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Story: McKain, Douglas Mary

Page 1: Biography

McKain, Douglas Mary


Nurse, midwife, businesswoman

This biography, written by Margaret G. Patrick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Douglas Mary Dunsmore was born on 20 July 1789, at Glasgow, Scotland, the daughter of Mary Paterson and her husband, John Dunsmore, an alehouse keeper. After the death of her father in November 1801 her mother married an army officer, George Donaldson. From this time the family appear to have lived at the Tower of London, for it was there that Douglas Dunsmore met William McKain, an army tailor and native of Guernsey, Channel Islands. Douglas Dunsmore and William McKain were married on 26 April 1808, at Castel (Catel), Guernsey. They were to have eight sons and five daughters.

After their marriage Douglas and William McKain returned to the Tower of London, where their first child was baptised in 1809. By 1811 they had moved to Cheadle, Staffordshire, where they spent most of their married life, until William's death in a riding accident in 1837. It was perhaps the loss of her husband, and of four sons, two of whom died in childhood, that prompted Douglas McKain to emigrate to the new colony of New Zealand. In December 1840, at the age of 51, she embarked on the Olympus with her four remaining sons and one daughter. They arrived at Port Nicholson (Wellington) on 20 April 1841.

Despite homesickness Douglas McKain quickly adapted to life in the new colony. She leased part of Town Acre 536 in Pipitea Street, where her sons built a cottage. Later, she purchased this section and several others and leased cottages to immigrants. Her properties were to sustain considerable damage in the 1855 earthquake, and repairs cost her £64.

Douglas McKain established herself as a midwife and general nurse in Wellington. She worked in this capacity for some 20 years, treating many of Wellington's political and social leaders. Lieutenant Governor Edward Eyre, and Mathew Richmond, the superintendent of the Southern Division, were among her patients. Her surviving papers include a notebook in which she recorded lists of her patients and their accounts, along with household recipes, notes of current events and family news. It also contains copies of favourite poems and a number of original verses, for she had a deep love of poetry.

In her later years Douglas McKain lived among her family in Hawke's Bay. The extended McKain family were prominent members of the early Napier community. Two of Douglas McKain's married daughters, Mary Ann McCarthy and Julia Torr, had followed her to New Zealand with their husbands in 1842, and both eventually settled in Hawke's Bay. Her daughter Robina, who had travelled with her to New Zealand, settled with her husband, William Villers, at The Spit (Westshore) in 1853. Joseph Torr and William Villers ran a schooner between Napier and Wellington, trading in pork, wheat and dressed flax. James Buchanan McKain and his wife, Susannah McKain, also settled at The Spit, where they ran the first accommodation house and licensed premises in Napier, and operated a postal service.

By 1860 Douglas McKain, Julia and Joseph Torr, and Mary Ann and John McCarthy were all established in Eskdale, north of Napier, where the Torrs' home, Petane Grange, became a showplace. Robina and William Villers settled over the hill, at Petane (Bay View). Douglas McKain, now in her 70s, lived with each of her children in turn, paying £10 per annum board and lodging.

Douglas McKain died on 3 April 1873, at the age of 83. She was buried in the Eskdale cemetery. Her headstone was later destroyed by fire, but in 1975 several of her great-grand-daughters erected a memorial, in commemoration of an independent, capable and courageous woman.

How to cite this page:

Margaret G. Patrick. 'McKain, Douglas Mary', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m36/mckain-douglas-mary (accessed 23 June 2024)