Paul Budde's History Archives

The hospitals

From the convict barracks in what is now Queen Street, turning the corner into what is now George Street there were the hospitals, the first smaller for the military (build in 1832) and directly next to it a larger one for the prisoners (build in 1827. After much government bungling over plans and approvals they first building was only completed after two years, in 1827.They both stood on the block bounded by North Quay, Adelaide, George and Ann Streets, with the buildings extending into the current alignment of Adelaide Street. They were facing the river.

The first doctor at the hospital was the at that time 25 year old Henry Cowper. At the age of 14 he started his apprenticeship in Sydney Hospital and at the age of 21 he became the youngest person to graduate medicine in Australia. In his apprenticeship he had been treating some of the most shocking accidents and the effects of flogging. Even before the age of 17 he had to relieve surgeon Dr Redfern when he was away.

He arrived  in Brisbane in 1826, nearly a year after the settlement was started.  He had to do his work in a large tent. It took one and a half year before he could actually practise in the hospital as took that long before the building was completed. Six convict attendants were assigned to the hospital.

From the very early beginning of the settlement diseases created havoc, especially typhoid and dysentery were prevalent. The subtropical climate, the lack of hygiene and the lack of clean drinking water, low food rations, and hard work for the convicts were major contributors to this situation. The medical situation in Moreton Bay can only be described as horrendous and this certainly had its effect on the young doctor.

As there was no chaplain in the convict settlement, Henry as a lay person, also had to perform the Divine Service every Sunday, and conduct burial rites for the dead, most of whom he would have treated in his hospital.

Principal Medical Officer James Bowman and inspector of colonial hospitals in NSW arrived in the settlement in March 1829 and he reported that in January 1829 406 people had been in the hospital of which 11 died. In February the numbers were 368 hospitalised and 22 death. After his report improvements were made and the number had dropped to 195 in the hospital and 4 death. It is still astonishing to imagine this in a relative very small community.

Initially Dr Cowper lived in a wing of the hospital. Bowman had recommended building a separate surgeon’s residence, to create more space in the hospital. This was done and in 1831 it was  added to the hospital precinct on the North Quay side about 250 meters from the corner of Queen Street and North Quay.  A stable was situated at the back of the building as the doctor was allowed to have a horse to visit the Female Factory in Eagle Farm. Dr Cowper also received an assistant Dr Murray.

Surgeon's Cottage George Street 1850

Surgeon’s cottage (next to military hospital) – George Street 1865

No wonder that the hospital had a terrible reputation as so many patients died here. The settlement was ill prepared for the many tropical diseases. The harsh treatment of the convicts , especially the liberal use of the whip, lead to many infections and many of them were deadly (over 200 convicts dies over a 15 year period – a 10% death-rate) .

Most certainly also as an effect of the shocking work conditions Dr Cowper ‘s personal life was seriously effected. According to Dr Murray he was an excessive grog-drinker and smoker, and most ill-tempered and quarrelsome. He was dismissed in 1832 after he together with the hospital clerk Halden and Richard, the captain of the ship ‘Governor Phillip’ had entered the Female Factory and where caught in compromising positions.

The hospital suffered a fire in 1835.

Dr. David Ballow took over the hospital in 1838 and lived in the surgery cottage till his death in 1850. He oversaw in 1849 the long overdue upgrade of the hospital desperately needed for the growing demands of the free settler’s community. There was no public health service and the hospital operated on a subscription basis, for those who could afford to donate. These people received tickets they could redeem if they needed medical treatment at the hospital

On 8 August 1850 the immigrant ship Emigrant arrived in Moreton Bay with typhus on board. The ship was quarantined at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island away from Brisbane. Forty people on the ship died, including the ship’s surgeon Dr George Mitchell. Initially Dr Mallon came from Brisbane to care for the quarantined patients at Dunwich but he too contracted the infection. Dr Ballow took his place and also contracted the disease and dies in 1850

Grave of Dr David Ballow

Grave of Dr David Ballow, Dunwich Stradbroke Island.

However, the ongoing complaints about the lack of a proper hospital for the rapidly growing population of Brisbane Town continued. Finally in 1867 a new hospital was built in Herston (now Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital).

The old hospital was subsequently occupied by the in 1864 established police force. From here they moved to their new premises on the corner of Albert Street and Turbot Street in 1880. Soon afterwards the old hospital buildings were demolished.


The building of Brisbane TOC

Convict History of Brisbane TOC