||Located in Adelaide Street, Birdsville, the single-storeyed, prefabricated steel, Australian Inland Mission Hospital building was erected in 1952-1953 on the site of its predecessor, which burnt down in November 1951. An Australian Inland Mission bush nursing home or hostel was established at Birdsville in 1923 in the former Royal Hotel building [QHR600459] the first mission hostel in Queensland and the seventh in Australia. It was replaced by a purpose-built, pre-fabricated hospital opened in 1937 on land purchased by the Presbyterian Church.
Although European explorers had passed through the Diamantina district in the 1840s and early 1860s, this semi-arid region was not occupied until the mid-1870s when a number of pastoral runs were established. In the early 1880s the towns of Birdsville and Bedourie developed to service the newly taken up pastoral holdings of the Diamantina. Birdsville, known originally as the Diamantina Crossing, is reputed to have sprung up around a rough depot constructed by general merchant Matthew Flynn in the late 1870s on the stock route from Boulia south to Adelaide. It became the headquarters of Diamantina Shire when the shire was established in 1883. The township was officially surveyed by mid-1885 and the name Birdsville adopted in reference to the profuse bird life of the district. Located over 1,000 miles west of Brisbane and seven miles north of the Queensland-South Australian border Birdsville developed as an administrative centre for police and border customs. Nearly all the trade of the town was with Adelaide, and it became an important marshalling point for cattle being driven south to markets in South Australia. Due to the lack of local timber, the town's remoteness and the lack of good access by roads or rail, which created prohibitively high transportation costs, almost all the town's early buildings were built of local sandstone. The population peaked in 1895 at 220.
The Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission (AIM) leased the Royal Hotel buildings (erected from circa 1883) from 1923 to 1937 as their first bush nursing home, or hostel in Queensland. At that time the AIM was headed by its founder Rev. Dr John Flynn, who was working toward establishing a flying doctor and air ambulance service for remote central Australia. Such a service could only operate efficiently if it could be contacted quickly, which became possible in 1929, with Alfred Traeger's invention of the pedal radio. In August 1929 Traeger installed at the AIM's Birdsville Hostel one of six experimental pedal radios, the others being placed at four head stations in far western Queensland and at the Aboriginal Mission at Mornington Island, with base station VJI established at Cloncurry. The system revolutionised outback communications. Importantly, Birdsville became reliably connected to the station properties in the Diamantina district and with the new Aerial Medical Service, established by Flynn in 1928 under the auspices of the AIM and based at Cloncurry.
By 1930 the Royal Hotel building needed extensive repairs and the AIM decided to erect a purpose-built hospital - more modest than the masonry hospitals erected at Victoria River Downs (circa1923), Innamincka (1923) and Alice Springs (1926). AIM hospitals, previously intended to become district hospitals, changed in purpose after the advent of the flying doctor. Their function changed to that of first-aid posts, with serious cases being evacuated to larger centres. The Birdsville Hospital took years to eventuate. It was not until April 1937 that the purchase of land for the project at the eastern end of Adelaide Street, the main street of Birdsville, was completed. Flynn decided on a pre-fabricated building, designed for the arid conditions, to function as a community house and public hall as well as a hospital. The hospital opened in December 1937, and a separate Aboriginal ward, a simple transverse gabled building with corrugated iron cladding and roof over a steel frame, was added between before 1951.
On 10 November 1951 the AIM Hospital at Birdsville was destroyed by fire thought to be caused when a kerosene refrigerator blew up. Only the Aboriginal ward was spared, but no lives were lost. Within days of the disaster the Charleville Flying Doctor Base flew out medical supplies and rigged an emergency transceiver and aerial to restore communications, while Rev. Les McKay of the AIM Western Queensland Patrol drove from Burketown to begin salvage operations. The ruins of the burnt building were dismantled and temporary accommodation erected out of salvaged material so that services could continue. An emergency hospital was set up in the two small rooms of the Aboriginal ward and a bough shed was constructed adjoining it.
Local people started a subscription for a replacement hospital and a re-building fund appeal was organised. Donations of £100 came from each of the Kidman cattle stations in the area and many other donors Australia-wide. Queensland's Minster for Health promised a pound for pound subsidy, thereby ensuring the project proceeded.
In February 1952 a prefabricated steel building was ordered from the Sidney Williams factory in Sydney. The materials were transported from Sydney by road to Birdsville via Broken Hill, Marree and the Birdsville track a two thousand mile journey. The Rev. Les McKay spent a year in Birdsville assisting with the re-building.
Ben Hargreaves, builder of the 1937 AIM hospital at Birdsville, came out of retirement to undertake construction of the 1952 buidling. A skilled cabinetmaker with outback experience, he constructed the building and made most of the original furniture and fittings, such as cupboards and tables on site, using North Queensland silky oak. Other furniture was of tubular steel, regarded as ideal for bush conditions, while canvas deck chairs lined the front verandah. These were used by outpatients and also for open-air movie shows, church services and other gatherings. Some of the furnishings and equipment were donated for instance, the dispensary was equipped by the Society of St Andrew, Brisbane and the Adelaide pharmaceutical company, Fauldings, gave £100 worth of drugs.
The new hospital was opened on 5 August 1953, having cost £15,000. The opening was a community event for the Diamantina Shire and beyond. The gala event was accompanied by a two-day race meeting and a dance, and attracted the largest crowd the town had ever seen. The opening and dramatic events preceding it were recorded in the movie Diamantina Drama, one of several films produced by the AIM. A reporter from Brisbane's Courier-Mail attended and the ABC broadcast the event in their news the next day, referring to it as 'the miracle at Birdsville'.
As with the former building, the plan incorporated a large central room (pavilion) suitable for public gatherings. The plan and footprint generally followed that of the former building, except that a central entrance has replaced two former front porches. Other rooms include a dispensary, two wards men's and women's, the latter used by the sisters or visitors when not needed for patients; a wireless room-cum lounge with an open fireplace, that once housed the transceiver and a circulating library for the use of local people; a large kitchen with floor to ceiling cupboards and an adjoining pantry; bathrooms, toilets and sisters'accommodation.
Sidney Williams & Co, which prefabricated both the 1937 and 1952 AIM hospitals, was a well-known steel fabrication business. Originally based in Rockhampton, it was active in the prefabrication of metal buildings from the 1890s. The Company began to expand rapidly around the time of the development of its Comet Windmill (c1910) with branches established in Brisbane and Townsville. In 1922 the Company opened a new factory in Sydney which led to the closure of the Brisbane and Rockhampton Works. During World War II the company prefabricated large numbers of 'huts' for the Defence Forces. The Company also established hundreds of offices and agencies throughout Australia to distribute and service its product. A subsidiary of the Company, BOWAS, was established in 1950 as a result of the significant building component of the Company's operations. This company ceased trading in 1976.
From as early as the late 1890s the Company was involved in designing, manufacturing and erecting steel-framed buildings for many purposes including rural and town uses. The Company promoted their buildings as being white ant proof, fire proof, hygienic, long lasting and easily dismantled and erected on another site. Their so-called 'ordinary buildings' were those individually designed to meet the specific client's needs. The whole of the frame was erected in the factory yard with all the joints being marked. The structure was then dismantled and packaged for shipment to the site for re-erection. There was extensive use of their locally-manufactured, prefabricated metal buildings throughout the hot, sparsely populated areas of pastoral Queensland and the Northern Territory. Buildings prefabricated by this company included: hangars; Sidney Williams Huts; the Supreme Court complex in Darwin; Christ the King Catholic Church at Tennant Creek; dormitory and school accommodation on Croker Island; and AIM hospitals at Tennant Creek (pre-1937) and at Dunbar on Cape York (circa 1953).
Additional buildings were added to the Birdsville Hospital site over time. The main building was surrounded by a series of detached buildings, including the Aboriginal ward, laundry, electric light plant house (the later two made from materials salvaged from the former hospital building), goat pen, chook house and Old Timers' cottages. These cottages were built in 1963, to accommodate elderly bushmen who wanted to spend their final years in retirement in the precincts of the town. One of these Old Timers' cottages was named the Francis Cottage after Grace Francis, one of the first AIM nurses in Birdsville. Towering behind the building was a tall radio aerial and a windmill, the latter used to generate electricity.
Following the creation of the Uniting Church in Australia in the 1970s, the work of the Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission, the Methodist Inland Mission and the Home Mission of the Congregational Church, was amalgamated as the Uniting Church in Australia Frontier Services. From 1977 to 2005 the Birdsville AIM Hospital was operated by Frontier Services.
Like all AIM hospitals, Birdsville's was intended eventually to be handed over to local control. In 2005 the Australian Inland Mission Hospital at Birdsville closed, after serving as a hospital for 53 years. Its function was taken over by the Diamantina Shire Council, which built a clinic on adjacent land provided by the Uniting Church Frontier Services. The former AIM Hospital remains the property of The Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (Qld), which holds the land and buildings in trust for Frontier Services, but is now open to the public as the 'Old Birdsville Hospital historical display'.