Macquarie’s Military Hospital – Fort Street School – National Trust Centre

As the NSW National Trust celebrates its 70th anniversary in April this year (2015), another important `birthday’ will be marked in July when the imposing edifice at the top of Sydney’s Observatory Hill which has housed the Trust since 1974 reaches the ripe age of 200 years. Built by Lieutenant Watts in 1814-15 as Governor Macquarie’s Military Hospital, the main building in the National Trust complex is one of Australia’s oldest and most dignified buildings, with a proud history dating back to the very early days of the colony.

When Lachlan Macquarie became governor in 1810, it was immediately clear to him that existing medical facilities were overcrowded and inadequate, despite progressive expansions of the prefabricated hospital brought by the Second Fleet. A deal struck with three colonial entrepreneurs for a short-term but lucrative monopoly on the import of spirits provided the wherewithal to build a Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary. Unsurprisingly it was known as the ‘Rum Hospital’ when it opened its doors in 1816, until 1881 when it assumed the more decorous name of Sydney Hospital
But the first of Governor Macquarie’s two new hospitals to open its doors was the Military Hospital, sited on the strategically important hill where the first government windmill had been erected in 1796. Sweeping views of the harbour and hinterland made the hill a valuable vantage point for a government constantly on the look-out for invasion and insurrection. The new Military Hospital was an important link in a military installation that extended from The Battery at Dawes Point to the Barracks and parade grounds at the foot of the hill (in the environs of modern-day Wynyard on George Street).

The building in its earliest form featured open verandahs to take best advantage of the strong breezes which had prompted construction of the windmill. There was a well, a shrubbery which possibly included medicinal herbs and native plants for experimentation, vegetable patches and stables. The interiors provided wards for the troops and others, divided by a central corridor – a layout which on the ground floor remains to this day. Outhouses included surgeons’ barracks and offices.

In 1835 the roof was altered and a balustrade added as part of repairs. Then, in 1849, the troops were moved to the newly built Victoria Barracks in Paddington and the building entered a new phase. Education was becoming a priority as free settlements grew and, that same year, Government Architect Mortimer Lewis undertook a major conversion of the building to accommodate a National School. External verandahs were modified to form an arcade with pilasters and archways, and the earlier roof was covered over.

The Model School which occupied the premises from 1848 to 1911 was part of a movement to provide teacher training and serve as a model for other schools in the colony. It was also the start of a non-denominational system of education in Australia.

In 1911 the school was expanded to house Fort Street Boys’ High, Girls’ High and Public School for infants. Over many decades the building and outhouses were adapted to meet the changing needs of the schools. Among notable extensions were the 1856 sandstone building used as scientific laboratories (now the S.H. Ervin Gallery), and the new lavatories and gymnasium built in 1880 linking the main building and laboratories (now the National Trust Café).


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