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The People’s Hospital Tales from the surgeon's table

Chapter One

A proud industrial heritage

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Part of the Michaelis Hallenstein tannery complex on the banks of the Maribrynong River at Footscray before it was demolished in 1987. The company’s workers and managers, like many others in the district, were staunch fund-raisers for Footscray Hospital.

Footscray Historical Society

In the early 1960s, Joe Epstein was a young man starting his medical career. As a newly appointed junior resident medical officer at Footscray and District Hospital, he lived in a rundown terrace house in North Melbourne, renting rooms on the top floor.

The trip from home to work was short, a ten-minute drive in his old English open-topped Ford Anglia tourer across the Maribrynong River and into the western suburb of Footscray. The suburb was the heartland of Melbourne’s heavy agricultural industries. It teemed with abattoirs, tanneries, iron and steel foundries, chemical and fertiliser works, rope and twine makers, farm machinery and munitions factories and other manufacturers.

Footscray and its neighbouring suburbs were home to some of Australia’s most famous companies, many of which were founded in the nineteenth century by local industrialists - H.V.McKay’s Sunshine Harvester Works, William Angliss Meatworks, Kinnear’s Rope Works, Borthwick’s Abattoirs, the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR), the Australian Woollen Mill Company, Commonwealth Fertilisers and the Colonial Ammunition Company.

Mr D Hallenstein, of the Michaelis Hallenstein Company

Mr D Hallenstein, of the Michaelis Hallenstein Company, was involved in the Hospital Movement since its inception. He served on the board of the Footscray Outpatients and Welfare Centre as vice-president and chairman of its finance committee until his death in 1949.

Western Health archives

One of the world’s biggest tanneries, Michaelis Hallenstein, sprawled across Hopkins Street and down to the riverside. Successive generations of local families toiled at the vast site from 1864 until it was demolished in 1987, producing glues, gelatine and leather products. The nearby William Angliss Imperial Freezing Works was the largest meatworks in the southern hemisphere at the start of the 20th century. When a young Joe Epstein was making his daily commute to Footscray Hospital in the 1960s and 70s, the meatworks and many of the area’s other huge industries were still operating.

“As you drove to work each day the environment was dominated by the smells from Michaelis Hallenstein, the smell of blood and animal processing,” said Mr Epstein, who is 74 and continues to work at the hospital. “You could hear the sounds of the animals. That old factory environment became part of my environment.”

The West’s industrial heydays began in the 1880s. At that time the Melbourne newspapers located on the eastern side of the Maribrynong, dubbed Footscray “Stinkopolis” because of the fumes and noxious waste belching from the suburb’s factories. For the citizens of Footscray the nickname was yet another piece of snobbery flung at their working class community from the other side of town. It fed the suburb’s nascent sense of itself as a self-reliant, frontier community. Footscray was powering Melbourne’s prosperity but it was underappreciated and neglected by the city’s establishment class.

That maverick, independent spirit helped shape Footscray’s struggle town culture. As early as 1889 it sparked the first stirrings of a grassroots citizens’ coalition that later evolved into the 1919 Hospital Movement, whose members then campaigned for decades to get a public hospital built in Footscray.

When the hospital eventually opened in 1953 many of its surgeons embodied the Hospital Movement’s maverick spirit. They were undaunted by working on ‘the wrong side of town’. This book tells the stories of these surgeons - Joe Epstein and his colleagues – who became role models for the next generation of Footscray surgeons because of their commitment to the hospital and the people of the West.

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Some of the Colonial Ammunition Company’s 2,000 workers in 1917. The City of Footscray was known as the “Birmingham of Australia” because it had so many flourishing factories.

Footscray Historical Society

The Birmingham of Australia flexes its muscles

Many gravely ill people in Melbourne in the latter part of the 19th century and in the years leading up to World War One had little hope of being treated in an acute care general hospital. During that era Melbourne only had a few acute care public hospitals – the Royal Melbourne, St Vincent’s and the Alfred – all of which were overcrowded and clustered in the city centre. Residents living in suburban Melbourne or in the countryside faced an arduous, lengthy journey to get to the city.

In Footscray and its surrounding suburbs people were often either too poor, too ill or too badly injured from workplace accidents to make the difficult six kilometre trip across the Maribrynong to central Melbourne. Footscray had one of the highest population densities in Australia. It had a strong municipal council, a thriving football team, boisterous local newspapers and so many flourishing manufacturers that it was sometimes referred to as “the Birmingham of Australia”.

Between 1881 and 1891 the municipality’s population more than tripled to 19,149. It became The City of Footscray in 1891 but even before then people had started to push for a hospital on their side of the river.

The following editorial published in The Footscray Advertiser, Saturday, 8th June, 1889, describes how the community’s leaders took their first formal steps towards achieving their goal.

Its paternalistic tone towards workers was common for newspapers of that era and the journalist could not have known that workers and their unions would later play a leading role in the success of the Hospital Movement. The editorial reveals a community brimming with ambition as well as political and geographic undercurrents about the delivery of health services, some of which are still evident today:

Proposal to found a local Hospital

Several weeks ago (May 1889) The Advertiser suggested the original idea of founding what it termed a South-Western Suburban District Hospital. The proposal was to embrace the whole of the districts of Williamstown, Newport, Spotiswoode, Yarraville, Footscray, Braybrook and the Werribee country as the circuit which it should serve.

Whether the suggestion has borne any practical weight among the conjoined residents of these localities we have not yet been made aware.

Since that time the metropolitan agitation for increased hospital accommodation has found its way among other suburbs to Footscray and on Thursday night 23rd May, and last Monday night meetings were held in the Town Hall Council Chambers to discuss the subject.


At the previous meeting the number was so trifling as to reflect disgrace on the residents for their apparent apathy. It is a most unfortunately notorious fact that the working-classes are frequently intensely careless in matters specially appertaining to their natural welfare, except under pressure.

Although by no means insensitive to that which surrounds their personal comfort and convenience, they require considerable spurring to rouse them to action.

But when the incentive to move is applied, where one or two of their number, endowed with more force of character and ability than the mass, takes a lead, the depths of the inner good feeling that merely lies dormant is awakened, interest is evoked, and the leaders, by personal enthusiasm and attrition, compels something practical to eventuate.

There are no two opinions but that there exists at present a most lamentable need for vastly increased hospital accommodation.


It is a blot on our boasted civilization that men and women taken to our national- health giving institutions should be turned into the streets to die, or worse still in our opinion, be incarcerated within the gloomy surroundings of the grim gaol for no fault save poverty.

Last Monday night’s meeting was of a far more gratifying character than its predecessors. All grades of local society graced the room on the latter occasion – men worth their thousands and honourable horny-handed workers whose pick and shovel or tools were the only factors to comparative comfort.

Still out of a population of 14,000 to 15,000 the percentage could not be lauded. It was soon evident to the most obtuse that the meeting distinctly differed, and eventually preponderated in favour of the Rev. H. F. Scott’s amendment for the founding of a local hospital as against the Mayor’s dictum of having met for the special purpose of appointing a committee and collecting subscriptions for the parent metropolitan increased hospital accommodation committee.


Eventually the meeting decided to adopt Mr Grenville White’s proposal to further consider the question of purely local hospital creation at another meeting.

Our opinion in this matter remains as before. With the Rev. Mr Scott, we are completely opposed to Melbourne centralisation, and therefore opposed to forwarding funds to assist the metropolitan committee.

But we are against Mr Scott in his localisation scheme – that is attempting to found a local cottage hospital. It is too puny.

Footscray and Yarraville should attempt to assist in a much larger scheme. Comparison with inland towns – “villages” is the better name – and the future Birmingham of Australia seems like almost an insult to the latter.

Is there no possibility of entering into successful negotiations with the Williamstown Hospital committee movement and by conjunction found an institution worthy of the important marine and manufacturing centres south and west of the Yarra?

There is no question but that public opinion in general trends in the direction of three or four large hospitals to command the necessities of our magnificent suburbs. Then why not raise, if possible, for the districts we have previously mentioned a worthy compeer of the present Alfred Hospital?

It is simply impossible that we cannot make the Rev. Mr. Scott himself a convert to our views? According to The Advertiser reporter’s notes he has already identified himself in some measure with the Williamstown Hospital movement. Could not Mr Scott retain his sympathies to both project and throw the weight of his scholarly diction, incisive argument and general common sense into the scale of the huger proposal.

– Extract from Footscray Advertiser, Saturday, 8th June, 1889

1919 – The Hospital Movement breaks through

In 1919 an influenza epidemic hit Victoria and killed 3,500 people. Melbourne’s city-based hospitals failed to cope with the influx of people who needed treatment.

Footscray, with its large factories crammed with workers, was one of the worst affected areas. In his book, History of Footscray, John Lack, an Associate Professor of history at Melbourne University, described the government’s inept approach to the crisis and how Footscray’s residents reacted by establishing their own makeshift hospital to treat victims of the epidemic:

"Showing itself better at issuing regulations than in doing anything practical, such as opening central emergency hospitals, the Board of Public Health, obliged almost totally inexperienced local councils and their officers to quarantine patients, supply medicines and render nursing assistance.

“Under the guidance of Town Clerk John Gent and Health Officer Dr James Ramsay Webb, council acted decisively to place Footscray on a war footing.

Associate Professor Lack wrote that an influenza epidemic committee was created and Footscray opened the first suburban hospital in the Technical School with principal Arch Hoadley as Hospital Superintendent:

“The students were packed off to South Melbourne and a team of council workers led by Percy Richardson and Griffiths Bros Plumbers cleared the school of furniture, erected partitions and installed gas pipes, hot water services, ovens and boilers . . . staff quarters were established, tents were erected for nurses and orderlies and a laundry was contrived.

“Most of Footscray’s middle-class matrons, the stalwarts of the churches, were bustling about the hospital. One hundred and fifty beds were in position . . . Only those with pneumonia, or where the whole family was affected or where sanitation was unsatisfactory (most notably unsewered houses) could be admitted. The Colonial Ammunition Company surrendered its motor ambulance, and this was supplemented by a smart enclosed truck hired from Grants Motors, together with several large furniture vans . . .

“No drugs existed to cure influenza . . . At Dr Webb’s initiative, many hundreds had been inoculated in the opening days of the pandemic. Depots were set up at the Mechanics’ Institute, and across the road at Federal Hall, where upwards of 8,000 were jabbed. Thousands more were inoculated at work. Council issued a stiff by-law prohibiting spitting in public places, and appointed a special officer to enforce it.

“Another officer patrolled the Nicholson and Buckley Street approaches to the hospital, to warn off loiterers drawn there as much by curiosity as concern for the sufferers. Footscray took pride in its hospital, which was praised by the metropolitan press as the best-equipped outside Melbourne City.”

The makeshift hospital admitted 574 local patients over several months, compared with 455 Footscray residents who were hospitalised elsewhere in Melbourne.

Eighty-three people died in Footscray from the epidemic, compared with cities such as Ballarat and Bendigo, which recorded 91 and 87 deaths. Associate Professor Lack wrote that the epidemic, a severe flood that swamped Footscray later in the year and the steady, high toll of locals killed or injured in industrial accidents galvanised Footscray residents. They began agitating for a local hospital:

“The emergency, and the bungling of the Board of Public Health, had demonstrated anew the inconvenience, strains and expense of hospital patients and visitors travelling to other suburbs. For at least 30 years Footscray had subsidised the Williamstown and Footscray Hospital, at Williamstown, now criticised as ‘Footscray’ only in name. There were renewed calls for the establishment of a truly local hospital.

“Late in 1919 a gathering of representatives from friendly societies, progress associations and industrial unions decided to push for the building of a ‘new and up to date hospital for Footscray’.

“Widespread support from Maidstone, Sunshine, St Albans and Sydneyham, was evident. This was clearly a ‘Footscray and District Hospital’ movement. A representative of the Ammunition Workers’ Union referred to the frequent and serious accidents in the district.

“A Footscray and District Representatives Committee was created, and Mr Everest voiced a common attitude when he said the hospital would be constituted ‘on a democratic basis. All classes of the community would be represented’.

“The initiative was up to the people, for the Mayor said the Council would support but not finance the hospital. In December a strong subcommittee, consisting of Miss Whitehead, Mrs E Hackett and Messrs H. Armstrong, R. Bell, Collins, F. Dee, Luxford, Murphy, Joe Parle, Pearce, Pope and Windsor, drew up a petition to the Chief Secretary.

“It quickly became abundantly clear that the Government would respond only if the citizens’ committee showed absolute determination. Of the many sites inspected during 1920, Eleanor Street found most favour. The owner, Mr Rayner, wanted a £200 deposit but would accept £10 to seal the contract. Council advanced the £10 and the committee not only raised the balance of the deposit by August, it paid the land off in instalments by April 1921.

“The committee representation was well balanced between working men and women and firms such as Michaelis Hallenstein and Pridham and there were sub-district representatives for Yarraville, West Footscray, St Albans, Maidstone, Kingsville, North Footscray and Sunshine.

“. . . Racked between 1914 and 1918 by sectarian and class tensions generated and fed by a long war (WW1) and a series of bitter strikes, Footscray was to some extent reunited in 1919 by the need to cope with a major epidemic, a disastrous flood and the distress caused by the seamen’s strike.

“In the process, new leaders emerged as a focus of common values. In part community sentiment was a natural reaction to the enervating effects of religious and social division, and the product of defining agreed goals.

“It was also the result of a growing perception of a widespread social prejudice and political discrimination against Footscray by government departments and instrumentalities. The hospital movement became a potent symbol of continuing injustice and a rallying point for this new, defiant spirit.”

Unfortunately the Hospital Movement’s campaign for a hospital failed to convince the Charities Board, the government authority responsible for granting permission for new hospitals. In 1922 Mr J Kelso Duncan, the Hospital Movement’s general secretary, revealed the depth of community frustration about the Charity Board’s stance in an article in Footscray’s Independent newspaper.

Mr J Kelso Duncan wrote that the Hospital Movement committee had official figures from the government about the large number of people from Footscray, Braybrook, Keilor and Werribee admitted to the metropolitan hospitals in 1921.

“These figures emphasise the great need for a hospital in this district, and should convince the most conservative that the time has arrived when the western suburbs should no longer have to depend upon the hospitals in Melbourne – all overcrowded – to accommodate our sick,” Mr J Kelso Duncan said.

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Meatworkers at William Angliss Imperial Freezing Works in 1910. This solo method of beef slaughtering continued until the 1930s when it was replaced by the equally hazardous chain method of meat processing.

Footscray Historical Society

A rising toll of injured workers and local anger

One hundred and eighty three industrial accidents were reported to the Chief Inspector of Factories during 1921. The official toll probably underestimated the true number of workers injured in many of the West’s most dangerous workplaces, especially its abattoirs, tanneries and iron foundries.

Those severely injured in workplace accidents or residents with chronic illnesses often died before they could reach the nearest hospital in the city centre. Even Williamstown Hospital was too far away and too difficult to get to for residents of Footscray and beyond. The central Melbourne hospitals had thousands of people on their waiting lists. St Vincent’s Hospital’s Mother Rectress said at least 25 per cent of St Vincent’s patients came from Footscray and its nearby suburbs.

Meanwhile workers at local factories were voluntarily donating part of their meagre wages to a building fund established by the Hospital Movement. In eight months, the employees of the Sunshine Harvester Works donated £180 to the fund, “this was done by monthly subscriptions, and nobody felt the pinch,” Mr J Kelso Duncan wrote.

“One steward was appointed for each department, and every month he collected from his department whatever the men could afford. Some gave a shilling, some sixpence and some threepence. The stewards handed their

collections to the Works Secretary, who forwarded the money to the Secretary of the Hospital . . . The building fund is increasing every day.”

Mr J Kelso Duncan and his fellow Hospital Movement committee members continued to lobby the Charities Board throughout the 1920s. They held protest meetings and raised funds. The committee sent deputations to the Board. Its pleas were rebuffed every time, due to political undercurrents between the Board and the state government, according to Associate Professor Lack’s History of Footscray:

“Minority Labor governments, while sympathetic to Footscray and district’s needs and rights, were in no position to override a Board determined to resist the dispersal of health facilities from Melbourne and its inner suburbs.

“Footscray and Sunshine’s isolation posed special problems. A trip to hospital, even to Williamstown was a major expedition, and for those involved in industrial accidents, the delay could be crippling, even fatal.

“Throughout the 1920s the local press was studded with accounts of shocking work accidents. Apart from dramatic incidents in the explosives industry, and accidents involving boilers and furnaces, many small mishaps and abrasions required immediate, expert and constant attention.

“In 1928, for instance, George Stark got hand and leg abrasions when he fell into the hot water drain at Angliss’s wool-scouring department. He was admitted and discharged at the Melbourne hospital on 12 December, readmitted on the 16th, and again on the 23rd, but his treatment was too little and too late.

“He died of tetanus just before Christmas. Surely a large industrial region, contributing immensely to the wealth of the State, deserved its own hospital.”

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Footscray Outpatients and Welfare Centre, a hard-won achievement of the Hospital Movement. The Governor of Victoria, Lord Huntingfield opened the Centre in 1938, praising it as an “example of pure democracy” and “proof of a well-developed sense of civic responsibility in the people of the district”, according to newspaper reports of the ceremony.

Western Health archives

Doctors and residents strike out on their own

By the mid 1930s the Hospital Movement Committee members were fed up with the Charities Board’s intransigence and decided to get on with the job themselves. They joined forces with some local medical practitioners to plan an outpatients clinic on the Eleanor Street site.

The Charities Board relented slightly by giving them approval and some basic funding to build a free dispensary. Local industrialists and business leaders such as the rope maker E. H. Kinnear, the farm machinery manufacturer H.V. McKay, the corn mill owner J.R Schutt and David Syme Trusts contributed to the public fund raising efforts. Citizens, including employees at Cuming Smith, McKay-Massey Harris, Colonial Sugar, other factories and local councils, raised the rest of the funds to build and equip the clinic.

The governor of Victoria, Lord Huntingfield, officially opened the clinic, the Footscray Outpatients and Welfare Centre, in 1938. Mr J Kelso Duncan was appointed life governor of the Centre and its secretary/manager. Dr Ian McNeill was surgeon-in-charge and Sister Barclay, of Melbourne District Nursing, oversaw the nursing care of patients.

Local medical practitioners provided four, four hourly clinics each week. They were immediately swamped by demand for their services. Five thousand patients, many of them malnourished children, were treated in the first year of the Centre’s operation.

The number of patients rose steadily each year. The Centre’s board members, including its inaugural president, William J Pridham, of Pridham’s tallow works, continued to press the government for money to establish inpatient beds. Their relentless lobbying eventually succeeded after World War Two ended.

Councillor William Pridham of Braybrook

Councillor William Pridham of Braybrook, a local businessman associated with the Hospital Movement for 31 years. At the time of his death in 1951 he was the first and only president of Footscray Outpatients and Welfare Centre.

Western Health archives

The government announced it would spend £205,000 to build a 205 bed public hospital on the Eleanor Street site equipped with medical, surgery, midwifery and children’s wards. Local citizens raised an extra £90,000 towards the project.

The Welfare Centre was to be converted to a general casualty and outpatients section of the new institution. Footscray and District Hospital was officially opened on Saturday, June 27th 1953, two years after William Pridham died.

The hospital’s first surgeons and physicians in 1953

The hospital’s first surgeons and physicians in 1953.

Footscray Historical Society

Sir Dallas Brooks, the Victorian Governor, was supposed to perform the official opening ceremony but fell ill the day beforehand and was unable to attend. His wife Lady Violet Brooks, deputised for him and presided over the hospital’s grand opening ceremony before a crowd of about 4,000 people. The event represented the ultimate triumph for Mr Pridham, Mr J Kelso Duncan, their fellow Hospital Movement members and other locals who had toiled for 34 years to reach their goal. A grassroots-fuelled campaign led by trade unionists, employers, church and community leaders – a people’s movement - had created a people’s hospital. A new era was about to begin.

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The hospital’s 1953 souvenir booklet praises the new buildings: “It is the finest hospital building in Australia and incorporates many innovations. Forming an architecturally harmonious whole, the hospital is divided into three separate structures – the hospital proper, the towering nurses’ quarters, and the staff home.”

Footscray Historical Society