The Dark, Unknown Story of Eugenics in New Zealand
Images: Tess McClure


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The Dark, Unknown Story of Eugenics in New Zealand

How a powerful group of New Zealanders attempted to wipe out 'mental defectives' and improve the white race.

Oh Mother, save me from Dr Gray
‘Cause teacher says he’s coming to-day
And if I’m stupid he’ll take me away.
Oh, Mummie, save me from Dr Gray!”
“I cannot save you, my little child.”
His Mummie said and her eyes were wild.
“You belong to the State, you’re no more my child!
But Oh, my darling don’t stupid be
Or he’ll say we’ve tainted heredity.
And must be eradicated – you and me!


Templeton Centre is separated from the road by a thick row of pines, latticed together.


Most of the complex was bulldozed shortly after the institution closed in the nineties, and now it’s planned for a new development: agricultural research. There’s already a new complex erected for Seed Industry NZ, a greenhouse to test out new breeds of seed. But drive further, past the greenhouses and the dead-end cul de sacs, and two of the villas are still standing, fenced off, guarded by a cluster of staring cows.

The walls are crusted with lichen, windows smashed, shredded peach curtains unspooling like ribbons out the window. It’s silent except for the herd in the adjacent paddock, the howling front coming in off the Southern Alps, the glass splintering underfoot.

Through the cracked window is a small bedroom, a radiator with grille, a wardrobe with one drawer. Some remnants of the inhabitants too. The remains of a sticker peeling from the window: a corner of a flower. A circle drawn on the glass in green poster paint.

Hopscotch is painted in fading white on the concrete, a reminder that the residents of Templeton often came here as children.

This rotting complex was one of the four “psychopaedic hospitals”, developed as part of the mental health system in the 1920s. At their height, the system of institutions held around 10,000 people, represented 37 percent of all hospital beds in the country. Initiated by New Zealand’s highly active eugenics movement, they were designed to isolate ‘defective’ members of the community, prevent them breeding, and ultimately strengthen New Zealand’s racial stock. Once there, most were never given the option of leaving. They lived out their entire lives in this set of blue-painted buildings and died on the grounds.


Today, as New Zealand begins commissions of inquiry into both the abuse of children in state care and the functionality of the mental health system, it’s worth looking backwards first.

One of the Templeton Villas. This once would have held around 40 people.

Norman Madden was six years old when he was sent to see Dr Theodore Gray.

Abandoned by his mother at two months old, he’d been a resident of the Island Bay Home of Compassion. By the time he turned six in 1934, he was already a relatively troubled kid. Doctor Gray notes in the report that he did not know his own surname , was unable to add two and two, and could not spell the word “cat”.

Norm Madden didn’t know it at the time, but Dr Gray was a formidable figure in New Zealand’s health system. A fierce Scotsman, he championed a relatively severe set of eugenic measures, including the compulsory registration of ‘mental defectives’, screening clinics for mental illness, proposing separate 'farm colonies' for people with intellectual disabilities, and sterilisation in some circumstances. In 1927, he became the head of New Zealand’s Mental Hospitals, and began applying his ideas there.
His reputation was such that he became the subject of a local nursery rhyme:

“Oh Mother, save me from Dr. Gray
‘Cause teacher says he’s coming to-day
And if I’m stupid he’ll take me away.

Six-year-old Norm was “irresponsible and destructive,” Gray writes. “We are under the opinion that the said person is mentally defective, and requires detention as such.”


Norm was sent to Templeton Centre. Speaking to The Press in 1997, he recalls being told he would be sent to a special school, but on arrival there was no schooling at all, no-one to teach him to read and write. Instead, he was put to work: spending eight-hour work days in the farm gardens, or laundries, or cleaning up less able residents who might have soiled themselves. He was, he alleges, sexually assaulted numerous times by both staff and other residents.

Once, he and another boy, George Smith, tried to run away from the centre. They made it as far as a farmhouse a few kilometres down the road, where the residents gave them a meal, then called the police to take them back to the farm.

As punishment, the two boys spent a month locked in the kennels together during the working day, let out only at night.

“Life there was hell,” he said.

It would be 14 years before he left the grounds.


Film-maker Gerard Smyth was one of the first and most dedicated people to document Templeton and its residents. IMAGE: Tess McClure

In his Christchurch studio, filmmaker Gerard Smyth has been going through his archive. He switches on his television, fast-forwarding to the point where the familiar faces of Norm Madden and George Smith appear on the screen.

“I’m probably as proud of this work as anything I’ve ever done,” Smyth says. “It made a difference, you know?”

Smyth first began documenting Templeton 20 years ago, when he heard the institution was due to shut down. It was the parents whose children were held there who initially approached him, asking if he’d be willing to document the Centre. There was ongoing discussion about shutting it down, and many families were concerned about what would happen to the children who had grown up in the institution. Smyth jumped at the chance—as a child, he’d always heard tales of what went on out at Templeton, but the centre and its residents were cut off from the world.


“I rang up the director of the place, and said, ‘Can I come out and film?’ He said sure. Those were different days. No comms people,” he says.

Smyth spent eight months filming, accruing an enormous archive of observational footage, interviews with the residents and their lives. “For those months, I almost lived there. I went home only at night. I got to know the people,” he says. He would go on to show his film in parliament, and believes it contributed to politicians finally resolving to close the centre.

He jumps through to interviews with some of the men he knew best. George Smith glances up: around 70 years old, a slight figure, wearing a trilby hat.
As a boy, he was the one who ran away from the centre with Norm Madden. He remembers being locked in that dog kennel. He didn’t try to run away again after that, he says.

Today, he’s out gathering old fence-posts to sell to staff for firewood, chatting to the camera as he goes.

George was eight years old when he got caught stealing pies from a local bakery. He was assessed, judged as mentally deficient, and sent to Templeton. He remained there for the next 60 years. When the Centre closed down in the late 90s, he spent just six years outside its gates before he passed away in 2003.

A life sentence for stealing a few pies, Smyth’s voice is heard from behind the camera. Seems like a tough life.
“Yeah,” George half-smiles back.
“Been a hard life. Hard times at life.”



A room in one of the still-standing Templeton Villas

New Zealand’s eugenics movement has largely faded from public memory, but for decades the ideas were public policy in New Zealand, and at the heart of the developing mental health system.

Overseas, eugenics principles were adopted to terrible ends. The theories took their most horrifying manifestation under Nazi Germany, where up to 400,000 Germans were forcibly sterilised and 70,000 ‘degenerates’ euthanised. But even as the full extent of Nazis’ racial cleansing programmes were being discovered, the idea of ridding the race of the mentally ill or feeble-minded was still doing the rounds in New Zealand. On the opening pages of the May 1945 Evening Post in Wellington, headlines detailed the final dregs of the German regime: “Rosenberg Found In Hospital, Notorious Nazi Official.”

But further down the same page, another headline: Mental Defectives: Bishop Justifies Extreme Measures” . “Bad racial stocks were a growing source of anxiety to thoughtful men in every Western country,” it reads. “There was not sufficient knowledge of the laws of heredity for adequate rules for improving racial stocks to be laid down, but it was known that mental defects were inherited. Some improvement in present tendencies could be made by sterilising the feeble-minded”.
“I am convinced that euthanasia should be permitted in such cases… Equally, from the Christian standpoint, as I see the matter, there is no objection to sterilisation under medical control,” Bishop Barnes says.


In 1911, the Mental Defectives Act was passed, allowing the state to imprison anyone classed as mentally ill or otherwise “defective” for an unlimited period of time. Kai Tiaki, the Nurse’s journal, enthusiastically noted the passing of the bill: “by detention of many such, who out in the world would marry and perpetuate their kind, surely something will be done toward stemming the tide of race deterioration, which fills to overflowing our mental hospitals,” it concludes.

While some advocates, including Dr Gray himself, had pushed for more extreme measures including sterilisation to be included in the Act, the approach eventually adopted in New Zealand was slightly gentler.

The Plunket Society was founded to improve the calibre of Caucasian New Zealand babies by a strict regime of scheduled feeding, exposure to sunlight, and cleaning. “The destiny of the race is in the hands of its mothers,” wrote founder Truby King - a member of Dunedin’s Eugenics Society, who assisted management of Seacliff Asylum, and went on to become New Zealand’s Inspector General of Health.

The philosophy of the entire mental health system and its eugenics underpinnings was summed up by the head of the Mental Hospitals Department in 1922:

“The answer which common-sense dictates is to place them [people with mental health issues and disabilities] in an environment where with their little comprehension they will not feel their disability; where they will be as happy as possible; where they will be trained for, and engage in, simple employments according to their capacity; where, as children, they will not, by association, prejudice the outlook of their normal brothers and sisters; and where, as adults, they will not have the opportunity to come in conflict with the law or to reproduce their kind. … for the vast majority, in its interest and the public’s, this should be the permanent home.


Thus Templeton was born .

But the net created by New Zealand’s Eugenics movement to catch people who were in some way “defective” was a wide one. Those with severe intellectual disabilities, children with minor learning difficulties, people suffering mental illness, juvenile delinquents—were thrown in together.


Norman Madden, in Out of Sight Out of Mind, Gerard Smyth

That’s how people like Norm Madden ended up there. When he was examined by Christchurch doctor Hans Snoek, who had Madden as a patient for 10 years, he found him to be of normal intelligence, with no evidence of any kind of intellectual disability or mental illness diagnosis. “What he really wants is for someone to say sorry,” he told the local newspaper in 1997.

While New Zealand’s system of asylums were intended to become a refuge for the ill and vulnerable, in reality many were prisons, where people were sent and swiftly forgotten.

Madden was one of the lucky ones. In his 20s, he was sent away on a probationary period, to work on a farm in the West Coast. He disliked the job and left—but was picked up by police with the intention of returning him to Templeton. They took him for assessment at Seacliffe Lunatic Asylum, where he was declared ‘recovered’ and sane, and sent out into the world.

Smyth’s second film on Templeton, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, followed Madden as he investigated his own past, and sought compensation from the New Zealand government.


He makes for a compelling subject: a man incarcerated for an enormous chunk of his life for no reason at all. But Smyth is adamant that it wasn’t just wrong that ‘healthy’ children were sent to Templeton—no one should have been sent there at all. “After a while, I regretted that [focus] in a way, because that wasn’t the point: it wasn’t that he was ‘normal’ so he shouldn’t be there. Because actually, no-one should have been there.”

Today, Smyth wonders if the full reality and cruelty of New Zealand’s old system are being lost to time. “No-one knows about it,” he says. “I think you have to re-learn these things, I think we learned a lesson, but you know, eternal vigilance. Every generation needs to relearn this, because if we don’t…” he shrugs.


"With an informed public, with adequate resources and with humane intentions and participation by those who are affected, we can develop policies and services which will make a difference and be durable.”

Warwick Brunton is a now-retired mental health policy analyst and University of Otago academic.

At times the ongoing shortage of staff, he says, meant the enormous system of institutions seemed to be more inward-looking than outward and rehabilitation-focussed.

“There were benevolent aspects to it, but inevitably there was a shortage of resources, which meant the long-term patient labor force was subverted into propping up the institutional system,” he says. “How did you get the laundry done or vegetables cultivated in a hospital of 700 people? How do you polish the floors day by day to keep the sparkling image? You got patients trained to do some of the domestic chores and gardening
under staff supervision. So gradually this system, whatever its therapeutic hopes, became a part of maintaining the institutional system."


Today, Brunton says, the vital thing is to learn the lessons of the past. “The important thing is to learn from history,” Brunton says. “What we can do and what we can do better, and to avoid making the mistakes of the past. With an informed public, with adequate resources and with humane intentions and participation by those who are affected, we can develop policies and services which will make a difference and be durable.”


One of the abandoned communal rooms at Templeton Centre

Newly minted Labour MP Jan Tinnetti knows the pale-blue villas of Templeton well. She grew up on the grounds, and in her teenage years used to earn her pocket money cleaning over at the hospital.

Tinetti’s father became the superintendent of the hospital in 1969, just before her first birthday. They moved into the old matron’s cottage on the grounds, and lived there for the next 20 years.

Those 200 acres were like their own self-enclosed universe, Tinetti says—a small village with 654 residents at its peak. All of the villas were poorly maintained, but the older ones in particular were awful.
“I hated going into them. They stunk,” she says, “they were not fit for purpose.” They had old lino, no carpet. Residents would be locked in. In the mornings after breakfast, people will be herded into the toilets and showers, where there were no divisions, no privacy, just a single large room.

And while most of the staff were “great”, she says, there were more than a few glimpses of ugliness. “I did see some physical incidents,” she says. “Residents who would be hit by staff members. A whole lot of inappropriate, very sexualised behaviour from residents.”


Some families of the people living there were good at visiting, but there were many, many other residents who were simply dropped off and never saw their families again. “They were just forgotten,” she says. “Locked away from the world.”

"We have to keep asking ourselves, over and over again, all these things that seem to be the norm now, is this actually right?

She remembers one man especially. His name was Bill Barron, and over the years he became close to the family. He would come around for dinners and family Christmases. He even came to her wedding. Bill had been at Templeton since he was a child, and was an old man by the time she met him. What struck her most of all was that there was no real reason for him to have spent his life there.

“There was absolutely no way he should have been there.”
“His intellect was perfectly fine, but he was so thoroughly institutionalised, it would have been very difficult for him to ever leave. He lived on the grounds his whole life.

Barron spent 72 years at Templeton. A short newspaper clipping that notes his leaving and the centre’s closure says simply that he was 10 when he moved to Templeton “for a now-forgotten reason”. The centre manager is quoted: “We’re trying to find out but we have no idea how he came to be here or why he stayed so long.”

“People should understand, this was not that long ago. This place was going strong up until the 90s,” she says. Witnessing what happened at Templeton, the way an entire social group was cut off and stigmatised, was what got her interested in social justice and politics in the first place. “I think there’s lots of lessons to be learned. First of all we need to learn that what we did, that is not an option.”


“But we also have to keep asking ourselves, over and over again, all these things that seem to be the norm now, is this actually right?”


Bill McElhinney, a longtime advocate for Templeton residents, at his home in Christchurch. IMAGE: Tess McClure

For the past 20 years, Bill McElhinney has been a champion of Templeton’s ex-residents, who include his own son, Paul. He knows many of the ex-residents well, and calls them “our guys and girls”.

Bill's son Paul was a resident at the time the centre was due for closure - and at that point it was very different to the place Norman Madden first encountered. The mental health system and system of care for those with disabilities had separated out, and at Templeton, the majority of residents now had some form of intellectual disability - although some fell into both categories.

It wasn’t a bad place, Bill says. There were trips to Bluff for fishing trips—Paul grins remembering when he was racing to catch a ferry, tripped on the wharf and fell into the freezing southern water. Two nurses went diving in after him.

But his son loves living in the community now. “He has a really rich life out here,” Bill says. Fish and chips, a full day of choir tomorrow, work at AJ’s factory, maybe a game of inside bowls.

“He enjoyed his time there, but nothing ever happened at Templeton. He wouldn’t want to go back. They didn’t maintain the buildings, and they gradually deteriorated down. Then of course in the 1990s they really started talking about it in earnest: deinstitutionalisation.”


"They used to ring me in tears, you know, saying, if I thought he could have lived in the community, I never would have put him in Templeton."

For parents, this was a jarring experience. Many had been told that their children would be better off in care, that they were a danger to the community, that they needed to be separated out from the world. To learn that they would be integrated into the community brought with it a wave of guilt and sorrow about the years they’d been shut away.

“It was very hard at the the start. There were a lot of elderly people, people in their 70s and 80s who all of a sudden thought their sons and daughters were going to be dumped onto their doorsteps. They used to ring me in tears, you know, saying, if I thought he could have lived in the community, I never would have put him in Templeton. They had all that guilt, dropped on them.”

Bill still gives his son a lift out to Templeton on Sundays, to get to the service that’s held on the grounds. It’s not too far over the grass to the old villas, which when Paul was here each held 40 people, some as many as four to a room. They were named for trees, and Paul can still reel off the titles: “Rata, Nikau, Rapou”.

The only building that hasn't either been bowled or long fallen into disrepair is the chapel, and it’s full this morning. Much of the congregation is ex-residents. The singing is loud, and peppered with occasional heckling of the guitarist.

Initially, Bill says, when the place shut down, some of the residents didn’t like to come out to the chapel service. Some had bad memories—others were worried that if they returned to the grounds, they might be sent back to live there permanently. But as time went on, they saw others come and go freely, and more came back. It’s a chance to catch up with the old crowd. “A lot of these people spent whole lives together, you know?”

On the left wall of the room is a wooden memorial board, filled with names of residents and ex-residents who lived here and have since passed away.

Almost 600 names in all, stretching from the 1930s through to 2009. Many lived and died on the grounds. The fates for others less certain: Robert McClure, 1974, listed missing, presumed dead. There’s George Smith, passed away 2003. Some have deliberately chosen not to have their names recorded here: Norman Madden’s name, for example, doesn’t appear, even though he passed away several years ago.

The Chapel will remain standing. There are a few lots of ashes in the garden, Bill says, the resting place shouldn’t be disturbed.

Through the garden there’s a cherry blossom just breaking its buds.
The plaque at the base of the trunk is half-covered with lichen. “In loving memory of Graeme G Moore,” it reads. “1930-1997. 59 years at Templeton.”

Treading the path back to the chapel door, a hymn filters out.

He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got everybody here In His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

Need to talk?
Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666

This series was made with assistance from The Mental Health Foundation and Like Minds Like Mine.