IN every sense it’s a tale of life and death. The crumbling sandstone, Victorian-epoch edifice, once one of the most significant buildings in the entire region, stands atop an elevated rise overlooking the now city it catered to for almost three quarters of a century.
For years it has lain forlorn and largely forgotten, its empty corridors and darkened rooms echoing with whispers of a history filled with equal parts heartache and happiness.
Its revival though is but a heartbeat away.
The Queanbeyan District Public Hospital of 1861 provided medical services, such as they were, to the wider area – including early Canberra – until superseded in 1933.
It was the second establishment to fulfil the role, though the first, the Benevolent Asylum of 1847, was more a private affair and received no government love.
The asylum had been instigated by a posse of committed townsfolk, among them the first police magistrate, Capt Alured Tasker Faunce, on his property, the perhaps now not terribly PC, “Irishtown” – essentially where the Queanbeyan Golf Course is located today. Primitive to say the least, it was run in conjunction with the similarly ramshackle local lock-up, little more than a rudimentary timber shack from which the prisoners regularly escaped.
The gaoler of the time was a fellow by the name of William Rusten; his wife, Mary, was appointed as the town’s first matron – and, by all accounts, a remarkable woman described as possessing “many estimable qualities, an attentive nurse and a trustworthy public servant… one who discharged the duties of matron faithfully and efficiently”.
On the opening of the “new” District Hospital in Collett Street, Queanbeyan, she became a permanent fixture there, remaining in situ for 21 years before dying in the very place where she so ably attended so many others.
Rusten House, the still lovely building now named for her, was constructed of hand-hewn stone quarried some 35 kilometres away and offering 16 beds with separate male and female wards.
Plentiful tales of madness, mayhem, disease and disaster continue to haunt it, giving an idea of the harshness of life in those early times – and the swiftness of death. While there was obviously many a birth and occasional stories of survival, as with so many of those facilities in that period, it was literally a waiting room for the graveyard. Electricity wasn’t even connected until 1921!
Giving voice to the notion that odds-on for survival were not that flash, in its first years of operation, for four years in a row, a total of 11 patients were admitted and, in each of those years, four of them died – one, a Joseph Cooper, not even making it as far as a bed, actually expiring on the doorstep.
A year after the creation of the nation’s capital, in 1914 the doors of its first medical facility were opened at Acton. The Canberra Hospital possessed a mere eight beds and services were apparently well below par as Queanbeyan remained the hub, particularly when it came to delivering babies. In fact, so many Canberrans continued to cross the border to utilise Queanbeyan’s services that in the 1920s, the council proposed charging a higher fee for all interlopers contributing unduly to the town’s lengthy waiting lists!
Many a famous patient was also treated within, including war historian extraordinaire Charles Bean (not combat inflicted); he left with his health restored… and his soon-to-be bride, Sr Ethel “Effie” Young.
By 1933, it could no longer cater to growing demand and the “new”, “new” Southern District Hospital with its 25 beds was constructed. Declared in the “Sydney Morning Herald” of the time as “one of the finest in the State”, it would meet its demise 75 years later to make way for the “new”, “new”, “new” hospital in 2008.
For a time the old faithful continued to serve as nurses’ quarters and then in ancillary roles, but for any number of years now its insides have remained unseen by the greater public it so nobly served.
Heritage-listed, there has been an ongoing strong advocacy campaign, but inevitably finance has long been the issue. Now NSW government funding and a further contribution of $550,000 earmarked as part of the Stronger Communities Fund will see it transformed into a vibrant regional arts hub and community space, returning it to its former glory and delivering for the greater good once more.
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based author, social historian and journalist.