Dr James Shirlaw is recorded as arriving in Otago in 1859 in the "Cheviot," of which ship he travelled as surgeon. He did not have a long life in the new Province, but it was an interesting one, as related by author and fellow medical man Robert Valpy, whose account of him, although abridged here, has many details of life and conditions of those early colonial days.
MEDICAL PRACTICE IN OTAGO AND SOUTHLAND IN THE EARLY DAYS.
By Robert Valpy Fulton, M.D.
XLIV.—JAMES SHIRLAW, OF WEST TAIERI.
The Taieri Plain in the early days, long before County Ridings were laid down, might have been arbitrarily divided into North Taieri, lying eastward of a line extending from what is now Wingatui (or, as we think it should be, Ohingatua) diagonally right across the plain to Breadalbane (Macdonald’s); a line from this to where the Riverside railway bridge now is, thence to Allanton (or Greytown, as it was long called), and back through Owhiro, Riccarton, and Mosgiel: this could be considered East Taieri; and all that portion of land from Breadalbane westward, down to the river at Shand’s, and across and up to the shadows of Maungatua, halfway to Lower Waipori, down to Henley, along to Greytown, and back by the River to Outram,West Taieri. We have included this little corner from Breadalbane to the river as practically belonging in those days to West Taieri for the reason that the settlers there did all their business with Outram as against Mosgiel, supplied workmen for various trades and occupations to the west of the river, and almost to a man attended the West Taieri Church on Sundays. The names of Buchanan, Marshall, Millar, Stevenson, Walter Watson were all well recognised as being “of West Taieri.'' Dr Shirlaw, who himself latterly lived in this corner, was “the West Taieri doctor.”
The first settler here was Francis McDiarmid, a Scotsman, who had come out in the Philip Laing, and selected a fine piece of bush land right under the grim heights of Maungatua (or Maukatua, as the local Maoris called the mountain above). On the edge of the dense red, white, and black pine forest he built his wattle-and-daub hut in June, 1848, and here, with great numbers of wekas and other native birds around him, he made his first home. Here he brought his bride, formerly Janet Milne, a fellow passenger by the Phillip Laing, and a sister-in-law of another very early settler of Otago, James Adam, of Bon Accord. From McDiarmid’s hut eastward was all thick swamp, patches of grass, cabbage trees, and tussocks as far as the river. Close to him Edward Lee settled on the fringe of the bush, on what was afterwards John Gow’s farm, and through his property ran a pretty little burn or clear rocky stream, which came down the side of the mountain, and in flood time made itself of no inconsiderable importance. This stream was named the Lea Creek, from the River Lea, in Kent, England, near Blackheath, whence the young Fulton brothers had early emigrated. James and Robert Fulton squatted on the flat, opposite Lee’s, right under the edge of the hill. Here in bush and flax they built their hut, and here took charge of Edward Lee’s flock of sheep “on terms.” They had come from England in the Ajax in 1849, and made their town selection, then string and pegs through swamp and flax, in George street, opposite A. and T. Inglis of to-day; suburban at Caversham (which they called Lisburn, after their father’s birthplace and home in County Antrim); and their rural at “Ravensbourne,” under the mountain, from the little Blackheath stream which ran into the Lea, where they had spent their boyhood days. They started life in 1850 as part flock-owners, clearing their own sections as occasion allowed. They had brought with them Robert Harvey, an excellent shepherd, who lived on the flat on the north-eastern slope of Maungatua for some years, afterwards moving w est, where he brought up a large and highlyrespected family. In many places at this time the Maoris had scattered huts or whares: across at Mohoua, where the Taieri River runs into the gorge, close to Henley of to day was an aggregation of huts, a small kainga, and there were others near by. That there had been Natives all over the plain was evidenced by the scores of black holes filled with round stones and shells, called “Maori ovens,” and the frequent finding of adzes of all sizes and shapes when ploughing up the land. There were the remains of an old Maori canoe resting against one of the large totara trees in Fulton's bush, one of the first and most efficient under-shepherds thev had was a Native, while Maoris, full-blooded and half-castes, were the bulk of the shearers for a long time.
For the first few years there was no medical assistance nearer than Dr Williams at the Taieri Ferry, and Mrs McDiarmid was the only white woman at the west end of the plain. When others came she was the good Samaritan, and from mere love of humanity and a noble, unselfish heart she trudged to many women in trouble, absolutely refusing any payment for her services. On one occasion she climbed the sides of Maungatua, which at the time was covered with snow, carrying her own infant in her arms, in order that she might give aid to a “crying woman” who lived on Harvey’s Flat. The hardships they had to endure at first can hardly be understood at the present time. Flour had to be carried on the back every yard of the way from Dunedin through flax and swamp and along the hills; little if any milk was to be got; and the only meat was wild pork or native birds, the latter fortunately plentiful. On one occasion they ran clean out of the necessaries of life, and Mr and Mrs McDiarmid tramped across the swamp to the kainga at the Taieri Gorge, an almost impossible feat, which meant floundering up to their waists through streams. The Maori chief received them kindly, and gave them what he could — mostly muttonhlrds and eels. Dr Williams often came across to Ravensbourne; later Dr Nelson; and in 1860 James Shirlaw, a graduate of a Scottish university, settled in Maungutua, as it was still called, and boarded with Peter Nimmo in the house which is now Malcolm McLeod’s. He afterwards moved across the river beyond Outram, living with Thomas Buchanan, of Clair Inch. He was quite young, a bachelor, and was fairly tall, dark complexioned, a goodlooking man, with a heavy dark moustache. He was genial in his disposition, and very popular with the residents; but as he was in the habit of taking opium or some such drug he could not be relied upon at all times, and people were afraid to trust their lives to him. He was a strong, athletic fellow, and used to amuse people, particularly the young folk, who liked him well, by getting two men to hold out a rope or string at 5ft from the ground: this was an easy running jump for him. He was a vigorous walker, and a good rider, rather neat in his appearance, generally sporting a flower in his coat. He was very musical, and played the violin well. In the early sixties fevers of various kinds broke out everywhere in town and country, due to the influx of diggers and a floating population, and carelessness of the ordinary rules of sanitation and common sense. An epidemic of diphtheria took place, and a number of the children at the West Taieri School became affected. Four died. These were James, the only son of Donald Borrie, who lived near the West Taieri bridge; William, son of James Dow, of Dowfield: John, son of Francis McDiarmid aged 14; and Thomas, son of Gilbert Buchanan, aged 14. These boys lived in widely-separated localities, so it was evident they took the disease from some central source of infection. This must have been from Gardner’s School, which stood near John Joseph’s (“Bricky” Joseph’s), and possibly from the stream which ran down the gully in the neighbourhood. There were scores of cases of diphtheria in Dunedin at the time, and diggers were passing in hundreds along the road within a few yards of this stream all day long, wending their way to the diggings. That these apparently healthy persons could be carriers of the disease was then quite unknown. On one occasion, John McDiarmid, who afterwards succumbed to diphtheria, was asked by one of the diggers on the cutting above the school if he would sell him the bottle of milk he was carrying, a fair-sized bottle; he handed him the bottle, and received in return a half sovereign. “Now,” said the digger, “we’ll stick him up, and take the money back”; this was, of course only said in fun, for “sticking up” was common in those days, and the talk of the youngsters around. The man got the milk, he had probably swigged it off and given back the bottle, the boy the half sovereign, and more than likely the diphtheria infection at the same time. Dr Shirlaw succeeded in limiting the disease to a great extent; but he had many other cases of fever, which was called “marsh fever,” evidently typhoid, caused (as was the other trouble) by the infection of drinking water with poison generated by the careless habits of the mining population then overrunning the country.
We have been fortunate in obtaining from Miss E. McDiarmid, of Busholme, Woodside, a daughter of the late Francis McDiarmid, the following interesting account of early days at West Taieri. Woodside (or, as it was then called, Maungatua) was all Government property, dense bush, principally pine trees. Government licenses were issued, and holders of such licenses were permitted to cut and saw timber. Francis McDiarmid was the first Crown Ranger, and he was succeeded by William Valpy. There were many sawyers’ huts in the neighbourhood: they were of the usual back-block type — rough weather boards, with two or three rooms at most, short, wide chimney, which in windy days allowed of a tremendous downpour of smoke, making it most unpleasant for the occupants. In some of the huts barracoota, the only fish then available, apart from eels and native trout (so-called cocka-bullies, Maori kokopu), were hung round those wide chimneys, and were cured in this way by the smoke. After the land was cleared of bush, the Government cut it up, and sold it into township sections. It was called Maungatua township, and this it still is on the Government map: but when the post office was opened at Maungatua, halfway to Berwick, or Lower Waipori, such was the confusion and so many the mistakes that Francis McDiarmid suggested to the postal authorities that the name be altered to Woodside, and that name has continued ever since. We show in this issue a photograph of the old store, surrounded with bush, as it was in the ’sixties. Petersen, a German or Swede, had it at first; after him John Farquharson, of whom we have some dim recollection of a story that he died from the result of a blow or cut from an axe. His name can be seen on the glass over the door in the photo. After him came Iveson, who was the first to apply for a license. During his time the coach started from Woodside, and ran to town, returning the same day, leaving the Bull and Mouth, in Maclaggan street, at 4 p.m. One of his drivers, who was a well-known resident of the Peninsula for many years, and is still living, was William Donaldson. When Iveson applied for a transfer of his license to the Terminus Hotel, Outram, Alexander Chisholm, precentor in the West Taieri Church and one of the early residents of the lower township, went round with a petition against the granting of any new license in Woodside, and since then there has never been a licensed house in the neighbourhood.
Minor accidents gave Dr Shirlaw a goof deal of work, one of his first cases being the setting of a broken leg in a young boy, son of Thomas Buchanan, of Clair Inch, who was trying to walk on stilts. These were very much in vogue among the young folk, due possibly to the large amount of water which often lay after heavy rain — small floods. From whatever reason, young Buchanan came a cropper from his stilts, and Dr Shirlaw made a very good job of his fractured leg. Accidents in the sawpits in the bush were very common. Pitsaws were the only kind used in those days, and all timber had to be hand-cut, two men working together. They were of various nationalities, each pair sticking to each other, but being always ready and willing to assist anyone when occasion required. For the heavy logs block and tackle had to be used, and on these occasions the men left their own work to assist their neighbour sawyers, no remuneration being given or expected. Occasionally logs slipped, ropes broke, or chains parted, and then Dr Shirlaw had to come upon the scene. The felling of the trees required skill and experience. If a man misjudged his distance, did not allow himself time, or tripped over an obstacle nothing could save him from the falling monster. Such was the end of poor John Ferguson, upon whom a tree crashed. Most of the sawyers kept pig dogs, and after their day’s work, or when meat was scarce, some were told off to go for food. They went pig-hunting, bringing home an excellent supply of pork. What they could not carry in one trip they secured under running water by means of heavy stones, thus preventing wild dogs, pigs, or flies from destroying it. Wild pigs were very common on the back of Maungatua. Some of the wild boars were very savage, inflicting terrible wounds with their tusks. They would charge a hunter “like a shot,” and many the gash in man and dog had Dr Shirlaw to sew, using in those days silver wire — catgut and sterilisation had not yet come to hand. One noted boar that they had often chased, and which sometimes turned the tables and did the chasing, was named “The General.” His lair was far up the gorge above Allan Mann’s, and for long he eluded his trackers, and acquired quite a reputation. At last George Duncan (now a well-known civil engineer in Australia) and Alexander Adam (son of James Adam, of Bon Accord) came out to Maungatua for their holidays, and, hearing of this noted animal, made a dead set at getting him. Starting from Francis McDiarmid’s, where they were staying, they put in a great day hunting “The General.” Who fired the fatal shot we do not know, but they “got him,” and brought his huge head home in triumph, the carrying of this through the dense fern, manuka, and tutu being the hardest part of the whole outing. A more serious errand upon which Dr Shirlaw was called was to the accidental shooting of John Curral in Lee’s Bush on Christmas Day, 1862. A Dr Cockerell (not in practice) was living in Lee’s house, and he invited over for some shooting three young men from a neighbour’s. One of these had an elephant gun, which threw a tremendously heavy slug or bullet. Curral, who was a stranger from Australia and had only arrived a fortnight before, had wounded a kaka on the roadside, and had followed it into the bush, unfortunately approaching just at the time a shot was fired from the big gun. The bullet richocheted from a large totara, and penetrated the poor fellow’s spine, inflicting a fatal wound, from which he died in a few days. When Dr Cockerell saw the wound he pronounced it hopeless, and sent off at once for Dr Shirlaw, who gave a similar opinion. Dr Eccles also was brought all the way from Dunedin, but agreed that nothing could be done, the man dying soon after. Cockerell and another of the shooting party were the only two justices in the neighbourhood, so Hyde Harris and Mr Vincent Pyke came from Dunedin to hold the inquest, the other justices testifying as to how the accident happened. It was really a case of pure misadventure. They had placed their target in an apparently perfectly safe and isolated spot, but they had not calculated upon the great kick of the elephant gun and the chance of a long richochet. However, they were pretty severely blamed for their “carelessness.” Ferguson was killed by the falling tree on the 29th of the same month, and Dr Shirlaw had again to give evidence, this time before the justice who had been one of the shooting party. A good deal of horse-breaking took place in the district, and now and again a man was violently thrown or jammed against a stockyard fence by the frantic animal, which was undergoing the old-fashioned method of taming called “lungeing,” it consisted practically of driving and “belting” the poor creature round and round, with an ever-tightening rope around its neck, finally choking it into submission or insensibility. We well remember the pantings and agonised struggles to get free, the foaming mouth and heaving flanks, and the terrific leaps to get away from the strangling rope or to unseat its rider. One valuable horse thus bounding struck its head against the top bar of the stockyard, instantly breaking its neck, the rider narrowly escaping death. Encounters with fisticuffs, too, gave Dr Shirlaw a chance of advising a raw beefsteak or hot fomentation to the face. On one occasion Jimmy Cuthbertson, in his young days very handy with his “dukes,” made a particularly pretty mess of a noted bully and loud talker at the Buckeye Hotel, then occupied by “the Professor" (George Moir, who was rather an adept, or thought he was, at mesmerism and curing of headaches). He did not “run” to treating of badly-battered faces, and Dr Shirlaw had to come in. The doctor had many cold rides up the mountain to shepherds' huts, and across the swampy plain to gunshot accidents. Many sheep and cattle died at first from eating tutu, and the doctor was called upon occasionally to treat human beings for this form of poisoning. Finally it became necessary to post up notices warning people as to the dangers of this berry both to stock and to human beings. From the question that was put to one of the witnesses at the inquest we are about to describe it is probable that some kind of warning notices were posted, but apparently nothing strictly official for the coroner’s jury asked the Government to provide such. Quoting from the Otago Witness of 22nd of February, 1862: “An inquest was held on Monday last at West Taieri on the body of a Frenchman named Regan, who had died at the back of Maungatua from the effects of eating tutu berries. George Wilson, also a native of France, said that, on the previous Wednesday he and three other men were on the way to the Diggings by the West Taieri road. They camped that night on the face of Maungatua, and after pitching their tent witness and deceased went down the side of the hill and gathered some branches of the tutu, and brought them up to the tent, where they all tasted them. Witness and deceased then went up the hill while their mates were preparing tea, and ate heartily of the berries, plucking them off the branches. When witness had eaten sufficient he returned to the tent, leaving deceased still eating the fruit. He remained about five minutes after witness, and shortly afterwards complained of a swimming in his head. He tried to eat something, but said that he could not do it, as everything appeared to be turning round. He then lay down, and a few minutes afterwards fell into a fit. Witness and his other mates, thinking he might be subject to fits, threw cold water on his face, and did all they could to bring him to, not having any idea that the fit was the result of the tutu that he had eaten. In a few minutes deceased came to, and almost immediately relapsed. From this latter fit he only partially recovered, when he looked very vacant, and soon went off again into another. Witness then ran up to the tent on the top of the hill to get assistance, and mentioned to the men there that they had all eaten of the tutu, and that it was probably from the effects of that that he was suffering. The men in the tent then returned with him, and found the deceased in strong convulsions, so strong that he had to be held down. Witness himself was then taken ill, but was not so bad as deceased. He believed he had two fits, and was insensible during the night. He had vomited a great deal, but he did not think deceased did so at all. When the doctor came next morning deceased was dead. Daniel Soarez, another of the mates of deceased, corroborated the statements of the previous witness, and said he had known the deceased, who was a Frenchman, for about eight years. No one had ever told him that tutu was poisonous, or none of them would have eaten it. He had not seen any posters warning parties against it. They were all perfectly sober. Deceased did not vomit at all, but during the fits he foamed at the mouth. Dr James Shirlaw said that he was called to the tent of the deceased on Thursday morning, but he was dead before he arrived there. There were no marks of violence on the body, but the ‘eyeballs were dilated, as if from the effects of a narcotic irritant poison.’ He had not made a post-mortem examination, as it would be useless unless the contents of the stomach could be analysed, and he did not think there was an analytical chemist in the province. He knew the tutu to be poisonous. The jury, in bringing in a verdict that deceased had died from eating tutu berries, requested the coroner to present a petition to the Government praying them to take each necessary steps as would warn strangers coming into the colony of the poisonous nature of the tutu plant, the berries of which had already caused serious illness to nine persons in the West Taieri district in the last nine weeks, one of which proved fatal.” We have given the account of this inqueet in full, as it is one of the very few instances of fatal cases of tutu poisoning which have been recorded. It was overlooked in the search through the records in 1907 by the Registrar-general, when a scientific investigation of the alkaloids of tutu was made, and the action of the poison upon human beings and animals described in full (Transactions New Zestland Institute, Volume LXI). Dr Shirlaw, though quite a young man, found the rough work, long distances, and severe exposure inevitable in this kind of practice more than he could stand, and, handicapped as he was with his opium habit, like so many others of whom we have written, he fell before the storm. Matters became worse, he was often found unconscious, and as often recovered and carried on hie work, but the inevitable end came early in 1869. A little stone monument is erected in the West Taieri Cemetery close to the big willow tree with the following inscription: — “Sacred to that memory of James Shirlaw, M.D.; died 28th April, 1869, aet 33. Erected as a token of respect by his friends.” -Otago Witness, 11/1/1921.