Wairau Hospital


Caring for the Marlborough community

In 1865, Marlborough’s first hospital was opened in Picton, the provincial capital of the district. Within ten years it was noted that half of the patients admitted came from the Blenheim side of the Wairau River.1

Wairau hospital Picton1. MarlMusFirst Picton Hospital, built 1865 by Avery Bros. Courtesy Marlborough Museum. Click image to enlarge

Mr Enoch Maddock offered his five room cottage in Maxwell Road (near Litchfield Street) in Blenheim to the Council for an annual rental of £24 in 1878. Known as the Wairau Hospital, a visitor found “a patient in an advanced state of consumption, lying on a hard bed and asking for water.” There was nobody in attendance as the nurse had apparently gone out to buy some butter.2

Marlborough’s second Wairau Hospital, located in the former Immigration Barracks in Park Terrace in Blenheim, was described by the Inspector of Hospitals in 1882, as having a ‘very untidy and poverty stricken appearance…with bedsteads so dilapidated that rough pieces of wood are placed across them beneath the mattresses.’3

From 1878, Dr George Cleghorn was first medical officer of Wairau Hospital. He remained in the role for more than 20 years and was highly regarded as one of the first surgeons in the colony to use antiseptics and perform complex abdominal operations.4

Finance was a constant problem for the district’s early hospital administrators, with some patients struggling to pay the 30 to 40 shillings/week charges.5  It was not until 1958, that the cost of treatment in public hospitals was fully covered by the State.6

Havelock temporary hospital HM1097The temporary hospital set up in the Havelock Town hall during the 1918 Flu epidemic, 12 December 1918. Photo Havelock Museum Society Incorporated.
Click image to enlarge

The third Wairau Hospital was built in the present hospital grounds, which was formerly the 50 acre Amersfoote Estate.7 Beds and bedding were transferred from the Park Terrace barracks complete with an infestation of bugs in 1887. The bugs combined with poor design, soon made it clear that a new hospital was needed.  In 1904, Richard Seddon’s government granted £1300 towards the £5000 cost of a new hospital which was opened on 16 December 1915. The hospital could accommodate 52 patients in three wards (1,2 and 3) and a private ward.8

Wairau Hospital visiting hoursVisiting hours, Wairau Hospital Sunday afternoon, about 1906. Courtesy Marlborough Museum
Click image to enlarge

Chronic alcoholism was common and infectious diseases included typhoid, diphtheria and tuberculosis.9  But the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 stretched the small hospital and the community’ resources.  On 20 November, women were exhorted to volunteer and help in the community as whole families were laid low by the epidemic.10

Wairau Hospital nurses homeWairau Hospital Nurses Home, 1925-6. Courtesy Marlborough Museum
Click image to enlarge

By 29 November, 16 people had died from the flu.11 At the height of the epidemic, 19 out of 20 trained nurses at the hospital were laid up and nearly half of the 108 volunteers were also infected.  However the hospital and community managed to get the deadly epidemic under control within a month.12

Edith Lewis (1882-1967) was matron of Wairau Hospital from 1921 to 1941. One of the country’s best loved matrons, she gave lectures to student nurses at Wairau, with much tuition taking place at the bedsides of patients.13 Matron Lewis served overseas in both World Wars and described her experiences in her book Joy in the Caring.14

During World War II, 6000 troops were stationed in the area and there was a need for 250 additional hospital beds.  The old people’s home at Amersfoote became the number one emergency hospital and the Marlborough College became the number two emergency hospital for a year, in spite of the protests of parents. A new 90 bed hospital block, containing wards 4,5 and 6 was opened in September 1943.15

When the southbound Picton to Christchurch train derailed at Blind River on 25 February 1948, a steady stream of ambulances and vehicles began arriving at Wairau Hospital.  Six people were killed and 41 injured. The two doctors on duty operated on the injured for 12 hours from 4pm.16

2014 (updated 2021)

Read E. Mallet's story to find out what it was like to care for sick family members in Marlborough during the 1940s: Caring for sick family members [PDF]

Sources used in this story

  1. Furness, J. G. (1978) Wairau Hospital 100 years of caring. Blenheim, New Zealand: Marlborough Hospital Board, p 7.
  2. Furness, p.10
  3. Furness, p.14
  4. Stephens, J (2009) Early prominent Marlburians, The Prow
  5. Furness, p.16
  6. Furness, p.35
  7. Furness, p.17
  8. Furness, pp.21-24
  9. Furness, p.25
  10. An appeal to womanhood (1918, November 20) Marlborough Express, p.5
  11. In Marlborough (1918, November 29) Wanganui Chronicle, p.5
  12. Furness, p.60 
  13. O’Connor, M. E. (2010) Free to care, proud to nurse: 100 years of the New Zealand nurses organisation. Wellington, New Zealand: Steele Roberts, p.91
  14. Stephens, J. (2014) Marlborough women at war, The Prow
  15. Furness, pp.32-33; Rationing and requisitions rouse locals (2010, August 11) Marlborough Express on Stuff
  16. Furness, p. 55; Tragedies dominate headlines (2010, September 22) Marlborough Express on Stuff
  17. Marlborough hospital board (1938, March 19) New Zealand Herald, p.14
  18. Furness, p 37
  19. Simpson, H. (2014, June 25) Marlborough Express on Stuff.

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Further sources - Wairau Hospital



  • The Children's Ward, Wairau Hospital (1925, April)  Kai tiaki : the journal of the nurses of New Zealand.18(2), p.80
  • Wairau Hospital Matron retires (1950, October 16) New Zealand nursing journal, 43(6),197
  • Review of Wairau Hospital : 100 years of caring, by J C Furness (1980, April) New Zealand nursing journal, 73(4), p.23

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