Tales from The Royal

The Royal Newcastle Hospital, 1817—2007.

For nearly two centuries, The Royal Newcastle Hospital was the primary hospital for the city. With its first buildings constructed in 1817 — by and for convicts — The Royal occupied a small hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Hunter River to the north. Golden sand was right at its doorstep, water was visible from every ward, and fresh salt air filled its corridors. It grew in lockstep with the city and saw generations of families use its services. This was undoubtedly a special place. Sadly, it was one of the many architectural casualties of the 1989 earthquake and by 2007 it had been shut down, emptied out, and finally demolished to make way for the high-rise apartments that now take its place.

What remains are treasured memories and what follows here is a selection of stories and anecdotes from some of the people who worked at or convalesced in this grand hospital by the sea.

From the collection of Mr. E. Braggett. Date unknown.
The Royal Newcastle Hospital & Newcastle Beach, c. 1953.

Steven Smith:

In 1976, as a 15-year-old, I managed to get my foot chopped up by a slasher. I was in wards 100A and 100B for a long time. I used to get wheeled out onto the balcony and from there I watched my mates surf. I eventually worked out how to escape. I used to sneak out, go for a body bash — with a plaster up to my knee — then return to the hospital and tell them my plaster got wet in the shower. They would cut the plaster off and put a new one on. Did this for over six months. I think the sand in the plaster was a giveaway, but they never gave me a hard time.

Pamela McDonald:

I felt like I spent half of my childhood at The Royal. Bouts of tonsillitis, dental clinic, growth spurts, broken arm, three calcium spurs on my femur – I had to be hospitalised in April 1967 for 10 days to have the biggest spur removed. I was nine years old in the children’s ward. For recovery, I was moved out onto the verandah. I was very naughty & adjusted the weights on the broken legs of the girl next to me. Had the best lime flavoured milk with bubble and squeak for dinner. It was great watching the harbour at night.

At 13 I had to go back to The Royal every week for physiotherapy on my leg. My mum’s mini got stuck under the train gate near Newcastle station on the way to the hospital for day one. The man in the signal box didn’t see my mum’s car until it was too late. I was saying “go mum go!” and very calmly she responded: “It’s like this Pamela, if we stay here and we get squashed by the train, if we go out there we get hit by the bus”. The bus went past and mum floored the accelerator to drag the car out from under the gate just as the train went past. My kids wonder why crossing train lines freak me out!

Alana J. Mundi:

I had Knee surgery as an 18-year-old. The ocean was right by my window and all I could do was lay there and lament that I couldn’t surf in that blue for at least three months.

Jeanette Miller:

I was born there in 1961. Had many visits for treatments there, mostly dental in school years. Mum was in Pacific Care there. This was a ward up on a top floor where people went between hospital care and aged care if they couldn’t return to their own homes. Mum passed away there. I took her in a wheelchair down to Pacific’s Park the day before we lost her.

Georgia Webber:

I have one of my last memories of my grandma there. I was four or five years old and every time I touched her nose she would make a pig noise and I would laugh so much from it! I also remember looking out the window and seeing all the boats.

Melanie McKinnon:

There is so much history attached to the Royal. I came to the Royal from Sydney in 1974 to do the Renal course and stayed until we moved across to John Hunter. The culture of the Royal was unique and so very different from the metropolitan hospitals where I had worked. I had both my kids there and my choice was to stay as long as I could! The experience of reclining in a lounge chair on the verandah of 600A was as good as staying in a luxury hotel.

Sally Davis:

My Mother-in-law did her nursing training there. My husband and father-in-law owned Al Gators Cafe in Pacific Street for decades. I was at Surfest in 1986 when Matthew Cougle got hit by lightning. It was eerie, but I couldn’t say anything because I skipped school to attend. Most of the spectators that day were also wagging school.

Jenny Bright:

My brother Bruce Bastian was a doctor at The Royal when a surfer was hit by lightning. He grabbed a defibrillator, tore down the stairs, and saved the bloke. I remember there was a follow-up photo of the two of them on the beach once the chap had recovered.

Nickson Wing, Royal Newcastle Hospital.
Royal Newcastle Hospital during Surfest 1988.

Angela McQn:

I would get lost in that hospital. I swear some elevators led to nowhere. We would head in just to look at the view. I was around thirteen years old at the time and it was easy to get in, but a real labyrinth of a place and seemed dirty — maybe that was the saltwater erosion.

Banaua Brown:

My mother gave birth to me in February 1977. She clearly remembers waiting for her turn to have her c-section and watching out the window at the surfers catching waves in the sun. She told me that she thought that the next time she looked at the beach she would be a mother.

Kerry Vee:

Had my tonsils out in The Royal when I was 14 in 1972. Stayed five days & got constipation. I have never forgotten the lovely nurse with very cool hands on my hot forehead. I remember having to go to the bathroom for a pee sample and trying to work out how to do it midstream as I was asked. I was on the ward of the old hospital on the Pacific Park side. They eventually moved me onto the side ward directly overlooking the park. I ate lots of ice cream and my school friends came to visit. I felt looked after.

Judith Mary Gatland:

I was among the ‘army’ of part-time trained nurses, employed and worked in the one & two rooms, off a general ward, nursing AIDS victims. This was back in the ‘90s and there was no treatment available then.

Danielle Owens:

I worked there from 1997 until it closed.  It was a great environment to work in. My first job out of high school was as a clerical trainee. I loved going and having lunch with the patients on the beach side and watching Surfest each year from the verandah. The slow transition of services from The Royal to John Hunter was sad, I won’t lie, but the strong, familial connection the staff had with each other was amazing and continued to the new facility which was great. The last patient being wheeled out into the patient transport van was an emotional thing to see. Being near the beach had a great feel and I think the ocean air helped with the patient’s mental health and recovery.

There were a couple of spooky experiences too. I had a security friend that would often hear screams of “help me” behind a door that connected to a building that was no longer there. 

One evening shift on ward 400C I was walking out of the nurse’s station and right next to that is the door to the pan room. As I stepped out of the station into the corridor there was a little old man in pyjamas and a maroon plaid style dressing gown, just standing still. Because I had stepped out in front of him I said “oh, I’m so sorry” and stepped back for him to pass. Because I had stepped back into the nurse’s station I was behind a wall. The old man didn’t walk past. So I stuck my head out and he was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t in the pan room and there was nowhere else for him to go! 

On one ordinary Sunday afternoon, I was walking along the ground floor corridor. All administration offices were empty on a weekend. As I walked past an office with a window in the door I noticed a tall man standing in Jodie’s office looking down at her desk. It looked like the security guy so I didn’t think anything of it until the same security guy turned the corner down the corridor and started walking towards me! So I walked back to Jodie’s office and it was empty! Apparently, at some stage, that area was used for body storage. 

I was in a lot of after-hours clerical positions so I would be by myself a lot. At night I would be in the office and the room would feel like it would fill up with people and there was just so much noise but I was completely alone. As soon as a 9—5 position became available I took it!

View of Newcastle Beach and Shortland Esplanade from the Royal.

Carrie Jacobi:

I gave birth to both my children in a room overlooking Newcastle Beach. I was very sad to see it demolished. My first child was born in 1982 and my second in 1986. There wasn’t anything different about the rooms between those years but plenty about the attitudes. When my daughter was born I was the first person locally to request to leave the hospital the same day of the birth. I was treated with absolute disdain and when I needed some help to get to the toilet, the staff wouldn’t help, and I had to wait until the afternoon before they would discharge me. When my son was born, I left about an hour and a half after the birth, without any nasty remarks, and a strong sense of support.

Our son had surgery there in 1983. He was overnight in the children’s ward. The cockroaches were enormous! It was well known that The Royal had a lot of cockroaches. It is almost unavoidable being so near the sea. They came out at night. I had heard about them but I was still shocked to see them. The view was amazing though. I also worked a couple of shifts there as a casual nurse. Being so close to the sea was soothing.

Anne Lee:

My mother had diphtheria in 1928 when she was three years old. She was nursed in an isolation room in the children’s ward. Her parents used to look at her through the small piece of glass in the door. Her room had a balcony looking onto York Street, on the side of the hospital. One day her Mother and Grandmother stood there and her Grandmother threw Mum’s doll up to her. Mum’s Grandparents and Uncle owned and ran the well-known bakery that was in Pacific Park. They lived there as well.

Jody Pattison:

I was a patient in 1990 after I contracted golden staph. I was lucky enough that they would put me on the balcony to get sun on my wound to heal it in the fresh air. The wardsman would push my bed out, give me a can of Coke, and I’d have a cigarette while watching the beach. I was there for around 40 days. I was upset when it closed and wondered how people would cope in the John Hunter, all concrete, no verandahs, no open windows. And it was great being by the beach because if we got stung by a bluebottle or hit in the head by a surfboard we weren’t too far away from the emergency ward!

Renaye Valaire:

I was a patient in 1976. I was 4 years old. I still have the visions and emotions of Mum having to leave and not stay with me. My eyes following her as she walked around the corner. I also remember the huge bath with steps leading into it.

Best view in Newcastle and wonderful sea air. I was there in 1990 to treat my eczema. They would bathe you in a big bath with rolled oats in a stocking then cover you in steroid creams and emollients. After that they would dress you in wet pyjamas and then wrap dry bandages over the pyjamas. It was called wet dressings and as my eczema was so severe the doctor wanted me to do this on a daily basis! Instead I moved to the UK where my skin was much better due to the climate. I remember being able to bring my own doona into the hospital, mum & dad bringing in food, people being wheeled out onto the verandah for fresh air and sun … and cigarettes.

Faye Haines

Faye Haines:

I have very brutal extreme allergic environmental allergies. I’m allergic to basically every tree and grass pollen in Australia, I also have a severe allergy to household dust mites. The ideal place for my condition is a concrete, tiled apartment with zero soft furnishings & carpets, very minimalist, and as close to the sea as possible. Being up high with sea breezes makes a profound difference to my health. All the doors & windows wide open, lots of ocean air. One doctor actually stopped me from completely showering or bathing in tap water — instead, I had to go to the sea every day and bathe in the saltwater, which was incredibly painful but helpful. We hope to move back to Australia one day and my only hope to live a normal life there is to replicate that location of The Royal. To have an apartment up high across from the beach, where I can go each day to bathe my skin & where I can live with fewer allergens

Alecia Walters:

This was the last place I saw my beautiful nan aged 95.5yrs. She spent her final months there in one of the hospital’s final years (2006). It meant everything in the world to her to be near the ocean. She said there’s something about the smell that the ocean brings. We used to wander to the end of the hall where the long tall window was and she would stand and gaze out at the water and just smile. 

Bec Harwood:

I loved working there. It was like working in a country hospital, everyone knew your name. People were friendly, it was a lovely place for patients to recover by the sea. Walking outside after a busy shift into the sea air at night was the best feeling. I miss that.

Anthony Piggot:

My mother gave birth to four children here and would point out the beachside ward every time we went to Newcastle Beach until the hospital building was demolished.

Pam Paddles:

Christmas Day 1984. I gave birth to my first daughter in Newcastle hospital. My husband brought in a beanbag and TV set to keep up with the Boxing Day test cricket and kept the staff up to speed with the score. I enjoyed glimpses of dolphins from my window and loved the ocean outlook.

Dominique Martin:

Many moments there for me. I attended the physio ward after my car accident in 1999 for 4 months to get strength back in my neck and arms. The view from that level was stunning. I remember my nanna being there after one of her many falls for her hip rehabilitation. Can’t forget the lifts that clunked along — you were sure you’d get stuck.

Christine Everingham:

My daughter was born there. I remember standing at the window watching people swim and surf and wondering who I could possibly get to hold the baby while I had a swim! Child care never occurred to me before this. I had my second child at the Mater and number three at Western Suburbs. I saw many hospitals following my husband around when he was practicing as a doctor, but there’s no doubt Newcastle had the best million-dollar views!

Aerial photograph of Newcastle Hospital c. 1955.
Photographer: Sam Hood.
Aerial photograph of Newcastle Hospital after 1989 Earthquake.
Photographer: Bruce Turnbull.

Lynne Neilson:

I trained there from 1975 to 1979. I have many stories — it was run like a military hospital!

In the list of items the hospital suggested for student nurses, there was included a beach towel and swimming costume – for a quick swim in your break! Hardly achievable as you only had half an hour and sometimes missed out altogether. I remember some nurses going to the beach after night duty — falling asleep and getting badly sunburnt. Some of them had rings around their eyes from their sunglasses.

We used to move the beds of long-stay patients out onto the verandah in the sun. I can remember watching the sun come up and the surfers as I was cleaning the pan room and emptying the boiler which was used to sanitise pans and bottles.

We had outbreaks of MRSA and I remember it was being transferred by bath plugs. Cockroaches were always a problem – especially at night. I remember seeing hundreds of them crawling out of the street drains. We had to record how many we saw for a while on each shift. There were always pest people there but I believe that they bred in the roof and fed on the pigeon shit that was everywhere!

I trained before AIDS so we hardly wore gloves and had to change our aprons at times due to them being covered in blood! No jewelry was allowed except for a plain wedding band, no wristwatches for nurses, no nail polish or false fingernails as they were infection control risks. We were not allowed to wear our uniform outside the hospital unless attending formal functions- like remembrance services.

I had my own car and was asked if I could “live out” as the nurses’ home was full! Parking was terrible and my car rusted out on one side from being parked near saltwater.

Royal Newcastle Hospital Ward 2, 1939

Vikki Tombleson:

Standing majestically overlooking Newcastle beach it served our needs for so many years. The large open wards, the terrazzo floors, the iron beds, and white starched sheets. The routines were strict, the nurses were kind and the Matrons were to be feared!

In 1978 my firstborn was delivered at The Royal during a violent electrical storm. The delivery suite was on a lower floor facing the south. I could hear torrential rain, claps of thunder, and see the flashes of lightning through the huge dark windows. I had to stay in my bed — no walking around or changing positions. The waves of labour pain coursed through my exhausted body throughout that long night. It was a dramatic and quite theatrical sixteen hours but I finally delivered a beautiful, healthy boy weighing 9lb 1oz at 8 am. Dr. Steele Fitchett and nurse Terry Clement-Matthews looked after me very well. However, an episiotomy and hematoma were no fun so there were strict instructions on the best way to recover. At least twice each day I was required to go to the communal “bath” room, a large tiled room with an enormous white bath and a supply of salt. After a healing soak, I would return to my bed and lay with an infra-red lamp heat lamp for a while — just long enough to avoid getting burned!

Just a short two years later, in 1980, came baby number two. It was a tough delivery involving a painful Kielland’s forceps rotation. A big beautiful boy with fair hair and blue eyes finally arrived. Thankfully this time I didn’t require surgery after the delivery so I  headed straight to a private room overlooking Newcastle Beach. The sound of the surf was in my ears …. along with the occasional scuttled of a cockroach traversing the walls behind me. It felt quite luxurious, at times, fresh white linen sheets replaced every day, lots of pillows, a coastal breeze, and snacks on demand.

Another two years go by. It’s 1982 and we’re getting ready to welcome baby number three. I spent a lot of time in hospital this time after placenta previa was diagnosed following a bleed at 30 weeks. Often I was in a four-bed ward with a large balcony running the full length of the northern side of the building. These were long, boring days, many of which required complete bed rest. The other girls were in a similar situation and we bonded and shared our experiences. We were resigned to our situation as we all wanted healthy bubs in the end. It helped.

This time I was to have a caesarian as soon as the baby’s lungs were mature enough. I had an amniocentesis every few days from 34 weeks on. Probably 15 or 16 altogether. At 38 weeks she was delivered- dark hair, dark eyes an absolutely exquisite healthy baby girl. I had another lovely private room overlooking the ocean, enjoying my daughter after this stressful pregnancy. Again Dr. Fitchett looked after me well, refusing to allow me to have a blood transfusion, as there was a whisper about a new disease transmitted by body fluids which subsequently was named AIDS. 

In 1984, my fourth child arrived on her due date. I had delivered the previous three babies at 8 am. When I went in about 4 pm I was ready to settle in for the long night and deliver at 8 am the next day. This time Dr. Jock Shumack was my obstetrician as Steele Fitchett had retired. Jock was sailing that Saturday afternoon and I told him not to hurry, believing that delivery wouldn’t happen until the morning. How wrong I was! My beautiful red-headed girl arrived before midnight and we lay in bed that night listening to the waves crash onto the shore, never wanting to leave.

Categorized as Fathoms
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.