Heritage is about the things from the past which
are valued enough today to save for tomorrow.

Royal Perth Hospital: Kirkman House and Moreton Bay Fig Tree

From the time the hospital was established in the 1850s, nursing staff were initially not well-regarded and the poor standard of living quarters, working conditions and pay provided in the early days reflected this general attitude.  From the late 1890s the number of nurses working at the hospital had increased substantially, due both to the introduction of a two-year nursing certification program as well as the population growth in Western Australia – and hence the number of patients – owing to the Gold Boom which took off in the early 1890s.   However, even then living conditions for nurses at the hospital was still poor and never given much priority against other hospital needs, and they continued to be housed wherever there was space, such as in basements.  Later, as numbers increased and more space was needed for patients’ beds, nurses had to find private lodgings across the city. 

Finally, in the early 1900s planning for a specially built nurses’ home was underway.  The funding of the building was made possible by government funds as well as private donations and also fundraising from events such as hospital balls.  It was designed by the Government Architect, Hillson Beasley, in accordance with the recognised principles of nursing accommodation found in all up-to-date hospitals around the country of the time.  The four-storey building, completed in 1909, was designed to harmonise with the Administration Building located immediately to the east which was also designed in the Federation Queen Anne style.  The Nurses’ Quarters was more commonly known as Kirkman House after nurse, Annie Kirkman who was the first graduate of the nursing certification course that had started in 1896.  It contained 90 single bedrooms, separate matron’s quarters, dining room, sitting room, lecture rooms, a library and study rooms.  In 1926 the building was extended to include a further 40 bedrooms as well as a lecture and sewing room, but by the 1970s it was remodelled into offices.  

The large Moreton Bay Fig tree in front of Kirkman House which dominates the streetscape was believed to have been planted in the 1890s.  By the late 1930s reports were emerging that the tree was under threat of removal because its invasive roots were causing damage to the roadway and footpath.  Fortunately it was given a lifeline and still takes pride of place in Murray Street today.   It was no doubt affectionately regarded by the nurses too.  One story of the tree is that it was called “the kissing tree” – the nurses from the hospital used to say goodbye under the tree to their sweethearts before returning to their room at Kirkman House.   

Detailed Description

Royal Perth Hospital dates back to 1855 when the first stage of what was then called the Colonial Hospital was officially opened.  From the time the hospital was established, nursing staff were initially not well-regarded and the poor standard of living quarters, working conditions and pay provided in the early days reflected this general attitude. 

From the late 1890s and into the early 1900s, the number of nurses working at the hospital had increased substantially.  This was due to the introduction of a two-year nursing certification program in 1896 to encourage a higher calibre of nursing and which would eventually lead to professionalism of nursing as a career.  The increase in nursing staff also came about because of the population growth in Western Australia – and hence the number of patients – owing to the Gold Boom which took off in the early 1890s.   However, even then living conditions for nurses at the hospital was still poor and never given much priority against other hospital needs.  Nurses were housed wherever there was space, such as in basements and other unattractive locations such as wards located right near the morgue.  These make-shift quarters were partitioned into small cubicles and had little if any natural light or ventilation creating dingy, gloomy boxes which must have been extremely miserable for the nurses to retire to after a long hard shift.  Later, as numbers increased and more space was needed for patients’ beds, nurses had to be housed in private lodgings across the city although their wages were increased to meet the cost of this accommodation. 

Finally, in the early 1900s planning for a specially built nurses’ home was underway.  The funding of the building was made possible by government funds as well as private donations and also fundraising from events such as hospital balls.  It was designed by the Government Architect, Hillson Beasley, in accordance with the recognised principles of nursing accommodation found in all up-to-date hospitals around the country of the time – one main principle being that every nurse would have their own room as well as other modern facilities provided.  The building which cost £11,000 was built by Messrs Vincent Brothers.   

The four-storey building is constructed of red brick which is the predominant building material within the hospital precinct.  It is particularly complimentary in style to the Administration Building located immediately to the east which was also designed in the Federation Queen Anne style, and both buildings are enhanced by the garden area between them.  Its main features include a handsome three storey front verandah, dormer windows and a decorative cupola, and the bas-relief frieze around part of the upper floor was designed to match the wrought iron pattern of the verandahs of the Fire Brigade Building further west in Murray Street. 

The Nurses’ Quarters was ‘K’ Block but more commonly known as Kirkman House after nurse, Annie Kirkman who was the first graduate of the nursing certification course that had started in 1896.  It was officially opened by the Governor Sir Gerald Strickland on 29 October 1909, although it had been finished a few months before and was already occupied.  The Governor was presented with a gold key as a memento of the occasion and the opening ceremony included music by an orchestra and an “auxetophone” (which was an early record player) as well as singing accompanied by the piano which had also been donated to the quarters.  At the opening, the building was made available to visitors to walk through and inspect as well as other parts of the hospital including wards and the operating theatre.  The 90 bedrooms were spread out over the three floors and separate quarters for matron, all fitted with quality, solid oak furniture.  All floors could be accessed by an electric lift.  On the ground floor there was a spacious dining room opening to a large sitting room which together could also be opened up and used for dances, concerts and other social engagements.  There were also other facilities provided to meet the nurses’ training and education needs including lecture rooms, a library and study rooms.  Although a great improvement, the facilities were still fairly basic and reflected the regimentation of their professional and social lives. 

By the 1920s, the nurses’ quarters had become insufficient for the ever growing number of nurses accommodated onsite.  The increasing nursing staff was very much a result of the nurses employed by the Commonwealth Government owing to the many returned servicemen from World War I who were hospitalised.  The four-storey red brick extension, designed of Government Architect William B Hardwick, was completed in 1926 and included additional nurses’ accommodation of 40 bedrooms as well as a lecture and sewing room.  

By the 1970s, times had significantly changed with regards nurses having to live and be accommodated at the hospital site, and as a result Kirkman House and the 1926 extension were remodelled into offices.  

The large Moreton Bay Fig tree in front of Kirkman House which dominates the streetscape was believed to have been planted in the 1890s.  Not much is known about the history of the planting of this tree although it was not an official City of Perth planting, so possibly planted by the hospital.  As the tree grew it very much became an icon in the city.  The beauty and size of this “venerable giant”, with its far flung branches spanning over 100 feet, was often mentioned in the local newspapers including by patients from the hospital.  However, by the late 1930s some reports were emerging that the tree was under threat of removal because its invasive roots were causing damage to the roadway and footpath.  Possibly because it was considered such a fine specimen, along with the fact that it provided much appreciated shade, might have outweighed its downsides and gave it a lifeline so that it still takes pride of place in Murray Street today.   It was no doubt affectionately regarded by the nurses too.  One story of the tree is that it was called “the kissing tree” – the nurses from the hospital used to say goodbye under the tree to their sweethearts before returning to their room at Kirkman House.  In the 1980s, the journal of Royal Perth Hospital Nurses ex-trainees and associates was named “The Fig Tree News.   

 

Royal Perth Hospital Precinct Conservation Plan, Considine and Griffiths Architects 1995  

Western Mail 24 July 1909 p. 34 

West Australian 30 October 1909 p. 12 

West Australian 29 October 1926 p. 12 

Daily News 22 January 1937 p. 11

Location