, and later Avondale. During this time, Dr. Carolan became involved, although on the sidelines, with an issue of an "unnecessary post mortem" on the body of a child named Elsie Whitehouse in 1906, who died after a treatment of trephination of the skull. The child's uncle wrote the following letter to the Observer (18 August) after that newspaper's initial coverage and opinions on the case:
"Dear Observer, — I should like to bring under your notice a sidelight on a matter you referred to a short time back, vis, the unnecessary post mortem held on my niece, Elsie Whitehouse. At the time Dr Carolan, as a "friend of the family," ordered the operation, which was considered (professionally) successful, though the child died. Shortly after this there was the unnecessary post mortem "to clear up an obscure point." Now sir, the friend of the family, Dr Carolan, and Dr Porter have sent in their bills for £10 10s and £14 14s respectively. I ask you are these legitimate charges to make upon a struggling settler whose outlay is already sufficiently great, to say nothing of the trouble in which he has been plunged? The accident happened on Monday. The child was dead on Thursday. — Yours, etc., A. H. Whitehouse, Ponsonby."
Dr. Carolan responded, defending his honour.

"Dr Carolan writes to us at some length in reply to the letter of A. H. Whitehouse in our last issue. Referring to the allusion to himself as "a friend of the family," he caustically says : — "I am no friend of A. H. Whitehouse, although I have attended members of his family, and he is known to me as the proprietor of a 'travelling show.'" He then proceeds : — "'Ordered' an operation! What authority has a medical man to 'order' an operation? Dr Harding Porter, who consulted with me, suggested the dangerous and difficult operation of trephining the skull to the mother of the child, as a last resource, and this Mrs E. Whitehouse agreed to without hesitation, and life was prolonged from Monday until the Thursday.

"The 'unnecessary postmortem' held by order of the Coroner, was ordered without my knowledge. I was not requested to be present, and pointed out to the Coroner, previous to the autopsy, that I was in a position to state the cause of death, but I think it only fair that the 'friend of the family' should not be censured for this! The charges are perfectly legitimate, and could be recovered in the R.M. Court if necessary. They are in accordance with the recognised scale of fees. Moreover, the father of the child, Mr Edward Whitehouse, has expressed himself thoroughly satisfied with all arrangements and has thanked the doctors privately by letter and also by advertisment in the Herald newspaper."

Dr Carolan also adds: "At the time of the accident the wife of Mr E. Whitehouse absolutely refused to permit the child to be taken to the general Hospital, a place more suitable for a "struggling settler," but begged me to remove the injured child to my residence. The unfortunate woman who was at the station master's house at New Lynn with four little children implored my wife to take care of the little one. At Mrs Whitehouse's request I turned my house into a temporary private hospital, afterwards removing the patient to a private nursing home in Auckland in order to receive proper surgical nursing, and I attended the child at the "Mater Misericordia" Hospital in conjunction with Dr Porter, with the approval of the mother of the child."
(Observer, 25 August 1906)

He appears in Wises Directory of 1907 as living in Avondale, and in 1908 was the nearest and attending doctor to the level crossing smash at the Avondale Railway Station. (This is why his name leapt out at me from the Matamata book).

Some time between late 1910 and just before World War I, he made his last move, to Matamata. Judging by the BDM records, he died there in 1930, aged 79. A most interesting doctor, this Dr. Carolan: so much a part of Northland, Auckland, Waikato and even Bay of Plenty history.


  1. somwhere I have a photo of the Otamatea mounted rifles. I'll track it down and scan it for you Ice. Yes I certainly have heard of the good Doctor. He was well thought of by the settlers in the Otamatea area


  2. Thank you for Lisa. for researching and writing up such a good article about Dr James Frederick is most interesting to read whst you have found out especially from Papers Past.
    Joan Stanley

  3. Thanks, Liz -- and especially to you, Joan! Welcome to the blog -- cheers. Thanks, Liz, for doing a little more digging (when you can) into Dr. Carolan's Northland background. Really appreciated.

  4. my great uncle came to NZ from London after the great war and lived for a short time in Matamata. His memoirs state he was treated by a Dr carolan of Matamata. Thanks for the info!