The hospital that grew with the community

The story of the building of Kiama Hospital by Mark Wilmott

On 11th March local residents toured the Kiama District Hospital in Bonaira Street. They came in their hundreds. Some had been staff, some were once patients and others were just curious to see the old hospital one last time before its demolition. In a few months only Barroul House will remain, as construction of the new aged care facility begins.

The new hospital in the 1930s

The Bonaira Street hospital opened in 1930. It replaced the Kiama Cottage Hospital which had served the Kiama, Shellharbour, Jamberoo and Gerringong districts for over forty years. In that time huge changes occurred in the treatment of patients, and hospital care went from being seen an act of charity to being regarded as a citizen’s right.

The cottage hospital, built in 1887, was located at the top of Barney Street and was surrounded by open space. It had its own milking cow and vegetable garden, but being built high on a hill was a blessing and a curse for patients and staff. Cleansing breezes could turn into gales, blowing the glass out of the cottage’s windows, and occasionally staff had to rush to town and back on foot to get urgently needed medical supplies.

By the late 19th century the predominantly rural district was becoming an industrial one as well. Many men were coming to the area to work in the blue metal quarries, for the railway, or down at Kiama harbour. With industry came an increase in accidents and the need for better medical services. Blasting rock and moving heavy loads were dangerous occupations. During its first twenty years, nearly 80 percent of the hospital’s patients were men. The community had to dig deep to help pay for the hospital and its staffing.

The Kiama Independent newspaper stridently defended the new hospital against a prominent local critic who questioned its value. “If he had one spark of humanity in his nature he would, like us, glory in the fact that the liberality of the people has provided such a refuge for the sick and helpless”.

Whether by subscription or charity functions, the local community gave generously to the ongoing cost of its hospital. The Hospital Ball was a big money-spinner. In 1922, the popular Miss Prott and Her Orchestra provided the music at the “phenomenally successful” Hospital Masquerade Ball, at which Joan of Arc and Charlie Chaplin won prizes in the fancy dress competition.

Throughout the 1920s patient numbers steadily grew. Innovations in health care meant more could be done. Long gone were the days when operations took place on the staff dining table. It was now a hospital for the whole community.

In 1927 the local ambulance officer, took possession of a Buick Master Six ambulance “fitted out to carry three stretchers and two sitting up”. This led to even more patients being delivered to the hospital, many being the result of car accidents.

By 1928 things were getting critical. The hospital struggled to cope with the extra demand. Not only were the facilities antiquated, but nearby quarrying was threatening the hospital’s very existence. Committee member Reverend Watkinson said that apart from the private ward and theatre provided by the Fuller family, the cottage hospital was “only a glorified woolshed”. Local medical officer, Dr Frecker, stated the noise of nearby blasting operations was “extremely disturbing, especially in the women’s and isolation wards. For the hospital staff out in the grounds the close proximity of flying stones is very dangerous”

In September 1928 the Hospital Committee threatened to resign in protest. For six years the State Government had procrastinated, and a protracted boundary dispute between Kiama and Jamberoo councils over the Bonaira Street site showed no sign of being resolved.

However, shortly after, the government finally signed a contract to build the new hospital, with half the money to come from the local community. It was officially opened on 5th July 1930.

After a difficult birth, another chapter in the history of the Kiama district had begun. At the recent open day, stories from that chapter were freely shared. Patients, nurses, doctors, and other staff wandered through the hospital’s labyrinthine rooms and corridors, recounting many of the vivid memories contained within its walls.

Mark Wilmott

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