The Sydney Hospital Built By Rum

Dec 17, 2018 0 comments

Two hundred years ago, Sydney was little more than a convict camp in desperate need of infrastructure, supplies and a hospital. The long journey from Great Britain across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean in damp, unhygienic conditions of 18th-century convict ships left prisoners in poor health. Many arrived suffering from infectious diseases or other illnesses such as dysentery, smallpox, scurvy, and typhoid. One convict out of ten died during the voyage itself.

The situation in the colony was no better. There were no permanent buildings, only tents and temporary structures, one of which housed a basic and inadequately equipped hospital. Food was scarce and efforts at agriculture was met with failures. Not only prisoners, but officers themselves often went to bed hungry.


When British Army officer Major General Lachlan Macquarie arrived in Sydney as the new Governor of New South Wales in 1810, he decided to put things in order. First he drew up a street plan for Sydney, one that is still retained at the city center, and designed many of the colony's most prestigious buildings that stand on Macquarie Street today. One of these buildings was a hospital.

Macquarie asked the British Government for funds, but the Crown refused to finance any public works in the colony, and certainly not a hospital for treating convicts. So the governor struck a deal with two British merchants, Alexander Riley and Garnham Blaxcell, and the colonial surgeon D’Arcy Wentworth, granting them a three-year monopoly on the import of rum and spirits in exchange for the hospital. Macquarie supplied convict labour while the traders built the hospital which became popularly known as the ‘Rum Hospital.’

Unfortunately, Macquarie’s ambitious building program didn’t go well. They rum traders expected to recoup their expenses from the sale of rum, but their over optimistic speculation fell short by a wide margin, and as profit from the rum deal fell, so did the quality of workmanship. A convict architect instructed to report on the quality of the work found serious structural faults. When Macquarie ordered the contractors to repair these defects they simply hid them away. These were not discovered until the 1980s during restoration work.

The hospital was completed in 1816 and comprised of three groups of buildings, two of which survive today. The north and south wings were planned as accommodation for doctors and staff, but were surplus to requirements and were soon used for other things.


The central wing housed the infirmary. It was shoddily built, with poor foundations causing subsidence and rising damp. Its walls were built from rubble that provided an ideal home for rats, bedbugs and other vermin. Health care was minimal and archaic, and with practices such as blood-letting that was extensively practiced, it gave the Rum Hospital a bad reputation. Amputations were carried out without anesthesia, and dysentery and other diseases were treated with toxic substances such as mercury chloride. One cure for tuberculosis of the neck, as outlined in the notebook of surgeon William Redfern, involved rubbing the sores with a leg cut from a live toad, which he noted would “cause the parts to swell very much for about 12 hours, and give violent pain.” No wonder, the convicts dreaded going to the hospital which they had nicknamed the “Sidney Slaughter House”.

The hospital’s deteriorating central wing was eventually demolished in 1879 and a new hospital was built at the site. This hospital still stands.

The southern wing became the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint in 1854 and remained so until 1926. Today it houses the Sydney Mint Museum, that highlights the impact of the Gold Rush on New South Wales and the role of The Mint as a coining factory. The northern wing now houses the Parliament of New South Wales.


The Sydney Hospital today. Photo credit: Steve Miller/Flickr

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