Royal Newcastle on the move

City icon closes after 189 years

Royal Newcastle Hospital closed its doors last month after 189 years of continuous operation.

Originally built by and for convicts, the Royal Newcastle is thought to be Australia’s oldest hospital still on its original site – a hill between the ocean and port.

Since 1817 the hospital has been a focal point for the town of Newcastle, residents of the Hunter Valley and visiting ships’ crews.
However from this month patients and most staff will shift to a new facility at John Hunter hospital 10km away. Some clinics will move to a new polyclinic in Hunter St.

Right up until closing, Royal Newcastle still operated 111 acute beds and 24 transitional care beds as well as in patients.

‘It’s been a great building to work in and we are sorry to be going,’ said Terry Bellamy, secretary of the Nurses’ Association branch at the hospital.

‘We have a beautiful view of the beach and sea breezes which lift the mood and spirit of the staff, patients and visitors’ said Terry, a 15-year veteran of the hospital.

‘The location has been great for patients too. People with infections seem to get better quicker, perhaps because the salt air kills the bugs or the psychology of a room with a water view, or a combination of both.’

Terry said the building was damaged in the 1989 earthquake and would be demolished.

‘It’s a great shame because the craftsmen who built it were master builders. You can go up to the 7th floor and put a string line down and everything is perfectly straight.’

The Royal, a history of the hospital by Susan Marsden and Cynthia Hunter, recently published by Hunter New England Area Health Service, records significant changes in the working lives of nurses.

The Royal describes how titles, training, uniforms, marital status and even the gender composition of nursing staff changed markedly between the late 1960s and late 1980s.

The hospital became a training school for nursing aides in 1967. Aides were nicknamed ‘canaries’ because they wore bright yellow uniforms and white caps to distinguish them from nurses.

In the late 1960s the Royal allowed nursing trainees to study theory in hospital time, and reduced the four-year training period to three.

‘By 1970, a graduating nurse had more than 10 times the amount of formal theoretical training of a 1940s trainee,’ the book notes.
‘Student nurses numbered 245 by 1971, but the education changes worsened a shortage of nurses. In response, the hospital recruited former nurses, although this was resented by staff nurses. Ill will was exacerbated by having the “casuals” wear different caps.’

A hospital directory published as late as 1986 identified eight categories of nursing staff: senior (grey suit or pink dress); registered charge nurse (blue dress, white collar); registered nurse (blue dress); registered male nurse (blue jacket, navy trousers); enrolled nurse (yellow dress); trainee nurse (mauve and white striped dress); trainee male nurse (white jacket, grey trousers); and trainee nurse, Newcastle College of Advanced Education (magenta dress or suit, and light blue dress or suit).

‘The educational changes underlined the greatest shift of all: abandonment of the Nightingale system,’ The Royal says.

‘Until the mid-1960s trainees and registered nurses were required to resign when they married – despite the serious loss of staff this represented.

‘As living-in requirements were loosened and social attitudes changed, married nurses were retained; by the 1980s many were married, even trainees.’

Royal celebrations

The Royal Newcastle Hospital (RNH) was farewelled with the launch of a fellowship, which its patrons hope will serve to keep the spirit and values of the hospital alive.

The Royal Newcastle Hospital Memorial Fellowship will be awarded annually and, according to patron Dr Peter Hendry, will be ‘… awarded on the basis of innovative and outstanding performance in health scholarship, clinical achievement and health related services’.

The Fellowship was created jointly by the RNH Heritage Committee, Hunter New England Health and the University of Newcastle to honour the role the RNH played in the improvement of healthcare for the Hunter Valley and beyond.