There are so many choices… For Laila it’s dropsy*, while Mark has a penchant for scurvy. But really, while this week’s Scratching Sydney’s Surface touches on the fascinating and somewhat gruesome ways people suffered and died in the 19th century, the topic to hand is the history of Australia’s oldest working hospital.

Sydney Hospital was built by convict labourers between 1811 and 1816 at the behest of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Commonly known as the ‘Rum Hospital’, it received its name because there was no money or will to pay for a new hospital from the powers that be in England. So Macquarie paid the contractors by way of a limited monopoly on the supply of liquor (i.e. rum) to the Colony.

Macquarie chose the hospital’s position high above the ridgeline on the eastern edge of the town, on a street he named after himself, because its aspect encouraged the circulation of air, seen to be beneficial for recovery. Comprised of three wings, each two storeys high, the Rum Hospital took up most of the eastern side of Macquarie Street between Hyde Park and the Botanic Gardens.

In the early days of the Colony, the Rum Hospital was a prominent landmark on the Sydney skyline and was a testament to Macquarie’s vision for the city. Its central wing was intended to accommodate up to 200 patients, either convicts or poor free settlers, while the wings on either side were to be used as accommodation for surgeons and staff. The hospital was far too big for the population of Sydney in the early 19th century, however, and by the 1850s the northern wing was being used as the Parliament House, while the southern wing was converted for use as Sydney’s Royal Mint.

Sydney Hospital
Sydney Hospital

By the early 1870s, conditions at the hospital were becoming dire, with outbreaks of typhoid becoming regular due to the building’s faulty drainage system. Members of Parliament next door complained about the smells coming from the sewers underneath the hospital, and there were reports that rats were attacking bodies in the mortuary. Evidently, going to Sydney Hospital was no guarantee of survival, and in fact was probably a speedy way to leave this mortal coil.

 The original convict-built central wing was demolished within the decade, although the new hospital designed by Thomas Rowe was not completed until 1894.  If you take a stroll down Macquarie Street, you can’t miss the central wing of Sydney Hospital: it’s a large, ornate Victorian Gothic sandstone pile nestled between the more restrained northern and southern wings of the former convict-built ‘Rum Hospital’. And if you are feeling brave of mind and heart, you can pop into the Lucy Osburn – Nightingale Foundation Museum to check out the display of nursing memorabilia & spooky anatomical specimens (although it’s only open on Tuesdays).

Lucy Osburn – Nightingale Foundation Museum
Open Tuesdays 10-3, Entry $5 Phone: 9372 7427


Plans are afoot to close this museum, so either rush along to see it, or support the fight to keep it open!

*Dropsy was the name given to a non-specific swelling of the soft tissue; today we’d call it oedema.