The first hospital in Australia was located on George Street in The Rocks, in the block bounded by Globe, George, Harrington and Argyle streets. A plaque on the former police station at 127 George Street commemorates the hospital’s location and the laneway that runs between George and Harrington streets was renamed ‘Nurses Walk’ in the 1970s as a tribute.
Figure 1. Plaque on the former Police Station 127 George St. SHFA
Hospital tents were among the first erected when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in late January 1788. The eight-month-long voyage from Britain was healthy by the standards of the day with only around 34 deaths among the approximately 1500 people who set out and there were no major outbreaks of disease once the fleet left Portsmouth. This was a remarkable achievement, especially when compared to hellish deathrate on the Second Fleet. However, once the First Fleet reached Sydney Cove scurvy and dysentery broke out and the tent hospital was soon full.
By July 1788 a hospital building and laboratory had been erected which Phillip reported would last for some years, although it took until August for the roof to be completed because of heavy rain. A large plot of land was allocated to the hospital grounds for a garden and future expansion. Collins gives us the most detailed description of the hospital building and its construction:
“A building for the reception of the sick was now absolutely necessary, and one, eighty-four feet by twenty-three, was put in hand, to be divided into a dispensary... a ward for the troops, and another for the convicts. It was to be built of wood, and the roof to be covered in with shingles, made from a species of fir that is found here... Carpenters were now employed in covering in that necessary building the hospital, the shingles for the purpose being all prepared; these were fastened to the roof (which was very strong) by pegs made by the female convicts’’.
Figure 2. William Bradley, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, March 1788 – Location of the hospital indicated by the red arrow. State Library of NSW.
The authors of the First Fleet do not detail exactly what structures were built for the hospital, what plants were cultivated in the garden or what livestock was allocated to it. It is only the hints and passing comments made when reporting on other incidences that provide any indication of these details. Huts for staff, such as the corporals’ guard, and stores are mentioned occasionally, but how many, what size or where they were located remains a mystery.
Figure 3. A View of Sydney Cove – Port Jackson March 7th 1792, Port Jackson Painter. British Natural History Museum. The key to these numbers has been lost but William Dixson (1923) has identified the buildings. View of the hospital complex at 1792. The white building, No. 18 is the portable hospital which arrived with the 2nd Fleet in 1790. 19 and 20 are the hospital store and outbuildings. No. 20 could possibly be the original hospital building constructed in 1788. 21, the assistant surgeon's residence. 22, the surgeon-general's residence. 29, the hospital garden.
Collins reports an incident of the local Eora people killing a goat from the hospital before taking it with them to Long Cove (now Darling Harbour) this is the only hint found of any stock belonging to the hospital. There is even less detail on what was grown in the garden, so we do not know if it was only imported plants or if some of the local species were cultivated. The medical properties of several local plants were reported on by the First Fleet authors, including the efficacy of Red and Yellow Gum in the treatment of dysentery, and which wild vegetables were found to treat scurvy. In the early months the colonists experimented with wild vegetables and found, what Collins described as “wild celery, spinach, and parsley, fortunately grew in abundance about the settlement; those who were in health, as well as the sick, were very glad to introduce them into their messes, and found them a pleasant as well as wholesome addition to the ration of salt provisions.”
However, neither he nor anyone else mentions if these plants were transplanted to the hospital gardens. The early images of the hospital complex show that the gardens were quite large, with enough room for animal stalls.
Figure 4. Detail of "A View of the west side of Sydney Cove taken from Too-bay-ulee, or Bannellongs Point – Port Jackson Painter. British Natural History Museum. Dated between 1792-1795. View of the hospital. The hospital complex is the area enclosed by the fence and includes the surgeon and assistant surgeon’s residences on the far right. The portable hospital is the long white building behind the hospital wharf, the original hospital is the biggest building in the centre. The function of the smaller outbuildings is not known for sure.
The hospital was not reserved for the exclusive use of the British, several local people were brought there during the smallpox epidemic of 1789 which decimated their population. They included a young man named Nanberry who was eventually adopted by John White, the principal surgeon.
There are numerous mentions of wounded local indigenous people being treated at the hospital, but no reports of indigenous women giving birth there. Benelong told Phillip that his wife, Barangaroo, was going to give birth to their child at Government House, this could have been an attempted claim of traditional ownership for Benelongs’s child, and a powerful political declaration. Phillip demurred and told Benelong that Barangaroo would be better off giving birth in the hospital. The hospital was seen as a place of death to the local people and so this would not have been a welcome suggestion to Barangaroo. She went off into the bush alone when the time came and gave birth without any assistance, but under the curious prying eyes of Collins who was astonished to see her walking about gathering sticks for her fire immediately after the birth.
In January 1790 Collins reports that a brick dispensary was built next to the hospital for the storage of medicines and instruments because the hut they were kept in was not weatherproof. He doesn’t mention whether the original hospital building was improved with brick walls though. Then the Second Fleet arrived and with it a medical crisis and a prefabricated portable hospital. By the time the colonists managed to erect the portable hospital there was a sick list of 480 people. The Second Fleet was managed by a company that had been involved in the North American slave Trade and they were paid for each convict embarked, not landed. The effect of this was each death among the convicts earned the company more profit, as they could and did sell the rations allocated for that convict. A total of 939 male convicts and 78 females embarked, and only 692 males and 67 females landed at Port Jackson, of those landed more than 500 hundred of them were sick or dying. The mortality rate on this fleet was to be the highest in transportation history to Australia. The death rates for the ships were one death to every 3.1 convicts embarked on the Neptune, one death to every 3.5 convicts embarked on the Scarborough and one death to every 7.1 convicts embarked on the Surprise. Although the condition of the convicts shocked Sydney and Britain when the news reached there not one person was ever charged and the company was again chartered for the Third Fleet!
Figure 5. Detail. Portable Hospital, Evans, c1803: Sydney from the western side of the Cove. Mitchell Library
The portable hospital which arrived with the Second Fleet is quiet distinctive, it was prefabricated in panels and it stands out from the other buildings around it. The British architect Samuel Wyatt was awarded the contract, but the portable hospital has been attributed to his nephew, Jeffry Wyattville, who was working for him at the time. Wyatt’s invoice to the Treasury described the building:
“To a Military moveable Hospital with a cross Partition and Torches; the building is 84ft long by 20ft 6 inches wide and 12 ft high upon the walls; the roof covered with Copper, the whole consisting of wooden Framing in Panels. Plates, Standards, Bearers, etc...the whole to be delivered on Board a Ship in the River Thames at Six Hundred and ninety Pounds...£690”
This hospital was one of 12 commissioned for British overseas possessions that could be flat packed and transported by ship. Wyatt claimed that it could be taken down and re-erected in the space of an hour and was “so contrived as not to require artificers of any kind to fix them up or take them down – not even a hammer will be necessary”. It actually took around a week to construct, and this was with the help of ship’s carpenters by a colony that was desperate to get it erected.
Figure 6. Detail. A view of Sydney Cove. Artist unknown probably copied by Watling. C1793. The hospital complex from the south showing the gardens and other buildings. The long ones at the rear may be the orderlies barracks.
In 1797 High (George) Street was realigned. The realignment required the portable hospital to be pulled down and re-erected on a stone foundation slightly west of its original location. A store and dispensary were then erected to the north and west of the hospital buildings. The portable hospital appears to have become the first Military Hospital, although further research is required to ascertain this. Eventually there were three main hospital buildings and quiet a number of out buildings, but the function of each building is not know at the time of writing.
Every Governor including Phillip reported that the hospital was not large enough for the population and numbers of sick to be accommodated there. Bligh reported:
“There will be an absolute necessity for building a new general hospital as soon as possible, the present one being in a most ruinous state, and very unfit for the reception of the sick that must necessarily be sent to it, of which there are on an average seldom less in it than between seventy and eighty men, women, and children.”
The hospital appears to have been continually added to and improved by each of the Governors until Macquarie, but it is difficult to find what work was done. A surgeon’s residence was built where the Orient Hotel now stands and an assistant surgeon’s residence on the opposite side of Argyle Street. The assistant surgeon’s residence eventually became the home of Francis Greenway, the convict architect.
There are mentions in newspaper articles of numerous outbuildings used for nurses and orderlies overnight accommodation, but no record as to what they were constructed of or where on the hospital grounds they were erected. These types of buildings and other structures such as animal stalls generally do not get depicted on paintings and drawings made for an audience in Britain, usually being judged as erroneous detail, nor are they written about for the same reason. However, even if these buildings were constructed of simple wattle and daub, they may have left an archaeological resource, perhaps as the marks of postholes.
The hospital was not just used for treating illness and wounds, experimental medicine was also conducted. In 1803 several experiments were carried out on vaccinating children with cowpox to prevent smallpox. The first experiments were not successful and then a different method was tried which did work. Unfortunately the details of these experiments could not be found, they were reported in the Sydney Gazette. The year after, 1804, Dr Thomas Jamieson, the principal surgeon, wrote articles for the newspaper assuring people that the cowpox vaccination did work, that they were not safe from smallpox, even though he had seen no cases in the colony in ten years. He also went to lengths to squash the assumption that smallpox could not survive in Sydney’s climate. He encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated, in this he was echoed by the newspaper and several articles of the efficiency of the vaccine in other countries were published. By 1810, articles telling parents to bring their children to the general hospital for vaccination were being published regularly along with the wonderful results of vaccination around the world and refuting the objections people had to it.
Figure 7. The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye? Anti-Vaccine Society. 1802. Wikipedia images. British satirist James Gillray implied that vaccination for smallpox with cowpox caused people to become part cow.
When Macquarie arrived the western side of Sydney Cove consisted of a cluster of buildings servicing the shipping trade and docks consistent with a young port. Noting the poor condition of the town and public buildings, particularly of the hospital, he immediately set about making his mark and improvements. He renamed “High Street, “George Street”, in honour of the reigning monarch, King George III and other streets in the area including “Argyle Street” (after the Laird of his native county).
The need for new hospital buildings was very apparent and a new Military Hospital was opened on Observatory Hill in 1815. Macquarie also found an ingenious solution to fund the building of a new general hospital. He granted to three colonists a short-term but lucrative monopoly on importing spirits in exchange for building the new hospital in Macquarie Street. Consequently, the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary (from 1881, Sydney Hospital) was nicknamed the ‘Rum Hospital’. It opened in 1816 with one large central and two smaller wings.
Figure 8. Macquarie’s “Rum Hospital”, Wikipedia Images. NSW Parliament now occupies the left building. The centre has been demolished and replaced by a new Sydney Hospital and the right wing now is now the Historic Houses Trust.
One wing of this hospital is now used as NSW Parliament House, another became the Mint and now houses the Historic Houses Trust.
Some of the buildings of the original hospital on George St were dismantled and the materials sold off, ironically the portable (temporary) hospital building survived until the 1880s, over one hundred years.
Figure 9. The three-storey building on the left is the Fortune of War hotel. The single storey building fronting George Street became the site of the ES&A Bank in 1881, and the vacant block next to it is the site of 127-9 George Street. The low, long roof behind is the former portable hospital. Bayliss Panorama- detail- taken from Garden Palace. National Library
Figure 10. Roof of the former portable hospital, c1871 Mitchell Library