To be known as a graduate of Canterbury College was a mark of prestige for many a young Cantabrian in the first half of the twentieth century. The respect that came with a degree awarded by the institution meant that many could look forward to future filled with social and career progress.
However, for some of their contemporaries, there was another form of institutional graduation, one that often condemned them to a life of social exclusion and failure to gain employment. Known as ‘graduates of the hill’, they still considered themselves lucky. The less fortunate never graduated.
Tuberculosis (or TB) is a disease caused by bacteria which attacks the lungs. Transmitted from victim to victim via droplets, it is often dispersed through coughing. Today, the disease is treated through antibiotics, a process which takes six to nine months. However, before the 1960s the main form of treatment was rest and exposure to sunlight and fresh air. In addition to this, patients also underwent operations where the diseased lung was temporarily or permanently collapsed. The latter, thoracoplasty, was greatly feared by patients, as it often resulted in deformities and mutilation. Such surgeries were eventually succeeded by anti-tuberculosis chemotherapy and advances in the development of antibiotics.
Although Nurse Sibylla Maude had initially established a tent based tuberculosis sanatorium in Wainoni in the early years of the twentieth century, the disease was deadly enough to warrant the need for a permanent facility in Christchurch. Eventually a site was chosen on a hillside at the edge of the Cashmere estate, on land that was donated by the Cracroft-Wilson family.
The foundation stone for the first sanatorium building to be constructed was laid on 20 March 1907. Designed by the architectural firm, Hurst, Seager and Wood, the building was built at an elevation which allowed it to escape the pollution of the city. The first patients were admitted as early as 1910. The sanatorium was initially managed by Dr. George Blackmore, who lived in a grand brick house situated on the hillside below the main building. The patients were housed in ‘shelters’, small sheds on the hillside that remained open to the elements in order to maximise air flow. Nearby stood the porter’s hostel and morgue, the latter inspiring a young porter, James K. Baxter, to pen a poem entitled The Morgue.
The next building to be constructed was Coronation Hospital. Situated at the foot of the hill, and named in honour of the coronation of King George V, it was officially opened on 3 June 1914. This section of the complex came to be known as the lower sanatorium, and that of the main building and shelters, came to be called the middle sanatorium.
Further up the hill, overlooking the middle sanatorium, was the nurses’ home. Built in 1917, the building provided the necessary accommodation for the women who diligently cared for the patients. However, it was a cheerless place to reside, consisting of long corridors that echoed ominously and cold rooms with no heating.
At the summit of the hill was the military sanatorium, which opened in 1919 for soldiers who had returned from the war with tuberculosis. In 1925, with many of the soldier’s discharged, this became the civilian men’s sanatorium. However, in 1928 there were still some soldiers left who had spent the last ten years recovering. Known as the upper sanatorium, it closed in 1932.
To the east of the military sanatorium, near where Major Aitken Drive joins Huntsbury Ave, was another facility which consisted of the fresh air home for children of patients, opened in 1923, and a school (1926).
The sanatorium complex was largely avoided by the general public, to the extent that people were unwilling to build houses nearby, or send their children to play with the doctor’s children, for fear of catching the disease.
The life of a patient
Often the first symptom was an irritable cough, followed by weight loss, excessive sweating and exhaustion. After being admitted, a patient would often spend the first six months of their stay at the sanatorium bedridden. Patients had to rest, sitting up only to eat or carry out other daily functions. Regardless of the season or the weather, the rooms in which they were housed were kept open to the elements. If progression was made, the patient was then allowed to spend half an hour out of their bed. The amount of time they could spend outside of their bed would increase, until a patient may be allowed to visit their home once a fortnight. Eventually they would be allowed to return home.
However, like a prisoner on probation, the patient was still required to undergo regular check-ins and assessments. They were expected to live a quiet and restful life. The fear of relapse and return to the sanatorium, or even death, was always present. Many found themselves ostracised by former friends and jobless, with employers unwilling to take them on for fear of them still being contagious. The longest resident patient at the sanatorium had a stay of twenty one years (1937 to 1958).
As the 1950s drew to a close, the sanatorium was rendered obsolete. The development of new drugs and vaccines meant that the number of patients had been on the decline for the past decade. The last patient to recover was discharged in 1960. Following this, the open air shelters where the patients had lived were removed and many found a new purpose as garden sheds or sleep outs in the backyards of Christchurch. The fresh air home and school was renamed the Huntsbury Children’s Home, and continued to operate until 1971. Coronation Hospital was converted into a hospital for geriatrics until 1991, when the age of the building and health care budgets forced it to close.
Following the closure of Coronation Hospital, the construction company, Fulton Hogan, demolished the last of the sanatorium buildings and started the development of what was to become the Broad Oaks subdivision.
Although the sanatorium was seen by the general public as a place of death and despair, Dr. Blackmore was adamant that the sanatorium would be ‘an atmosphere of cheerfulness and hope’. Despite his stern and reserved demeanour, he cared strongly for his patients, and was an advocate for their right return to society as contributing members, not outcasts.
At a time when there was no proven cure for tuberculosis, hope was all the patients had.
Find out more
- Photograph albums with 70 assorted photographs of the Cashmere Sanatorium, Fresh Air School, Fresh Air Home and Coronation Hospital taken between 1913 and 1933.
- Up the Hill: Cashmere Sanatorium and Coronation Hospital, 1910 to 1991.
- Cashmere Sanatorium (now Coronation Hospital) 1906-1964.