Friday, August 5, 2022

Cecil Herdson, and his gold-toothed dog

From around 1926 to late 1935, Cecil Hastings Herdson and his dental practice was part of the developing suburb of Avondale. He used the rooms above Arthur Maxwell’s pharmacy next to the police station on Great North Road, taking over from Robert Allely, Avondale chemist-dentist from the 1910s. A breeder of hunting dogs, his name lived on in many of the minds of those who had been in Avondale then as not only the local dentist, but the man who gave his dog golden teeth.

According to the story, related to me by a number of people back in 2001, Herdson’s hunting dog lost its teeth in an accident, so Herdson fashioned and fitted another set of teeth for the dog, made from gold. The story went further that when the dog did eventually pass on, Herdson buried the animal secretly, in case anyone came after the gold in his pet’s mouth.

Did it happen? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure either way. Dentists were, indeed, giving dogs gold crowns over their teeth at the time, filling cavities in dogs’ teeth with gold, and fashioning gold dental bridges for beloved canines. This seemed to have been a faddish trend from the early 1900s to the 1930s, in Britain, Germany and America, and the newspapers reported on it with fascination. If anyone ever digs up a dog’s skull in Avondale or Mt Albert with that certain glint attached — that might be Herdson’s beloved animal.

So, who was Cecil Hastings Herdson?

He was born the youngest of three children at Waiuku on 1 August 1888, to stockman Montague James Dayrell Herdson and Elizabeth Doncaster Herdson, née Oldham. Montague Herdson died at the age of 47 in 1909, and lies buried at Waikumete Cemetery. Elizabeth married again, this time to William Edward Maugham, on 22 December 1909, nearly a month after her first husband’s burial. Two years later, 23-year-old Cecil Herdson was working as a dental assistant in Waihi, then took up working for dentist A E O’Meara in Hastings, just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Herdson enlisted almost immediately, on 11 August 1914 with the B section of the 8th Mounted Field Ambulance, Hastings. This was the first unit to mobilise from the Hawke’s Bay region. Herdson served with the unit at Gallipoli in 1915, and was promoted to Lance-Corporal in August that year. By December, he was promoted again, to Sergeant, and then in February 1916 transferred to the NZ Dental Corps. He worked in Egypt until sent to France at the end of 1916. Another promotion, to Staff-Sergeant, came in 1918. He served throughout the rest of the war, and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 1919, just before he returned to New Zealand towards the end of that year.

It appears that Herdson stayed as a lodger with Mrs Gertrude Duvall at 13 Highbury Street from around 1921 until 1927, when Arthur Maxwell took up the lodging in his place (and remained a friend of Mrs Duvall, living there through to her death in 1967). Herdson had two suburban dental practices at one point. As well as his Avondale one, he had another in the back of Ozich’s block of shops, built 1925 on what is now Railside Avenue. A fire in 1927 destroyed the block.

He was involved in a motor accident in Pt Chevalier one night in 1928, through no real fault of his own, when a motorcyclist collided with the back of his car on a darkened Pt Chevalier road. The motorcyclist later died in hospital, but Herdson, who was driving with friends, was not held responsible.

Herdson was breeding Gordon Setter puppies at Avondale by 1926, and Irish Setters by 1931. His love of the dogs, hunting and fishing were obviously well-known in Avondale, and form part of the lore that led to the story of his golden-toothed dog. One particular dog, an Irish Setter named Lorna Doone from which he bred puppies until around 1934, seemed to be a favourite.

The 1930s, despite the Great Depression, seemed to be the decade when Cecil Herdson would do very well in both his life and his career. He got married in 1931, bought investment property in Avondale and elsewhere, his dogs were a success, and his practice profitable. In December 1935, he set himself up with an office in the prestigious Dilworth Building in the city.

Then, in 1937, Cecil Herdson went blind. His dental practice ceased. I don’t know why he went blind, that hasn’t been disclosed publically. It may have had something to do with his war service, but there isn’t anything on the surviving file that refers to an incident or illness that would have clearly led to it. The Defence Department did refer to his death in 1963 as being war-related — but as his death registration shows he suffered from arthrosclerosis lasting years, even that isn’t very clear. But, with his life so drastically altered, Herdson still managed to make the most of things.

This from the Auckland Star, 11 November 1944.

“To men newly-blinded in this war it must surely be encouraging to hear words such as these from a man who lost his sight when approaching middle life: "Blindness doesn't make a lot of difference. One can still lead one's ordinary social life, keep up many of one's old interests, and take up new ones also."

“The speaker was Mr Cecil H Herdson, of Great South Road, who was well known as a dentist in Auckland before he went blind seven years ago. The way in which he has adapted himself to his new world proves the truth of his own courageous words. Moreover, the fact that he has, in the last year, taken up a new hobby—that of making toys—should be an inspiration to younger men compelled through blindness to devote themselves to new careers. “Before he lost his sight Mr Herdson was quite competent at doing odd carpentering jobs about the house, but he had never made children's toys. Now he can display an attractive selection of doll's prams, small wheelbarrows (though one was large enough for a grown person to use with ease), scooters, tip-trucks, rocking horses and little carts, gaily painted in red, green, cream and yellow. “About a year ago he procured some iron and repaired a scooter and a pram. The idea came to him to try his hand at making wooden and iron toys, and four or five months ago he set up a workshop at his home. One of his first efforts was a wheelbarrow, a small, solid affair. Pointing out that it had faults, he said to-day that wheelbarrows were very hard for anyone to make.

“All his toys are solidly constructed with thorough detail that makes one marvel at the seeing fingers that guided the cutting machine. His tools include a drill and sanding machine. Particularly attractive (and for Mr Herdson one of the most difficult to make) is a doll's pram in cream painted wood, with rubber wheels, smooth chromium handlebars and pink lining.

“In his collection are several scooters in red and green-painted iron, and a splendid tip-truck with a jack for changing the wheels, a winder to make a satisfying clanking noise, and bushed wheels with iron axles. The rocking horses are of wood, unpainted as yet, but Mr Herdson is planning to make another type which will fit into an iron cradle and give a lifting motion. This will save wear and tear on carpets.

“The first and sometimes second coats of paint are put on by Mr Herdson, but a friend adds the top coat and two-colour effects. The friend also put the lining in the pram. Mr Herdson said that the Blind Institute had asked if it could take his toys for selling, and commercial firms had offered to buy them; but he had plenty of friends who were anxious to buy the toys for their children. It took him three or four days to make a wheelbarrow. Recently, as a change from making toys, he built a shower box in the bathroom. The job took him about a week, though he did not then have the sanding machine. When his photograph was being taken, Mr Herdson said, with a humorous "crack" at his former profession, "This is a worse ordeal than going to the dentist!" On discovering that a flashlight was being used, he chuckled, "It won't blind me, will it?"

“Mr Herdson said he still attended dog shows, in which he has always been interested, having had his own dogs at one time. He went to dental meetings, and did some insurance work among dentists. Having served in the last war, he now took an active interest in blinded soldiers' activities, he added. “A warm tribute was paid by Mr. Herdson to Sir Clutha Mackenzie for his help when he was blinded. Sir Clutha was the first blind person to visit him at his home, and presented him with a Braille watch, talking book, and a pack of cards, and later showed him over the institute. Mr. James Maguire, teacher of Braille and typing at the institute for many years, and now the teacher at Fairview, for blinded servicemen of this war, had also given him sympathetic help, for which he was deeply grateful. “Modest about his own achievement, Mr Herdson expressed keen interest in the future of blinded men of this war, and said he wanted to do all he could to help and encourage them.”

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