Early Hospitals

The Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital complex we know today has its roots in our convict settlement.

In 1824 this settlement was set up at Redcliffe as a place of secondary punishment. The following year when Redcliffe proved unsuitable it was moved to what was known as Brisbane Town, taking its name from the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane. Clearly there had to be a hospital but it was not for two years that one was built to house 30 patients. By 1829 there were 87 crammed into it. The hospital was cited towards the western end of settlement and not far back from the river. It was, however, somewhat ominously close to the burial ground. Towards the end of the 1830’s convictism was nearing its end and by 1839 all convicts were withdrawn except for those necessary to the settlement. The formal end came in 1842.

But what happened to the hospital? Between 1842 and 1848 the hospital?s future was most uncertain. Dr Ballow had been the Government Medical Officer since 1838 and he argued during this period for the hospital to remain open. There were still convicts to be treated, there were their soldier guards but also there were increasing numbers of free settlers. It was agreed that the latter could be admitted – but “positively not without paying?. A Benevolent Society was formed in 1844 to assist with the expenses of the “deserving poor?. . However,the order to close the hospital came abruptly on 31 January 1848 with patients turned out onto the street and Dr Ballow dismissed. Through the efforts of Captain John Wickham, the Police Magistrate, and Dr Ballow the solution was found whereby the hospital was “given? to a Committee of Gentlemen who then set about running the Moreton Bay Hospital on the voluntary principle (i.e. the public purse provided £200 which was to be matched by public subscription).

The hospital had three categories of patients – those who could pay, those of slender means who paid less and the destitute. At times, however, these categories were blurred. There was also the perceived problem of the “undeserving poor? whose “thoughtless conduct…did not fall short of criminality?. When they fell on hard times they became a drain on the public purse. However, throughout the 1850?s the hospital coped. It grew in size as it must to cater to an increasing population. However, its fabric left much to be desired requiring ongoing repairs. In 1864 several ceilings had fallen in.

With Separation the hospital?s problems grew. The new Queensland Government set up assisted migration with a fourfold increase in population between 1859 and 1866. Many immigrants arrived penniless and some in poor health due to the long voyage or poor diet. The financial crisis of 1866 was also to add to problems with an increase in unemployment and, as might be expected, persons less able to give to charity. Times were tight. For his service to the Fever Hospital the house surgeon was allowed forage for the horse! Without reference to the Hospital Committee the Government decided on a site for a new hospital – 15 acres on Bowen Bridge Road. There was an immediate furore – it was too far out of town. Alternates were put forward but the Government remained firm. Either the Committee accept the hospital at the new site or lose the right to manage it. This they did not want and so the Colonial Architect, Charles Tiffin, was asked to prepare plans. There was a compromise of sorts with an accident hospital maintained in the city. Tenders were called for the hospital in January 1865. The winner of the tender failed to carry out his contract and the hospital was finally built by John Petrie. In January 1867 80 patients in cabs and carriages were conveyed to the new building. The site was known as “the Quarries” and the area as Herston.

Tiffin allowed 21 cubic metres per patient. In England the allowance was between 28 and 42 cubic metres. However, he argued that this hospital was more open with verandahs and balconies which added a large covered space for patients. The new hospital was two storeys with a central tower. There were four large wards, two up and two down, and several smaller rooms. There was a kitchen , accommodation for nursing staff and warders, a mortuary and a room set aside with skylight for surgical operations. This was a somewhat basic theatre as surgeons had to shed their coats and keep their hats on during surgery to shelter from the sun. Hot and cold water would be supplied to the wards. A cistern in the tower allowed for the flushing of toilets. All drainage was to Breakfast Creek, approximately 800 metres away. The building was constructed in sandstone and stood the test of time. It served for more than 100 years and was demolished in 1969 to make way for Block 7. The keystone of its arch is preserved in the garden at the junction of Bowen Bridge and Herston Roads.

With an increasing population the hospital continued to grow. Earlier buildings reflected the style of the day and by 1900 one could talk of “a complex?. The management remained in the hands of a Committee or Board but as difficulties with the voluntary principle surfaced in 1866 this was to prove the case in later cash strapped times. Its financial state was “extremely critical? in 1909. The years of World War I proved taxing with greatly depleted staff. Hospital Bills were blocked by the Legislative Council in 1905 and 1917 but with the abolition of the Council in 1922 the way was clear for the clearance of the 1923 Hospitals Bill by which the Government gained control and finance of the Brisbane Hospital.

What of children? 150 years ago children under the age of five could not be admitted to hospital. For those over that age there was no special place for children. Social attitudes declared that there was no substitute for a mother?s love but for some this may have meant a premature death. Mrs Mary McConnel landed at Moreton Bay in 1849 as the young bride of David McConnel who had established a property, Cressbrook, in the Brisbane Valley. She spent her time between the property and the family?s town house, Bulimba House Estate, at Bulimba. She had a concern for the workers on the family property and especially for the children . She set up a school on the property, hiring a school mistress. But it was on her visits to the Brisbane Hospital where her compassion for children overflowed. She lamented child patients “miserably out of place? in adult wards. In 1876 she held a Garden Party at Witton Manor which had become the family?s town house at Indooroopilly. She asked a number of her friends and their children. Here she floated her idea of establishing a children?s hospital and at the Exhibition (the Ekka) of 1877 an area was provided for the sale of goods and produce to start off her fund.

Mrs McConnel and her followers raised the enormous sum of £1,193/6/-. A committee was formed quickly and a property was leased on the present day site of St Paul?s Presbyterian Church. A suitably trained nurse was sourced in England and Miss Hellicar took on the role of Lady Superintendent. She arranged for a matron and sub-matron to accompany her to Brisbane and by March 1878 the hospital was able to take in 12 children. 1879 proved a difficult year. Mrs McConnel became ill and returned to England, one of the nurses died and the other left to marry. The premises were no longer available but a cottage was purchased in Warren Street but the hospital had to operate on a smaller scale. Despite this the hospital continued to grow and by 1883 steps were taken to set up a new children?s hospital. Mrs McConnel had returned from England, Mr Archibald Archer, MLA, had taken up her cause and the Government accepted the new hospital in the same way as the Brisbane Hospital (i.e. to operate on the voluntary principle). It was built on the side of the hill just below the Nurses? Quarters and took its first patient on 1 October 1883. This building has long since disappeared.

In 1886 the Committee could again afford the services of a Lady Superintendent and they hired Caroline Doggette. Her standards were high and she took care in the selection of nursing trainees. She was replaced by another dedicated nurse, Charlotte Bright, in 1888. She recognised the need for rest periods for nurses and some recreation leave. She believed that this helped with the general overall health of her nurses. In 1890 the hospital was declared draughty with poor drainage. Sewerage was simply discharged down the hill. 1891 was a time of depression with three banks closing their doors. It was not a time to be too concerned about a new children?s hospital. By 1893 things were critical with two children occupying a single bed. The government refused the committee?s request for land between the existing hospital and the Brisbane General. Not daunted they continued to fund raise and by December 1894 the new block known as the lady Norman Wing was opened on the present site. It was built and furnished free of debt.

As the population increased so did the Children?s Hospital. A block similar to the Lady Norman wing was constructed in1899 and was named the Lady O?Connell Wing. Lady O?Connell, the wife of Sir Maurice O?Connell and herself childless, had made the Children?s Hospital one of her special charities. Again this block was opened and furnished free of debt. Here we leave the Children?s. It continued to grow but like the Brisbane General it came under government control via the Hospitals Act of 1923. It, too, had succumbed to a financial crisis.

In the early 1860?s women were not admitted to the old hospital for confinement and in 1864 a Lying-in Hospital was established in Spring Hill. This was managed by a ladies? committee assisted by a men?s committee. It took all comers and made no distinction about a woman?s marital status. By 1866 the ladies? committee were in a position to build a hospital on a land grant and with £500 government assistance. This hospital opening in 1867 and was named the Lady Bowen after the wife of the first State governor. Lady Bowen has supported and promoted this charity. The Lady Bowen was a two storey brick building with six wards and could house 12 patients. Over time there were many small maternity hospitals in Brisbane while home births were also commonplace. The large Brisbane Women?s hospital was many years away opening in 1938. At this point the Lady Bowen closed.

Throughout the 20th century the complex at Herston continued to grow. In that time buildings have been constructed and demolished as they outgrew their usefulness. This century we are again witnessing a rebirth of the complex as the RBWH with the possible loss of the Children?s Hospital. One can only wonder what Charles Tiffin would make of it all.

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