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Colonial Hospital


Cyril Bryan 1935:

The Colonial Hospital: Story of Its Foundation

THERE have been many controversies concerning the foundation of the Colonial Hospital (Perth Hospital as it has now become), and one would imagine that the contestants, instead of arguing, would have done the one and incontestable thing In order to establish the point for good and all. That is, to look up the records. Such a simple procedure, how ever, seems to have appealed to nobody. They preferred to argue, basing their arguments on what their parents, or their grandparents, had told them—or rather on what they thought they had told them. Which, of course, is quite a different thing, but quite a common thing, when it comes to local history.


The same photo as above, as found in the SLWA collection @ stone6slwa_b4167658_1.jpg, cropped differently, and with the 'name' of the tree mentioned: the 'Perth cedar'.

The latest addition to the controversy apears in 'The West Australian' of a few days ago. Mr. Ranford, of Bannister, states that the Colonial Hospital had been founded more than 20 years before Sister Nicolay was appointed matron in 1890. This is quite right. Mr. Eagleton, the secretary of the Perth Hospital, states the Colonial Hospital was founded in 1840. This is quite wrong. The Colonial Hospital, in fact, was founded in 1830, and that is just 60 years before Sister Nicolay became matron.

There is no room for confusion as to the foundation of the First Colonial Hospital. It was founded in 1830. We even know the precise date. It was June 15, 1830. We even have the first certificate of admission to the Colonial Hospital. It was issued to Robert Wilson. And we can even peruse today, in Dr. Milligan's own handwriting, the first Return of Admissions, Discharges and Deaths, covering the first six weeks of its existence, that is from June 15 to July 31, 1830. These documents were not concealed under some hidden Jesuit treasure at the base of Mt. Popocatepetl. They have been available in the State Records, awaiting inspection by anyone interested in the subject, for the past 105 years 4 months and 23 days. But they remained undisturbed, unnoticed, unread. It took the Centenary to awaken us to the realisation of the existence of these State Records. Sometimes it seems that it will take another century to awaken us to the necesity of reading them.

A Scurvy Epidemic.

The Colonial Hospital cannot be discussed without plotting the background and dotting it with figures. Already in June, 1829, the Parmelia had discharged the 'first settlers' on to Garden Island, and the Sulphur had disembarked its soldier-passengers on to the mainland. On to Garden Island went also the first Colonial Surgeon, Dr. Charles Simmons, and there he remained for many months as may be seen from his Sick Reports (sent monthly to the Colonial Secretary, Peter Brown) and still preserved intact. Even when Garden Island had been evacuated Dr. Simmons did not come to Perth. He was dispatched by Governor Stirling in H.M.S. Sulphur on successive expeditions around the coast to report on the suitability or otherwise from a health point of view of various spots as sites for a settlement. As late as August 27, 1830, we find him writing to Governor Stirling and heading his letter 'On board H.M.S. Sulphur at Sea.' In it he acknowledged the receipt of Stirling's instructions to proceed on the Sulphur from Point Leschenault to Augusta and there to await further orders.

In the meantime Dr. Milligan, who had accompanied his regiment, the 63rd, to Perth, had erected a military hospital, styled the Hospital Marquee, in all official documents, within the Barrack Square. Its whereabouts cannot be precisely indicated, but, from a glance at one of the oldest sketches of earliest Perth, it would appear to have been situated towards the top of Cathedral avenue, somewhere between the main door of the Cathedral and the Lands Department. It is with the civilian hospital, however— that is, the Colonial Hospital— that we are here concerned, and Dr. Milligan, in the absence of the colonial surgeon, Dr. Simmons, was called upon to establish it exactly a year from the day that he had disembarked from the Sulphur. Dr. Milligan was thus in those earliest days both the military and civil surgeon to the population of Perth; and it is appropriate that the street named after him should cut across St. George's-terrace, where cluster the brass plates of the doctors today, and but a stone's throw from the Old Barracks, still redolent with memories of the old soldiers who lent such colour to the Perth that our grandfathers knew.

How the inhabitants of Perth managed without a hospital for the first year of their residence here is left to the imagination. But it was apparently an epidemic of scurvy which finally forced on the Government the necessity for the establishment of the Colonial Hospital. In April, 1830, the crew of H.M.S. Success, which had returned to the colony, were laid low with scurvy; and in the same month we find Dr. Milligan issuing a certificate to Assistant Surveyor Sutherland at Perth (April 3, 1830), stating that he was 'labouring under symptoms of scurvy, for the cure of which disease limejuice is indispensably necessary.' Robert Wilson, who enjoyed the distinction of being the first person admitted to the Colonial Hospital, was also suffering from scurvy; and in that first 'Return of Sick in the Colonial Hospital at Perth from June 15 to July 31, 1830, inclusive.' prepared by Dr. Milligan, we see that 10 persons—that is, more than half the total number of patients admitted in the first six weeks—went in with scurvy, of which disease four out of the 10 died in the same period.

Where It Stood.

It is interesting to dissect his return embracing the first six weeks of the activities of the Colonial Hospital. The admissions numbered 19—scurvy 10, fevers 4, contusions 2, dysentery, dropsy, wounds, 1 each. The deaths totalled 6—only one a week, it is true, but at the same time representing a mortality of one out of every three admitted! They included 4 from scurvy, 1 from fever, 1 from dysentery. Seven were discharged during the period, so that there were but six in-patients at the end of the first six weeks. It does not seem to indicate a busy time for the medical staff, but appearances can be deceptive. At any rate, after exactly one month of it, Dr. Milligan found that he could not, single handed, attend to both the Military and the Colonial Hospitals, and, accordingly, on July 15, 1830, Dr. Alfred Green was appointed 'Assistant Surgeon to the Colonial Hospital, with an allowance of five shillings per day from this date.' Next to the date of its foundation comes the question: Where was this first Colonial Hospital functioning? Certainty, so far, is impossible, but everything points to it having stood on the block next to the present Celtic Club in St. George's terrace, which appropriately enough has been a doctor's residence for many years past. It would be still more appropriate if it could be proved that the brick wall, which still stands in the back garden of this residence, was part of the original Colonial Hospital. Whether this be so or not, there is little doubt but that this brick wall formed part of the reestablished Colonial Hospital which came into being 'on December 14, 1840, in St. George's-terrace, opposite Government House.' For Government House then stood where the present lodge gates open on to the drive to the Government House that we know.

The Colonial Hospital which Mr. Eagleton refers to as the first Colonial Hospital was therefore a re-established institution, and the mistake occurs through the printer or some official using the word 'established' when he meant reestablished or re-erected, or re-built. All through, the wording is very ambiguous, as witness the reference in the Perth 'Gazette' of December 14, 1840: 'A building in Perth having now been prepared for the purpose of a Colonial Hos pital under the direction of the Colonial Surgeon, same will be open between the hours of 10 and 12 a.m. daily, when patients will be received whose cases on examination are deemed to require this accommodation.' But there is no ambiguity in the instructions to the medical staff. The Medical Officer had to visit the hospital daily. The Hospital Assistant was to make up prescriptions, see that the convalescents rose at 7 a.m. in summer and at 8 a.m. in winter; also that the beds were doubled up, and the floors dry-rubbed, not washed. In winter the patients were to be in bed by 8 p.m., and by 9 in summer. They were to pay 1/6 per diem, including the day of admission and the day of discharge. It was not much, but then the whole expense of this re-established Colonial Hospital for the quarter ended March 31, 1841 were (according to the 'Gazette') only £65/1/8. A dozen years later the shift was made to the present position at the top end of Murray-street—but that is another story.


News and Notes, West Australian, 15 June 1939: 16:

Perth Hospital Beginnings.

"Cygnet" writes: "The Perth Hospital, under the name of the Colonial Hospital, first began to function on June 1, 1830. Its first Medical Superintendent was Dr. William Milligan, the surgeon to the 63rd Regiment, who on the first day the soldiers came to Perth (June 18, 1829) had already erected a military hospital, in the shape of a marquee, about the centre of the present Cathedral-avenue. A year later, on June 1, 1830, Dr. Milligan (in the absence of the Colonial Surgeon, Dr. Charles Simmons, at Augusta) was also called upon to erect a civilian hospital. and this also began its existence in a tent, pitched, it is believed, on the block of ground immediately west of the Celtic Club. The genesis of this Colonial Hospital is graphically sketched by Dr. Milligan himself in a report to Lieutenant Governor Stirling, dated August 1, 1830: 'In the month of June (1830) three unfortunate individuals were discovered to be at Perth in a state of utter destitution and greatly exhausted from bad food, a scanty allowance of it, exposure to the weather, and scurvy. They had been dismissed their master's service for misconduct, were for some time without employment, and latterly almost without food. His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, on being informed of their situation, ordered a tent to be provided and that they should be supplied with all the comforts their cases required, as well as medical attendance. This step, at once so prudent and so humane, has led to the establishment of a hospital in which many now find a retreat who, without such an institution, must have perished from want and disease.' "

References and Links

Cygnet [Cyril Bryan], 'The Colonial Hospital: story of its foundation', West Australian, 16 November 1935: 4 (as above).

See also: William Milligan.

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