CURE IN THE CLOUDS; THE OLD SANATORIUM

In 1903 tuberculosis was rife in Australia, as it was  in much of the world.  The Queen Victoria Sanatorium was established at a remote area near Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.   The property  on Burragarong Road  (now Tablelands Road) had been owned by  businessman  Sir Kelso King, and the old homestead with its bullnosed veranda remained at the centre of  the extensive  institution.

 

Queen Victoria TB sanatorium, Wentworth Falls

Nucleus of the sanatorium, the old homestead.

A journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald visited soon after the opening;

It would be difficult to imagine any public institution more scrupulously clean or in more perfect order than this sanatorium.  As to precautions in the first place, patients are forbidden to expectorate anywhere but in the pocket flasks provided for the purpose. Should this rule be broken and a patient seen expectorating about the grounds he is liable to instant dismissal.

Pocket sputum flask ued by sanatorium patients.

Example of pocket flask used by sanatorium patients.

Every day the contents of the flasks plus the first rinsing water was packed in sawdust and burned in a small crematorium in the grounds. There was also liberal use of Jeyes Fluid, carbolic soap and formalin.

Tuberculosis poster 1920's

Public awareness poster 1920s. (Wikipedia)

 

The Queen Victoria Crematorium at Wentworth Falls

Was this building with its twin flues the old crematorium?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fresh air of the mountains was considered therapeutic.  For this reason the  wards  and individual chalets were designed to be open to the elements.

Patient in a chalet at the Queen Victoria sanatorium near Wentworth Falls

Bed rest patient in one of the chalets at the sanatorium.

The matron, Miss Mulholland,  told the journalist  that in wet weather the nurses often had to wear rubber boots while doing their rounds. Fires were rarely lit, and even then the patients were not allowed to sit near them.  Those well enough  were sent off on long walks, armed with their trusty sputum flasks.

By now the man from the Herald was beginning to feel horrified by the whole  regime of treatment;  ‘In winter, I suppose, warm or tepid water is allowed for bathing?’ I asked. ‘Oh, no’ replied the matron cheerfully. ‘Our patients take cold baths only, and these every morning.’

 

Old TB sanitorium at Wentworth Falls

Oh those cold baths!

One consequence of having sanatoriums (The Queen Victoria was one of two)  located at Wentworth Falls  was that the town did not develop as quickly as neighbouring Katoomba and Leura.  People were fearful of contracting tuberculosis. In 1912 The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on real estate in the Mountains. It reported  a move by locals  to build a railway platform between Lawson and Wentworth Falls for the exclusive use of T.B. patients, and even to change the name of  Wentworth Falls station.

NOT JUST A HOSPITAL

Every effort was made to make  annual festivals and feast days memorable, and to lessen the anguish of being away from family and friends for protracted periods. Tuberculosis  was  then very difficult to cure. It was not uncommon for patients to be at the Queen Victoria for a year or two. Christmases were celebrated with games, concerts, euchre competitions and  traditional turkey and plum pudding dinners.

A moving Anzac Day service  was held in 1917.  Not surprisingly, there were a number of returned men in the  sanatorium at the time.

Ex-serviceman inmate of the sanatorium.

Because of its isolated location surrounded by bushland, the sanatorium was susceptible to  the threat of fires. On more than one occasion  patients had to join the battle to save  it.  The long, unsealed road was another problem, especially in winter. At one point it became impassable. Incoming passengers could not find  cab drivers willing to drive them from the Wentworth Falls station.

Unfortunately the work of the sanatoriums was undermined by snake oil salesmen offering quack cures.

In 1933 the following advertisement appeared in The Sun;

SANATORIUM PATIENT MAKES REMARKABLE RECOVERY

EXTRACT OF LETTERS FROM A PATIENT WHO WAS IN QUEEN VICTORIA SANATORIUM, WENTWORTH FALLS

‘I had been ill for seven years with T.B. in the lungs and hips. I spent three years at the Sanatorium, hemorrhaging  and steadily becoming worse, until the Superintendent told my people the kidney was affected, and it was nearing the end. My sister, who is a nurse took me home to die. It was then I commenced using ‘Membrosus’. The improvement was astounding.  Within a few days the cough had eased. Within two months the abscess in the hip burst, giving wonderful relief. It gradually healed and I  was able to get about on crutches. The cough disappeared and I gained strength until eventually my doctors said  all trace of T.B. was out of my system and within two years after being given up as dying I opened a small business.’

During the Second world war there were severe staff shortages at sanatoriums and The Queen Victoria was no exception. The cook left  and with sixty patients and twelve staff members, two of the nurses had to take over in the kitchens. Some of the ambulatory patients helped out with the care of those still at the  bed-rest stage.

THE SANATORIUM TODAY

There is a misapprehension that the institution was a mental asylum.  It attracts vandals and ‘ghost’ hunters, hence the tight security. It looks a bit like an internment camp.

Abandoned Queen Victoria sanatorium, near Wentworth Falls.

Let’s hope it never needs to reopen!

Baby boomers reading this might remember their parents dutifully heading off for their  annual TB chest x-rays  in the 1950s and  early 60s. There was a best selling book at the time by American Betty McDonald called The Plague and I.  It was on our bookshelf and at the age of about ten  I read with horrified fascination.

TB screening poster

TB Screening Poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those x-rays certainly paid dividends, as the disease has been almost eliminated in Australia.   Nevertheless it is believed  that a third of the world’s population is infected with tuberculosis.

 

Map of TB incidence worldwide

Let’s maintain that beautiful blue. (photo from Wikipedia)

 

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7 Comments
  1. That’s another good early history article. I can remember having my T.B. skin test. A young woman, who came from out west, to where I was living when I was studying in Brisbane, was diagnosed with having active T.B. All of the boarders in the same building had to be tested and the whole place was sterilized over a period of days. Even the bed bases and closets were done. The young woman survived so we heard. We took the incident in our stride and over the ensuing decades, I didn’t show any signs of having caught the dreaded disease.

    • Pauline

      My cousin was in a sanatorium in Tasmania for a long time. She was always a bit delicate afterwards. I can imagine the panic in a boarding school!

  2. I remember having my TB x-ray, in the mid 60s, at a building on the corner of Crown and Fitzroy Streets, Surry Hills (next to, or part of, the Crown Street Women’s Hospital).

  3. A very interesting read! One of hubby’s ancestors, Charles Henry Randall, was discharged from the 1st Light Horse Brigade and was returned to Australia with TB. He was admitted to the other sanatorium at Wentworth Falls (Red Cross) in 1917 and sadly died 4 years later.

    I remember reading “The Plague and I” by Betty MacDonald. All her books were a firm favourite with my mother, sister and I when we were growing up.

    • Pauline

      Oh dear, I think there were a lot of soldiers in that situation, so sad. The Red Cross sanatorium was Boddington. I remember reading The Egg and I (I bought a copy in French a couple of years ago when we were in Lille) and Onions in the Stew.

  4. Thanks for the article. Readers may be interested in Delia Falconer’s novel ‘The Service of Clouds’, some of which is set in Wentworth Falls sanatorium. And now I know what the flasks look like!

    • Pauline

      Oh, I adored that book, Brendan. I will add a mention of it to the article.

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