The Braemar boys

DENISE IRVINE
Last updated 08:26 06/10/2012
PAST LIFE: Brothers John, left, and David Young, on the steps of the former Braemar site where they lived as youngsters. It is now home to the Cancer Society’s Lions Lodge.
BRUCE MERCER

PAST LIFE: Brothers John, left, and David Young, on the steps of the former Braemar site where they lived as youngsters. It is now home to the Cancer Society’s Lions Lodge.

PROUD MUM: Frances Young in 1966, at son John’s wedding.
PROUD MUM: Frances Young in 1966, at son John’s wedding.
Braemar in the late 1920s, with the water tower intact, and the flight of steps that remains today.
Braemar in the late 1920s, with the water tower intact, and the flight of steps that remains today.

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Braemar Hospital's founder, Frances Young, fostered not just a hospital, but two young boys. Denise Irvine reports.

By the time Frances Young died in 1972, she had slipped out of history. She was 83 and her position as founder of Hamilton's Braemar Hospital was not well remembered. Seven people came to her funeral.

She left behind her sons, David and John Young, and a medical legacy that would continue to flourish. The hospital on the hill in Tainui St - which "Sister Young" named after the ship that brought her parents from Ulster to New Zealand in the late 1880s - has grown from its modest start in 1926 to be one of the largest private surgical hospitals on a single site in the country.

Hamilton's population was 14,000 at the time Frances started Braemar, and she was a well-known, influential woman in the town for several decades.

She also has an intriguing, lesser-known story: her sons, David and John, were both adopted by Frances when she was in her late 50s. She was a single woman, but she clearly felt she had the financial means and skills to take on two youngsters at an age when many of her contemporaries would have been welcoming their grandchildren.

She was considering retirement at the time she gave two little boys a fresh start in life. David came first, on October 19, 1944, at nearly 19 months old. John came a year later, on December 21, 1945, at 11 months old. Frances was 59 by the time John arrived and the two boys lived in her flat above the original Braemar hospital. They were fostered at first, then she formally adopted them.

"I can remember when John turned up," says David, the elder brother. He recalls John's being brought to the house by a "tall lady in an air force uniform". John thinks the uniform was probably that of the child welfare agency of the day.

The boys were absorbed into Frances's life. She chose their names carefully, some might say extravagantly: David Alexander Franklyn Young and John Guthrie Fosterson Young are meticulously handwritten in a diary where she recorded their health and welfare.

John says his second name, Guthrie, is in memory of the only man his mother ever loved; he believes him to be a serviceman killed during World War I. John's third name, Fosterson, demonstrates his mother's sense of humour and is a lifelong reminder of his special link to her.

David, 69, now in Brisbane, and John, 67, from Whanganui, returned to Hamilton last week for the opening of Braemar Hospital's Stage 2 development. This sees the transfer of its day hospital from the former Knox St site to multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art premises on the Braemar campus on the corner of Ohaupo Rd and Kahikatea Dr.

David and John performed the opening ceremony, both delighted to unveil a brass plaque that bears their mother's name. They're grateful for her place in the hospital's history to be officially honoured. They know she'd be pleased Braemar is in such capable hands and that it remains a charitable trust.

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"Braemar has always been part of our lives and we're proud that Mum started it," David says. "She would have been thrilled about what has been achieved."

The afternoon before the opening, David and John headed up to their old haunt at the former Braemar site on the corner of Lake Rd and Tainui St. It is now home to the Cancer Society's Lions Lodge and there are sleek new buildings, and new people, occupying the grounds they roamed as children.

The brothers remark that the imposing water tower adjacent to the hospital is long gone. A landmark for 55 years, it was demolished in 1966.

The Young lads had freedom that would be frowned upon today, enjoying a wider territory that included Hamilton Lake and Frankton Saleyards.

"We had free range of the lake," David says, "I was swimming there when I was four years old."

There was also a play hut for them in the hospital grounds. They remember the seasonal yellow fruits of the loquat tree; their mother gave them thick slices of bread with honey and butter and they watched the distant peat fires from the prime viewpoint of their home on Braemar hill. The fires were caused by sparks from passing coal trains.

Nowadays, the steep flight of concrete steps up from Tainui St, and maybe a couple of old trees, are the only physical links with their past. But the childhood memories remain, along with the history of their adoption.

David and John share a familiar family story from World War II. They were both born after their respective mothers had a relationship with American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during the war.

David has since discovered his birth mother and siblings and has met them. His birth mother would not tell him his father's name.

John's birth mother had died before he could meet her, but he has traced his wider family and knows his background. He has been told that when his birth mother's husband returned from the war and discovered she'd had a baby to another man, he said, "That goes, or I go."

They both think they got lucky when they came into Frances's care. In her diary, she describes young David as "loving and lovable", although in a later entry she notes he is "high-spirited, and takes a good deal of disciplining, but does not hold a grudge for long".

John, she says, is "very bright and active but still has a tendency to bronchitis". She clearly worried about John's health, mentioning he had been underweight, but he had good recuperative power. "He soon built up to plumpness."

The mother love shone on David's first day at Hamilton West School in April 1948: "I introduced David to school this morning. I was proud of my little man, and pray God that he may grow up to be as clean and manly as he appears this morning."

Their mother, the men say, was forthright, firm but fair, and brought them up to be independent.

"She had a simple rule of: Do as you're told or suffer the consequences," David says.

She didn't suffer fools, but her sons say she could occasionally play the fool; she taught them card games, and David remembers a quote she wrote in his autograph book that showed her lighter side: "A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." He jokes that he still uses this as an excuse when he does something silly.

Both men have a vivid memory of the day a tornado struck Hamilton, on September 24, 1948. David's version of events is that he and John had been playing at a house on nearby Marama St; John (3 at the time) says they were at the Frankton Saleyards. Wherever they were, they came home at lunchtime covered in dirt and their mother immediately put them in the bath.

The tornado howled in while they were soaking. They remember the incredible noise. A bottle of Dettol fell from a shelf and smashed into the basin. Their mother came to check on them and they all stayed in the bathroom. Later, they discovered a sheet of corrugated iron had crashed into the kitchen by the sink, just where Frances had been standing.

Frances's diary records the event in no-nonsense style: "Had terrific tornado but no-one hurt or seriously shocked. Sheltered in bathroom, shattered glass in all other rooms."

David later went to board at Southwell School in Hamilton, and Frances and John moved from Braemar to live at Waihi Beach in about 1950, where David joined them for school holidays. She shifted back to Hamilton for John's intermediate school years, and both boys did their secondary schooling as boarders at the private St Kentigern College in Auckland. They say their mother valued education: she ensured that the two boys who'd had a shaky start in life were dealt a good hand.

It didn't seem to matter to David and John's schoolfriends that their mother was much older than most, and the fact she was a single woman passed them by. David says his friends tended to call her Mrs Young.

John adds that when he joined the air force at 17, he listed "Miss Young" as his mother and next-of-kin. Officials checked on this apparent anomaly. "Mum had to produce my adoption papers."

While it seems unusual that an older, single woman was considered suitable by authorities to adopt two toddlers - and it is extremely unlikely it would happen today - her sons think their mother's standing in the Hamilton community would have helped.

She would have had the financial means to look after them, and fostering them first may have eased the progression to adoption.

And, of course, once the ever-determined Frances made up her mind about something, it was bound to happen.

This determination was probably part of her strict Presbyterian upbringing and as the eldest child in a farming family from Gore, she was expected to take a lot of responsibility.

She became a committed nurse, inspired by the story of Florence Nightingale. When she founded Braemar in 1926, there had already been a maternity hospital on the site. Frances changed the name, converted it to a medical and surgical hospital, and got to work.

In 1931, she bought an adjoining section and built a maternity home known as Waione, although this was later converted to nurses' quarters.

She leased the hospital to three local doctors [Brewis, Fea and Macdiarmid] in 1946. She and the boys continued to live at Braemar, and David and John say she seemed to remain active on site before moving to Waihi Beach.

A history of Braemar written by Gail McGahan and Cynthia Piper, says Frances Young battled against bureaucracy and sparred with the Health Department, which found her a "rather difficult person".

She was also determined in her later dealings with doctors who wanted to buy Braemar. She always wanted more for it than they were offering and stuck resolutely to her price. She eventually settled on £25,000, selling in 1963 to the forerunner of Braemar Charitable Trust, which operates today's modern hospital.

McGahan and Piper record that nurses who worked for Frances found her kind and approachable, describing her as a "sweetie" and a generous employer.

Frances, it seems, was a mix of generous and frugal. David and John remember her as astute: she didn't throw money around in her personal life, but she gave handsomely to some local organisations, including £8000 to the Hamilton YWCA.

She was a firm National Party supporter, frequently had her say on issues of the day and became enmeshed in local politics.

John says when she came to Hamilton, she had a vision for two changes to the town landscape. She thought the railway line - which crossed the main street - should be lowered, and the hill in Garden Place, in the centre of town, should be demolished. She was influential and successful in both matters.

In her old age, Frances lived in a flat she had built in Bankwood Rd. When she died, her sons mourned her passing and the scant recognition of her achievements.

They are delighted with their renewed contacts with Braemar and the acknowledgement of their mother at the Stage 2 opening.

The link was made when Braemar celebrated its 85th birthday last December. The hospital asked people to send in their memories of the hospital in its early years. John Young's wife, Vilma, has a daughter, Lerena, who lives in Hamilton, and she saw a newspaper notice about it.

John subsequently presented Braemar with a wooden patu (short club) given to Frances by Princess Te Puea, granddaughter of Tawhiao Te Wherowhero, the second Maori King. Te Puea gifted the patu to Frances in appreciation of a period she spent as a patient at Braemar.

The patu has been framed and is displayed in the hospital foyer with other Braemar memorabilia.

And there is the brass plaque that bears Frances's name.

Her sons have long lived in different countries, but they remain in touch. While they are not "of the same flesh and blood", they say they will always be there for one another. They share the same remarkable start in life, with a remarkable woman for her time.

"Frances was our mother," says John. "She was the one who put us to bed and read us our stories," says David. They add, almost in unison, "We were two lucky boys."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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