Ministering Angels, the Camden District Red Cross, 1914-1945.
Author Ian Willis
Publisher: Camden Historical Society
Ministering Angels ‘is an example of innovative and groundbreaking work in local history, and succeeds in demonstrating a new way of linking detailed local studies to larger themes in Australian history’. Dr Emma Grahame (Editor, Australian Feminism: A Companion, OUP, 1998. Editor, Dictionary of Sydneyhttp://www.dictionaryofsydney.org, 2007-2012)
Ministering Angels is a peer-review publication that tells the story of conservative country women doing their patriotic duty in an outpost of the British Empire. From 1914 Camden district women joined local Red Cross branches and their affiliates in the towns and villages around the colonial estate of the Macarthur family at Camden Park.
They sewed, knitted and cooked for God, King and Country throughout the First and Second World Wars, and during the years in-between. They ran stalls and raffles, and received considerable community support through cash donations from individuals and community organisations for Red Cross activities.
Using the themes of soldier and civilian welfare, patriotism, duty, sacrifice, motherhood, class and religion, the narrative explores how the placed-based nature of the Red Cross branch network provided an opportunity for the organisation to harness parochialism and localism for national patriotic purposes.
The work shows how a local study links the Camden district Red Cross with the broader issues within Australian history and debates involving local history, philanthropy, feminism, conservatism, religion and other areas, while at the same time illustrating the multi-layered nature of the issues that shape global, national and regional history that can impact rural volunteering.
The book delves into the story of how Camden’s Edwardian women, the Macarthur Onslows and others of their ilk, provided leadership at a local, state and national level and created ground-breaking opportunities that empowered women to exercise their agency by undertaking patriotic activities for the first time.
In their wake Camden women created the most important voluntary organisation in district history, a small part of the narrative of the Australian Red Cross, arguably the country’s most important not-for-profit organisation. Their stories were the essence of place, and the success of the district branches meant that over time homefront volunteering became synonymous with the Red Cross.
Ministering Angels is a local Red Cross study of volunteering in war and peace that provides a small window into the national and transnational perspectives of one of the world’s most important humanitarian organisations.
The conference proceedings began on Day One with a traditional welcome to conference delegates at the Waipapa Marae within the grounds of the University of Auckland.
The conference covered a number of themes ranging from museums, to influenza, public health, medical research, women’s health, vaccination, biography, tropical disease, medicine and war, childbirth, non-western medicine, and others.
There were over 110 papers covering a range of challenging and stimulating topics that crossed the boundaries from clinical matters from the past to more general histories. Medical history attracts a cross-disciplinary cohort ranging from clinicians, practitioners, historians of various stripes, archivists, museum professionals and others. The discipline has a transnational following that was reflected in delegates from around the globe including Korea, UK, USA, Australia, Philippines, Canada, Russia, and the host New Zealand.
The keynote speakers represented the transnational nature of the conference and the cross-disciplinary following of the research area. From the University of Exeter there was Mark Jackson’s ‘Life begins at 40: the cultural and biological roots of the midlife crisis’ where he argued that this concept and experience is a product of the lifestyle of the 20th century. Nursing historian Christine Hallett’s ‘Between ivory tower and marketplace: the Nurses of Passchendaele project and the perils of public history’ argued that the desire of community engagement and university agendas has led to debates about the nature of public history. Yale University’s Naomi Rogers examined health activism in the USA in her paper ‘Between ivory tower and marketplace: the Nurses of Passchendaele project and the perils of public history’ and finally the University of Auckland’s Derek Dow reflected on evolution and revolution in the history of medicine since the 1960s in ‘Inert and blundering: one medical historian’s odyssey 1969-2019’.
I presented a paper called ‘A helping hand: Red Cross convalescent homes in New South Wales, 1914-1916. In this paper I argue that the military medical authorities and the patriotic funds were poorly prepared for the outbreak of war and failed to come to grips with the issue for months. The newly established Red Cross stepped into the breach and undertook groundbreaking work in the area of soldier convalescence, initially with homestays and then eventually establishing the first dedicated convalescent homes in New South Wales.
The power of the past in the present
The European past of New Zealand is front and centre within the grounds of the University of Auckland. There are a number of important heritage buildings linked to the period when Auckland was the nation’s capital. The outstanding example is the Old Government House at the bottom of the campus surrounded by pleasant gardens and lawns.
Walking around Auckland Harbour precinct I was struck by the vibrancy of the city. In part from the upcoming 2021 America’s Cup Challenge and the growth of Pacific rim cities like Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco and Auckland. The city has a relaxed aesthetic with a dynamic youthfulness – just like a big country town. The huge cruise liners disgorge their passengers to spend up the high-end fashion outlets along Queen Street, all within sight of the longshore wharves and container terminal.
The city fathers have not lost sight of the past and have gone for adaptive re-use of old mercantile buildings in the Harbour precinct. There are some striking examples of heritage retention that could be models for town planners in Australian cities and towns.
Tourism can provide these benefits if handled with sensitivity and an understanding that the visitor is seeking evidence of authenticity and a genuine representation of the past. The city precinct demonstrates that heritage and history does not have to sacrificed in the search for economic prosperity and job creation.
The next prominent owner was Sydney banker and philanthropist Thomas Walker acquiring the property from Nichols sons in the 1840s. He commissioned Sydney architect Edmund Blacket to design a large two-storey Victorian mansion called Yaralla house. Walker died in 1886 and left the estate in trust to his only daughter Eadith.
Sydney architect Sir John Sulman was commissioned to extend the house to extend the house in the 1890s. He extended the second floor of the house and designed a number outbuildings including the dairy and stable buildings.
Yaralla House and the grounds are strikingly English-in-style and layout. The Arts and Crafts influenced Sulman buildings are set in idyllic setting of an English estate garden and park.
were sub-divided in 1908, 1912, and 1922, becoming estates of Federation and Californian bungalow homes built for soldiers after World War I.
Yaralla House was the ‘hub of Sydney society’ in the Interwar period, according to the Dictionary of Sydney. Eadith Walker who lived at the house during this period was a famous Sydney philanthopist and held many charity events on the property.
Yaralla House was a convalescent hospital after the Second World War and then fell into dis-repair. Much conservation work has been carried out in recent decades.
The property had many important visitors over the years from royalty to the vice-regal.
A ‘secret’ walking trail
The area has a ‘secret’ walking trail along the Sydney Harbour Foreshore. Well known to locals. Little known to outsiders. The walkway includes the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway from Rhodes Railway Station to Concord Hospital (800 metres). It is all part of the Concord Foreshore Trail. This walk is described this way on the City of Canada Bay walks website:
This historic and peaceful walk stretches from McIlwaine Park in the Rhodes to Majors Bay Reserve in Concord. The route encircles the mangrove-fringed Brays Bay, Yaralla Bay and Majors Bay on the Parramatta River and goes around the former Thomas Walker Hospital ( a heritage listed building), Concord Repatriation General Hospital and the historically significant Yaralla Estate (one of the oldest estates in Sydney dating back to the 1790’s).
Fresh air was the order of the day for patients at the newly opened Carrington Centennial Hospital for Convalescents and Incurables at Camden in 1890. The hospital followed the latest methods in medical practice and building architecture from Victorian England based on the writings and approach advocated by Florence Nightingale.
Victorian England hospitals
By the late 19th century Victorian England had over 300 Convalescent hospital. They were one of a variety of specialist hospitals that appeared in Victorian England. They included consumptive hospitals, fever hospitals, ophthalmic hospitals, lying-in hospitals, venereal disease hospitals, orthopaedic hospitals, lunatic asylums, fistula infirmary, invalid asylums, as well as those catering for different groups of people for instance seamen’s hospitals, German hospital, children’s hospitals and others.
British historian Eli Anders states that in England convalescent homes were built as the seaside or in the countryside away from the dirty polluted cities. They were to be places of rest, nourishment and recuperation where there was plenty of fresh and healthy air. Medical practices dictated that fresh air and exercise were the order of the day.
Camden’s fresh country air
The location of Carrington fitted this model. It was located in the picturesque countryside with views over the Nepean River floodplain on a hill to catch lots of fresh country air. Camden was considered a healthy site away from the pollution and evils of industrial Sydney and the increased public health risks of the urban environment and issues with sanitation.
Carrington Hospital was the first major convalescent facility in New South Wales and followed design principles espoused by Florence Nightingale. Historian Eli Anders states that Nightingale wrote in her Notes on Nursing and Notes on Hospitals that she was an advocate for ventilation and proper site selection. She promoted the ‘healthfulness’ of convalescent hospitals in the countryside and on the edge of towns where they took advantage of fresh country air. Similar advantages could be achieved by a seaside location.
At the heart of this idea was miasma theory which stated that some diseases such as cholera, chlamydia or Black Death were cause by ‘bad air’. The theory stated that epidemics were due to a miasma started from rotting organic matter. The theory originated from the ancients in places like China, India and Europe and was only displaced by germ theory in the 1880s, which stated that germs caused diseases. Despite this popular culture retained a belief in ‘bad air’ and stated the urban areas had to clean up waste and get rid of bad odours. These ideas had encouraged Florence Nightingale’s activities in the Crimean War where she worked to make hospitals sanitary and fresh smelling. These ideas also had a major influence on Sydney and the outbreak of Black Death (bubonic plague) in 1900 after urban renewal process that followed in suburbs like The Rocks and Millers Point.
Convalescent homes were often built by philanthropists and charitable organisations. Carrington Hospital was built by Sydney philanthropist and businessman WH Paling (1825-1895), who immigrated with his family to Sydney in 1853. Paling ran a music business importing pianofortes and sheet music, and was an entertainment promotor and composer during the heyday of the gold rushes. His business success allowed him to pursue his political and philanthropic interests. Paling was an alderman on Petersham Municipal Council and mayor, a member of the Royal Society and a director the Mercantile Mutual Insurance Company. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states
His far-sighted preoccupation with questions of sanitation, health and hospital accommodation culminated in his presentation to the colony on 23 April 1888 of his 450-acre (182 ha) model farm Grasmere at Camden, valued at £20,000, to be used as a hospital for convalescents and incurables; he also donated £10,000 for the erection of suitable buildings. A public committee led by Sir Henry Parkes raised a further £15,000 for equipment and development at the Carrington Convalescent Hospital on the site.
The hospital site was purchased in 1881 from Camden Park by a syndicate of WH Paling, AH McCullock, Benjamin James Jnr and W Stimson containing 5100 acres. It was part of the North Cawdor Farms sale which also included a number of Camden Town blocks. The sale had a number of conditions and was not finalised until 1888. In the meantime Paling developed his Grasmere Estate farms. He established a Deed of Gift in 1888 with Lord Carrington was president of the hospital and chair of the general committees and himself as vice president.
The hospital was named after Lord Carrington, Governor of New South Wales (1885-1890), who served from on the centenary of the foundation of the colony.
Late Victorian Queen Anne Revival
The 89 bed hospital (49 male, 40 female) was designed by Sydney architect HC Kent and constructed by building contractor P Graham. The NSW State Heritage Inventory states:
It is representative of a late Victorian institutional building and is also representative of hospital building techniques (including setting) of the time. Main building of late Victorian eclectic style is brick on concrete foundations with cement dressings in the super structure and tower.
The main building is considered to be an excellent example of a Late Victorian Queen Anne Revival style. There were also additional buildings which included gardeners cottage, Masonic cottage, morgue, and Grassmere Cottage. There were extensive landscape gardens in a general Victorian layout with a carriage loop and flower bed.
In England convalescent facilities were very good and were better than home life conditions for many poor people. The idea with convalescent hospital were that the patients spent weeks recovering away from their home. Rich people who hired their own doctors to treat them during illness or convalescence. They paid to recuperate in a seaside health resort or travel to a spa centre. Convalescent homes were seen as superior to hospitals because they were different from dreary wards. Supporters advocated their calming and home-like qualities with libraries, games rooms and sitting rooms.
Ventilation and fresh air
The Illustrated Sydney News stated that the Carrington Hospital is located on a hill overlooking Camden to take advantage of ‘fresh air’ with ‘ventilation in the sleeping and living rooms’. The ventilation in the buildings was planned by Sir Alfred Roberts and based on Prince Alfred Hospital. The convalescence patients will be able to ‘sit outside and enjoy the lovely view and balmy health giving air’. The garden had ‘comfortable shady seats, where patients can wander about and rest at will, is of great importance, as also the verandahs where they can obtain exercise in wet weather, and the large sitting or day rooms’. There is the pleasant ‘park-like appearance’ of the countryside around Camden which ‘is very English in its character’. Patients will be able to recuperate for ‘two or three weeks’ rest and proper food that would mean so very much to them just at this stage…They are free to revel in the country scenes and sounds and rest awhile from the bustle of life’.
The Sydney press stated that the aims of the hospital
are, that persons recovering from acute illness may benefit by a short residence in the healthful climate of Camden, and a plentiful use of the farm products from the estate ; and further, that persons suffering from incurable diseases may have their lives prolonged and their sufferings alleviated by the above-named advantages. (Illust Syd News)
Lord Carrington lays foundation stone
The Governor of New South Wales Lord Carrington laid a foundation stone in February 1889 in front of a crowd of over 2000 people. A special train came from Redfern and was met at Camden Railway Station by well over 1000 people. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River Gazette reported that Camden Station was ‘gaily decorated’ with a string of flags. Lord Carrington arrived by train from Moss Vale and he was met at the home by Sydney dignatories who were members of the management committee and trustees. The report noted that hot and cold running water would be laid on throughout the building.
Carrington Convalescent Hospital opened on 20 August 1890 and the first matron was Miss McGahey who resigned in 1891 to take a position as matron at Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She was followed by Matron Kerr, then Matron Blanche Bricknell in 1897 who served until 1907.
The 1898 7th annual report in the Camden News stated that the hospital had treated 1153 in the previous 12 months with the annual cost of each bed being £35/8/9d. The meeting discussed the reluctance of patients to contribute the cost of their stay. During the year Sister Elenita Williams had been succeeded by Sister Edith Carpendale. Nurses Bertha Davidson and Eva Thomson had been succeeded by Nurses Lily BanfieId and Theresa Richardson. Mr JR Fairfax and Major JW Macarthur Onslow were elected the management committee by subscribers.
The 1900 annual report in the Camden News stated that the hospital had treated 1040 patients in the previous year with the average number of patients 75. The average patient stay was 28 days at a cost of £2/10/11d. The hospital shut its emergency section when the Camden Cottage Hospital opened during the year and Camden medical officers acted in an honorary capacity.
First major convalescent hospital
Carrington Hospital was the first major convalescent hospital in New South Wales and its surrounding buildings and gardens are list on the Camden Local Environment Plan Heritage Inventory (Item 118). Carrington Hospital is significance in that it is, along with Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital, one of only two remaining functional purpose built late 19th century convalescent hospitals in New South Wales.