Australia's First Hospital's Construction Was Paid for Exclusively through Rum Sales

The project was paid for by the sale of rum.
Trevor English
A look at the modern Sydney HospitalJ Bar/Wikimedia

The construction industry is filled with standard workflows and practices that lead to efficient businesses for those who know it well. These standards of construction were forged over years of experience and corporate development, but what did the industry look like just 200 years ago? One interesting historical case study on this topic brings us back to Australia in the early 1800s...

The early day's of Australia

Australia wasn't always the bustling tourist attraction that it is in modern times, it used to be little more than a camp for convicts with little built-up infrastructure. In the 18th century, Australia was a place for the government in Great Britain to send convicts over on ships to start and establish a colony. Little aid was given to the "settlers" and thus they were left in the barren terrain with few supplies and no leadership.

That is until, in 1810, a British Army officer by the name of Major General Lachlan Macquarie arrived in the port of Sydney as the new Governor of New South Wales. General Macquarie decided to bring some order to the Australian settlement.


He drew up a street plan for Sydney and designed many of the colony's most famous buildings that stand on one of the main streets in the center today. One of Macquarie's most infamous buildings was that of the Sydney hospital.

General Macquarie asked the British Government for funds to construct the hospital, but the Crown at the time refused to fund anything having to do with the Australian settlement.

Securing the funding for construction

Construction isn't an easy task when given the correct funding, proper workforce, and sufficient materials. The settlement in Sydney had none of those things.

That's where the ingenuity of General Macquarie comes into play. He struck a deal with two British merchants, Alexander Riley and Garnham Blaxcell, along with the colonial surgeon. That deal gave the three a three-year monopoly on the import of spirits and rum in exchange for the funding to construct the hospital. Macquarie, being the General in charge of a colony of convicts was able to supply convict labor while the partnership with the rum trade displaced the monetary burden of the hospital's construction.

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All of this rather unconventional construction management was about the only way leaders in the early colony saw a chance of re-engineering the city. As with every construction project though, there were hiccups in the process.

The rum traders expected to be able to come out on top in this deal of spirits for funding, but the rum trade soon began to tick downwards. As this occurred, the quality of the workmanship on the hotel ticked in the same direction.

There were faults in the design that were covered up

One of the convicts in the settlement was an architect tasked with reporting the quality of work on the project. After inspection, he found serious structural faults in the building's design and relayed that information back to Macquarie. When orders to fix the faults were then passed down to lower labor, they simply covered them up rather than properly repairing them.

This coverup job wasn't known about until the 1980s, over 150 years later when the building was being restored.

While the quality of work fell and the construction funding was arduously handed over, the building was eventually completed in 1816. It contained three groups of buildings, 2 of which have survived into the modern era.

Australia's First Hospital's Construction Was Paid for Exclusively through Rum Sales
The Sydney Hospital todaySource: Wikimedia/Public Domain

The central wing of the hospital housed the main infirmary or sickbay. It had poor foundations resulting in constant wall movement and cracks. The walls themselves were built from rubble, allowing a plethora of open spaces to house vermin. The healthcare practiced in the hospital was archaic, which eventually gave the aptly named "Rum Hospital" a bad name.


For a little over the next 50 years, the hospital stood to treat patients and convicts in the colony. In 1879, the central wing was demolished and a new hospital was built with proper funding. This hospital still stands today, accompanied by the original buildings, 2 other building groups. The south wing became the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint and later turned into the Sydney Mint Museum. The northern wing now houses the Parliament of New South Wales.

That's the story of how the rum trade allowed for the construction of the first hospital for the colony in Syndey, Australia. It was the beginning of what is now a 24.6 Million person country.

Engineering isn't always pretty. It often takes creative bidding, unique building techniques, and incentive funding. This look back at the history of construction certainly demonstrates just how far the industry has come today.

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