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House with a healthy past

A two-storey wooden house, in flats on Colombo Rd near the Church St corner, is one to easily pass by. However, this building, originally at 71 Dixon St, saw coaches coming and going in early Masterton and, later, many people healed by old-school doctors. It became the offices of Fagan Motors before being moved. Marlene Ditchfield investigates.

When Dr Harry Palmer, wife Anne and their six children moved into their Dixon St house in 1945, they excitedly established a loving family home and a busy doctor’s practice. The house had been built in 1879 by the enterprising James Macara, who ran coaches as early as 1867 between Wellington and Masterton. Horse stables were built at the rear of the house.

The two-storey home was a perfect central site for a doctor’s surgery. When they were older, the Palmer children each took on the role of practice receptionist. The six children, David, Philip, Andrew, Lesley, Stephen, and Miriam, have all qualified in various medical roles. The Palmers also fostered children, so a large house was necessary. Upstairs bedrooms were never empty.

Daughter Dr Lesley Smith remembered the house was remodelled in the late 1940s to enclose the upstairs veranda, and the downstairs rearranged.

“Although the alterations meant a loss of Victorian character, they did provide a large comfortable house to accommodate a growing family and the inclusion of father’s surgery in the lower right-hand corner. Patients had a direct street entrance through a gate. The original staircase, which led up from the entrance hall, was replaced by a staircase towards the back of the house. The entrance hall was subdivided, creating a waiting room for patients and privacy for the family at the rear.”

Harry Palmer qualified as a doctor later in life, after years as a dentist in Southland.

He worked at Hawera Hospital and then moved to Greytown as a locum GP and Medical Superintendent for the old Greytown Hospital. During World War II, he eased patients through the 1942 earthquake, which evacuated parts of the hospital. He also helped the wounded after a prisoner revolt at the Featherston Camp.

Harry’s father was the well-known ‘Uncle George’ for the Radio 4YA children’s sessions, and it was with immense pleasure that Harry could tune into these broadcasts from his own homebuilt radio receiver. A sign of his multiple abilities.

Harry Palmer was also an obstetrician, gynaecologist and general surgeon at Masterton Hospital. His day typically began with ward rounds and surgery. He would then see patients in Dixon St, with house calls in the evening. Delivering babies also factored in. There was no formal appointment schedule – patients turned up and were seen in turn.

One aspect of his practice which endeared him to many patients was that he did not charge them directly, instead collecting the government’s social security fee.

Son Dr Phil Palmer said this was partly because he didn’t want to introduce a cost barrier for anyone needing medical treatment. And partly distaste for sending out accounts when he had better things to do!

“He was a man of many gifts. He could recite long passages from Shakespeare. He was incredibly good with his hands – woodwork, metalwork, and mechanics. He was interested in electronics and built himself a TV set to receive early transmission to Wairarapa.

“He was also a good shooter and became interested in dog training. He enjoyed fly fishing and was a keen photographer – and had a dark room in the house for developing and enlarging. One of his relaxations was making model steam trains. He would disappear into his workshop at the rear of the house whenever there was a break in the patients calling.”

Harry retired around 1960 and moved to Tauranga, where he immersed himself in his model railway work. The Tauranga Model Marine and Engineering Club has a railway track at Memorial Park – with a ticket station named “Palmerville” to recognise his contribution.

Dr John Kania took over the Dixon St practice for a time. As well as running the GP practice, he was a house surgeon at Masterton Hospital, responsible for anaesthetics, paediatrics, and geriatric care.

Dr Kania came to New Zealand as a Polish child immigrant during World War II, living at the Pahiatua refugee camp. He and wife, Halina, also a Polish refugee, became highly respected members of the Masterton community. From Dixon St, Dr Kania moved to medical rooms on the corner of Chapel and Renall Streets. He retired in 1997.

In 1951, Fagan Motors purchased land on Dixon St and a workshop and showroom were built for tractors and equipment. In the early 1960s, Fagans bought the former doctors’ house and it served as the company offices for over a decade. Fagans undertook redevelopment of the site in 1975 and the house was moved to Colombo Rd.

Next time you pass it, think of the clever and compassionate doctors Palmer and Kania.


  1. Very interesting article.I worked with Dr Kania in Theatre,late 60,s. When I was a Theatre nurse.A wonderful man too.

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Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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