To be known as a graduate of Canterbury College was a mark of prestige for many a young Cantabrian in the first half of the twentieth century. The respect that came with a degree awarded by the institution meant that many could look forward to future filled with social and career progress.
However, for some of their contemporaries, there was another form of institutional graduation, one that often condemned them to a life of social exclusion and failure to gain employment. Known as ‘graduates of the hill’, they still considered themselves lucky. The less fortunate never graduated.
Tuberculosis (or TB) is a disease caused by bacteria which attacks the lungs. Transmitted from victim to victim via droplets, it is often dispersed through coughing. Today, the disease is treated through antibiotics, a process which takes six to nine months. However, before the 1960s the main form of treatment was rest and exposure to sunlight and fresh air. In addition to this, patients also underwent operations where the diseased lung was temporarily or permanently collapsed. The latter, thoracoplasty, was greatly feared by patients, as it often resulted in deformities and mutilation. Such surgeries were eventually succeeded by anti-tuberculosis chemotherapy and advances in the development of antibiotics.
Although Nurse Sibylla Maude had initially established a tent based tuberculosis sanatorium in Wainoni in the early years of the twentieth century, the disease was deadly enough to warrant the need for a permanent facility in Christchurch. Eventually a site was chosen on a hillside at the edge of the Cashmere estate, on land that was donated by the Cracroft-Wilson family.
The foundation stone for the first sanatorium building to be constructed was laid on 20 March 1907. Designed by the architectural firm, Hurst, Seager and Wood, the building was built at an elevation which allowed it to escape the pollution of the city. The first patients were admitted as early as 1910. The sanatorium was initially managed by Dr. George Blackmore, who lived in a grand brick house situated on the hillside below the main building. The patients were housed in ‘shelters’, small sheds on the hillside that remained open to the elements in order to maximise air flow. Nearby stood the porter’s hostel and morgue, the latter inspiring a young porter, James K. Baxter, to pen a poem entitled The Morgue.
The next building to be constructed was Coronation Hospital. Situated at the foot of the hill, and named in honour of the coronation of King George V, it was officially opened on 3 June 1914. This section of the complex came to be known as the lower sanatorium, and that of the main building and shelters, came to be called the middle sanatorium.
Further up the hill, overlooking the middle sanatorium, was the nurses’ home. Built in 1917, the building provided the necessary accommodation for the women who diligently cared for the patients. However, it was a cheerless place to reside, consisting of long corridors that echoed ominously and cold rooms with no heating.
At the summit of the hill was the military sanatorium, which opened in 1919 for soldiers who had returned from the war with tuberculosis. In 1925, with many of the soldier’s discharged, this became the civilian men’s sanatorium. However, in 1928 there were still some soldiers left who had spent the last ten years recovering. Known as the upper sanatorium, it closed in 1932.
To the east of the military sanatorium, near where Major Aitken Drive joins Huntsbury Ave, was another facility which consisted of the fresh air home for children of patients, opened in 1923, and a school (1926).
The sanatorium complex was largely avoided by the general public, to the extent that people were unwilling to build houses nearby, or send their children to play with the doctor’s children, for fear of catching the disease.
The life of a patient
Often the first symptom was an irritable cough, followed by weight loss, excessive sweating and exhaustion. After being admitted, a patient would often spend the first six months of their stay at the sanatorium bedridden. Patients had to rest, sitting up only to eat or carry out other daily functions. Regardless of the season or the weather, the rooms in which they were housed were kept open to the elements. If progression was made, the patient was then allowed to spend half an hour out of their bed. The amount of time they could spend outside of their bed would increase, until a patient may be allowed to visit their home once a fortnight. Eventually they would be allowed to return home.
However, like a prisoner on probation, the patient was still required to undergo regular check-ins and assessments. They were expected to live a quiet and restful life. The fear of relapse and return to the sanatorium, or even death, was always present. Many found themselves ostracised by former friends and jobless, with employers unwilling to take them on for fear of them still being contagious. The longest resident patient at the sanatorium had a stay of twenty one years (1937 to 1958).
As the 1950s drew to a close, the sanatorium was rendered obsolete. The development of new drugs and vaccines meant that the number of patients had been on the decline for the past decade. The last patient to recover was discharged in 1960. Following this, the open air shelters where the patients had lived were removed and many found a new purpose as garden sheds or sleep outs in the backyards of Christchurch. The fresh air home and school was renamed the Huntsbury Children’s Home, and continued to operate until 1971. Coronation Hospital was converted into a hospital for geriatrics until 1991, when the age of the building and health care budgets forced it to close.
Following the closure of Coronation Hospital, the construction company, Fulton Hogan, demolished the last of the sanatorium buildings and started the development of what was to become the Broad Oaks subdivision.
Although the sanatorium was seen by the general public as a place of death and despair, Dr. Blackmore was adamant that the sanatorium would be ‘an atmosphere of cheerfulness and hope’. Despite his stern and reserved demeanour, he cared strongly for his patients, and was an advocate for their right return to society as contributing members, not outcasts.
At a time when there was no proven cure for tuberculosis, hope was all the patients had.
Find out more
Photograph albums with 70 assorted photographs of the Cashmere Sanatorium, Fresh Air School, Fresh Air Home and Coronation Hospital taken between 1913 and 1933.
With the Holi festival approaching its fourth year of being held in Christchurch, people should no longer be surprised by the sight of respectable adults running around, throwing coloured powder and water at each other in the first week of March.
The first Holi festival held in the Garden City was organised by Hitesh Sharma and Sandeep Khanna of Revel Events, and took place at the Pallet Pavilion on 23 March 2014. The festival has grown in size and popularity since and is now one of the many Indian cultural events which are becoming commonplace on the Christchurch social calendar.
There are food stalls, games and dance performances, all the while coloured powder is continuously being thrown around. Those who are attending are encouraged to wear clothing and shoes which are old (as the colour might not wash out). Sunglasses can help keep the powder out of your eyes. The coloured powder supplied at the event is corn based and non-toxic.
This year the festival will be held on the grass space at 221 Gloucester Street. Entry to the festival is free (though bring money to purchase coloured powder and food!)
The festival is traditionally celebrated throughout the Indian subcontinent on the last full moon of the Hindu month of Phalgun.
Holi derives its name and origins from a narrative found in the Hindu scripture, Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which tells of the sinful king, Hiranyakashipu. Believing himself to be more powerful than the gods, Hiranyakashipu was angered that his son, Prince Prahlad, who was a devotee of the god Viṣṇu, refused to worship him. Holika, the demoness sister of Hiranyakashipu, who was immune to fire, tried to kill Prahlad by leading him into the flames of a pyre. In order to save his devotee, Viṣṇu manifested in the world as the lion faced avatar, Narasiṃha, and saved Prahlad. This symbolises the victory of good over evil.
To celebrate the defeat of Holika, a holika dahan, a bonfire with an effigy of the demoness, is burned on the night before the festival. On the next day, the streets are awash with colour as people of all different ages and communities bombard their friends and strangers with coloured powder and water. People are encouraged to lose their inhibitions. Anyone, at anytime, can suddenly find themselves surrounded and doused with colour. In this way, the festival also represents the putting aside of grievances and the celebration of community.
One game, which is commonly played, involves teams forming a human pyramid to reach a pot of butter which hangs high above the street, while bystanders throw coloured water on them. The game has its origins in the story of Krishna (another avatar of Viṣṇu), who tried to steal butter from Radha and the gopis (female cowherders). The game has featured at previous Holi events in Christchurch.
To prepare yourself for the fun of Holi, watch this scene from the Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey, based on the historical events of 1857.
Also make sure to check out Christchurch City Libraries’ collection of India related material.
The back roads of North India’s mofussil in the first half of the nineteenth century were not a place where you would wish to find yourself alone. Not only had the decline of the once mighty Mughal Empire led to instability, but the region had also suffered from the wars between the Marathas and the British East India Company. Poorly maintained, the roads were the haunts of dacoits (robbers) and wild animals.
Yet every year, once the monsoon rains had passed, many were forced to traverse these lonesome highways. Merchants and farmers left their homes to trade in nearby villages. Others departed to undertake pilgrimages to a distant shrines. Sepoys, who had spent the rainy season on leave, would hasten to return to their barracks.
Many never returned home. Having vanished without a trace, their families would spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to their loved ones.
John Cracroft Wilson
There are seven witnesses to his good character, and did I not know the loose manner in which all depositions are taken in almost every court…I should be inclined to think him an innocent man.
So wrote John Cracroft Wilson when faced with a prisoner who, by all appearances, seemed an ordinary man. Decades later, while living out his retirement by farming the land which would later become the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere, it is possible that he often reflected on such encounters. For unlike many of his social peers in colonial Christchurch, he had started his career by assisting in the eradication of a murderous practice which had brought misery and devastation to untold Indian families.
John Cracroft Wilson was born in Madras Presidency, India, in 1802. The son of a British judge, Alexander Wilson, and his wife, Elizabeth, he was later sent to England for his education. There he was schooled at the East India Company College at Haileybury where he would have learned the skills required for a colonial servant in India. In 1826 he furthered his education at Brasenose College, Oxford. He does not appear to have completed his studies, for two years later he married Elizabeth Wall.
Following this he returned to India where he entered into the Bengal Civil Service. It was in this capacity that he was eventually appointed as assistant commissioner to William Sleeman (1788-1856), the district officer in Jubbulpore, and, as a result, drawn into the sinister world of thuggee.
Throughout history, the threat of being attacked by bandits has often led to travellers joining together for protection. In India it was no different. Upon arriving at rest houses, travellers would seek out the company of those whose destination also lay along their route. Most often such unions resulted in the traveller safely reaching their journey’s end.
But for the unlucky few, they were marked for death the moment they accepted the offer to join a company of travellers. Confident that there was safety in numbers, they would spend weeks, sometimes even months, sharing the hardships of the road with their newly found companions.
To the unassuming traveller there was nothing extraordinary about their companions. Hindu or Muslim, they appeared no different from the usual farmers, merchants or priests that one might encounter on the road. Yet these men were in fact, thugs, practitioners of a particular form of highway murder known as thuggee.
Thugs differed from regular bandits in that they followed a strict code which regulated how the murder was to be carried out. Thugs would always lure their victim into a false sense of security and then, at a prearranged moment, strangle the victim with a cord. The body was then either buried or disposed of in a well. Anyone could be a victim: man, woman or child, Hindu or Muslim – they did not discriminate.
Hunting the stranglers
In 1830, it was the regular discovery of these bodies that caused William Sleeman to realise that something more than random highway murder was taking place. He saw these unsolved murders as a chance to raise his profile in the eyes of his superiors. Through methodical investigation, interrogation and meticulous record keeping, he created a policing system that was effective enough to track down the gangs of thugs which were operating in or, at the edge of, British territory in India.
In 1832 Sleeman put Cracroft Wilson in charge of operations in the doab region and made him his representative at Etwah. The role required Cracroft Wilson to carefully investigate those men who were brought before him on charges of thuggee, especially since those who were accused often appeared to be respectable family men and contributing members of society.
Those thugs who were found guilty of murder were summarily executed, while others were transported to the Andaman Islands. Some turned against their fellow thugs by becoming informers. In return for assisting British officials in tracking down their former colleagues, these men escaped the death penalty but would spend the remainder of their lives in prison.
Although they found the crimes of these reformed thugs abhorrent, working in such close capacity with the informers, and recognising that they behaved no different than ordinary men in their daily lives, caused some British officials to develop a strange sense of respect for the former thugs. Cracroft Wilson even commented that one of his informers, Makeen Lodhee, was “one of the best men I have known!”’
It was the publication of Sleeman’s report on these criminals and their methods which led to thuggee entering the Western imagination. The thugs were portrayed as a highly organised secret cult, fanatical worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kālī, to whom they sacrificed their victims. Post-colonial scholarship has sought to undo some of these misconceptions but they still remain, as can be found in the ridiculous portrayal of thuggee in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. However, Sleeman’s work on thuggee remains with us today in that the ruthlessness and lack of remorse which these criminals possessed caused the word thug to enter the English language.
By 1840 Sleeman was able to proclaim that thuggee had been removed from Indian society.
John Cracroft Wilson continued to work as a magistrate before taking leave in 1854 to visit Australia and then New Zealand, where he purchased land which would later become the suburb of Cashmere. He would later settle permanently in Christchurch, accompanied by his Indian servants, for whom he built Old Stone House.
Cracroft Wilson was certainly a man with personality flaws. Many in colonial Christchurch considered him to be rude, abrupt, and arrogant. Yet his role in the eradication of thuggee, and thus bringing to justice those men who murdered without any regard for their victims, should not be overlooked.