Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Not Just Weighing Babies in Avondale

I take the title for this post from Linda Bryder’s 1998 book on the centenary of Plunket in Auckland. How did Plunket start out in Avondale? Somewhat controversially – through no fault of the organisation, or anything to do with Truby King’s ideals.

The Auckland branch secretary of Plunket at the time, Eileen Partiridge, came out to Avondale in 1922, in the days when Avondale was a borough, and during the term of office of our first Mayor, James Watkin Kinniburgh. His wife Naomi is described by descendants today as forthright , a woman who held her own opinion. While living in Wellington in 1893, she was one of the signatories to the petition calling for the right for women to vote. Avondale in 1922 was where, according to the local nurse, Mrs W MacKenzie, “a great number of very poor mothers” wanted Plunket assistance but couldn’t afford the trip into the city to what was then the headquarters of Plunket in Auckland. The district’s doctor, initially anti-Plunket, was won over; the local chemist, possibly Robert Allely, a “dear kindly old soul” was also enlisted. The first Plunket office was set up in a room at the Town Hall that year – so next year marks the 90th anniversary of Plunket in Avondale.

The Mayoress, Naomi Kinniburgh, was asked to convene the first Avondale Plunket sub-committee meeting. This is where things became interesting. To quote from Bryder’s book, taken from Partridge’s account of that first meeting, described as a “very quaint experience”:
Mrs Bloomfield and I arrived at the Town Hall, Avondale, at the appointed hour and were met by the Mayoress. Her first words were ‘There is no one here and I don’t think there will be for no one seems interested’ It was like getting a bucket of ice water thrown on one’s face. However we went inside and I am glad to say quite a fair crowd turned up, including the chemist and the doctor. We explained our mission. After many funny little incidents, the doctor, for courtesy’s sake, proposed that the Mayoress be President of the sub-committee. Some one seconded this and after some hesitation the lady, half pleased, half annoyed, agreed to it. She and the Secretary were elected.

I whispered to Mrs Bloomfield to suggest that the two men be asked to act as advisers to the ladies. The suggestion was received with acclamation by all but the newly elected President who looked as though she had received an electric shock. She sat bolt upright in her chair and said, ‘This alters the whole situation. I will not sit on any committee with a man (a long cold pause). I have very advanced views on this subject which cannot be spoken of at a mixed meeting. I would no doubt shock you if I did speak of them. If I remain President I should be placed in an embarrassing and false position therefore I must ask you to choose someone else.’

The poor male creatures looked at one another weakly. They could neither ‘cuss’ nor argue. Mrs Bloomfield asked her to try it, as she might change her ‘views’ later but the answer ‘Never!’ was crushing. One cheery soul cleared the air by offering to become President. Before we left Mrs Bloomfield asked if some one would give Nurse some lunch on her office days, as there was no restaurant in the village. The old Chemist who was sitting behind the Mayoress said with a merry twinkle in his eye, ‘I will, Mrs Bloomfield, and if Nurse is shy, I will hold her hand while she eats it.’ The back of the Mayoress stiffened again, and the ‘sniff’ clearly meant ‘just as I thought.’

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