On Monday 19 November 1956 Mary departed from the Royal Albert Docks in London, England on board the SS Rangitoto bound for Auckland and a year living in New Zealand.
Though her principal employment during that year was as an exchange lecturer in botany at Massey College (now Massey University), Mary took advantage of every spare moment to study the natural history of many parts of New Zealand. Mary’s particular fascination was the ecology of islands, and she documented plant and bird life all around New Zealand’s long coastline, on Kapiti, in the albatross sanctuary on Otago Peninsular and the gannet colonies of Cape Kidnappers, on Stephens Island and The Brothers in the notoriously rough Cook Strait, on Little Barrier in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, on Mayor and volcanic White and Motiti Islands in the Bay of Plenty. From the plant life of the penguin and muttonbird colonies on Stewart Island to the fish and marine life in the Bay of Islands, Mary explored more of New Zealand in 365 days that most locals do in a lifetime.
Here we use extracts from Mary’s diaries and her own photographs and drawings to tell the story of her life in New Zealand.
Saturday 22 December 1956
At last the Antipodes, our goal, after 33½ days of sailing …
Sunday 23 December 1956
Awoke at 5am [aboard the overnight train from Auckland to Palmerston North] to rolling pastoral country with sheep up to their bellies in long grass. … Miss Ella Campbell of the Massey Botany Department met me at the station at 5.30am and took me by car to Miss Mary Campbell’s flat for breakfast (Miss Mary = Massey Librarian) … the authorities had decided to ask me if I would take on the wardenship of the women’s hostel – “No extra work, just a matter of being there – free board & lodging and an extra £4 a week” bringing my gross annual stipend up to £1,642 …
Massey in all its various parts and Mogenie, the women’s hostel, were surrounded by equally lovely gardens and set on a series of little hillsides with streams in steep-sided valleys leading down to the broad Manawatu River … ‘Mog’ had delightful lawns where I pictured myself reading under the tree ferns and a sentinel NZ cabbage tree …
Monday 24 December 1956
… put a toll call through to Dr Falla in Wellington re my immediate island movements and sent a telegram to Dr Lucy Moore, head botanist of the NZ DSIR [Department of Scientific and Industrial Research] in Wellington. She had kindly asked me to go and stay so that she could show me round and she and Dr Hamilton, head of the whole DSIR, were desirous of getting me on to some of the islands.
Mary caught the bus to Wellington on 27 December for 3 days of meetings with DSIR and National Museum staff, explored local marine areas and forests, and made arrangements for as much travel as she could fit in prior to the start of her exchange lectureship at Massey College (now University) on 1 March 1957. On 5 January1957 she travelled to Napier to begin her explorations.
Monday 7 January 1957
A big day today, viewing the gannets of Cape Kidnappers ... Read more here
Mary returned to Palmerston North on 10 January and almost immediately set off on my travels again, this time by train, ferry and shared hire car (a Morris Minor) to Dunedin, ostensibly to attend the ANZAAS (Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science) conference but also to spend as much time as possible exploring the flora and fauna of the Otago Peninsula.
Tuesday 15 January 1957
Penguins and Albatrosses! … Read more here
Saturday 19 January 1957
A very swelly trip, nesting birds, penguins, and some fishing success … Read more here
At the conclusion of the more formal aspects of the ANZAAS conference, Mary joined other attendees in a 7-day organised trip to various locations in Otago and Southland (Mary is the woman on the extreme left in the above photo). She then made a private 10-day visit to the southernmost of New Zealand’s main islands, Stewart Island.
4 to 14 February 1957 Stewart Island
Exploring Stewart Island … Read more here
From 16 to 26 February 1957 Mary toured more of the South Island, spending time meeting local university staff in Christchurch; a day exploring parts of nearby Banks Peninsular; she trained up the South Island’s east coast; and explored the west coast’s rainforests and glaciers by bus for four days. Then it was back to Palmerston North to prepare for the start of her lecturing on 1 March.
Wednesday 27 February 1957
Today marked the beginning of the more hum drum part of my stay in NZ as I began to orientate myself to the vagaries of Moginie House – the half day’s march to the bathroom and whole day’s march to meals at the men’s refectory ¼ hour away. There were many compensations, however, in the form of a lounge, a sun parlour and a bedroom, which began to look less austere when I started scattering shells and corals – trophies of Stewart Island and Curacao – over the shelves. There was a delightful amount of storage space, desks, drawers and cupboards, and a garden and verandah, which I shared with the students. Warden and students alike fend for themselves in this far flung land and it was not until Sunday that I had finally laid the last of the cobwebs low and avenged myself on the host of spiders. During the course of my apprenticeship I learned how to cope with Electrolux, washing machine and electric cooker, and water heater …
Initiation by blood my first evening as warden when four slightly sozzled men students arrived and dripped blood all over the kitchen furniture at 10pm, under the delusion that the matron was housed here. Nancy Baigent, MSc student and acting warden during my absence, produced a first aid kit and we patched the sufferer up and packed him off to the hospital for stitches. It appeared he had fallen through a window in the men’s hostel and had badly cut hands and arms. Mopping blood from the floor at 11pm, I was assured by the older girls that this was not an everyday occurrence …
Thursday 28 February 1957
One of my ‘bright young things’ coming in at 5am from a dance disturbed my nocturnal meditations and necessitated disciplinary action on the morrow (the usual form of this being a system of fines – proceeds to the student body).
Friday 1 March 1957
My first day on the job today, my first class the all-male second-year-degree men, hefty six-footers from the outback. Dr Yeates, knowing me to have come from a gentler world, seemed a little perturbed and greeted me when I emerged from the fray with “Did they take it lying down?” I was able to report that “Not only did they take it lying down but they stayed awake”. There was, however, a certain amount of preliminary banter until we got each other’s measure.
Thursday 14 March 1957
Compliment from Don Wright, one of the 4th year degree men today, after a lecture on the green algae. “Gosh that was a wizard lecture. Do you know that’s the first university lecture I’ve had since I’ve been in this place – just like those of the old zoo prof. when I was at ’varsity. They spoon feed you in this place, read their cyclostyled notes word for word – we always used to go to sleep in Miss Campbell’s lectures!” Students are nothing if not frank!
Friday 22 March 1957
March hare madness of capping week …
When the Easter holidays came around, Mary took advantage of the university break to travel to Rotorua, to explore the local thermal attractions, and for the May holidays she headed south to the islands of Cook Strait.
13 to 14 May Stephen Island and 15 to 22 May 1957 The Brothers
Lighthouses and prehistoric dinosaurs … Read more here
Somewhat reluctantly, Mary headed back to Massey University at the end of the May holiday break, then was off exploring again as soon as the August holidays rolled around. This time she headed north to Auckland where, with the help of boat transport and lighthouse accommodation provided by the NZ government’s Marine Department and a research grant from the University of New Zealand, she was able to explore the island’s of the Hauraki Gulf, staying first on Mokohinau and then on Little Barrier.
6 to 15 August Mokohinau Island
Muttonbirds, piglets and more … Read more here
Mary published a scientific paper about her findings on Mokohinau, ‘Plant communities of the Mokohinau Islands, Northern NZ’, the text of which can be read here.
15 to 24 August Little Barrier Island
More island life, this time on Little Barrier, where Mary helped with shepherding, learnt more of lighthouse life, and was entranced by kakas … Read more here
And so back to Massey University for her final term’s lecturing and exam marking ...
Monday 21 October to Wednesday 23 October 1957
All the last minute chaos of packing, writing all the letters I should have written weeks before, packing Xmas parcels, buying cases, sending off Xmas cards, getting money transferred from PO to bank, getting permission for transfer of £700 odd to Australia, purchasing £60 of traveller’s cheques for use in NZ and mounting up 120 species of seaweed. NB I seem to have as many seaweeds as ferns, but far fewer names to go with them.
My spell at Massey had flown all too fast. Jim could scarcely believe it was so soon when I paid my respects on Wednesday afternoon and we wandered round outside nattering of small nothings, aware of a slightly bewildering feeling of so many things left undone and now it was too late, but life goes on and this wasn’t the end yet.
In the lonely splendour of ‘Mog’ on Wednesday evening I found myself wanting to weep salt tears for the Massey I had disliked so fiercely at the start. I had made more friends during my eight months here than in my three long years at Exeter, in the land where there are so many of us that we can scarcely be bothered with each other. Here society was less complex, man’s individuality was not submerged in the mass of humanity – we were interested in each other’s doings because life was so much less humdrum than at home. Activities and circumstances were new yet the friends seemed old. It was inconceivable somehow that many of them I might never see again.
The world is getting smaller bit it still takes cash to circumnavigate it and one has to think twice. Nevertheless there was a feeling in my bones that I should be back some time and I sensed there would be no difficulty in getting a job in a country which had treated me so well when I was yet an unknown stranger, giving me free access to places completely out of the ken of 99% of Kiwis.
Of course, Mary hadn’t quite finished exploring New Zealand yet. As soon as she had marked the last of her student’s exam papers, she was off again, initially south to Kapiti, the large island that lies off the west coast north of Wellington.
24 October to 2 November 1957 Kapiti Island
Another week, another island, more botanising, more enchanting birdlife … Read more here
You have to marvel at this woman’s stamina – no sooner did she get back to Palmerston North from Kapiti than she was off again, this time to the islands of the Bay of Plenty (including one that was, and still is, an active volcano).
11 to 13 November Mayor Island and 16 to 17 November 1957 White Island
Calamities, Maori muttonbirders and exploring an active volcano in the Bay of Plenty … Read more here
18 to 20 November Motiti Island
Experiencing life with Maori families on Motiti Island … Read more here
And so back to Palmerston North for the final time, not only to finalise her leaving but also to cope with a potentially life-threatening health problem. Like everything else, Mary appears to have taken this in her stride.
Monday 2 December 1957
Back in Palmerston North, staying with friend Mary Campbell
… Some time before sailing for White Island I had perceived a lump in the breast which I suspected might be cancerous, but had been too busy to want to confirm my suspicions and had left the matter in abeyance till my return to Palmerston North. Tonight I accompanied Mrs Jamieson, [Mary’s] landlady and Dr Kenrick Dean’s nurse to her boss. He with no hesitation thought it very likely malignant (cancer) but possibly just an innocent cyst and made arrangements for me to see a very highly thought-of surgeon on the morrow, with a view to removal.
Tuesday 3 December 1957
Enormous laundry session, ironing, writing and general chores, while Mary [Campbell] cancelled all the invitations for my farewell party as it seemed pretty certain now that I should have to be operated on, cancer or not. Miss Barnes came mid afternoon to take me to Mr Mitchell, surgeon, and he took an extremely serious view of the matter and made arrangements for me to be admitted to hospital on Thursday. She stayed to tea after we had been around shopping.
Wednesday 4 December 1957
Off to town by bike after breakfast shopping and then cycled into Massey in time for morning tea and a day of sorting herbarium specimens and making excuses. All were most perturbed at my news, more so than I was myself. Perhaps a like of leaping on and off small boats engenders a Maori fatalism of ‘what is to be will be’ and one expects things to be a little wet at times. I had great faith in modern cancer research and realised that mine, if indeed it existed at all, must be in the early stages or I shouldn’t be bouncing with such rude health. Certainly the day on which the dread disease was diagnosed was one on which at least half a dozen folk had told me how well I looked. Jimmy, very much of an old woman in many ways tho’ very sweet was “for heaven’s sake stop being so impersonal about it, this is you. Aren’t you desperately worried?” To which I found myself in the rather strange position of giving a decent churchman a lesson on faith. I admitted, however, that it was always easier to worry for another than oneself because one’s inner resources were a more or less known quantity and the necessary strength was always supplied when needed – otherwise we should die a thousand deaths in life.
Thursday 5 December to Monday 9 December 1957
In Palmerston North Hospital for operation to remove the lump in her breast. Fortunately for Mary, the lump was a benign cyst.
Tuesday 10 December to Thursday 19 December 1957
Recuperating from operation, packing, finalising affairs and Mary was presented with a poem writtern for her by her fellow staff members at Massey College … Read more here
Typing research report for the Grants Committee and other oddments in the morning and in to Massey on the afternoon bus. Finished sorting herbarium, visiting registrar and principal and saying farewell to all and sundry ...
Friday 20 December 1957
Overnight train to Auckland
Saturday 21 December 1957
Mary flew from Auckland to Sydney …
The last I was to see of New Zealand and this was NZ at its best, brilliant sunshine, a pleasant breeze and rolling fresh green wooded and grassed country such as I was to find myself pining for in the arid heat of Australia a few days hence. …
And so I was away, circling over the indented coast of Auckland Province with sea visible east, south, north and west, long sweeps of sandy beaches, jutting headlands and green verdure.
Mary was so impressed with New Zealand that she wrote a book about her experiences, A Naturalist in New Zealand, Museum Press, London, and A. H. & A. W. Reed, Auckland, 1965. The book has long been out of print but second-hand copies can still be found, and are well worth the read.