The Doctor and the Deputy

For the curious and the historically inclined, Ashburton District’s medical history is topic of great interest.

Medicine, healthcare, births and deaths are prevalent topics throughout most of our lives, and so it stands to reason that such topics have been frequently pondered and explored.

Not only are medicine and doctors important in everyday life, but back when Ashburton was in its infancy, people often took up more than one vocation due to lack of residents – doctors included.

Otley’s Magnum Opus

‘The History of Medicine in the Ashburton County, New Zealand from 1855 to 1955’ by Dr. Maurice Otley is arguably the most trusted work on the subject.

In his own words, Dr. Otley’s interest in the history of Ashburton District from a medical angle, “was aroused some thirty years ago when I first visited the Tuarangi Home.”

Otley felt it was obvious that much had happened there over the past 45 years, yet he could find no records except for four pages of notes by Winifred Norris and some fragments from John Brown’s ‘Ashburton’.

Otley then embarked on a research journey that had him interviewing descendants of prominent figures in the medical field, as well as scouring records and newspapers.

Ultimately, with the help of a number of doctors, scholars and librarians, as well as friends such as Ashburton’s own Gordon Binsted, Otley compiled his book in 1978, which is considered quite rare today.

Our Own Wild West

Chapter four of Otley’s medical history is focused on four notable doctors – Drs Trevor, Stewart, Kesteven and Ross.

While all four equally deserve the recognition that Maurice Otley expressed in his works, I am personally most interested in Dr. James Trevor due to his varied career, which was not solely focused on medicine.

At the time of Dr. Trevor’s arrival in 1873, rail communication with Christchurch and Timaru had not yet been established, and so it was no longer necessary for the sick to have to travel to seek extensive treatment.

As well as being interested in numerous commercial ventures, Dr. Trevor also served as deputy to the Resident Magistrate of Ashburton on account of his “serious, sincere, and alert” nature.

As a Justice of the Peace, he acted as coroner for many years and was frequently at court.

Otley describes Ashburton from the late 1860s as a “Far West American Township”, where for working men there was not much else to do after a day’s work other than going for a drink at a hotel.

By 1880 there were 18 hotels across the district, and around this time Ashburton “had the name, throughout the Colony, of being a town of grit – a go ahead place that meant business.”

Otley explains further, “But Ashburton had another character … with more police cases arising out of drunkenness than any other town of its size.”

Over six hundred cases were reported to the Police in 1879.

If you are familiar with our previous Guardian heritage pages, then this does not come as much of a shock since drunkenness, as well as much stranger crimes, were fairly common in Ashburton in the late nineteenth century.

Dr. Trevor became quite familiar with the District’s hotels, as inquests were held at the Somerset, the Central Hotel (now the Devon), and others, for cases of arson and other crimes.

According to Otley, there was an Act of Parliament which stated that any hotel or public house was obligated to receive a dead body at the coroner’s request, for the purpose of inquest, and if the owner of the house refused they would be fined five pounds.

Unexpected Stories

Like myself, you may have been surprised to read about Dr. Trevor’s multiple vocations, and you may be asking – “What does any of this have to do with medical history?”

A main purpose of Otley’s medical history is to demonstrate the fact that such history is not separate from other matters regarding the District’s growth.

Otley highlights the fact that the medical men and women of Ashburton District were heavily involved in other matters, and were integral to the growth of the Borough and County as a whole, having been involved in local politics, law enforcement, and so on.

Otley’s ‘The History of Medicine in the Ashburton County, New Zealand from 1855 to 1955’ is available for viewing in the Research Room at the Ashburton Museum.

By Connor Lysaght

This article was modified for this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 14th of April 2020.


  1. The original seven volumes of Otley’s medical history, which have since been reprinted as one volume available in the Ashburton Museum Research Room.
  2. Portrait of Dr. James R. Trevor.
  3. Excerpt from the Ashburton Herald, 1st of April 1878, detailing some of the crimes that Trevor dealt with as deputy.
  4. Illustration of the Somerset Hotel.

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