Old Sydney Hospital, Macquarie Street c1865-85, Mitchell LIbrary, State Library of NSW (a089177 / SPF / 177)

Old Sydney Hospital, Macquarie Street c1865-85, Mitchell LIbrary, State Library of NSW (a089177 / SPF / 177)

It seems rum is good for your health. Or it was 200 years ago in Sydney.

Sydney in 1810 was in desperate need of a permanent general hospital. Governor Lachlan Macquarie wanted it built, but didn’t have a lot of dosh to pay for it. Rather than call upon the British Treasury yet again, Macquaire offered a contract whereby the developers got a limited, but lucrative, monopoly on the importation of rum in exchange for building the hospital. Today it is often described as Sydney’s first public-private partnership.

Garnham Blaxcell, Alexander Riley and D’Arcy Wentworth were the three entrepreneurs who took on the challenge of building the Sydney Infirmary. The hospital became colloquially known as the Rum Hospital.

This new hospital was sited on the ridge of what is now Macquarie Street, to capture healthful breezes from the harbour. Convicts labour constructed the hospital between 1811 and 1816. There were three wings, two of which survive today. The north and south wings were planned as accommodation for doctors and staff, but were surplus to requirements and were soon used for other things and are better known today as The Mint and NSW Parliament House.

The Sydney Infirmary "But the poor woman will die if she is not attended to" 1869 , Sydney Punch 4 September 1869

The Sydney Infirmary “But the poor woman will die if she is not attended to” 1869 , Sydney Punch 4 September 1869

The middle wing (Sydney Hospital still occupies this site) was the main ward of the Sydney Infirmary. It was shoddily built, with poor foundations causing subsidence and rising damp. Its walls were built from rubble that provided an ideal home for rats, bedbugs and other vermin. Health care was minimal, with convalescing patients helping with nursing care. Judith Godden reminds us in her overview article on hospitals in Sydney that few worried about the poor quality of health care at the Sydney Infirmary, as the hospital only dealt with convicts and ex-convicts up until the 1840s.

We have quite a bit of content on the Rum Hospital. Laila Ellmoos in her article on the Sydney Hospital charts the development of the hospital.

There is some audio to listen to in which Dr John Graeme discusses the hospital’s evolution.

The ‘new’ hospital building was planned and constructed between 1878 and 1894. Although it is no longer a general hospital, Sydney Hospital and Eye Hospital continues to function as the oldest working hospital in Australia.

There is a symposium this weekend that commemorates 200 years since the opening of the Rum Hospital. Hosted by Sydney Living Museums, there is an impressive line-up of architects, curators, and historians (if I do say so myself) to discuss all aspects of the history and heritage of this important site.

Check out the program here.


There are still tickets available; maybe I’ll see you there.


Listen now  

If you missed today’s segment, you can catch up here via the 2SER website. Tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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