Among the extensive archive collections at Ashburton Museum is the original Ashburton Hospital Admission Register. Covering the period 1882 to 1908, it contains over 3500 entries that shed light on patients, treatments, lives (and deaths) of many people from Ashburton.
A major project has been to transcribe these records, now that enough time has passed that their content can be made available to researchers. Now completed, this transcription will become a useful resource for those seeking information about some of the people who lived in the district during those years.
Establishing the hospital
A tender of £5022.10.0 was accepted in July 1879 for building the Ashburton County Hospital at the west end of the Domain, the same site that it occupies today.
The sketchy diagram of the new hospital scarcely does justice to the long and detailed description that appeared in the Ashburton Guardian on November 1, 1879:
‘The building presents a very compact and elegant appearance . . . spacious passages . . .the brick work being tastefully relieved with Oamaru stone . . . a pleasant lounge for convalescents, out-door patients , or visitors’
It was in part, a two storied building containing two public six bed wards, one each for men and women and six private rooms, plus the usual offices for a hospital, kitchen, laundry and operating room.
However in November 1882, the Inspector of Hospitals wrote a damning report saying the hospital was, ‘badly planned and ill-constructed.’ He then went on to identify its shortcomings in some detail.
Staffing was minimal, initially only a Master and Matron. They had to be a married couple as professional qualifications were not a prerequisite for the positions.
The first couple to hold this position were a Mr and Mrs Madden, whose previous experience had been at Sunnyside Asylum in Christchurch and Timaru Hospital.
Convalescent patients provided some help with domestic chores and treatment was not necessarily free. Those who could, were expected to pay £1 a week in the public wards and £2 for a private room. In 1889 a woman had her charges reduced from 10 to 5 shillings per day as a result of the cooking and cleaning she undertook. In 1894 a man was discharged for ‘declining to help’.
Dr James Ebenezer Trevor was the first medical superintendent, initially an honorary position
he held until 1905. He combined that role with his own medical practice and was one of three doctors in the town.
No official opening of the hospital was ever reported, but in a news item in the Ashburton Guardian in July 1880, Dr Trevor announced that as the hospital was ‘now taking medical emergency cases’ they would no longer have to travel to Christchurch.
In his unpublished medical history of the Ashburton district, Dr Maurice Otley (an Ashburton GP, 1947 – 1972) noted that in 1878 twenty-six patients from Mid Canterbury had undertaken that long journey over indifferent roads to Christchurch for hospital treatment. He made no mention of how many survived the trip, let alone what success attended their subsequent treatment.
Those early years did not see much use of services – the Ashburton Hospital Journal Centennial Issue (1880 – 1980) quotes 20 patients in the first year, increasing to 200 by 1890.
After 1900, end-of-month figures for males and females were included in the Register.
These indicate patients fluctuated between twelve and seventeen at any one tme, with the ratio of males to females being approximately 5:1. Children were not recorded separately.
However these numbers are not a true indication of those in the district requiring medical treatment. There were quite a few alternatives for those needing nursing care and for these we have no records.
Many of the small nursing homes, sometimes dignified by the title ‘hospital’, were in private residences and only catered for two or three patients.
In 1894 a Mrs Hooper of Alford Forest Road advertised herself as a ‘Monthly Nurse who would be pleased to receive patients’, meaning she took maternity cases.
In July 1903 Nurse Cotton opened her private hospital ‘Holmwood’ in Tancred Street. In addition it was not uncommon for a doctor to use his own residence to provide some nursing services for his patients. More stories that the register reveals will be continued in the next article.
By Margaret Bean
- The County Hospital Hospital not long after its completion mid 1880. Note there are no lawns or trees visible
- A diagram of the hospital.
- Dr James Ebenezer Trevor, the first Medical Superintendent.
- Dr Tweed (1886 – 1896) used John Cambridge’s house in Burnett Street as a hospital for quite a few years.