Today marks the centenary of an institution that has affected the lives of many Kiwi children and their families. The children's health camp movement has an interesting history, from its birth on this day 100 years ago when the first camp was held. Since then, countless children have spent time at one of the many health camps established around New Zealand, and others have contributed to the movement through children's health stamps.
On November 25, 1919, the first group of 55 children arrived at the Lethbridge farm "Annbank" at Turakina near Whanganui to spend a few days under canvas. The children's health was monitored by a team led by a redoubtable doctor, Elizabeth Gunn, a school nurse, and a cohort of Wellington Teachers' College students.
In her comprehensive history of children's health camps, Children's Health, the Nation's Wealth, Margaret Tennant describes Gunn as cutting "an intimidating figure. Parents discovered that she could be an abrasive and tactless critic of their parenting abilities, though some certainly had great respect for her advice."
Gunn was a captain in the NZ Army Corps during WWI and brought that military discipline alongside an underlying caring manner, if concealed under a severe exterior. Although a strong advocate for child health, she was often an outsider from the medical establishment.
From this initial camp, the model was picked up around New Zealand and many communities established health camps, often under the banner of the Sunlight League. The emphasis was on improving nutrition, sunbathing, fresh air, good hygiene and assessing the child's physical development. Diseases such as rickets from vitamin D deficiency, and scoliosis or curvature of the spine, were prevalent at the time as well as tuberculosis and general failure to thrive. Children responded well and many gained significant weight in camp.
On the death of King George V in 1936, the government under Michael Joseph Savage established the King George V Memorial Fund, which was a capital fund to build permanent children's health camps. Donations were also made to the fund by businesses, sports organisations and the public. Eventually the fund reached £180,000 and was used to build six permanent camps. These were: Otaki (1932-2018); Gisborne (1941-present); Roxburgh (1941-2018); Maunu in Whangarei (1945-present); Glenelg in Christchurch (1945-present); Pakuranga (1950-present).
A seventh camp was built at Rotorua in 1983 that was originally called the Princess of Wales Children's Health Camp, but its name was changed to Rotorua Children's Health Camp in 1996.
The main reason for children to be admitted to health camps was initially for physical health but, from about the 1980s onwards, there was a shift to behavioural problems.
Today the reasons for admission may be for a combination of physical health and welfare, often arising from child poverty. For many children who went to camp, their stay was of great benefit and remembered fondly.
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It certainly gave the parents temporary relief from the stresses of raising children with health and social issues. The child's education was continued at the on-site camp school. The five remaining health camps are now called children's villages and are managed by a charitable trust Stand Tu Maia as part of a comprehensive range of programmes for children.
Many New Zealanders contributed to the children's health camps movement by buying ant collecting health stamps and their first day envelopes. The concept was that an additional penny (later one and then two and three cents) was added to the postage cost to support health measures and soon was dedicated to the upkeep of the camps. The first stamp was produced in 1929 with a "Help Stamp Out Tuberculosis" theme. In the early years the profits from the sales made a significant contribution to maintaining health camps, but this reduced over time and they were discontinued after 2016.
Although children's health camps and even health stamps have also featured in other countries, the movement had a very Kiwi flavour to it. It was about local communities developing local solutions, which were later consolidated by central government and became a remarkable part of New Zealand's history.
It combined a focused drive from individuals such as Gunn with widespread support from the public to make a lasting impression on our children's health.
• Brian Pointon was secretary to the Children's Health Camps Board from 1980 to 1983.