Parramatta’s first tent hospital: Far cry from today’s facilities


TODAY’S ultra-modern Westmead Hospital is a far cry from the first medical facility in Parramatta district which was commonly referred to as ‘the Tent Hospital’.

The Hospital stood to the north of where Jeffery House is now situated but was not literally a tent but was referred to as such because its ‘two long sheds’ were built in the form of a tent with a thatched roof.

According to the State Library’s ‘Dictionary of Sydney’, its construction was hastily completed to cope with the high morbidity rate of convicts in the district who typically worked long hours of hard labor with little or no food and lived in close, unsanitary conditions with almost none of life’s necessities.

The Tent Hospital could accommodate 200 people, but ‘this quickly proved inadequate as, in addition to injuries caused by corporal punishment in the form of floggings as well as violence between convicts, the convicts’ poor diet and living conditions caused a large percentage to fall gravely ill with dysentery and fever and even to die on the spot where they labored’. 

Disease was out of control and according to Captain Watkin Tench in November 1790, the Tent Hospital was ‘most wretched…totally destitute of every conveniency’.’

The powers that be were concerned as convicts were needed to do a lot of work around the colony, so it was important that they were kept healthy. However, the harsh and unhygienic conditions in which they lived and worked meant that convicts sometimes fell ill or suffered an injury.

Convicts suffered from influenza, ulcers, tuberculosis, colds, dysentery, pneumonia, inflammation, bruises, skin rashes and back pain. At work, convicts suffered broken bones, burns and cuts.

A brick hospital, 1792–1818

By December 1791 the population of Parramatta exceeded that of Sydney itself, prompting the construction of what was intended to be ‘a more permanent and commodious hospital befitting its role as the main hospital of the colony’.

Foundations made of locally sourced clay bricks were laid 100m from the riverbank behind the original Tent Hospital in April 1792. The ‘brick hospital, consisting of two wards, was finished’ by November 1792 and that same month, wrote David Collins, ‘the sick were immediately removed to it’.

The State Library reports a plan of the site dating from around 1792 and a drawing by visiting Spanish artist Fernando Brambila dated 1793, indicates there were numerous buildings that comprised the second hospital – as many as nine, including guards and surgeons’ houses, which were plastered and whitewashed.

The main building was also plastered and whitewashed and measured 80 feet long and 20 feet broad. ] The hospital’s two brick wards appear to have been placed a considerable distance apart, potentially indicating that they were used to treat male and female convicts separately.

The second hospital was a vast improvement from the ‘wretched’ Tent Hospital that Tench had seen in 1790, but the conditions of the brick hospital proved to be extremely poor. 

Though a stronger building material had been used in the construction of the hospital, limestone was unavailable and this meant the height of buildings was limited to 12 feet or 3.7m.

Another negative consequence of the lack of limestone was serious dilapidation of the structure, which was evident to David Collins who noted as early as 1798 that all the Government buildings of Parramatta ‘were so far decayed as to be scarcely able to support their own weight.’ 

 Governor Lachlan Macquarie thought it probable that the hospital walls would fall in 1809 and that any attempts to repair them would prove futile.

Convicts assigned to work

The State Library report said the convicts assigned to work in the hospital as overseers, wardsmen, gardeners, woodchoppers, and nurses also had negative consequences for patients. 

‘Typically, those assigned to do unpaid work in the hospital were ill-suited to hard labor due to their age and their own health issues, while the women who served as nurses did so as a form of punishment for misconduct. The result was ‘neglect of duty’ and frequent theft in a hospital that was already suffering from a lack of medical supplies.

Reverend Samuel Marsden described the hospital as being ‘open night and day for every infamous character to enter; there are no locks or bolts to any of the doors’ and the hospital also lacked a room for the deceased’.

The dead, wrote Marsden, ‘…lie in the room with the living patients.’ There was no lighting, and patients experienced distress over a lack of  ‘common necessaries…sugar, rice, tea and wine.’

Marsden concluded with his characteristic outrage, ‘I do not believe that there was ever such a place for want, debaucheries and for every vice as the general hospital at Parramatta’.

Assistant Surgeon Major West added that the roof leaked, windows were broken, the wood was rotten, the rationed meat was putrid and, in the absence of a mortuary, the dead bodies had begun to be placed in the passage between the two wards.

‘Indeed, the hospital’s reported disorderly manner of dealing with the deceased in this period is both confirmed and contradicted by the discovery during archaeological excavations carried out on site in 2006 of a shallow circular grave ‘immediately north of the southern boundary wall and immediately east of the 1790s storage cellar’.

Under Governor King, the convict hospitals strictly existed to treat prisoners and convicts assigned to settlers, people of the civil department and other government employees such as the military, all at the governor’s cost.

The lives of free settlers were put in jeopardy and at least one was lost as a result of these stipulations because surgeons either had to treat free settlers without receiving any fee or refuse to provide medical assistance.

The Colonial Hospital

The State Library reports: ‘At the request of Governor Macquarie, John Watts designed Parramatta’s third hospital for convicts, known as ‘The Colonial Hospital,’ which opened in 1818 on the site of the first two hospitals’. Things finally began to improve.

Heritage Courtyard

‘Parramatta’s original hospitals are commemorated in the form of the Heritage Courtyard at 160 Marsden St. Archaeological remains, artefacts, photographs, maps, sketches and primary source quotations are displayed along with historical information about the people and buildings that were associated with the Parramatta Hospital site, including the 1821 dwelling house, Brislington, which exists today.’

Source: State Archives: Dictionary of Sydney,

Author: admin

Spread the love
Scroll to Top