The Kyoomba Sanatorium – also known as the Stanthorpe Military Sanatorium and the Stanthorpe Military Hospital – would not have come into being had it not been for the foresight of an enterprising Scotswoman by the name of Margaret Allison, nee Dunkeld.
Born on the 20th of April 1840 at Keir, in the county of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Margaret immigrated to Australia in 1873. It was here that she met the owner of the general store at Sugarloaf Creek, William Allison, whom she married almost a year to the day since leaving Scotland, on the 27th of January 1874. Unfortunately there were no children from this union.
William was an astute business operator and when he died after 16 years of marriage, in 1890, Margaret inherited a number of commercial properties in the Sugarloaf and Stanthorpe areas – and proceeded to become a serious and highly-successful entrepreneur in her own right.
Our interest lies with one of Margaret’s diverse projects – the Kyoomba Sanatorium.
Margaret had land holdings in the Kyoomba area – on high ground between Stanthorpe itself and Sugarloaf – and in 1907 engaged architect Hugh Campbell to call tenders for the construction of a sanatorium.
By the end of that year the Kyoomba Sanatorium was treating its first patients under the care of Dr Helen Shaw who was the first doctor to lease the Sanatorium from Margaret. The Sanatorium continued to operate as a private treatment facility until the first Diggers began to return home from the front during World War 1.
Many of these returned soldiers were suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and the effects of gas attacks and Margaret agreed to make her Sanatorium available to the Red Cross for their treatment. But the Red Cross became overwhelmed by the task and in March 1917 – with Margaret’s approval – the Commonwealth took over management of Kyoomba, which then became known as the ‘Stanthorpe Military Sanatorium’. Margaret later sold the property to the Commonwealth Department of Defence.
Margaret died in 1926 but by then her entrepreneurial spirit had been to the benefit of the many returned service personnel who regained their health thanks to treatment at the Sanatorium.
The hillside facility is believed to have originally consisted of several relatively small timber structures but after its takeover by the Commonwealth – and with sick Diggers ever increasing in number – the Government began an expansion program.
Growing numbers of Diggers were housed in temporary floored tents while two large main wards were constructed, along with individual cubicles for patients, nurses’ quarters, a doctor’s residence, recreation rooms, a dining and kitchen block and a power-house and laundry. Over the years more buildings were built to house the growing number of soldiers and staff. At the time, ‘the San’ as it was known was leading- edge among medical facilities in Australia – and in a picturesque hillside location.
Soldiers convalescing at the Sanatorium were treated to visits from notable figures and officialdom. In 1921 the Queensland Governor of the day – the Rt. The Honourable Lieutenant Colonel Sir Matthew Nathan, GCMG – toured the facility, another notable visitor in 1921 was legendary First World War General Sir Harry Chauvel.
Overall he was impressed with what he saw, noting that the men “appeared to be deriving great benefit from their treatment”, but also observing at the time the comfort of the staff needed to receive “more consideration”.
“There seemed to me to be a great lack of furniture and ordinary comforts,” he wrote in a letter to the Repatriation Commissioners in Melbourne.
General Chauvel also made the point that the Sanatorium “seemed to have a very small establishment of Orderlies etc., in consideration of the large and scattered nature of the buildings”.
“Patients, it is presumed, are not expected to do any of the cleaning up and it appeared to me that there were not enough orderlies to keep the ward floors and the precincts of the buildings as clean and tidy as they should be kept,” he wrote. “The kitchens, nurses quarters, laundry and power house were, however, in excellent order.”
In 1927, the soldiers at the sanatorium had a visit from pioneer Australian aviator Bert Hinkler and his wife. Later that same year the Duke and Duchess of York, later to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, were in Australia to open Federal Parliament in Canberra. Between the 5th and 12th April, the Royal couple travelled by train from Wallangarra to Toowoomba. Along the way they stopped in Stanthorpe and took time to visit the soldiers and medical staff at the sanatorium.
To keep up their spirits and aid in both their physical and emotional recovery from the experience of war, the men were often treated to concerts, plays and picnics. Other recreations and exercise were encouraged and included lawn bowls, swimming and billiards – 1924 the Brisbane Red Cross donated two billiard tables to the Sanatorium from its former Repatriation Convalescent Farm at Mount Gravatt, for the use of patients and staff.
They also grew some of their own fresh produce grown and tended by them in the grounds. Mention must also be made of Helena Grace White, known as Mrs C F White, who was the Stanthorpe Red Cross representative at the Sanatorium until 1934. She received an MBE in recognition of her work, which included taking supplies to the patients and organizing outings including picnics in the bush.
Also worth noting is that the Stanthorpe RSL Sub Branch was started in 1918 and the first president was Gustav Herbert Schemalleck, who was the Officer in Charge at the Sanatorium. The formation of the TB Sailor’s, Soldier’s and Airmen’s Association of Queensland had significant ties as well to the Sanatorium, with a number of patients holding positions on the Committee over time.
By the early 1930s, with the treated and cured Diggers all gone and other patient numbers dropping in general, the Commonwealth realised upkeep of the Sanatorium was too great a financial burden and it closed in 1935.
Its buildings, fittings and machinery were put to auction by the Federal Government in 1937. Over 400 people attended the auction but despite the quality of the materials offered for sale the return was surprisingly minimal.
Few traces remain of what was once a bustling hospital complex. One is the Stanthorpe Drill Hall, the Sanatorium’s former kitchen and dining building – stands at the corner of Short and Connor Streets in Stanthorpe. Three other buildings were used as wool sheds on properties at Pikedale and at Bangalow.
But more significant than any physical reminders of the Sanatorium are the lives and legacies of returned Australian servicemen who survived the war and its associated horrors and were lucky enough to come home. A portion of men died at the Sanatorium from tuberculous, while the majority of men went on to recuperate there before their return to civilian life.