Page 1: Biography
Nurse, midwife, welfare worker
This biography, written by N. G. Falkner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998. It was updated in October, 2003.
Eliza (known as Leilah) Urquhart was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 29 January 1877, daughter of Margaret Wright and her husband, Robert Maurice Urquhart, a ship's steward. In 1880 Robert Urquhart brought his family to Dunedin, New Zealand. Leilah attended Mornington School from 1882 until 1887, and the High Street School until March 1891. The details of her early working life are unknown, but for two years from December 1899 she was an attendant at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. On 27 March 1902 at Dunedin she married a co-worker, William Gordon, a painter of Irish ancestry. During 1902 and 1903 William and Leilah lived at Seacliff where their first daughter, Ngarita Inez, was born. In 1903 William developed diabetes and was forced to resign in October.
Some time after the birth of a second daughter, Esther Loreena, in January 1904, William returned to his mother's house in Opoho, Dunedin. Since Leilah no longer had any family living in Dunedin she was left in financial difficulties and was vulnerable to pressure when the superintendent at Seacliff, Frederic Truby King, and his wife, Isabella, both in their mid 40s, offered to adopt baby Esther around July 1904. King was impatient and insistent, and Leilah Gordon had few other choices. Consenting to the adoption was a decision she was bitterly to regret – it became the 'lasting event' of her life. Before the adoption papers were signed, the Kings went to Japan for six months leaving the baby in care and Gordon working as a nurse at Seacliff.
The deaths of her mother and husband in 1905 closely followed the adoption and Leilah Gordon proceeded to rebuild her life. From this time she and Ngarita lived in rooms or flats in central Dunedin. Leilah enrolled at St Helens Hospital in Dunedin and was registered as a midwife in 1906. For a modest fee the St Helens midwives helped working-class women through pregnancy and childbirth, and gave child-care advice. Their assistance helped reduce infant and maternal mortality.
In 1917 Leilah Gordon's career took a new and fitting course. She was appointed visiting nurse, under the Infant Life Protection Act 1907. In 1920, under the same act, she was appointed district agent for Otago. She was one of four officers appointed to each of the main centres. All children under six in Otago living with adults other than their parents were visited by her every few months. Most of these children were illegitimate and in poor health when they came into care. The mortality rate for illegitimate infants in the 1920s in New Zealand was high. But as a result of welfare intervention, among the hundreds of infants up to six years old living in foster care in Otago there were only three deaths between 1917 and 1926.
Leilah Gordon was conscientious and thoughtful in her work; her reports to the Child Welfare Branch of the Department of Education from 1926 were more frequent and detailed than was usual, and she presented a paper on infant life protection to a nurses' refresher course in mid 1927. She described the business of her office as 'preventive and social constructive work mainly in connection with illegitimacy', and she strove in particular to nurture the children and young people she visited. She recognised their need for much more than physical care, and made efforts to raise the self-esteem of state wards sent out as domestic servants, ensuring, for example, that they had fashionable, good-quality clothing.
Leilah interviewed parents about adoption, and often saw her personal experience of parting with a much-loved infant mirrored. Although she was a widow and so spared the social stigma endured by unmarried mothers, her financial situation had been similar. She expressed concern that mothers who wanted to keep their illegitimate babies were being pressured to sign adoption papers, and questioned the motives of adoptive parents to whom birth parents paid a premium. She appreciated the devoted service of her foster mothers, but also showed an understanding of unmarried mothers at a time when society was largely indifferent or judgemental.
Leilah Gordon was a fair-haired, plump, motherly woman who prided herself on being self-reliant and helpful to others; possibly this view owed something to her upbringing in the evangelical Church of Christ as well as to her life's experiences. After her compulsory retirement from the Child Welfare Branch in 1932 at the age of 55, it is thought that she worked as a maternity nurse.
During 1917 and 1920 Leilah had from time to time seen her younger daughter, Esther, now known as Mary King, who was at boarding school in Dunedin. Although Truby King forbade any contact, Mary visited her in 1921 and wrote to her from 1932. Both daughters were with her when she died at Dunedin on 15 June 1938. Forced by social and economic pressures to make a decision she regretted, Leilah Gordon had found a vocation in which she was able to assist those in similar circumstances.