Old Bega Hospital History - Chapter 1

THIS is the story of the first hospital in Bega, built in 1889 and serving the community until 1956.

Bega was declared a township in 1851. It had a blacksmith's, some huts, a boiling down establishment and three houses, all in North Bega. However that same year there was a disastrous flood caused by a gale, hurricane and torrential rain and it lasted a week. At North Bega it swept away stacks of corn and hay, houses, barns and stables. People who sought refuge on haystacks were carried away till the haystacks broke up and they died. In all 17 lives were lost in the district.

It was decided to move the town to the higher ground on the southern side of the river, and three decades later it was a flourishing town with a municipal council, court house, three banks, four churches, a gaol, a School of Arts, a theatre, a public school, a Church of England school, a convent, a post and telegraph office, many inns and stores, but no hospital. There had been some moves towards building a hospital. In the NSW Government Gazette of 1872 and 1873 moneys were put aside for the Bega Hospital and Benevolent Society, but a writer in the Bega Gazette of 30th January, 1873, said that the money was never claimed and “of all things further from the thoughts of the public is the erection of a hospital”. The same report noted that the Bega Hospital and Benevolent Society never seemed to hold meetings and was probably defunct.

A move to build a public hospital did start in 1876 after an outbreak of smallpox, but lapsed through lack of enthusiasm. The movement was revived in 1883 temporarily, but flagged, until in 1886 the Government set aside five acres of the Bega Permanent Common for the purposes of a hospital, which caused the editor of the Bega Standard to write the following for the issue of 1st May.

A recent number of the Government Gazette contains a proclamation of the dedication of five acres as a site for a proposed hospital on the Permanent Common. We are still satisfied that the action is illegal, and that if anyone chose to take it to the Supreme Court it would be found that the conditions under which these dedications are made are not binding. However, no one is likely to take such a course, and the next thing to do is to consider the question of utilising the site. In our opinion, it is quite useless, it is too far from town, and we fancy years must elapse before a building is created there.

The colony of NSW had followed British practice by establishing permanent commons in country towns where residents of that town could use the firewood, and pasture grasses on gazetted land, but use of these lands was regulated and subject to conditions and sometimes fees. The Bega Permanent Common was two miles south of the town and the Bega Standard editor was not the only one to believe that any hospital built should be closer to the town centre.

In the 1885 census there were 300 births in Bega, 61 deaths and 55 weddings. The European population was 2,442 with 48 Chinese. Since the Free Settlement Act of 1861 many dairy farmers were able to buy freehold 40-320 acres of crown land at a pound an acre in designated agricultural areas so the district was well populated with 7,360 Europeans and 146 Chinese. The Chinese were market gardeners There was no count of the Aborigines, as they were not included in the census until 1967.

It was very fortunate for the Bega community that in 1886 Leslie Macarthur came to Bega as the acting police magistrate. Little is known about him other than he had some experience with public hospitals in other parts of the colony including country towns like Hay. Very soon after he arrived he appears to have single handedly and energetically researched all aspects of the funding and financing, the need and a possible way forward for a hospital and outlined these plans in a Letter to the Editor of the Bega Standard, 19th May, 1886:

SIR:- Taking a keen interest in the welfare of country hospitals and kindred institutions, I made enquiry shortly after my arrival as to the whereabouts of your local hospital; to my surprise I was informed that such an institution did not exist – however, it would appear that several attempts have been made without success, lacking, I understand, a want of unity amongst the then promoters.

Under these circumstances I take the liberty of bringing the subject prominently before the Bega and Eden residents, through the medium of your valuable columns, and would earnestly elicit your co-operation to bring about a successful issue to alleviate the sufferings of our fellow creatures by the erection and establishment of a cottage hospital in Bega.

This township being centrally situated, equal benefits would be derived by the surrounding towns, viz: Eden, Cobargo, Candelo, Brogo, Wolumla, Pambula, Merimbula and Wyndham .

Considering the best means of arriving at a feasibility of carrying out my views and generally ventilating the subject, I called upon our worthy Mayor, Mr Rawlinson, respecting the project, and requested him to convene a public meeting, to which he not only acquiesced, but promised his warm support – and nominated Saturday, 12th June, when the School of Arts will be placed at his disposal, being the most central and capacious room available.

Mr Macarthur went on to point out how funds could be raised through life membership, subscriptions and donations and he would be circulating letters throughout the district with his ideas for a hospital, hopefully reaching every cottager and every homestead, with invitations to the public meeting. He had checked the electoral roll of the Eden-Bega district and found there were 1663 eligible voters. These would be adult males who had lived in the district for the preceding six months, who were British citizens from birth, or had been naturalised for five years and lived in the colony for the preceding two. Males could also vote in every electorate where they owned property. He was sure that in this populous and well-to-district at least six landowners could be found who would be glad to submit their names as life members, by subscribing £12 to £72; if one-fourth of the electors (viz 413); a fourth of the remainder might fairly be expected to subscribe ten shillings per annum. He was also sure that there would be other sources from which hospital revenue might be legitimately obtained – a hospital ball, and sports in aid of funds, consisting of foot races and sports generally, under the auspices and personal assistance of the committee. Clergy could lend their aid by setting apart one Sunday in the year for collections in aid of hospital funds and hospital boxes could be placed in conspicuous business places in the several townships. Mr Macarthur had drawn up an approximate budget, allowing that the first year's expenses would naturally be more than any succeeding year, having in view the purchase of beds, linen, furniture, surgical instruments, kitchen utensils etc.

Estimate for erection of eight roomed cottage, verandah etc, £1,200, to be built by approved Building Society according to plan at eight per cent, say £96. Extras unforeseen... £50. Purchase of necessary surgical instruments ... £80. Beds, bedding and necessary furniture ... £120. Salary to Wardsman and wife ... £65. Necessary drugs to be kept at hospital, splints, bandages etc, etc ... £50. Contract with druggist at two shillings, ninepence a bottle ... £90. Meat, vegetables, milk ... £150. Medical comforts, porters etc ... £25. Plans and architect's fees ... £50. Fencing, digging well, wood and water ... £40. Medical officer's (elected) honorarium for first year to cover actual expenses ... £30. Consultation fees etc ... £34. Total ... £900.

Mr Macarthur thought this would allow for eight beds to start with, two for women and six for men. It must be noted that he only included a salary for a wardsman and his wife and nothing for any nurse. He did not calculate in his estimates any Government subsidy because he believed that such a small cottage hospital should be made almost self-supporting. He also thought that the permanent common site was not suitable being too far from town.

In the Bega Standard before the June meeting, Mr Macarthur noted that the “medical fraternity would be greatly benefited by such an establishment. Very many miles have yearly to be traversed by doctors treating patients, who, however willing, are unable to pay; by having a local hospital the doctor's time, horses, etc, would be saved by concentrating such sufferers under one roof, where each phase of complaint can be observed. Outdoor patients could also be arranged for under the recommendation of two of the committee, but only in the case of the extremely poor, which class, I am glad to observe are 'most conspicuous by their absence' in Bega. Many of the residents here are members of lodges, and thus obtain medical advice and sick pay; still they would, in the hospital, as paying patients, be under the immediate care of an experienced nurse, and visited almost daily by the medical officer, without the sick pay being interfered with. Unfortunately in the middle classes an absurd fancy seems to prevail, that it is infra dig to be treated in a hospital, in fact, risk their lives at home rather than go to hospital to stand a better chance of being cured. I would earnestly desire to remove such an idea, for whilst they are reaping benefits for themselves, by the constant care and attention bestowed upon them, they are assisting to make the cottage hospital self-supporting by their weekly payments, and helping to provide a retreat for fellow creatures who are not so fortunate in possessing the world's goods”.

The public meeting on 12th June, 1886, was well attended and a report was published in the Bega Gazette. Mr Thomas Rawlinson, the Mayor, presided and said he had convened the meeting with the object to establish a hospital in Bega and Mr Macarthur could, from his intimate knowledge of the working of hospitals in other parts of the country, give them useful information and called on him to speak. However before he had the chance to do so William Henry Braine, editor of the Bega Gazette, remarked that this meeting was cut and dried without any reference to a committee appointed long ago. He reminded the meeting that the committee, with Mr Forbes as secretary, had done substantial work. “Instead of allowing public money to be squandered in purchasing land, it had been able to secure from Government a noble site of five acres on the Permanent Common. The course of action just indicated by the chairman ignored valuable work done by the old committee, and looked much like 'jumping a claim'. He, as one member of that committee, objected to being cast aside in favour of something new. The Mayor, who affected some indignation at the unexpected assertion of just rights, said that at a proper time during the meeting he would ask the old officials to state what had been done. Mr Macarthur (who evidently had not known of the sterling labours of Mr Forbes) said something to the effect that the interruption was disgraceful, and then went on to explain what had been done in other places, and quoted figures to show that if each member of the community subscribed only a little yearly, hospital funds would flourish. He begged to move that 'This meeting is of opinion that a public hospital be established in Bega'. With regard to what had been said, he had no wish to interfere with what had been done before, and thought it a pity that petty absurd nonsense and disputes prevented a start. Charles Harrison seconded the motion and said in a large district like this it was a crying evil that there was no machinery for aiding the sick.”

Other speakers wanted to know what would happen to their money they had already subscribed. The Mayor said the meeting was called for a special purpose and the resolution was that this meeting was in favour of a hospital, and that they had no power to deal with funds already collected and it had no control over the old committee, but could now join with it. J D Darcy thought it time a start was made and the old committee had done good service and ought not to be cashiered, but Mr Braine said “The existing committee should have been consulted about this meeting”.

Alderman Manning moved “that the site for the hospital shall be the land upon the Permanent Common resumed by the Government for that purpose. Mr A French seconded the resolution and eulogised Mr Macarthur's efforts. He deprecated the petty jealousy which he thought existed in Bega. 'A hospital was a platform on which all creeds can stand in giving aid to the sick and needy'. Mr Forbes said in justice to himself, as secretary of the committee appointed some time ago, he should be allowed to say a few words. He said the old committee had not been idle For the past 18 months correspondence had been going on between himself and Messrs Garvan and Clarke with the object of securing the five acres on the Permanent Common. He demurred to the Mayor's suggestion that the business had fallen through for want of a practical leader, and surely some credit was due to them for their work”.

Mr Bland moved “that a building of wood and galvanised iron be erected at a cost not exceeding £1,200”. He said that Bega needed what other towns had. “ Frequently there were cases of illness distanced from the town, cases in which constant attendance by a doctor was imperative; and perhaps life had been sacrificed because medical men could not give hourly attendance”. The Mayor read a letter from the Inspector of Charities stating that if Bega raised £500 the inspector would report favourably for an application for Government aid, and he would favour an unconditional grant, and the hospital would be entitled to a subsidy so that it would receive two pounds for every one pound raised.

In the discussion that followed some favoured brick or stone instead of wood and two or three small buildings might be better instead of one large one. There were so many different suggestions that it was decided that the details of the building be left to the committee, but everyone seemed to agree that the maximum expenditure be £1,200.

It was the Reverend G Spencer who moved that a committee be formed to obtain plans and specifications, arrange to collect subscriptions and to take all necessary steps preparatory to the erection of the building. He agreed that much preliminary work has been done, “and when soliciting he hoped the half-crowns and sovereigns would not be despised, because every money-earner should have an opportunity to contribute to a public hospital in which, when needed, payer or non-payer, black and white, people of every nation or any creed, would be equally treated.”

(The “black and white” reference is extraordinary in a very racist district that did not allow Aborigines to live within the town of Bega until 1967).

Alderman Manning seconded the motion, and the following names were approved with the clergy represented by the Very Reverend Dean Healy and Reverend G Spencer, the medical fraternity by Doctors Evershed, Mackenzie and Marshall. Prominent citizens - H Wren, Forbes, Manning, Peden, Braine, Wood, Kerrison, D Gowing, C T Stiles, J D'Arcy, French, A J S Scott, N S W Scott, C Harrison and T Rawlinson completed the committee. It was agreed that the co-operation of the surrounding districts be solicited and a committee be formed in the several townships to act in conjunction with the Bega committee. Leslie Macarthur consented to act as secretary and A J S Scott as treasurer. It was resolved to report progress a month hence.

Mr Braine, who had been so critical of Mr Macarthur now proposed a vote of thanks to him for reviving an interest in this important business and this was carried by acclamation, but Mr Bland also moved that the old committee and Mr Forbes be recognised for what they had done. It was dusk as people left the meeting at which the outsider, Leslie Macarthur, through his very detailed work, had finally persuaded the citizens of Bega to start building a hospital. It must be pointed out that probably none, or very few of the men at the meeting or their families, would use the hospital. They would do, as they had always done, ask the doctor to come and treat then at their homes. The hospital would be for their servants, their workers, their farm labourers, the poor and the needy. As Mr Macarthur had earlier pointed out, the middle-class were very suspicious of hospitals, and the men at the meeting were very much the upper middle-class in Bega.

Chapter 2