By Murray Crawford

THE practice of beautifying bare hospital walls is a long-standing tradition here in Whanganui — one that continued recently with a $3000 donation from the Rotary Club of Wanganui North to buy art and photographs to brighten the wards.

The Chronicle reported — under the headline "Rotarians brighten hospital wards with donation for local art" — that Rotarian and Whanganui District Health Board surgeon John van Dalen was a strong believer in the uplifting power of art as a way of helping patients.

Similar efforts to encourage the recuperation of patients were made at the old Colonial Hospital, which stood on what is now Somme Parade, near St George's Gate.

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"Ornamenting the hospital" (Chronicle, August 7, 1883):

"Anyone interested in the hospital, and every ratepayer certainly ought to be interested, will be gratified at the pleasant and cheerful appearance which the building now presents inside and out, thanks mainly to the cheery exertions and personal time and trouble expended over the matter by the mayor and Hospital Committee.

"Yesterday the various wards were hung with a number of carefully selected and interesting framed pictures ... They include prints of domestic and historical subjects, animal life and Scotch lake and mountain scenery, and their appearance on the walls of the male and female wards cannot but materially aid the convalescence of the patients ...
"Amongst the pictures which now hang on the walls are a complete set of beautifully coloured copies of Raifaelle's cartoons."

These had been presented the previous year by a Mr James Phillips, "as a small expression of gratitude for the kindness and unremitting attention bestowed on him while he was an inpatient. When properly hung in conspicious places, these brightly coloured representations of memorable Scripture incidents will gladden the heart of many a sufferer."

The timing of the picture hanging is interesting, in that it came shortly after a scathing report from a government inspector who recorded: "The rooms have a somewhat bare and poverty stricken appearance. The walls and ceilings are very dirty and do not appear to have been whitewashed for many years.

"Straw palliases are provided, while the mattresses and pillows appear to be filled with a coarse kind of flax. Some of the beds are very loose and hollow in the middle."

Sanitary arrangements were described as "very defective". There was just one water closet, bandages and poultices were thrown into an old well and rubbish was thrown into a hollow in the ground.

Clearly, things had not much changed since 1867, sixteen years after the hospital was built, when a report listed major deficiences, including the danger of injury to patients from plaster falling from the ceiling.

Repairs were estimated at £445, more than the cost of the original building.
Four years later the Herald (August 30, 1871) referred to "that weather-beaten, leaky, cold, and dreary tenement, the hospital," in which it claimed visitors could have a shower every time it rained, "with the wind whistling through hundreds of little crevices on the pallid faces of the patients."

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The editor asked whether a small grant could be obtained to at least repair the roof. "Is there no one to have pity?" he implored.

Improvements were given the go-ahead in 1875, although serious reservations were held concerning the design.

"Should a death occur in the ward about to be constructed, the corpse must be carried through the present ward and the shock caused by the prominent display of the surroundings of death would probably exercise a highly injurious and probably fatal tendency." (Chronicle: September 4).

And fears of another kind were expressed.

"In a gaol are found some of the worst types of humanity, and in too many cases the same rule applies to an hospital.

"With this extra facility for effecting egress at will, the evil-disposed class of patients, when attaining a state of convalescence, could, if they felt so disposed, visit the public houses after hours, or to absent themselves for other improper purposes, and generally adopt habits of irregularity, the obtaining of which would be attended with very prejudicial consequences."

Various spruce-ups were carried out over the years, but not enough to keep the institution viable. In desperate need of the palliative care it struggled to provide its patients, it was deliberately torched in June 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee.

By this time a new hospital had opened and medical staff had declared the walls of the old one "permeated with the germs of disease". Let us hope someone thought to take down the artworks before the match was applied.

Murray Crawford is a Whanganui author with an interest in local history. Newspaper references sourced from Papers Past: National Library of New Zealand.