Friday, 05 June 2020


The matron who kept life interesting

Miss Mary Hollins, or Matron Hollins, was a local legend at the Mercury Bay Hospital. She worked and lived there from 1956 until 1973. The hospital, as well as the mums and the babies she helped bring into the world, were her life. 

Mary worked all hours tending the sick and the newly arrived, on a 24 hour per day schedule, often sitting up all night to feed the babies so their tired Mums could get some rest. She even collected presents and kept them under her bed. These, along with a Christmas cake and a personal card was gifted to all of the babies born at the hospital each year during the holiday season.

Long-time Whitianga local, Walter Russell, says that all three of his kids were born under Mary’s “guidance” at the hospital. She delivered countless babies, as the doctor was only summoned if he was really needed.  Often the doctor would ring to ask, “Do you need me, or don’t you?”

“In those days, when babies were born, the mothers were in the hospital for two weeks at a time,” says Walter. “Each time my wife, Margot, gave birth, I was told at the door by Matron Hollins to disappear and over two weeks I might get to see Margot three times.”

Mary had little of a social life outside of the hospital, besides participating in the odd Country Women’s Institute event. In fact, according to Josie Robson who worked at the hospital for three decades, Mary worked such long hours that she often fell asleep in her chair when she attended a social event.

Josie says that Mary knew when a new baby’s family was in need or impoverished, often going way beyond the call of duty to help. She talks of a time when one new mother’s circumstances were so dire that Mary kept the baby at the hospital and looked after the baby for at least six months, until the family were able to cope. The help was often reciprocated for the much-loved matron, with people going out of their way to look after her in return.
Mary was very kind to mothers and their babies, and of course to all her patients at the hospital, but she was much less tolerant of bureaucracy. The book, “Ducks, Dipsomaniacs and Diseases,” about the history of the Mercury Bay Hospital, mentions a time when Mary felt that the hospital needed fly screens. When the Thames Hospital Board (THB) did not deliver with the urgency required, Mary gathered a pile of dead flies into a chocolate box and mailed it to the THB. The screens arrived soon after.

Mary was an animal lover and looked after orphaned lambs, goats, cats and more. She kept them at the hospital and would bring new lambs inside from time to time when they needed warming. There is the odd story of her delivering newborn lambs in the delivery suite. 

Although her sheep were great for keeping the grass short, Mary needed to make sure they were out of sight when the hospital was up for a THB inspection. Luckily the inspectors always visited the Coromandel Hospital first and the staff there would ring and give Mary a “heads up” when the inspector was on the way, so she had time to hide them.

Brenda Duncan, who worked with Mary from the early 1970s, talks of a time when one of Mary’s sheep named George was in the garden of the doctor’s house. Mid-conversation, Mary suddenly called out “George!” The sheep’s head popped up out of the garden. He knew he was in trouble.  He walked back up the long driveway with his head hung low. She chastised him with her gentle English lilt and he listened intently. 

Walter Russell tells of a time when Mary had a little Ford 10. She was always struggling trying to get the sheep into the back seat of the car, so she brought it into Walter’s dad’s workshop and asked for help. They cut the car in half to make it into a truck and then added wooden stock panels on the side and gave it a paint job, writing on it, “Hollins Heavy Haulage.” When Mary came in to pick it up, she started to cry. She had her own little stock truck! Mary would carry around Larry, another reputedly very large sheep, all over town in the back of her truck, sometimes accompanied by the hospital cat.    

Josie Robson also tells a story about when they were looking after a very ill patient who was feverish, so they opened the door of his room which joined onto the paddock. The patient woke out of his fever totally startled as he was looking right into the face of a large sheep.

Apparently, Mary was not a very good driver. Josie says that everybody got out of the way when Mary was behind the wheel. Lola McClung talks of a time when Mary drove her yellow mini-van over the Tapu-Coroglen Road to Auckland, which one did in those days. Mary arrived in Auckland, got out of the mini-van, put her hand up on the roof and pulled off her hand bag which had been on the top of the car the whole time. Josie thinks it was likely so full of heavy junk that it was anchored on. 

Lola remembers Mary as having a keen sense of humour, even though she was crippled with arthritis. She recounts a time when Mary, who also did the cleaning at the hospital, got a hankie stuck in the vacuum, causing a great deal of hilarity for the patients and staff.

Later in her nursing tenure, Mary’s arthritis caused her a lot of pain, but she pressed on with her job, starting her car with wooden clothes peg and managing machinery around the premises with creative ad hoc tools used to compensate for her gnarled hands. She kept on delivering babies in spite of her debilitating pain, to some consternation of the delivering mothers.

Mary retired in 1973. She went on to live a long life of 90 years, eventually dying of the effects of an earlier car crash in 1990. She was an amazing force in the Mercury Bay community and certainly kept life interesting.

Picture: Matron Mary Hollins (right) and nurse Truus Van Hoppe feeding lambs at the Mercury Bay Hospital, where Mary worked from 1956 - 1973. Photo courtesy of the Mercury Bay Museum.


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