Historical Significance or Value
The building has historic significance because it represents the flourishing and focal point of the Plunket Society’s work in Palmerston North, and the services the building facilitated were especially important to the health and welfare of mothers and young children. They could be educated about the ideas and teachings of Dr Truby King who founded what became Plunket in 1907. It provided a space where parents, particularly women, were able to come together to learn about modern teachings about child and mother care, in particular the importance of proper feeding and nutrition, fresh air, routine, and hygiene as these ideas changed how parents cared for their infants.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Plunket Rooms (Former) have architectural value as an accomplished representation of the Neo-Georgian style. Neo-Georgian architecture developed in New Zealand around the World War One period and was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The characteristic features of this style are integrated into the Plunket Rooms’ design. This includes two kicked pavilions extending from a hipped roof, an open portico, Tuscan columns, quoins and multi-pane sash windows, all built to a symmetrical design. Inside, the rooms were designed to be large and airy and flooded with natural light – a cornerstone of Plunket’s founder, Dr Truby King’s (1858-1938), stipulations to create a healthy and nurturing space for the thriving of infants. The building retains a high level of authentic fabric in both interior and exterior.
Cultural Significance or Value
As the Palmerston North Plunket Rooms, the building has cultural significance as a locale where Plunket culture flourished for a period of nearly 70 years. The building was a purpose-built space where Plunket ideas, values and culture (largely stipulated by Dr Truby King) were disseminated to Palmerston North’s parents through ‘mothercraft’ classes. The dedicated space provided a supportive environment where mothers could share knowledge, advice and experiences.
This place was assessed against the Section 66(3) criteria and found to qualify under the following criteria a and b. The assessment concludes that this place should be listed as a Category 2 historic place.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
Concerningly high child mortality rates in New Zealand in the nineteenth and early twentieth century provided the impetus for Dr Truby King to form the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children, later Plunket, in 1907. The need for the Plunket Rooms in Palmerston North reflects the success of his dissemination of ideas around New Zealand.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history
The Plunket Rooms (Former) is closely associated with of heath reformer, innovator and founder of Plunket, Dr Frederic Truby King (1858-1938). It is also associated with Lady Victoria Plunket (1873-1968) who gave her name to the organisation. They worked together to promulgate a regime of routine, fresh air, appropriate feeding practices and hygiene for babies and their parents. Lord and Lady Plunket had a close connection to Palmerston North because their vice-regal residence was there, at Woodhey (now called Caccia-Birch House), where they resided between 1908 and 1910. Their youngest child was born there.
Summary of Significance or Values
The Palmerston North Plunket Rooms (Former) have historic and cultural significance because it represents the flourishing of the Plunket Society’s work in Palmerston North, and the services the building facilitated were especially important to the health and welfare of mothers and young children. The building also has architectural value as a characteristic example of prominent local architectural practice LG West and Son’s and their accomplished implementation of the Neo-Georgian style.
The nucleus of what became known as the township of Palmerston North was built radiating out from an 800-acre central forest clearing, covered by flax, fern, manuka trees and light scrub, known as Papaiōea. The large clearing, surrounded by dense, heavy bush, extended from Featherston Street in the north to Ferguson Street in the south, from Cook Street in the west to Brightwater Terrace in the east. At the southern side of this clearing was a pā belonging to important Rangitāne tūpuna who descend from the eponymous ancestor and grandson of explorer Whātonga, who arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the Kurahaupō. These tūpuna, including the rangatira Rākaumauī, were the first of this line to settle in Manawatū. Rākaumauī’s wharepuni at the pā is said to have stood on the current site of the statue of Te Peeti Te Awe Awe in the Square, facing east. Recent archaeological finds have included hangi stones at the Square.
Although abandoned, ‘crumbling remains’ of the pā site at Papaiōea were still present when the Crown, after protracted negotiations, acquired this and the wider area from iwi in 1864. Before then there was limited European entry into, or settlement of, the Manawatū. However, in 1866 Palmerston township (renamed Palmerston North in 1873) was surveyed and the Square was created as a central focal point for the settlement, still within the location of the original clearing, Papaiōea. In the 1870s Rangitāne and Ngāti Raukawa provided a Māori name for the Square ‘Te Marae o Hine (the Courtyard of the Daughter of Peace)’. The environment of the original clearing, which included what later became known as King Street, was subsumed into the township of Palmerston North as European settlers felled the surrounding forest in the 1870s and 1880s and laid streets. At this time settlement in Palmerston North and the surrounding district gained momentum as the government’s immigration and public works schemes enticed more people to the area, as did work in sawmills and flaxmills. The area soon earned the moniker ‘the home of the flax trade’.
The Plunket Rooms (Former) are located approximately 250 metres away from the Square but still within the original area known as Papaiōea. Being centrally located, the Palmerston North Plunket Rooms’ future neighbourhood was developed for commercial and residential purposes. For example, the site and surrounding area was up for auction in 1881 and described as ‘valuable…[and] so quickly and well-settled’, contributing to Palmerston North becoming ‘the most flourishing and important [town] in the North Island’. At the time, the parcels either side of King Street at its intersection with Princess Street (called Duke Street at the time) were owned by prominent businessman Joseph Edward Nathan (1835–1912). By the early twentieth century various residences, shops, stores, offices, a private school and private hospital were in this part of Palmerston North, and Palmerston North Technical School from 1909.
The organisation known to most today as ‘Plunket’ has undergone several name changes. Originally ‘The Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children’ from 1907 to 1914, it was rebranded as ‘the Plunket Society’ between 1914 and 1980. It was then the ‘Royal New Zealand Plunket Society’ from 1980 to 2018. Today it is known as ‘Whānau Āwhina Plunket’, or simply ‘Plunket’.
Despite these branding changes, what has been constant is their reputation as New Zealand’s most well-known organisation supporting parents by providing services and teaching focused on baby- and child-care. In an atmosphere of heightened political and social awareness of the importance of infant welfare, Dr Frederic Truby King (1858-1938) founded Plunket in 1907. Truby King’s approach to baby care proved hugely influential and was to dramatically reduce infant mortality both in New Zealand and overseas. At this time some infants unable to be breast-fed were missing out on crucial nutrition, fed on various fluids, including ‘condensed milk, dried milks and patent foods, cow’s milk, water and barley water’. Truby King promoted breastfeeding or specially prepared ‘humanised’ milk for bottle-fed babies. He emphasised the importance of domestic hygiene as well as advising the necessity of plenty of fresh air, exercise, and sunshine as fundamental for all babies and young children to thrive. Plunket nurses, in addition to their basic midwifery qualifications, completed additional training to learn, then teach, Truby King’s approach to maintaining infant health and preventing disease.
The Society was named after Lady Victoria Plunket (1873-1968), who was married to Governor General Lord William Plunket (1864-1920). She was a charismatic speaker and popular figure in her own right and, working closely with the indefatigable Truby King, undertook a lot of initial promotion for the Society around the country. Lord and Lady Plunket had a close connection to Palmerston North because the vice-regal residence was there, at Woodhey (now called Caccia-Birch House (List No. 196)), between 1908 and 1910, and their youngest child (of eight) was born in the house early in February 1909.
Lady Victoria Plunket and Truby King presented free public lectures about mothercraft in Palmerston North in July 1908. These talks attracted the largest ‘assemblage of ladies’ in the town’s history. In addition to speeches, Lady Plunket undertook demonstrations on preparing ‘humanised’ milk. Inspired by these addresses, the people of Palmerston North established a Palmerston North branch of the Society. They sent a request to Truby King’s Karitane Babies’ Hospital in Dunedin for ‘a registered and highly qualified [Plunket] nurse’ to oversee the work in Palmerston North. The capable and experienced Plunket Nurse Henderson was soon appointed. Under her guidance, the branch undertook ‘remarkably good work’. They were supported by local fundraising efforts, which included an Orchestral Concert at the Palmerston North Opera House. Yet the Society, for ‘some unknown reason’ was ‘allowed to lapse’ and Palmerston North became ‘merely a branch’ of the Marton Centre and a Plunket nurse visited Palmerston North from there twice a week.
From the 1920s there was a surge in building Plunket Rooms around the wider region. Rooms, often in conjunction with women’s rest rooms, were opened in Shannon, Levin, Foxton and Feilding. A Palmerston North branch was again formed in 1921. At a meeting of the District Nursing Guild that October it was decided that ‘the time had arrived when Palmerston North should [again] assume the responsibility of maintaining a [Plunket] nurse for the town’ and Palmerston North again formed an independent branch of Plunket with the support of a local Plunket Nurse Committee. From 1921-22 their membership totalled 58; by 1923 membership had increased to 272, with a corresponding jump in income. There was no designated Plunket Rooms for the branch, but for many years it was based in a rent-free room at Collinson and Cunninghame Limited, one of Palmerston North’s leading department stores. By 1925 there were ‘many people in this town and district whose children … benefited from the skilled treatment and advice of the Plunket nurses’.
Plunket continued to prosper around the country and many women became involved in a voluntary capacity. Although the local Plunket volunteer committees around New Zealand generally started off as being the domain of each community’s Pākehā women from the upper echelons, this had changed by the 1920s. The demographic of committees was still primarily Pākehā, but the women involved ‘on the whole reflected the make-up of their … communities’. This grass-roots commitment was essential because, while there was some government funding and income from Karitane products (after 1927), the bulk of Plunket’s funding was raised by the Plunket committees which supported the branches. The benefit for the women involved was Plunket work was ‘seen as a respectable and respected activity within the community; it provided an opportunity for women to meet away from the traditional environs of church and family, and increased their confidence and self-esteem’.
Māori mothers and their infants were initially less involved in Plunket than Pākehā - primarily due to a health system which hindered an integrated approach to maternity services. In its early days the Society was ‘slow to respond’ to Māori needs and sometimes described as ‘out of touch with Māori issues’. Statistics show a higher mortality rate for Māori infants when compared with those from Pākehā homes. Plunket had no Māori branches and few Māori Plunket nurses. However, Dr Māui Pōmare (1876-1930) is said to have greatly admired Truby King’s work and tried to foster it within Māori communities. When the first Plunket Society branches were established there were very few Māori babies in their care. Much of this work was undertaken by the Native Health Nursing Service, established in 1911 by the Department of Health. By the mid-1920s it was established practice for the Department of Health to look after Māori babies and for Plunket’s primary focus to be Pākehā babies. In the early period many of King’s writings were translated into different languages, but it was only when Māui Pōmare took action in 1916 that they appeared in te reo Māori. Where necessary Plunket nurses were able to step in to assist Māori mothers, by arrangement with the public health governing department/board, to cover areas where a district nurse was unavailable.
Increasing urbanisation after the Second World War went some way towards disrupting this segregation between Pākehā and Māori mother- and child-care. By the 1980s Plunket had taken on the challenge of ‘confront[ing] this [racial] issue publicly’ to provide a service which met the needs of all New Zealanders. The first Māori health workers were employed by Plunket from 1989 and from 1990 money from various fundraising activities began to be allocated to Māori health initiatives. There was also historically a similar lack of engagement with Pasifika mothers - a relationship also hampered by the barriers of language and cultural differences - but from the 1980s they have benefited from similar efforts by Plunket to ‘break down barriers’.
Overall, the organisation kept careful records and can today point to statistics showing a declining infant mortality rate nationally, due in part to the efforts of the Society. By 1931 New Zealand’s infant mortality rate had dropped to 3.2 per cent, making the country an acknowledged world leader in the field. Nationwide, in 1906-10 the infant mortality rate was 40.57 per 1000 live births; this dropped to 9.5 by 1936-40. This decline in infant mortality rate was not just the result of the implementation of Dr Truby King’s ideas, but other factors played a part too, including the benefits reaped by widespread improvement of sanitation in the home.
After the Second World War public maternity and Plunket services found it hard to keep up with the demand created by the ‘Baby Boom’. They continued to seek ways to assist parents. During this time there were isolated outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid and tuberculosis, however it was polio that became the ‘most alarming’ infectious disease. Waves of polio epidemics swept through New Zealand until the 1960s and Plunket successfully stepped up to ensure that children around New Zealand were immunised. Although this was a challenging period, the society managed to keep its independence and continued to be run ‘from Dunedin by the fur-coat brigade’.
Into the 1990s Plunket continued to be relevant to both babies and their caregivers and Plunket babies came from increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds. The reach of the Society is evident in the statistics - in 1991 Plunket nurses saw 92 per cent of the country’s mothers with newborns. The organisation proved its relevance once again when it spearheaded legislation which made the use of car seats compulsory for infants. A car seat loan scheme they set up grew from a pilot programme in Dunedin 1981 was a major success and made the practical implementation of the policy possible. But in 1992 government posited changes to the way in which health care was provided to mothers and babies. They suggested the introduction of a ‘contract system’, a suggestion that would challenge ‘the primacy of the society in the delivery of healthcare to mothers and children’. This met strong opposition nationwide and there was an outpouring of support for Plunket, which culminated in the organisation of rallies and marches around the country, and a petition signed by 100,000 people was delivered to Parliament.
Palmerston North Plunket Rooms
The nationwide network of Plunket Rooms was crucial to the success of Plunket’s endeavours. It was commonplace for local communities to fundraise, then build, their own Plunket Rooms. In Palmerston North, the local growth of the Society’s activities, as well as its successes, seems to have motivated the Borough Council’s decision to donate a site to the Society in 1926 and the land transfer details were formalised by 1928. Around the same time they also donated and constructed the Technical School Workshops next door. Having secured the site for the Plunket Rooms, public fundraising for the building began in earnest in that year to help the Society create ‘[u]p-to-date accommodation and a building worthy of its noble work’. The appeal to raise £2,000 to build and furnish the building was a resounding success - the ‘generosity of the public [meant] the building was opened free of debt’.
The architect of the Palmerston North Plunket Rooms was Ernst Vilhelm West (1886-1961), of the notable local architectural practice started by his father Ludolph Georg West (1846-1919) in the late nineteenth century, which became known as LG West & Son by 1912. The practice designed many local buildings. They were also involved in local politics, with Ludolph serving as a Mayor and Borough Councillor and Ernst as a Borough Councillor from 1921 to 1925. Tenders to build the Palmerston North Plunket Rooms were called for in 1928. Builder Alfred Stenberg was the successful tenderer at a cost of £1,957 and the building was completed and opened the following year. The Manawatu Times described the rooms as ‘splendidly finished and most artistically furnished … [with] large comfortable airy rest rooms’, a well-supported ‘splendid humanitarian institution’ and a credit to the township. The spacious consulting and work rooms, opening off a central waiting room, reflected the practical implementation of Truby King’s ideas about the paramount importance of fresh air and ventilation to create a healthy environment.
Achieving the aim of a purpose-built and Plunket-owned facility was important because it provided on-going surety for provision of their nursing services. At the Palmerston North Plunket Rooms these included specific courses, including those in ‘mother-craft’ (the skills of child care) and domestic hygiene. The first Plunket Nurse to roll out these courses out from the new King Street premises in Palmerston North was Agnes Kearns (1886-1962). Nurse Kearns completed her midwifery training and from there she undertook additional studies to qualify as a Plunket Nurse, finishing her training in 1921. Kearns played a key role in establishing the Plunket Society in Palmerston North and ‘endeared herself to a great number of mothers in numerous little acts apart from her professional duties’. Her tenure of service lasted until 1942; it was in recognition of her long service that she was awarded an MBE in 1959. Later owner, the Universal College of Learning (UCOL), was to rename the building the ‘Kearns Block’ in honour of her historic connection to it.
Plunket Rooms around the country became important gathering and community support places for women, especially in the early to mid-twentieth century. Having the Plunket Rooms meant creating a permanent base and facilitated the informal networks that developed among the mothers who attended. The support began with antenatal classes and carried through to care of older children. The many hours of voluntary work undertaken by so many women running committees like the one in Palmerston North is today acknowledged. It was this bedrock of volunteers and the hundreds of voluntary hours they contributed to the running of the Society which enabled it to retain control of the organisation’s future’.
From infant health to student health
The Plunket Rooms in Palmerston North continued to be owned by Plunket and operated as Plunket Rooms for much of the twentieth century. It is remembered fondly as a comfortable work environment by those who worked or volunteered there. The King Street rooms were transferred to The Universal College of Learning (UCOL), then known as Manawatū Polytechnic, in 1997 when Plunket relocated to new rooms at nearby 229 Cuba Street. UCOL’s institutional history in Palmerston North goes back to 1896, with other campuses since established in Whanganui, Wairarapa and Horowhenua. In the early 1990s more than 40 per cent of Palmerston North’s population were involved in the education sector as students or staff, leading to it being dubbed the ‘Knowledge City’. It was important that the polytechnic could continue to contribute to that status and it was given a boost of confidence in 1996 when the development of a single central city campus became feasible through a $22 million dollar contribution from the government. The acquisition of the former Plunket Society property was part of this project to significantly expand its Palmerston North campus in the late twentieth century and, in keeping with its original health-related purpose, the building was used as UCOL’s Student Health Centre.
Some UCOL Manawatū campus buildings, including the health centre and neighbouring former workshops, were assessed for seismic resilience following the Canterbury earthquake in 2010 and closed as a result in late 2011. The Safer UCOL Buildings Project was completed with the exception of work on the workshops and Plunket Rooms, ‘pending developments in construction techniques so that we can make these buildings safer in an economic way’, according to UCOL Chairperson Trevor Goodwin. The Plunket Rooms were left empty until they were upgraded with a seismic upgrade and fit-out by UCOL, reopening in 2022 as UCOL’s Student Support Hub, providing meeting and conference space for the institution’s students and staff.
The Plunket Rooms (Former) are located in Palmerston North’s central business district, on the southern side of King Street, a one-way street bounded at either end by Princess Street and Rangitikei Street. There is a green space and various shops and cafes within sight when standing on King Street outside of the Rooms. Today the Plunket Rooms (Former) is part of land and buildings which together form the nucleus of UCOL’s Manawatū campus. There are a range of other adapted or purpose-built buildings within the locality, the majority of which reflect the popular architectural styles and principles of their respective eras, dating from the 1920s through to the early twenty-first century. The Plunket Rooms (Former) are immediately flanked by the Palmerston North Technical School (Former) and a small access road.
The architectural style of the Plunket Rooms (Former) is Neo-Georgian. Neo-Georgian architecture developed in New Zealand around the World War One period and was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s. This style lent itself well to the building’s purpose – because it was associated with domestic buildings and created a dignified yet welcoming atmosphere for users. In keeping with Neo-Georgian style, the building has two pavilions with a kicked tiled hipped roof framing an open portico with supporting Tuscan columns. Other neo-Georgian Classical features integrated into the exterior design include the use of quoins and numerous multi-pane sash windows. As is characteristic of this style, the building’s exterior is pleasingly symmetrical. Overall, the exterior has a high level of authenticity.
The main entrance to the building faces King Street, the symmetrical design making a central feature of the double doors. Access inside is up ramps (particularly helpful for those pushing prams) and through a portico (a convenient space to park the same prams). A pair of automatically opening double doors recess to admit access to a vestibule inside the building. The vestibule has two large lights through which the interior can be seen and access to the interior is through either side of the vestibule space. The timber structure is an original feature which still dominates this side of the room.
The central space which was the original waiting room today functions as a central meeting space filled with computer desks and chairs. At the rear of the central space there is a small modern kitchenette. All rooms (including the short corridor leading to a door to the service lane) open off it. The ceiling is uniformly high and there are suspended fluorescent lights as well as numerous sash windows on all four sides of the building which admit a flood of natural light. The rooms are subtly decorated with a wooden dado comprised of painted vertical panels, the narrow rail which tops it in varnished timber. The three original varnished timber doors on the right-hand side of the room have a handsome timber trim that connects to timber skirting board of the same type and shade of varnish. Each of these internal original doors features a borrowed light above - a single panel of minster obscure glass also framed by an extension of the timber trim. These lights also contribute to the sense of light and space in the building.
The windows are a dramatic feature of the building. Those at the front on the King Street elevation are sash windows, the lower panes also featuring panels of minster glass. Other windows on the other three elevations are multipaned, some of which are unable to be opened; others open as casement windows. The windows which face the gap between the Plunket Rooms (Former) and the Technical School (Former) next door, are protected by sheets of safety glass fixed over all the windows on this elevation.
Inside, two of the timber doors on the right-hand side of the room lead to smaller meeting rooms. The central third door leads to the corridor which accesses the small room designated to accommodate a photocopier and printer, a small additional accessible toilet and door leading to the service lane. This side door is set into a recessed space with several panes of glass above and sheltered by a flat concrete canopy jutting out onto the lane.
The left-hand side of the building interior has seen more alteration, the original wall dividing the spaces has been removed and replaced with modern glass doors in an aluminium frame, which slide open to create a larger space.
The rear of the building is less ornate. There is a small, original toilet in a space that extends out from the rear elevation. Beside it is a cupboard containing a hot water cylinder and another door allowing access to the rear lot. A row of air-conditioning equipment is fixed below the windows.
1928 - 1929
Brick, concrete, glass, terracotta tiles, timber
28th July 2022
Report Written By
Lloyd Chapman, In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King, Penguin Books, Auckland, 2003
Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare 1907-2000, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2003
Jim Sullivan, I was a Plunket Baby: 100 Years of The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society (Inc), Random House and Plunket, Auckland, 2007
‘Royal New Zealand Plunket Society 1907’
https://nzhistory.govt.nz/women-together/royal-new-zealand-plunket-society accessed 31 March 2022.
A fully referenced copy of the list report is available on request from the Central Regional Office of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.
Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.