The Shadow of Lionel Terry, Part 2

[1]1,528 words

Part 2 of 4


In days of old, when men were bold,
And Honour held its sway,
When’er a comrade fought for Truth,
We all stood staunch beside him.
But now we’ve sold our souls for gold,
It’s all the other way,
When’er a brave man fights for Truth,
We call him mad, and cage him![1]

On his way from Wellington to Lyttelton aboard the inter-island steamer, Terry had hidden a note in his cabin, stating that he was in poor health, having been kept in solitary conferment for six months, with little exercise, and that he suspected “an attempt to impair my mental faculties to form an excuse for placing me in a lunatic asylum.” Shortly after reaching Lyttelton Gaol he was certified as insane on the advice of a Port Health doctor and the prison doctor.

He was sent to Sunnyside Mental Hospital in February 1906, escaping in September.[2] While “on the run”, he swam and trekked a considerable distance, and a storekeeper related that despite Terry’s obvious weakness through lack of food, he maintained a dignified presence. Terry was apprehended while discussing politics in the sitting room of a hotel. Two weeks later he was out of Sunnyside again, but only briefly. However, Terry was not under any delusion that such escapades would bring long-term freedom; they were intended only as protests.[3] One factor in the escapes was the sympathetic press he received, and the assistance he was given by the public.[4] He regarded his being committed as “a disgraceful and cowardly subterfuge”[5] on the part of the Government, based on “abstruse” questions that had been put to him by the doctor at Lyttelton Gaol. After several more escapes, Terry was transferred to specially fortified hospital quarters at Lyttelton Gaol in December, having been conveyed on a stretcher under complete restraint.[6] Because of close confinement Terry’s health deteriorated. He went on a hunger strike, and was transferred to Seacliff Mental Hospital near Dunedin in late 1907.

Seacliff was run by Dr. (later Sir) Truby King, an iconic figure of New Zealand history for his foundation of the Plunkett Society, an institution concerned with the welfare of mothers and their babies. Dr King’s reforms of Seacliff included encouraging the able-bodied patients to work the garden grounds or the thousand acre farm, and at weekends play sport and picnic near the seaside; also establishing a strict code for nurses and attendants. Although Terry made an escape from Seacliff in November 1907 of three weeks duration, his relationship with King was cordial. Terry painted three scenes of children for King’s Home for Infants at Karitane, another New Zealand icon of child welfare, and these paintings were displayed for the public in Dunedin. While on the run during these occasions, Terry would write letters to the press on racial questions. As for the public’s attitude, a large volume of letters was written to the press lauding Terry as a “martyr” and a “national hero.”[7] One letter to the Otago Daily Times contended that far from the public being eager to see Terry recaptured, he would be “an honoured guest at 95 percent of the homesteads of Central Otago. Had his capture depended on the residents of Central Otago he would never have returned to Seacliff. And I believe that the same spirit actuates the majority of the people of the Dominion in this matter.”[8] Another escape followed in January 1908.

Terry was very problematic for the Government, and there had been some consideration to shipping him off to England. However Terry was sent back to his old quarters at Lyttelton Gaol in 1908, while awaiting the construction of a special facility for him at Sunnyside. Although initially getting along amiably with his gaolers, for reasons unknown treatment deteriorated,[9] and he was put into solitary confinement, beaten with batons, drenched in cold water, and force-fed after a hunger-strike, during which his teeth were broken as a steel gag was forced into his mouth. Paddy Webb, later a Labour Cabinet Minister, related his experiences of Lyttelton Gaol where he was jailed as a conscientious objector during World War I, giving credence to Terry’s charges as to conditions, Webb referring to men coming out of solitary confinement as “physical wrecks.”[10]

Terry was sent back to Sunnyside in January 1909 – under heavy guard. Here a reporter visited him from the Lyttelton Times and, ironically, while Terry claimed that solitary confinement was affecting his mind, the reporter did not discern anything unsound about Terry, referring to his cogency of thought and speech, and calm manner.[11] At Sunnyside Terry continued his painting and poetry. Some of the attendants continued a brutal regime, assaulting Terry, while others were sympathetic and received Terry’s watercolors in gratitude. Among the favors was the delivery by an attendant of a letter from Terry to the German Consul in Christchurch requesting that Germany make war on the “corrupt British Empire.” This was in 1912. Around the same time, Terry mailed a letter to “the Bastard King of England” repudiating his British nationality.[12]

In 1914 Terry was granted permission to return to Seacliff, and the friendly regime of Dr King, who had once offered him liberty to roam the hills if he promised not to escape, an offer which seven years on he now accepted. When he returned, staff noted that Terry had physically and mentally deteriorated. Conditions at Seacliff were very comfortable with two large rooms, one serving as a library, sitting room and artist’s studio. Terry often dined with King, and was interested in King’s proposals for child welfare.[13]

When medical students visited Seacliff from Otago University Terry was considered the “star exhibit,” Dr Doris Gordon, later known for her advocacy for mother and child welfare, recalling in her autobiography:

Truby King permitted Terry to lecture to us. With the superintendent as chairman, and a few attendants hovering in the wings, Terry would profound his brilliant hypotheses; by the time he finished most of the hypnotized students were wondering who would be labeled lunatic and who custodian![14]

With the departure of Dr King in 1920, Terry’s amiable regime continued under the new superintendent. Terry tended to a garden, raised goats and sheep, made wine, and created a rose pagoda that became a well-known tourist attraction, and enjoyed the wholesomeness he found in these natural surroundings.[15] He would enjoy long, brisk country walks with his young friend Frank Tod, followed by a procession of his pet goats and sheep and a bull he would pick up en route, much to the fear of the attendant.[16] He would visit neighbors, and give gifts at Christmas. “All, the neighborhood held Terry in high regard,” recalls Tod.

At Christmas time it was difficult to realise that he was, in fact a mental patient. He talked intelligently on most subjects, and was treated in such a lordly manner at the hospital that both adults and children alike considered it an honour to be in his company. Locals were particularly privileged if he presented them with one of his oil paintings, sometimes rather old fashioned in subject matter, but still obviously the work of a talented artist.[17]

In 1940 Terry had many of the privileges he had had in Sealciff for 20 years taken away after allegedly assaulting a doctor who tried to forcibly inoculate him, a practice from which Terry had been exempted, but on this occasion the medical superintendent had been absent. Terry’s garden was destroyed, and his pet goats and sheep were killed.

The anti-British sentiment that had developed from 1912 now manifested in support for Hitler, and in 1942 Terry composed a lengthy letter to “the people of New Zealand” imposing a £1,000,000 for the treatment he had undergone, the money to be payable to “Herr Hitler of Germany as a small token of my esteem and a contribution toward the cost incurred by him and his brave and victorious followers.”

Terry maintained that the rise of Japan and then of Communist China would prove him correct on the Asian issue. During his closing years Terry would have a penchant for quoting the Bible, and in particular referred to Phineas in Numbers, chapter 25, one of his poems declaring that,

Of all the heroes history has provide,
Phineas wins my highest admiration . . .

On August 20 1952 after a series of strokes, Terry passed away peacefully. Through the publicity orchestrated by Tod, Terry’s body, which had been given to the Anatomy Department of Otago Medical School, was released for the Christian burial that Terry was so concerned he should have. The funeral took place “under a veil of secrecy,” with hospital officials and the Rev. A. Stevens being the only mourners present.[18]


1. Lionel Terry, n.d.

2. “Lionel Terry’s Escape,” Wanganui Herald, Volume XXXX, Issue 11980, September 25, 1906, p. 5.

3. Frank Tod, p. 58.

4. Frank Tod, p. 68.

5. Lionel Terry to the Premier, August 14, 1906.

6. Frank Tod, p. 63.

7. Frank Tod, p. 72.

8. W. D. Mason, “Patriot and Prisoner of The Crown, Lionel Terry,” Letters to the Editor, Otago Daily Times, December 16, 1907.

9. Perhaps because of his attempt to form a militant union among inmates?

10. Frank Tod, p. 90.

11. Frank Tod, p. 95.

12. Frank Tod, p. 98.

13. Frank Tod, p. 105.

14. Doris Gordon, Back Blocks Baby Doctor (London: 1955); Tod, p. 106.

15. Frank Tod, pp. 108–109.

16. Frank Tod, p. 114.

17. Frank Tod, p. 115.

18. Frank Tod, p. 120.