I once went to a music festival at Orokonui, near Waitati north of Dunedin. We had great fun. As we enjoyed the music and danced away New Year’s Eve in the old buildings, I had no idea that this was once a very sad place for my family. Many years later, I discovered that my great-great-grandmother died here in 1920, in what was then called the Orokonui Home.
The first record I found about Mary Ann Paskell was her death certificate. She died of ‘senility and heart failure’, age 83. Her maiden name Archer was included in her name, but apart from this, the certificate included no information about her parents, who she married and when, or how many children she had. They were all marked “Not Known”. The certificate reads as though her whole life had been erased.
Who was this mysterious, senile woman of 83 years of age, who died at this lovely place, now a beautiful ecosanctuary?
Mary Ann Archer was born to a poor farming family at Becontree Heath in Dagenham, Essex. In the mid-19th century Dagenham was rural. It is now part of the London metropolis and the site of a vast housing estate and a large Ford factory nearby. Mary Ann’s mother, who had the unusual name of Mahala, migrated from Diss, located on the Norfolk/Suffolk border about 90 miles from Dagenham. Mahala became the second wife of Thomas Archer, a farm labourer, a few days after her 20th birthday. Mary Ann was Mahala’s fourth child, born in 1839.
There were few prospects for a young woman in such an environment, only child-bearing and hard labour. Mary Ann may have had a more adventurous spirit. When news came around of a goldrush in Victoria, Australia, she bought a passage to Melbourne at only 18 years old. Her ship Lillies sailed from London in July 1857, carrying mostly cargo and a modest number of passengers.
Landing in Melbourne in October, Mary Ann immediately went to Sandhurst (since renamed Bendigo) and worked at gold-mining. There she very soon married John Thomas Paskell, who came from the Medway area of Kent. John also felt the lure of gold-mining and had landed in Melbourne only two weeks before their marriage. This timing suggests that perhaps Mary Ann and John knew each other before leaving England and had arranged to meet in Victoria.
Babies soon appeared, the third born in 1862 at Long Gully, two miles from Bendigo. By this time, gold had been discovered in Otago. Sometime between 1862 and 1865, Mary Ann and John took their family across the Tasman Sea to Dunedin and settled on a gold prospect at Glenore near Milton. The alluvial gold at Glenore proved to be hard-won but John then found a coal deposit nearby at Adams Flat. The family settled on some land there, farming and mining the lignite from a shallow quarry.
More children followed and in 1878 Mary Ann gave birth to her tenth child, Samuel. Just five weeks later, Mary Ann was admitted to the Seacliff Asylum. The records of her admission and her medical condition at the time have not been found. In the period immediately after Samuel’s birth, Mary Ann could have been suffering from postpartum depression or, more likely, postpartum psychosis. The latter is a very severe form of ‘baby blues’ experienced by 1 in 1000 mothers. What causes this illness is not well understood even today. There are likely biological factors including genetics and pregnancy-related hormones.
Symptoms of postpartum psychosis include those observed in Mary Ann in later records. These include: severe confusion or delirium; seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there – hallucinations; thoughts or beliefs that aren’t within reality or that people around you think are strange and out-of-character – delusions. Modern treatments for postpartum psychosis bring about recovery in most cases within 12 months, but too little was known or understood about the illness in the late 19th century to help Mary Ann.
The Seacliff Asylum was located north of Dunedin on a commanding site overlooking the sea. It was opened around the time of Mary Ann’s admission. The superintendent was Dr Frederick Truby King, who is famous for introducing new ideas into the treatment of mental illness. His methods were based on good nutrition, exercise, and outdoor activity. Truby King, as he was generally known, later applied his methods to the treatment of mothers and newborn babies. He founded the Plunket Society, which became established as a key element of New Zealand’s health system and persists today.
The asylum building at Seacliff was designed by Robert Lawson in a grand Gothic Revival style, with towers and ornate stonework. It was the largest building in New Zealand at the time. The sight of it must have been astonishing to Mary Ann when she arrived from the comparatively unsettled area around Milton. ‘The buildings were surrounded by their own farms and gardens. Patients were expected to work both inside and outdoors to the extent they were able, helping with domestic chores, farming and gardening.’
Four years later in 1882, with Mary Ann still confined to the asylum, her husband John was working his coal seam, removing the rocky layer from above the coal. When about fifteen feet down, a rock fell from the rockface and struck him on the head, severely fracturing his skull. One of his sons was working nearby and went for help but there was nothing they could do. John died instantly.
John died without leaving a will, which complicated matters greatly for the family. Mary Ann was classed as a ‘lunatic’ and unable to take control of John’s affairs. Administration orders for dealing with John’s estate were not settled until 20 years later. In 1902 their son William Paskell was granted the power to sell the Adams Flat property and distribute the proceeds.
A surviving asylum casebook shows that Mary Ann was at Seacliff during the 1880s. In 1885 the casebook notes that Mary Ann is ‘strong and healthy, passionate kitchen worker’, and ‘remained out all night last night.’ Three years later, she was ‘very violent and abusive’, ‘broke out last night’, and ‘placed in seclusion’.
In 1894, Mary Ann was discharged from the asylum and returned to Adams Flat, although it is apparent she had not recovered fully from her illness. The estate administration papers in 1902 include a sworn statement by William stating that his mother, Mary Ann, ‘has continued an imbecile and is aged and infirm and physically unfit to manage her affairs and is never likely to be able to do so.’
In December 1902 she was committed once again to the asylum. Mary Ann was suffering from delusions, her committal papers showing that she was quite unwell:
‘She has no heart and that someone has destroyed her inside’
‘She gets very violent in her language’
‘She talks incoherently and unconnectedly’
‘She thinks her breast bone was broken and that she has no stomach’
‘She says that her heart has been cut up into mincemeat and only a small part left’
‘If she takes an ache or pain, she thinks someone is the cause of it and cannot be made to believe otherwise’
The 1902 committal papers indicate that Mary Ann had experienced mental illness ‘probably since leaving Seacliff eight years ago’. It can’t have been easy for her family to care for her adequately with little or no medical supervision. Two of her children, William and Annie (now married) are noted as Mary Ann’s near relations.
Mary Ann remained in the asylum for the rest of her life. Mary Ann’s patient records show that her son John Thomas and daughter Elizabeth sent letters in 1903 enquiring about their mother’s health. In 1917 the records note that her condition was senile dementia but that she had ‘normal’ habits and kept herself clean and tidy. A year later she had deteriorated to only ‘fair’ conduct and ‘unclean and very untidy’.
The Orokonui Home was established near Waitati initially as an experimental ‘reformatory for inebriates’, that is, for recovering alcoholics. It was a working farm of 900 acres in a ‘quiet, healthy and picturesque spot’. Unfortunately, Orokonui Home was unsuccessful in the treatment of alcoholism. In 1905 the facility was made an auxiliary to the asylum, by now renamed the Seacliff Mental Hospital. Seacliff had taken in many aged people with dementia and other age-related infirmities. The pressure on Seacliff’s accommodation was relieved by the purchase of ‘The Camp’ (now known as Larnach Castle) in early 1906 and by using Orokonui Home for the first admission of male patients and to house elderly female patients.
At age 83, Mary Ann died here on 14 November 1920. During her last night her ‘breathing was rapid and she was very restless’, her heart action ‘laboured’. The doctor gave her some strychnine, to no avail. She passed away just after midnight, the doctor noting the cause of death as ‘senility and heart failure’.
The Coroner, J.A. Bartholomew, was required to investigate Mary Ann’s death. Mr Bartholomew came out to Waitati the day after her death. The Coroner took statements from Dr Henry Meredith Buchanan, the assistant medical officer for Seacliff Mental Hospital, and from Mary Ann’s nurse, Violet Glover. Dr Buchanan noted that her health ‘has been frail but remarkable for her age’. Violet Glover states that the ‘patient was properly cared for and attended to’ during her final days.
Dr Buchanan notes that her nearest relatives had not been heard from since 1903. (Their letters enquiring after her health are appended to Mary Ann’s case notes.) Dr Buchanan stated: ‘Notices have been sent to their last known addresses.’
One of the named relatives, her son John Thomas Paskell, had died of cancer in 1903. The other named relative, her daughter Elizabeth – ‘Mrs W. Connelly, Bluff’ – was treated violently by her husband and had obtained a separation order in November 1903. Another son Henry had drowned on the West Coast in 1894. Her son William had been killed in the Great War.
Given all these untoward events, it seems unlikely that the four or five surviving sons and daughters received the notification of their mother’s death. Mary Ann was buried on 17 November 1920 at the Waitati Cemetery in an unmarked grave, quite possibly with little ceremony.
Adding a further degree of sadness to this story, Mary Ann’s daughter Sarah Susannah Thomsen was also an inmate at the Seacliff Asylum from the early 1900’s. Mirroring her mother’s illness, Sarah was committed to Seacliff soon after the birth of her last child. Sarah also died at the Orokonui Home, aged 84, a year older than her mother.
Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to my cousin Marlene Piercy for her persistent efforts to obtain copies of the surviving case notes from the Otago District Health Board of Mary Ann’s incarceration at Seaview Asylum.
Massachusetts General Hospital Postpartum Psychosis Project; https://www.mghp3.org/about-postpartum-psychosis; obtained June 2020.
Te Ara; Story: Mental Health Services; https://teara.govt.nz/en/mental-health-services/page-2; obtained May 2020
The Cyclopedia of New Zealand; 1905; http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc04Cycl-t1-body1-d2-d17-d26.html; obtained May 2020