19 November 2016

‘Dedicated Naturalist’: The story behind the story

Today marks the beginning of Explore Your Archive, a campaign co-ordinated jointly by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association that ‘aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories’.

From my volunteer work on the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’ Project, helping to decipher and digitise, record and publicise the life’s work of naturalist extraordinaire, Dr Mary Gillham, I know from personal experience how exciting it is to read diaries about everyday life in my native New Zealand in the 1950s and how our work with Mary’s archives is revealing the amazing stories of her adventurous life.

So, to celebrate the start of Explore Your Archive, here’s my story of Mary’s story behind the newspaper story.

This newspaper article about Mary appeared in Britain’s Daily Mail on Friday 22 November 1957.

Dr Mary spends a fuming week-end
An English woman botanist returned to Tauranga today from a week-end spent in one of the world’s loneliest spots – a fuming island-volcano.
She is Dr. Mary Gillham, whose parents live at Ealing, W. She left England a year ago to study the effects of salt spray and seabirds on the plant life of the world’s islands.
She accompanied 19 Maoris to White Island, the crater of a volcanic mountain rising from deep water 27 miles from the coast.
The Maoris go there once a year to collect mutton birds (sooty terns), a native delicacy.

In her New Zealand diary, Mary records her meeting with the reporter:

Wednesday 20 November 1957
The boat nosed in, without tying up, heaving clumsily, and I leapt the gap while the pilot handed the luggage aboard. And so once more to Tauranga where the sub editor of the ‘Bay of Plenty Times’ awaited me on the wharf but missed me, coming instead to the Masonic Hotel at breakfast time next a.m. He had, however, been forestalled by his editor, Lachi McDonald, 20 years on the staff of the Daily Mail and their Far East war correspondent. The chappy came in and interviewed me at length just as I was finishing a session with Ken Fraser in the Masonic Lounge. It seemed that my adventures were front page news as (a) landings were only effected on White Island 4-6 times a year and (b) the Motiti Maoris were very conservative and seldom received a pakeha in their midst.

This additional note has been written in the diary at a later date:

McDonald cabled Daily Mail, London with my story and on 21 November my parents were visited for a photo. They gave me and the tuataras, and on 22nd I hit the British headlines and it seemed my acquaintances throughout G.B. buzzed with interest. Particularly topical as there were 2 BBC broadcasts on White Island that same week. Upshot: Letter from F. Muller, Fleet St publishers, saying they would publish a book of my travels if I cared to write on my return!!

As it turned out, the book, A Naturalist in New Zealand, was not published until 1966 and then by Museum Press in London, with a co-edition by Reed Books in New Zealand. Mary was on her way to becoming famous!

For the full story about the Mary Gillham Archive Project, check out our website, and follow our progress on Facebook and on Twitter.

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