In 1907, a former public house on the corner of Durham and Battersea Street, Sydenham, was opened as the first women’s maternity hospital in Christchurch. Founded by the Right Honorable Richard Seddon, his passion to improve the general health and child mortality saw a string of St. Helen’s Homes being built across New Zealand at this time. The name, St. Helen was taken from Seddon’s birthplace in Lancashire, near Liverpool in England. This sixteen bed hospital was to specifically provide care for respectable and married working class women.
Sydenham Hotel – a “most suitable institution in the colony for a maternity home”
Originally built as the Sydenham Hotel in 1890, the temperance-strong borough saw that its license was revoked within the year after the committee felt that “the licensing of a premises in that neighbourhood was not needed.” Indeed, this neighbourhood could not have been more of a teetotaller stronghold and, with the Salvation Army Barracks just down the road sorting out the dysfunctions of families suffering from the effects of alcohol, it was definitely not wanted. It is believed that the hotel stood empty up until 1907, when the government purchased it and the Christchurch Hospital Board took it over. The building’s state had fallen into disrepair and many believed its decrepitness made it unsuitable for a maternity hospital,
“.. a building twenty five years old, situated on eighteen perches of land, and built out on to the street… purchased for one thousand or seven hundred pounds more than it was valued at… the floor of the large room had to be entirely removed, and some of the joists were so rotten that they had to be taken away and good timber pinned on so as to make the place sound enough to nail boards on.. it was one of the most unsuitable places that could have been chosen…it was a very old dilapidated building standing in the the typhoid area of Sydenham and placed at the corner of a busy street, where carts rumbled by all day, and alongside the Salvation Army barracks, where they banged the drum all evening..” 1
The Hon. G. Fowlds disagreed “with every word…at the present time, it was the best equipped and most suitable institution in the colony for a maternity home.”
Putting an end to inadequately supervised births
Seddon was keen to see midwives given the latest training and skills so that women of the working class could have safer deliveries in a sanitary and professional environment instead of cramped, sometimes unhygienic homes. This would go some way towards ending the often tragic effects of inadequately supervised labours, such as that of Amelia Isaacs and her baby. See: Cinnamon Cures and Cosmetic Concoctions at Townsend’s Chemist.
Throughout New Zealand, St Helen’s State maternity hospitals were under the charge of the Assistant Inspector of Hospitals, and at this time it was Nurse Hester Maclean, an Australian appointed in 1906. She was not in favour of opening the hospitals in existing buildings which were then adapted to the purpose, and minimally equipped. Never the less she went about the task of supervising the fitout assisted by the hospital’s first matron, Miss Helen Inglis, who lived in a cottage beside the hospital.2
This photograph taken on the day the hospital opened shows a simple wooden, corner building. On the upper storey balcony stands a party of men and women responsible to the opening of the hospital. It may be concluded that the two nurses, Inglis and Mclean are amongst the group.
The formality of the party of twelve men and women posing on the balcony is lessened (unbeknownst to them) by a cheeky barefooted boy who has unceremoniously scaled the balcony’s post for the photograph. His boots have been left on the road, beside the waiting limousine and the Minister’s chauffeur. An elderly man and his wife stroll passed on the right, and thinking no one is looking, the man bends over to take a look inside the shrouded windows.
This upper storey was devoted solely for the women patients and their babies. The large, partially enclosed balcony was designed for convalescents, while further back into the building was a large nursery, bathroom, lavatories and operating room. At the rear of the hospital was the living accommodation for the nurses.
For a time, Matron Inglis was assisted by sub-matron, Miss McKenzie. Both women had been trained at the Glasgow Maternity Hospital, in Scotland.
“Most convenient and in exactly the right district”
After two cases of septicaemia (blood poisoning) had occurred at the hospital in 1908, and in one case the patient had died, the hospital closed for a short period while it was thoroughly disinfected and cleaned. When asked, Matron Inglis view was that after 400 patients having passed through the institution in one year, the loss of one patient, meant that there could not be much wrong with the institution. She described it as ‘most convenient and in exactly the right district’. As a rule, she said, patients enjoyed hearing the music from the neighbouring Salvation Army band, and in the evening there was far less traffic in the streets than reports appeared to indicate. It was a quiet street, and not on the tram line.3
Sub-matron McKenzie retired in 1908 to take up private nursing.
A Special Gathering
A very special gathering at St Helen’s Maternity Hospital was attended on the afternoon of the 18th March, 1909 by 200-250 mothers and an equal number of babies who had been born at the Institution.
Since its opening two years previously, 495 babies had been born under its roof, with only one case of maternal death and six infants. Ten nurses had also been put through a course of training.
The guests were received in the garden attached to the hospital where they had afternoon tea and showed off their babies to staff. Nearly 100 ‘perambulators’ crowded the yard, which also contained the weighing machine. 4
This photograph records the event. It was proof of the services the hospital had provided as well as an exquisite display of precious babies dressed in a sea of lace and cotton gowns. On September 27, 1911 the hospital celebrated the birth of its thousandth baby. As the number of births increased, the hospital was added to considerably under the directorship of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Matron Inglis left the hospital in 1910. After her long nursing career committed, the Christchurch born nurse retired in 1923, turning her attention to her love of flowers but never straying far from her involvement in nursing. Her strict discipline and careful training was said to be appreciated by the nurses who trained under her.
Prior to World War I, Hester Maclean worked towards the building of a new hospital and had supervised the acquisition of a site. Plans were drawn up for the new facility, only to have the Great War and lack of funds thwart her plans.
At this time, the Matron was Australian trained Marie Cameron, a native of Wagga Wagga. On the outbreak of war, she enlisted and was appointed Matron of the 1st N.Z. Stationary Hospital. Her contingent subsequently travelling to Egypt. On the morning of October 23, 1915, as the hospital was being transferred to Salonika (Macedonia), their troopship, the ‘Marquette’, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat only a few miles from their destination. Lifeboats were lowered and, in the ensuring confusion, one lifeboat was lowered on top of another, killing four occupants. On the other side of the ship, as her lifeboat was being lowered, Matron Cameron was badly injured, her arm crushed between the ship and the lifeboat. She was then thrown out into the water and rescued from drowning by a young soldier, where she remained immersed for several hours, watching helplessly as her saviour drowned from cramp and exhaustion. Three Christchurch nurses died. In their memory the Nurses’ Memorial Chapel at Christchurch Hospital was built and dedicated. In 2008, descendants of Marie Cameron gifted her war medals to the Chapel.5
‘Dingy, decrepit, dark’
“The very fact that the Government gave an excessive price for a dilapidated shack in Sydenham for the purposes of a maternity home, and did this in the face of a unanimous medical prediction that puerperal blood-poisoning would surely endanger the mother and child life there, is an indictment of its capacity, and in the light of recent developments proves it to be really destitute of any regard for the rights of humanity.” — Mr James Thorn on the purchase of the St Helens Maternity Home, ‘Star’ 9 November, 1908.
The state of the building that held St Helen’s would be called into question many times over the years.
By 1929 the NZ Truth proclaimed St Helen’s akin to the ‘third-rate accommodation house.’ Its ‘shabby outer walls give a true indication of the dingy, decrepit, dark and congested interior’.
The interior walls had deteriorated to such as extent that it was now impossible to plaster walls and ceiling, most of which contained gaping cracks and crevices, according to opinion of one local master builder at the time. This required more fumigation to keep out germs than was necessary in any other maternity hospital in New Zealand. An outbreak of sepsis would prove difficult to keep in check.
Whilst the Matron and staff had a wonderful record of performance, they were ‘working on the crater of a volcano’ and women were ‘courting disaster’ if they used this institution, wrote the Christchurch correspondent of the ‘Truth”.
New Zealand mothers were being provided with first class mothercraft training and ante-natal instruction which had succeeded in reducing NZ’s infantile mortality rate to one of the lowest in the world.
Whilst Christchurch had a population of 120,000 people, St Helen’s could only accommodate fifteen patients at a time – all sharing one inadequate bathroom.
“The bedrooms are small, the outlook is dismal, rows upon rows of poor looking houses typical of the locality meeting the gaze, while the nursery is congested and the children do not get anything like the amount of air space which medical opinion declares is essential if they are to progress unhampered.
The hospital itself stands closely up to the road, resulting in patients having to be admitted straight off the street.
In such an unfavourable position, and right on the fringe of an industrial area, the patients are daily and nightly subjected to the thunderous roar of traffic and trains that pass within a few yards of the hospital.”
Month after month working class families were being turned away. The staff, consisting of a matron, sub-matron, three staff nurses and fifteen trainee nurses lived on site in ‘ramshackle houses’ or in rooms above a suburban store opposite the hospital.
In the year previous, they had admitted 377 women, had 356 confinements, attended 215 district cases, were involved in 2150 daily visits, and had 1800 visits to ante-natal clinics – which they were required to attend on bicycle in all kinds of weather. Despite the work load and the condition of the building, only six babied had been lost.
As self proclaimed ‘guardian of the public weal’ the ‘Truth’ called on the Ministry of Health to demolish St Helen’s and build a new hospital. They would be held responsible should any disaster happen at the hospital they claimed.6
From Maternity Hospital to Old People’s Home
In the 1950s, St. Helen’s Hospital moved to a brand new, purpose built maternity complex renamed Christchurch Women’s Hospital. This vast complex of buildings stretched between Colombo and Durham Streets (north of Salisbury Street) and was typical of the institutional architecture of that decade.
Christchurch Women’s operated as a hospital until the new Christchurch Women’s Hospital was constructed on the main Christchurch Hospital site in 2004.
St. Helen’s was purchased by the Canterbury Aged People’s Welfare Council Inc. who turned it into an old people’s home. It was named Langford House, after the council’s public relations officer, Thomas Langford who had “helped the Aged People’s Welfare Council considerably in conjunction with the City Council’s Housing Committee.”
Thirty men and women lived within the complex. The men occupied the former bedrooms and the old bar became their lounge. The women lived in the Nurses’ Home. After soaring costs proved the home was financially unviable, the home was closed on February 26th, 1981.
Over the years, the stripped-back and stucco-clad building had been reduced of any architectural significance. Offered up for auction, the purchaser demolished it in 1982 and the site became a car park for Leopard Coachlines until 1999. A commercial building was built on the site and it was used by an auto electrical firm and parking area, adjacent to the historic red brick Blackheath complex on Durham Street.
View Lost Christchurch in a larger map
- Source: Christchurch City Libraries ▲
- Source: Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences. Chapter IX. St Helens Hospital and other maternity hospitals. By Hester Maclean. NZETC. ▲
- Source: St Helens Hospital. Evening Post, Volume LXXVI, Issue 108, 3 November 1908, Page 4. ▲
- ‘Gathering of Babies’ Star , Issue 9495, 19 March 1909, Page 4. ▲
- Sources: Matron Marie Cameron. Kai Tiaki : the journal of the nurses of New Zealand, Volume XI, Issue 2, April 1918, Page 82. The New Zealand Medical Journal. The War Effort of New Zealand Chapter V. — New Zealand Army Nurses. ▲
- ‘MOTHERS AND BABES IN JEOPARDY’ NZ Truth , Issue 1220, 18 April 1929, Page 8. ▲