By Maureen Young
On the death of Mrs Mary Shoesmith in 1932, Warkworth Town Board came into possession of 10.75 acres of land on Hill Street. John Valentine Shoesmith, who died in 1921, left the property in trust for his widow until her death, then to be passed on for use as a public domain. This valuable plot is now the site of the senior portion of the primary school, Shoesmith Reserve, the Women’s Bowling Club, Shoesmith Street, the scout den and the tennis club.
John Shoesmith hailed from the north of England and arrived in New Zealand in the late 1800s. He had had some medical training, though in what capacity is unknown today, and when an opening occurred he set up a medical practice in Warkworth. On what is now Shoesmith Reserve, he built a two-storeyed dwelling with a sealed driveway sweeping up to the house, and with grounds that were planted with rhododendrons, camellias and persimmons. The adjacent paddock was commonly made available to the public for sports and picnics. The house was demolished in the mid-1940s when the domain was formed.
Although he made no claim to being a doctor, he was universally known in the district as Doctor Shoesmith. Both he and his wife were colourful characters; he was well known for his somewhat unconventional romantic adventures, and their antics must have caused the locals to smile, or tut-tut, according to their beliefs. Mrs Shoesmith was a singer and had performed locally, nationally and internationally, and liked to be known as ‘Madame Shoesmith’. She taught singing in the town and, if called on, would stitch up a wound in the absence of her husband. In 1919, she published a warning in the local paper that if a certain woman and her daughter did not stop spreading false and scandalous reports concerning her, then legal proceedings would be taken.
Shoesmith was the public vaccinator, and as vaccination for smallpox was compulsory he caused the local policeman to be dismissed from the force because of a dispute about children, including the policeman’s own, who were not being brought along for a jab. A local farmer claimed at a public meeting that Shoesmith used impure lymph in vaccination, so the farmer was taken to court and fined £100 plus costs. As Shoesmith wasn’t a registered medical practitioner, he was unable to sign death certificates or send out accounts to those who hadn’t paid for his services. He solved this latter by writing out a list of defaulters and the amount they owed, and nailing the list to the church door on a Sunday. Warkworth Cottage Hospital made use of his services, especially throughout WWI when no-one qualified was available, but later this upset a local doctor, who first wouldn’t send patients to the hospital and then finally left town.
An insight into the conditions of the day was revealed in a newspaper report from 1892. A farmer at Wayby cut himself badly with an axe and it was considered necessary to fetch medical assistance. A neighbour rode over the boggy track crossing the Dome and alerted Shoesmith. On the return journey, the neighbour’s horse got stuck in the “treacherous, soft and deep” mud and couldn’t be pulled out. When Shoesmith went to mount his horse to fetch help, the horse kicked him in the thigh and broke it. Eventually a horse and cart was summoned and the good “doctor” endured the bumpy seven-mile trip back home in the pouring rain. There, under his directions, his saviours set his leg and applied splints and bandages. No mention was made of the fate of the original victim. The report concluded, “How can settlers prosper when they have such roads to contend with?”.
His obituary stated that, under a somewhat gruff exterior, there was a kindly heart, and many a family in the district had cause to be grateful for his careful nursing and unremitting attention. As a measure of this regard, and in gratitude for his gift, a subscription was taken up more than 30 years after his death to pay for a proper headstone on his grave. It can be found in the Anglican cemetery on Church Hill, near the magnolia tree, with the following inscription: “Erected to the memory of John Valentine Shoesmith who for some 50 years served this district in a medical capacity. Died 27th May 1921 aged 73 years. Also his wife Mary. Died 11th July 1932 aged 70 years”.