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Richard Birch

Garrick & Jeffery:
... Richard Birch, a Fremantle druggist at Lot 423 (now No. 71 [?]) in High Street ... offered both his services and part of his premises as a casualty hospital ‘to attend to and dispence [sic] for the sick'. The offer had merit and was approved by both Alfred Waylen as the colonial surgeon, and by the Fremantle medical officer, Henry Calvert Barnett, who inspected the premises. Birch explained that right across the back of his place of business was a large room 20 feet by 12 feet, with a separate entrance fronting High Street and access to both the front and back yards. The premises were centrally located and the room could accommodate three patients. While he would provide food, drugs and attendance for patients, Mrs Birch would look after bed linen and the cooking and cleaning. All these services would be provided for £60 a year and the ward could be ready in a little over a week. ‘I can only add that for years I have longed to see such a ward established in the port; and should enter on such service more as a labor of mercy than for the profit of the undertaking’, enthused Birch early in October.
The offer was too good to ignore. The walls of the large room which had been used as a kitchen and dining room were whitewashed and the ceiling coloured; a revolving ventilator was placed in the back w'all and a window installed. The large fireplace was contracted and a new family kitchen run up between a back sitting room and the ward. Outside on the door, a brass plate inscribed ‘Government Casualty Ward’ was attached ‘so that the spot should be well known where to take patients at once’.
Furnishing the ward proved less costly than was at first feared by Colonial Secretary Gifford. Two narrow iron bedsteads each measuring six feet, six inches by two feet, three inches, with palliasses to fit, plus two mattresses and pillows, sheets, blankets, pillowslips and a mahogany commode threatened to total £13.12.0 until it was thought that furniture from the prison could be used. The pillow slips were of coarse weave, but as patients were not likely to be Fremantle’s elite and were expected to be discharged or sent to the Colonial Hospital as soon as possible, the economy seemed worth the short discomfort. Labour to make palliasses and mattresses was readily available with the gaol close by and, towards the end of 1882, some of Fremantle’s prisoners found themselves detailed to the painful and monotonous task of unpicking the fibre from worn ropes to make up the palliasses, and carding horsehair to make the larger mattresses. The finished bedding was carted down the hill to the town and taken into the Casualty Ward, with its new brass plaque on the door. Richard and Eliza Birch were enthusiastic about their new responsibilities, although the loss of the area across the back length of the house made living with seven children and a new baby a little cramped. However, the first yearly fee was very welcome, as Richard’s lack of enthusiasm in his duty as Fremantle’s stamp vendor had just led to a transfer of the right to the storekeeper Joseph Doonan.
During the following six years to 1888, the town’s serious accident cases were taken to the small High Street Casualty Ward for treatment. Sometimes it was considered necessary to transfer the patient to the Colonial Hospital and the injured person would be carefully carried on a stretcher to the railway station for the trip to Perth. Other patients were nursed at the ward. While many of them, no doubt, remembered the Birch children who sometimes seemed to travel through the ward in a never-ending procession to get to and from their play in the backyard, the children also recalled their special boarders:
"The patients might be in the ward for several days before their removal and were looked after by ... father and mother. The patients were always attended to by Dr. H. C. Barnett, a one-legged doctor and the patients always knew when he was coming by the sound of his crutches." (Recollection of George Birch, cited in A. McWhinney, A History of Pharmacy in Western Australia.)
If patients always knew when the doctor was coming, the druggist and his wife were less sure of knowing when patients would arrive and, with a large family and a business to attend to, may not always have been prepared for their boarders. By agreement, Birch was required only to provide the single room and to keep it clean and in good order, to serve a plain hospital diet, to give prescribed drugs and to nurse the patients admitted. No agreement covered anaesthetics or surgical instruments, which were not provided. The ward was indeed a medical stop-gap and the community, which on occasions witnessed injured men carried in great pain through their main street to the Casualty Ward or who spoke with the doctors who patched the wounded as best they could, knew it.

Footnote: CSO File 1259/88, 22 September 1882. Information on the location of Birch’s shop was provided by Larraine Stevens from Rate Books at Fremantle City Library. Between 1880 and 1881 the druggist occupied Lot 409 (presently No. 66 High Street) on which was a shop and dwelling. Between 1882 and 1889 his family moved to Lot 423 High Street and then back to Lot 409 between 1890 and 1899. In 1891 until 1898, Alfred Edwin Webster, an English-trained chemist, joined in a business partnership with Birch. Both were foundation members of the Pharmaceutical Society of Western Australia. See references in Dictionary of Western Australians, Vol. 4, Parts 1 and 2, for Birch and Webster; Western Mail, 2 July 1910.

References and Links

Birch, Susan 2015, A Birch Tree: The Life and Times of Richard and Eliza Birch, privately published. See also: fire brigade.

Garrick, Phyl & Chris Jeffery 1987, Fremantle Hospital: A Social History to 1987, Fremantle Hospital.

McWhinney, Alan 1975, A History of Pharmacy in Western Australia, Pharmaceutical Council of Western Australia.

See also: hospitals.

Garry Gillard | New: 29 October, 2021 | Now: 26 June, 2022