The first Colonial Hospital

In 1845, the colony’s governor, George Grey commissioned four hospitals, to be located in Wellington, Auckland, New Plymouth and Wanganui. A particular stipulation that he made was that each hospital should provide services to both the settlers and local Maori. Indeed, when plans were drawn up for the hospital in Wellington, it was referred to as the Native Hospital and that title continued through until the end of 1847 when it was replaced by the Colonial Hospital.

The hospital opened in September 1847 and which was built on land donated by local Maori, bordered by Pipitea and Mulgrave streets – on the site where present-day Wellington Girls’ College is located. This was the first of the four colonial hospitals to open.

It was a two storey brick and plaster structure. On the ground floor was a large surgery, opposite to which was another room used as a sick ward. Other rooms on the ground floor were offices. On the first floor was a large ward running the length of the building, capable of housing eight to ten patients. It was planned to add two extra wings in due course to accommodate more patients.

There were steam and shower baths. Each patient was taken straight to the bath rooms on admission and if not too ill was subject to a steam bath by the hospital attendants.

first Thorndon Hospitalfrom a sketch by L E Ward

The medical officer in charge of the hospital was Dr John Patrick Fitzgerald. He had been appointed Colonial Surgeon by the colony’s first Governor, Hobson.  

Fitzgerald had arrived in Wellington in 1840. He was popular with local Maori and he made a point of learning Te Reo Maori. Dr Fitzgerald lived nearby the hospital in Thorndon and was assisted by two resident hospital attendants, husband and wife John and Sarah Jacobs. They acted as cleaners and cooks, nurses and dressers, and general dog’s bodies, working very long hours for very little pay. By 1849 Mrs Jacobs came to be known as ‘the Matron’.  

On 16 October 1848 Wellington experienced a severe earthquake resulting in significant damage to the hospital. Patients were evacuated to Government House.

earthquake-damaged hospital

photograph courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of NZ, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa

A ‘temporary’ hospital was set up in a newly completed building that had been intended as a hotel.

The second Thorndon Hospital

Plans for a new hospital were drawn up in 1851. They provided for a significant increase in patient numbers (40), and included was a female ward, and for the first time we see reference to nursing staff – at least to a Matron.

plan of second Thorndon Hospital

plan courtesy Archives New Zealand Te Whare Tohu Tuhituhinga O Aotearoa

The hospital which was built on the same site as the original one, was opened in 1852.

photograph courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of NZ, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa

The new hospital was designed with earthquakes in mind, being single storey and constructed of wood. It would serve as Wellington’s hospital for the next 29 years.

Dr Alexander Johnston


Dr Fitzgerald left the colony in 1854 and was replaced by Dr Alexander Johnston as medical officer.

By 1870 however, Wellington was growing rapidly and the hospital was too small for the needs of the town. In addition sanitary conditions had deteriorated and the importance of hygiene was newly recognised. (Lister had published his landmark papers in 1867). So planning for a new hospital began.

Last updated 25 October 2016.