Sunday, 6 March 2016

... and now it's Irish in Belfast and Te Aroha, too

If you thought (as I rather did) my last post was stretching the 'New Zealand Glass' title of this blog a little, then brace yourselves. The stained glass windows in the Karori chapel were made by noted Irish stained glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes, of the noted Irish glass studio An Tur Gloine (see Wilhelmina Geddes also made the window I feature here.  But while the Karori windows are in New Zealand, this window is in the church of St John the Evangelist, Malone Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland. 

Signed Geddes 1920
My attention was again drawn to this window by Northland glass artist Kathy Shaw-Urlich, who was greatly taken with it when she was studying Wilhelmina Geddes' work for her dissertation. My appreciation of the window has also been assisted by Nicola Gordon-Bowe, Associate Fellow of the Irish National College of Art and Design and author of the new biography and catalogue Wilhelmina Geddes: Life and work. Nicola has kindly made available the images of the window that I use here.

St John the Evangelist, Malone Rd, Belfast (Ardfern image)

The window, nearly 3 metres tall, carries its own title 'The Leaves of the Tree were for the Healing of the Nations', which is a Biblical quote from the Book of Revelation. The window was made in 1920, which offers a clue as to why Wilhelmina Geddes selected this text as her inspiration. She had recently completed the magnificent war memorial window in Ottawa.  But there is another clue in the perhaps unusually long dedication at the base of the window, and that dedication also explains my justification for including this window in a New Zealand glass blog.

The dedication reads "In memory of William Arthur Wheeler M.D., Captain N.Z.M.C., who served his country and his fellow men throughout the South African War and the Great War. Born in Belfast, 10 April 1860, died at Te Aroha 16th December 1918." 

I'll return to Captain Wheeler shortly, but I should describe the window a bit more fully (and since I haven't seen it, I'm indebted to Nicola Gordon-Bowe's book for the description).  The text in Revelation 22:2 refers to a city down the street of which flows a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb. 'On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations'. The window depicts this river and the Tree of Life. It also shows small groups of people wandering amongst the trees along the banks of the river, dressed in brightly coloured garments, conversing with each other and accompanied by angels. At the top of the window an angel plays heavenly music while perched in a tree, and the man below him appears transfixed by the beauty of the music.

In her own description of the window, Wilhelmina Geddes wrote: 

"Different series of people walking about under trees in Paradise, and weary wanderers at the foot. There are poets, ladies, sages and travellers in this order from top to bottom. The travellers include St Brendan. The listening man is a saint."

At the bottom of the window, just above the dedication a stern looking angel carrying a lamp appears to be protecting a rather dejected figure dressed in white, keeping 2 men standing in the trees away from the forlorn figure in white who sits with head bowed.

There is no particular biblical authority for this figure, and Geddes simply calls him a 'weary wanderer' but in my view this solitary figure is what gives this window its intensely personal quality. The window was commissioned from Wilhelmina Geddes and An Tur Gloine by Kate Wheeler, sister of William Arthur Wheeler.
I have discovered a great deal about the life and death of this interesting and rather pathetic character, enough for a short novel. Much of the detail will have to appear elsewhere, but to explain why this window is in this Blog at all I do need to provide an summary.

Captain of the school First XV in 1878 - the only known photo
William Arthur Wheeler was born in Belfast in 1860 into a well-off medical family. In 1882 he graduated B.A. Honours in pharmacy from Trinity College Dublin, and in 1889 he graduated in medicine and surgery from Queens College Belfast. From 1889 until 1893 he practised medicine in and around Belfast, before going to Jalpaiguri in Bengal, India between 1894 and 1901. In March 1901 he was recorded in the census as being back in Belfast living with his brother George and his wife and their unmarried sister Kate.

Soon after that, he went to South Africa to serve as a "Civil Surgeon". The British Army Medical Corps found itself severely understaffed when war broke out in South Africa, and recruited several hundred of these civil surgeons who were not themselves in the Army but were attached to elements of it to work in the military hospitals. William Wheeler served twenty months at No. 11 General Hospital, Kimberley and with the 3rd Scottish Rifles at Boshof. In recognition of his service Dr Wheeler received the Queen's South Africa medal, with clasps for 1901, 1902,  Orange Free State and Cape Colony. (The images are from Wikipedia, and do not show Dr Wheeler's own medal. I do not know the whereabouts of it or Wheeler's First World War medals. They may be with the family in Ireland.)

At the end of 1903, Dr Wheeler sailed for New Zealand as a passenger on S.S. Turakina. I don't know why Dr Wheeler chose to come to New Zealand; it may be that he had met some New Zealanders in South Africa. A cousin had gone to New Zealand in 1901 and was a GP in Auckland, but they don't seem to have had much contact, so that may be coincidence. Whatever his reason, it was not the bright lights and big cities of New Zealand that attracted him. He set up practice in Owaka in South Otago, where he was first registered as a doctor on the NZ medical register in 1904. Over the years his registration followed his movements around the country: Owaka and the tiny settlement of Rainbow, Nelson in 1906; Kaikoura between 1907 and 1908; Wakefield, Nelson between 1911 and 1914. After he gave up his practice in Kaikoura he took passage to the UK in July 1908, returning to New Zealand as ship's doctor in October 1908. In 1915 he was registered as a medical doctor and pharmaceutical chemist in Ohakune. From there he twice wrote to the NZ military authorities offering his services to the Army, as a volunteer in any medical capacity; his offer was declined. He was told 'there are no vacancies for appointment with the Expeditionary Force', which might seem surprising, though he was now 55 years old. Maybe his age counted against him?

However, on 24 September 1915 in Palmerston North, Dr Wheeler enlisted as a Private in the Ambulance Corps.  A pretty lowly position for a qualified surgeon, GP and pharmacist, you might well think. But the fact that he did serve in the NZ Army means that his service record is available, and it turned out to be a goldmine. At 152 pages long, it is one of the largest I have seen, and full of information.

The file provides a possible explanation for Dr Wheeler's preference for small towns and his shunning of the bright lights.  It seems that while he was in India in the 1890s he contracted malaria, whose symptoms he began to treat with morphine. This opium derived drug was commonly prescribed in nineteenth and early twentieth century medicine, and indeed is still in use today, but it is of course highly addictive. As a Private in the Field Ambulance in 1915, Wheeler was sent to Cairo in support of the New Zealand forces then at Gallipoli. It would seem the authorities were delighted to find they had a qualified pharmacist amongst their number and so in March 1916 he was promoted Acting Sergeant in the Dispensary. However they were probably less delighted when only six weeks later he was admitted to the Aotea Convalescent Home in Cairo, suffering from "nervous debility".
After a fortnight there he was returned to his unit and sent, as so many of the New Zealand forces in Egypt were, to England. He was sent to the Hornchurch Convalescent Depot, though it's not clear whether he was on the staff or a patient. In August 1916 he was discharged from hospital and posted back to the New Zealand Army Medical Corps, at Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain and then at NZMC HQ in London. 

However, all was clearly not well, since at the end of December 1916 Sgt Dr Wheeler was admitted to the New Zealand General Hospital at Walton on Thames. A medical report prepared at the end of January 1917 noted that Wheeler was suffering from "Debility – Morphia Habit. He had Malaria in India 19 years ago, and has had occasional attacks since. He has been in fair health for a time and was able to carry on satisfactorily until the end of December, when he got a severe bronchial attack; feeling ill he gave way to an old habit of taking Morphia; he went to pieces and was sent to Walton on December 30th." The cause of that debility is described as "the habit of taking Morphia which he contracted in India where he had been in the habit of using it as a preventative to Malaria". The report's recommendation was that he be discharged as permanently unfit for war service.

Doctor Wheeler sailed for New Zealand on the troopship Maunganui in March 1917. One might think he would disappear into obscurity again, but New Zealand was apparently short of qualified doctors. He was the subject of a Medical Board held in Wellington in May 1917 which reported that Wheeler had debility from a morphia habit in response to malaria and was over age. "The man vehemently states that the accusation of morphia taking is untrue and that he never made any such statement. His pupils are very small and react badly to light [which are classic morphine addiction symptoms]. He is fit to do medical duty. He is qualified'. 

Wheeler's denial that he had a morphine addiction seems quite remarkable in the circumstances, but even more remarkable was the decision of the New Zealand Army's Director General Medical Services to take Wheeler on and commission him as a Captain in the New Zealand Medical Corps, stationed at Featherston Camp in the Wairarapa. He served there from June 1917 until December 1918, interrupted only by a fortnight in the Camp Hospital in March 1918 suffering from "nervous debility". A later report notes that during this period the Camp suffered from the effects of the 'flu pandemic and Captain Wheeler was considerably overworked as a consequence. At the end of November 1918, Captain Wheeler wrote to his superiors inquiring about his future prospects in the light of the current demobilisation. A reply was sent advising that his employment in his current position would continue for a further twelve months. 
The Palace Hotel, Te Aroha today
But before he received the reply, on 10 December 1918 William Wheeler took leave and went to Te Aroha, a spa town in the Waikato. He often took leave there, staying with a friend, the local chemist. On this occasion he stayed at the hotel, as a precaution against infecting the chemist's child with 'flu from the Camp.

On Sunday, 15 December 1918, Surgeon-Captain William Arthur Wheeler NZMC was found dead in his room in the Palace Hotel, Te Aroha. He was 58 years old. The Coroner found that he had died accidentally from a self-administered dose of morphine. There was no suggestion that he meant to die; the attending doctor, who knew Wheeler was an addict, said 'Captain Wheeler had taken just a little more morphia than his system was capable of handling'. 

William Arthur Wheeler is buried in the cemetery at Te Aroha, where 'a number of returned soldiers attended as a last mark of respect for a fellow-soldier', as the local newspaper recorded. The inscription on his tombstone "I pray thee, then, Write me as one that loves his fellow men" comes from a popular 1834 Romantic poem Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt, whose sentiment seems particularly apposite. 

In the will that all soldiers had to provide upon enlistment, then Private William Wheeler named his sister Kate in Belfast as his sole beneficiary. Kate was 2 years younger than her brother and as she was 53 and unmarried when he made his will he may have felt that she would need some financial support. Whether he left her very much money is not known, but she obviously felt the need to commemorate him appropriately. It seems likely that she provided the tombstone in Te Aroha and selected the epitaph which acknowledges his life of medical service. 

Kate Wheeler also commissioned from An Tur Gloine and Wilhelmina Geddes the stained-glass window in his memory in their local church in Belfast. It cost £122-17s-6d, which one online source suggests is equivalent to £80,000 sterling today. Kate took a close interest in the design and making of the window. Wilhelmina Geddes was apprehensive whether Miss Wheeler would like the window, and was relieved when she approved the first small-scale coloured sketch.

So this wonderful Irish stained glass window in a Belfast church commemorates the life and service of a colonial doctor who served his fellow man in Ireland, India, South Africa and New Zealand. It also reminds us, as a New Zealand medical historian has told me, that Wheeler's fate was a common one amongst colonial doctors, many of whom became addicted thanks to self-prescribing.