Where was the Island’s first “Public Hospital”?

Examiner (Charlottetown) 4 August 1851. p.3

Health care was very much a private matter in the first half of the 19th century Prince Edward Island. The colony had a smattering of doctors and there was a hospital building at the military garrison located at the western end of Water Street. However the hospital building at the barracks served only the small military establishment and it was sold in 1845 and either torn down or removed from the site.

There were two exceptions to the determination of health issues as private and the responsibility of families. The first of these was the necessity of protecting the citizens from infectious diseases such as smallpox and typhus which often reached the colony accompanying immigrants or the crews of ships. Then, as now, one of the first lines of defence was quarantine and there are reports of temporary isolation hospitals being set up to deal with disease outbreak. The other exception was mental illness which taxed the abilities of families to provide the long-term care needed. In the 1840s a lunatic asylum was built on farmland in in Brighton to provide relief and limited treatment and it also served as a workhouse for the indigent.

Both the Charlottetown Hospital (established in 1879) and the Prince Edward Island Hospital (established in 1884) lay claim to being the first public hospital in Prince Edward Island. Is it possible that these claims are made in error?  

In 1851 the Charlottetown Board of Health, established by the Colonial Government, was provided with funds to build a public hospital  and tenders were called in August of that year for the erection of the hospital, sinking a well, and excavating a cellar. Later tenders for the supply of posts and the erection of a fence around the “Public Hospital Ground” gave a location for the new facility – the south-western corner of the Government House Grounds.  The Public Accounts of the Colony record that £251 had been spent for the erection of a new building for a hospital” in 1851.

Detail from a plan of Government House Farm 1856. The hospital can be seen at the extreme left . Image Confederation Centre Art Gallery and Museum.

The building shows up on Duchess Point an 1856 plan of the Government House property and is featured on  an 1869 edition of Bayfield’s Chart of Charlottetown Harbour.  As a building on an easily identifiable part of the waterfront it would have had value on a chart as an aid to navigation. However by the time that the chart revisions had reached the printing stage the landmark had disappeared. However It continued to appear on later editions of the chart into the 20th century.

The confusion is compounded by an article in the “Charlottetown Fifty Years Ago” series by Elizabeth L. MacDonald which appeared in the Prince Edward Island Magazine in 1901. In it, she references the hospital on the Government House grounds in connection with housing the typhus patients from the Irish immigrant ship Lady Constable. However the Lady Constable arrived in 1847 and there is no record of the hospital before 1851. 

Detail of Government House property from 1869 Chart of Charlottetown Harbour.

Unfortunately there seems to be little or no information about the 1851 building or how it operated. Was it truly a public hospital providing a range of services or was it, as is suggested below, simply another name for an insolation or quarantine hospital?. The location at some remove from the town suggests  that this may be the case. We can conclude that it was unsuccessful in addressing the health care needs of the city for a dozen years later, in April 1863, it was advertised for sale by auction. In the sale advertisement the building is described as “commonly known as the Quarantine Hospital. In an unusual desire for speed the building was to be removed within a week of the sale.

Examiner (Charlottetown) 29 April 1863 p.3

The sale was scoffed at by the editor of the Examiner newspaper who saw it as a false economy. The building, on which several hundred pounds had been spent sold for only £18!  “Should any infectious disease be brought into our community, where are the unfortunate patients to be put? That is a question which evidently does not alarm our government.” asked the paper’s editor. The question was to be answered  by a series of attempts to establish a separate isolation hospital but was ultimately decided through the erection of not one, but two, hospitals in the city between 1879 and 1884. 

Prior to the discovery of these advertisements concerning the “public hospital” I had convinced myself that the hospital on Duchess Point on the Government House Grounds was an error on the chart. I should never have doubted Her Majesty’s  Hydrographers. However the building had disappeared in 1863 and the chart did not appear for another six years so technically it was a defective aid to navigation.

For an earlier posting detailing more of the rich and confusing history of Charlottetown’s marine and quarantine hospitals click here

Post script July 2020.  Expert researcher and genealogist Linda Jean Nicholson appears to have resolved the main question of this posting, From her experience in researching health matters she has provided a note from the appendices for the PEI House of Assembly for 1862 (a year before the building was torn down) from the Charlottetown Health Officer, Dr. John T. Jenkins, complaining of conditions at the quarantine hospital and stating that in the absence of any other public hospital those with serious medical problems would show up at both the Lunatic Asylum (also in Brighton ) and the quarantine hospital seeking help.      



1 thought on “Where was the Island’s first “Public Hospital”?

  1. Pingback: The Confusing Story of the Charlottetown Marine Hospitals | Sailstrait

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