Maternity care in Nelson - Te Rangi
Te Rangi Hospital
Te Rangi Hospital, where hundreds of Nelsonians drew their first breath, opened in 1915. The hospital was located on Collingwood Street, on the block between New and Halifax Streets, and had been a private residence owned by Dr Henry Wright, who came from South Africa and commenced practice in 1907. He built a surgery from where he ran his practice, which was taken over by Dr E. S. Nutting in 1912. In 1915 the property was bought by Doctors Phillip Andrew, Stanley Lucas, Francis Bett and William Johnston for the purpose of creating a dual maternity and surgical private hospital. Nurse Ellen Gosling , who had been matron at Nelson Hospital until 1913, also owned a share and was believed to be the first Te Rangi Matron.
Overflow from Te Rangi in the 1930’s was taken by trained Karitane nurse Anne Leahy, at her home across the road in Collingwood Street, whose front room was converted to a maternity suite. Anne was 70 when she reluctantly gave up being a midwife. In 1941 Te Rangi Trust opted to make Te Rangi Hospital solely for maternity care and reserved Manuka Street, another hospital the Trust owned, for surgical cases.
Te Rangi hospital covered a large part of the block of land bordered by Halstead, Halifax, Collingwood and New streets. During the 1940’s Nelson Hospital found Te Rangi handy to take the ‘overflow’ during the post war baby boom. It had 18 maternity beds. In 1950, there were 602 Nelson babies delivered at either Nelson Public or Te Rangi hospital. In 1956, the property was leased to the Nelson Hospital Board.1 Changes in maternity care in the 1970's-1990’s saw small maternity hospitals closed and maternity services moved to large general hospitals. Te Rangi closed in 1966. Before the 1970's women went to hospital and had up to two weeks rest after delivery of their babies. With the closure of small maternity hospitals the time women stay in hospital has reduced. Today some women are discharged as early as 24 hours after birth, particularly if home visits and support is available.
Between 1900 and 1925 most births occurred in private homes, Māori pah and private nursing homes. Only if a problem occurred did women deliver in a hospital. In 1925 this changed with the Nurses and Midwives Registration Act 1925 and then the Social Security Act 1938, which made free maternity care available at public hospitals from 1939. In 1926, 98 of the 236 total births in Nelson occurred in hospitals, and 65 of these were at Te Rangi. Thirty seven midwives attended to the 137 homebirths. By 1940, 300 of the 344 total births in Nelson and only seven practising midwives remained to manage the few women who still chose to have a home birth.
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Around 1904 the government decreed that midwives should be registered. In 1907 Mabel Atkinson was the only Class A midwife in Nelson.2 She had taken a full course in midwifery in England, and had faced challenging experiences alone, delivering babies in the London slums. Class B midwives were certified by doctors in a somewhat random fashion. The women needed to be of “good character” and assist and observe births for three years which was hard to verify.
After 1971 midwives were not permitted to deliver babies without a doctor on hand. Changes to the Nurses Act in 1990 allowed Registered Midwives to deliver babies without the help of a medical practitioner. Midwives today need a three year specialised degree and annual certification to practice. In 2014 there were 90 registered midwives in the Nelson Marlborough region.
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The Te Rangi experience
Those wishing to deliver their baby at Te Rangi needed to book in by visiting the hospital, with a letter from their doctor confirming their due dates. If Te Rangi had room when you went into labour you were admitted, otherwise you were referred onto Nelson Hospital. General entry was via a door on Collingwood Street; the Halifax Street entry through the garden was not used. Beyond a small lobby where bookings were done, there was a large kitchen (with attached dining area). Mothers were directed across this into the corridor to the prep room. Here, on a board across the bath, mothers were made ready to go into the delivery theatre across the hall. This included washing, shaving and administration of an enema.
Staff made an estimation of the likely time of baby’s arrival. Some babies couldn’t wait and arrived on the board. This happened to Ruth Frost, who had to bike to the hospital in 1958, with no other transport available, which brought the baby on very quickly. Some mothers would be placed in a waiting area, or sent home if delivery was not imminent. Sometimes mothers took a mix of castor oil, orange juice and baking soda, a powerful enema, to hurry along an overdue baby, but most were happy to wait a little longer to allow nature to take its course.
Sister Jesse Snow recalls that there was a step into every room at Te Rangi, making wheeling beds around very difficult. Mothers usually walked to the delivery room. After the baby was delivered the mothers were put into either one of three four bedded rooms, or into a single room named after a colour, if you were lucky. The blue room was near the theatre, the pink, apricot and yellow rooms had varying views to a beautiful private garden with lovely roses and trees. Light exercise could take place here after the mandatory one week bedrest, or mothers could enjoy the glassed in sun porches.
A list of requirements to be brought in by mothers included nappies, marked with the babies name, and binding cloths for the mother's stomach to give support after delivery. On the day of departure mothers were instructed in bathing their baby.
Mothers really enjoyed the meals which were all prepared on the premises. Thin bread and butter with a welcome cup of tea arrived for mothers, before baby came to feed at 6am. Breakfast of eggs at 8am, was followed by cheese puffs or scones for morning tea after the 10am feed. (The pumpkin scones were by all accounts legendary.) Lunch was the main meal and included dessert. Afternoon tea followed the 2pm feed and a light dinner at 5.30pm preceded the 6pm feed, then a milky drink such as cocoa for supper to coincide with the 10pm feed.
In the 1920's visiting hours were strictly adhered to. Until the 1960's husbands were not welcome at deliveries, but public demand changed that and fathers enjoyed seeing their children born and more relaxed visiting hours.
Te Rangi also managed the deliveries of single mothers who were kept segregated from married mothers. The single mothers often kept their pregnancy secret and told their families they were apple picking in Nelson. Their babies were then adopted. One mother recalls that a lady, whose baby died after delivery, went home with an adopted baby born during her confinement.
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Mothers were cared for by six midwives plus ten nurse aides, of which three to four were on duty at any given time. Matron Rena Hall’s niece said her aunt , who never married, had a permanent room in the nurses home at Te Rangi, but on her days off would stay at her married sister’s home in Brook street.
Jesse Chamberlain, who was an aide from 1933-34, recalls that some new born babies who were frail were kept in baskets on the top of the coal range, to be kept constantly warm, under the supervision of Matron, to help them survive. She recalls a number of deaths of mothers and children. Infant and mother mortality has improved dramatically since 1935, when nearly 60 in 1000 of babies in New Zealand would be stillborn or die within their first 10 days.3
Staff did all the care of the babies during their stay, bathing and changing them and feeding bottled water, between taking them out to their mothers for their four hourly breast feeds.
In the 1950's, while doing cleaning duties in the sluice room, nurses could enjoy watching dancers in the Morrie Abrahams dance studio on the corner of New and Collingwood street.
Nurses on early morning duty stayed the night in the Nurses home, which had one wall on New Street, but no entry was allowed from here. Access was strictly from Collingwood St, via the kitchen where you did not linger, or aides would be given extra work to do. Nurses also enjoyed the Te Rangi food. A long-time cook in the 1950's was Polly Clark, of the Salvation army, who married Mr Bushell and together they cooked the food all week, with other cooks covering weekend duties
Hygiene was very important and Matrons tended to be strict. If staff were ill they could not work and Moana Toetoe recalls sweeping the floor in 1958-60 with tea leaves, which acted as an excellent cleaning aid.
Te Rangi now
The maternity hospital closed in 1966 and the building subsequently demolished. The site is now filled with a car sales yard and Anchor Press, but a heritage panel marks where the building was located. The heritage panel, courtesy Janet Bathgate, can be downloaded here [PDF] and contains additional information about the hospital.
The hospital also lives on in the memories of its staff and patients, some of which will be available on the Prow.
Written by Debbie Daniell-Smith with thanks to Andrea Vincent, and participants of Te Rangi ‘reunion” December 2014.
Sources used in this story
- Birth registers and birth notications (1986) Information supplied by Andrea Vincent.
- Nurses and midwives (1904, December 7) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
- New Zealand Official Yearbook 1935:
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Further sources - Maternity care in Nelson - Te Rangi
- Clarke, A. (2012) Born to a changing world : childbirth in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand : Bridget Williams Books
- Hursthouse, M. (2001) Vintage doctor : fifty years of laughter and tears. Christchurch : Shoal Bay Press, 2001.
- Kutinova, A. (2008) Midwifery in New Zealand. Government policies, provider choice and health outcomes. Research Paper, Department of Economics, University of Canterbury. Retrieved from:
- Low, D.D. (1972) Salute to the scalpel: a medical history of the Nelson Province.[Nelson] : D. Low
- Vincent, A, (1992) Tread softly : a guide for parents whose baby dies around the time of birth, in the Nelson region. Nelson, N.Z. : Obstetric Unit, Nelson Hospital
- McLachlan, M. (2014, May 5) Nine defining moments of midwifery care in NZ. New Zealand Herald
- Sharma, A. (2007, September 12) Pregnancy care in NZ : a brief history. New Zealand doctor, p.29
- Stojanovic, J. (2004, Oct) Leaving your dignity at the door' maternity in Wellington 1950-1970. Journal (New Zealand College of Midwives), 31, pp.12-18
- Interviews with Te Rangi patients and staff. Recollections gathering December 2014. Those who participated included staff and patients from Te Rangi:
Amy Cannon, Pamela Mason, Andrea Vincent (midwife and Te Rangi researcher), Anne Jones, Beryl Willis, Bethy MacGillivray, Dorothy Rose Pallensen, Dr Miles Hursthouse, Edna Thomas, Elizabeth Collins, Gabrielle Coote, Gwen Aydon, Heather Brooker, Jenny Eade, Jesse Snow, Jill Blechynden, Jill Jordan, Jill Roach, Karen Wood, Lesley Kotua, Lyneve Bloxham, Maire Connor, Margaret Goodman, Margaret Major, Marie Dale , Marilyn Street, Mary Gunn, Moana Payn (nee Toetoe), Mona Alborough, Pat Eggers, Roye DeLorenzo, Ruth Frost, Shirley Gunn, Stuart Slack, Sylvia Kelly, Val Gunn, Val Page.
- A first at Te Rangi. Retrieved from smartstory 12 March 2015:
- History of homebirth in New Zealand. Retrieved from Canterbury homebirth 10 March 2015:
- Pollock, K. (2012) Pregnancy, birth and baby care. In Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Nov-12
- Te Rangi Closes. (1966, April 30) Nelson PhotoNews , p.41