Truby King House, Seacliff and Plunket

Vivs plunket book (1)

Sir Frederic Truby King (1 April 1858 – 10 February 1938), generally known as Truby King, was a New Zealand health reformer and Director of Child Welfare. He is best known as the founder of the Plunket Society.[1]

Having worked initially in his father’s branch of the Bank of New Zealand, he then spent some time in Wellington and Masterton ‘where he realised that banking was not his forte’.[2] He was 22 when he left New Zealand to train as a doctor in Edinburgh and when he returned to New Zealand he was appointed Medical Superintendent of the Wellington General Hospital. In 1889, against widespread competition, he won the appointment of medical superintendent of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, the country’s largest and most expensive asylum. He was also appointed lecturer in mental diseases and examiner in public health and medical jurisprudence at the University of Otago. He held the Seacliff position for 30 years.

Seacliff asylum

Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: 1/2-002563; F

Within the asylum King promoted fresh air, exercise, good diet, work and recreation as the appropriate treatments for mental illness. He worked towards improved classification of patients and building separate villas for convalescents, and succeeded in establishing separate facilities for epileptics and ‘inebriates’. King introduced training and lectures for the staff and produced a handbook of Rules and instructions for the guidance of attendants and nurses. He experimented with the boarding out of patients, and took voluntary boarders before provision was made in legislation for voluntary admission in 1911.[3] He created a working farm, where he experimented with his ideas on nutrition.

The Kings, in their forties, were childless. Bella King had taken in an infant, Mary, from an attendant’s family, and not being satisfied with the child’s progress asked her husband to design a better feeding formula. “In this way Truby King’s formidable attention was directed away from the nutrition of animals towards the feeding and care of infants, a field that linked his desire for the prevention of insanity and his experimental work with nutrition”. He trained one of the Seacliff nurses in infant feeding, paid her himself, and sent her into Dunedin to give advice to mothers. Fellow medical men were unenthusiastic about this intrusion on their domain, so King turned to prominent women in the community. On 14 May 1907 he addressed a meeting at the Dunedin town hall on the promotion of health of women and children, and out of this the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children was born.[4]

The society, which came to be known as the Plunket Society after Lady Victoria Plunket, the wife of the governor and an ardent supporter, spread rapidly. Committees were formed throughout the country, local clinics were opened and nurses trained in infant welfare visited mothers in their homes. King also took ailing infants into his holiday home at Karitane, and thus began the first of a number of Karitane hospitals.

“Truby King’s legacy, widespread in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, was the doctrine of feeding by the clock. Removed from the enthusiastic personality of its founder, the Truby King system became formalised into a set of rigid rules propounded by Plunket nurses. Yet King himself was a man who thrived on disorder. He ate at irregular times, paid no attention to the state of his attire, left travel plans to the last minute, was careless with money (once being declared bankrupt), talked interminably on his latest enthusiasm to anyone who would listen, and was impatient with opposition. There were many who found this total engagement with his latest mission attractive, while others found him irritating and eccentric. He is recorded, after his move to Wellington, as saying that he missed the insane.”[5]

In Wellington, he and his wife lived at what is now known as the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace for a few years in the early 1920s, before moving to a house that architect William Grey Young had designed for them in the suburb of Melrose, built to maximise exposure to sun and air, in line with Truby King’s beliefs.

TK house

This is now a Heritage New Zealand Listed Category 1 historic place.  On the site are also the mausoleum that houses the bodies of Truby King and his wife; a Karitane products factory (now apartments) and a former maternity hospital – these are included in the Truby King Historic Area listing. The house and garden are owned by the Wellington City Council and the garden can be visited by the public at any time.



[1] Wikipedia entry:

[2] Barbara Brookes. ‘King, Frederic Truby’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012 URL:

[3] Brookes, Te Ara entry.

[4] Brookes, Te Ara entry

[5] Brookes, Te Ara entry


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