Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
Royal Prince Alfred Hospital
RPA Museum & Archives


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Nursing History

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In the beginning

The Prince Alfred Hospital opened on 25 September 1882 with 140 beds, tended to by a nursing staff of six probationers, twelve nurses, five sisters and one matron. As the Matron remembered, "We had to advertise for nurses and, as there were but few applications, we had to gather in the weeds and be thankful if we found a flower amongst them." Nineteenth century nursing involved more than caring for patients, there was also dusting, cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing and bed-making to be done and always in long dresses and frilly-laced caps.

Fortunately for the first nurses (and patients) Prince Alfred Hospital was built to the very latest hospital design. Florence Nightingale, not long back from the Crimean War, had written a book with plans for the ideal hospital which she sent to Mr Alfred Roberts, a surgeon at Sydney Hospital, and the first Honorary Secretary of Prince Alfred. He liked the designs for big airy wards which permitted good ventilation with the beds well separated. This was fortunate as the patients consisted of a varied mixture of infectious diseases such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria as well as gas gangrene and accident victims. Prince Alfred also had the advantage of being connected to the town water supply and sewerage system. Plenty of water for scrubbing beds, lockers and floors! 

In the 1880s nurses came to RPA by horse-drawn tram along King Street and Parramatta Road, and later by cable tram. They worked hard, had little personal freedom, and were expected to appear unruffled at all times - allowed to hurry but never run. They were expected to follow many rules and were allocated one late pass each month, until midnight. Nurses on night duty carried hurricane lamps and night sisters a large torch.

By Dr Vanessa Witton and Dr Kathryn Hillier, RPA Museum and Archives
Sources: 'The First Fifty Years' by Dorothy Mary Armstrong (1965); 'The Second Fifty Years' by Helen Croll Wilson (2000); The Life and Times of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Australia by Muriel Knox Doherty (1996); Australasian Trained Nurses' Journal; The Sydney Morning Herald; RPA Archives "Memories" collection.