Birth of the Romney Triplets
Located in the South Island of New Zealand, Nightcaps is a small coal-mining village with a colourful past. As the crow fly’s, it would be about half way between Invercargill and Lake Manapouri.
Coal was first extracted at Nightcaps in 1879, later; as production grew the village went on to house a strong labour force. By early 1920, a population of that township almost reached the seven hundred mark with the coal mining and timber milling industries of that time, employing almost all the male inhabitants.
One hundred years on, however, progress and new mining technologies seem to have turned this little town, like so many others, into almost a ghost town overnight. Yet it takes more than just a stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, to dampen the true Southland spirit.
Rich in history, this little town has had its allocation of colourful characters. This story attempts to portray some of the colour associated with the Nightcaps Maternity Home, just one of the community’s projects.
Nightcaps Maternity Home opened for business in 1932; about one year after George Wood came to town. George was, by all accounts, a graduate of the Otago Medical School and College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.
Prior to his arrival, intending mothers had limited options when it came to giving birth. Either they travelled to another maternity home elsewhere, or they delivered their pride
and joy at home, in the care of many of those local ladies, who so willingly acted as nurses and midwives.
I am informed George, in the forty years he worked as a local General Practitioner in Nightcaps, he delivered over one thousand babies into this world. Some of who several years later became mothers under his care.
George was notorious for his sense of humour. Unfortunately, in the twilight of his career, he became a reluctant patient in the Public Hospital. A sweet young nurse, whom he had delivered as a baby twenty years previous, was caring for him and was required to give him a painful injection.
George grimaced at the sting, and made a witty remark: -
“I smacked your bottom when you were born twenty years ago, girl.
If I had known then, you were going to give me this injection,
I would have smacked it a darn side harder!”
At this, the young nurse poked out her tongue, while trying to form a suitable response.
Like most projects in those country communities, they were invariably conceived by local initiative, and this Maternity Home was no exception.
In March 1925, at a Public Meeting held in the Coronation Hall, the possibility of developing a Maternity Home and perhaps a Cottage Hospital was discussed. To encourage the community with this project, the Mines Department offered a suitable block of land.
It was unfortunate, but staffing issues surrounding the Cottage Hospital brought this project to a halt. The Hospital Board of Management would not support the concept. In essence, this is where planning of the new Nightcaps Maternity Home first began in earnest.
A ‘Queen Carnival’ held in Nightcaps during the 1920’s raised a sum of money, which went towards the purchase of land, where it was hoped a Maternity Home would eventually be developed.
During 1926, the Reverend H. Dyson arrived in this small rural township and immediately involved himself in community affairs. Rolling his sleeves up, he jumped into the Maternity Home project, boots and all.
In order to raise project development funds, a series of successful concerts and live performances, the brainchild of Reverend Dyson, were held around the greater part of Western Southland. Due to this combined community effort, construction of a new Maternity Home began about the end of 1927 with a completion date in 1928.
The population Nightcaps at that time could be registered in the hundreds, not in thousands, so it is not so surprising there was never at any time a queue of intending mothers waiting at the door. At first, the building doubled as a dental clinic.
Of course, it wasn’t long before little Hugh Chappie became impatient and decided, with his mother's help, to put in an appearance. He became a celebrity in the village as he made his brief visit.
Obviously being the first of many babies to be born in that new building, it was with his birth, the new Maternity Home in Nightcaps was officially opened in 1932.
As the years swept by, the Nightcaps Maternity Home was later donated to the Wallace and Fiord Hospital Board; this group was to undertake the increased administration required by the New Zealand Social Security Act, of the 1930’s. (Red tape in other words.)
Around 1960, the property was taken over by the Southland Hospital Board, with proposals to provide more modern hospital services to the district. Then, economics and centralization, the catch phrase of that time, along with its financial constraints, led to the controversial closure of the Nightcaps Maternity Home in around 1966.
It must have been heart-wrenching for many of those locals, who had worked so hard to raise funds and watched with interest the growth of their Maternity Home over the past thirty years or so.
Then with the arrival of bureaucracy, they saw it become surplus to requirements, as they say, and eventually become vacant.
Now, at this point, a touch of irony comes into play.
Up until the building became vacant, day and night, busy feet pounded those scrubbed and polished corridors of the Nightcaps Maternity Home, listening for the hushed cry of another little family pride and joy.
After its closure, those scrubbed and polished corridors became strewn with birds dropping and loose straw, heralding a birthplace of another breed. Yes, __ it became the brooding house for a nearby chicken farm.
Amid all the disappointments and the controversies, however, there were some lighter moments throughout the years, which in themselves, are a joy to be shared.
Let me tell you about Matron Watt.
Matron Sarah Watt. I believe she was the first Matron to be employed here at the Nightcaps Maternity Home and was always one for a bit of a humour in her life.
Sarah had a pet sheep, you see, a Romney ewe by all accounts, which she kept in a paddock next to the Maternity Home. Her Romney ewe, they say, produced triplets in the paddock, next door. So for a bit of levity, Sarah placed an advertisement in the Southland Times Newspaper, which read: -
“Triplets were born at Nightcaps Maternity Hospital.
To, Mr and Mrs Romney of Oreti.
Now, an ambitious young newspaper reporter, a real go-getter with no sense of humour whatsoever, duly arrived to interview Mrs Romney.
Accordingly, he was shown the mother and baby grazing quite contentedly in the paddock, adjoining the Maternity Home.
Unfortunately for Sarah though, that young reporter fancied himself and took offence at being the butt of a local gag.
Of course, we can all laugh now, but at the time Sarah was definitely in the poo', so to speak. She received a Court Summons and was duly charged by the Courts for misrepresentation and fined a total sum of one pound.
The locals, however, they thought it was absolutely hilarious and all chipped in to defray Sarah’s expenses.