When Lachlan Macquarie began his term as governor of New South Wales in 1810, Sydney was in desperate need of a new hospital.
Since settlement, the colony’s hospital had been a portable canvas building on the shores of Sydney Cove.
To Macquarie’s dismay, the British government refused to fund major public works in the colony, so the enterprising governor brokered a deal: in exchange for building a three-winged General Hospital for convicts, he granted a three-year monopoly on the import of rum and spirits to merchants Alexander Riley and Garnham Blaxcell and surgeon D’Arcy Wentworth.
The hospital was the first project in Macquarie’s ambitious building program.
His plan was for a spacious and elegant hospital for 200 convict patients, but as profits from the rum deal fell, so did the quality of workmanship.
When completed in 1816, the hospital formed an imposing group of three buildings – a central building for hospital wards (now demolished), a northern wing (now Parliament House) to house the principal surgeon, and a southern wing (now The Mint) to house his two assistants – but even at the time, it was widely criticised.
Convict architect Francis Greenway thought the columns lacked ‘Classical proportion’ and found serious structural faults.
Within only a few years the buildings required extensive repairs, while for the convict patients who suffered its poor ventilation, overcrowding and rampant dysentery, it quickly became known as the ‘Sydney Slaughter House’.