Waipiata Sanatorium by Kath Baynes
The Waipiata Sanatorium looks down on the huge expanse that is the Maniototo Basin, Central Otago. It is a place where the air is such that it compels you to take deep breaths, to inhale the pureness.
It was in these surroundings that the Waipiata Sanatorium site was chosen by a Dr Byers for the treatment of tuberculosis patients. Miners in the goldfields who had respiratory conditions thrived in the environs, notwithstanding the harshness of the winter and the heat of the summer.
Dr Byers originally ran the Sanatorium as a private venture before several health boards took over the establishment. It continued as a hospital until the 1960s when antibiotics were introduced as a cure for tuberculosis.
It was converted to a youth prison, (borstal) with the addition of some buildings, until it was disestablished by the government.
Margaret Bradfield, whose family now own this establishment, took time out of her busy day, preparing for a group coming for a weekend retreat, to share some of her history, and the history of the Sanatorium with us. Both were equally interesting.
Even today, people with some connection to the place call in and are welcomed by Margaret and her family.
One caller was part of a German migrant family. He was 10 years old when they arrived at the Sanatorium. He and his parents were allocated rooms to live in. They were bonded to the place and one can only imagine the isolation they must have felt so far from their homeland and in an environment so alien to that which they left behind.
Another woman told of how her mother was sent there two weeks after giving birth to her baby daughter. The family lived in Tīmaru. She, the baby was sent to live with extended family in Christchurch. Her father visited her once a month, and travelled to Waipiata to see his wife on the fortnight in between. Her mother recovered and the child was reunited with her family when she was about four years old. The insight into what life must have been like for her mother gave her, as it does to many who visit, closure.
I had not been aware that there was a reticence among the population to acknowledge that a family member had TB. One visitor explained that the subject of his aunts having been in the Sanatorium was not discussed. As if there was a shame attached to it. But TB was contagious and often considered a disease of the poor.
Margaret showed us photograph albums of the buildings and people associated with the place, nurses, workers and patients. One showed wards, specially designed with large windows that were open to the elements. In winter patients had to have their hot water bottles filled every two hours to prevent hypothermia. I wondered how the poor nurses survived the conditions and if they were made to adhere to the uniforms of the day or allowance was made for the cold.
The open wards, with screens between patients, were closed in and changed into cells with solid doors when it was turned into a prison. These doors have now been restored to original condition and the prison institutional linoleum has been stripped back to expose the polished wood.
Many relationships were formed as the residents and workers lived in close quarters where they relied on one another. In some of the photos the faces of the patients and staff reflect this place, with a look of contentment and happiness.
The hospital was surrounded by a farm of 1600 acres that supplied meat, fruit, vegetables and milk. Patients would help out when well enough and the prison inmates worked on the farm as part of their rehabilitation.
The drive up to the Sanatorium is on a tarsealed road in contrast to the other secondary roads in the district which are gravel. The reason for this is that it went to a Government owned institution. When the Government closed the prison the buildings were to be demolished, and some were. Fortunately it was bought by two businessmen who had grand plans for the place. That saved it from further destruction.
Today what remains is being cared for and upgraded where necessary when money allows. Margaret and her husband bought the property in 1987. Today it sustains several families and groups use the place for retreats. She has a firm belief in God and that this place is one of healing, if not now of physical illness, the healing of souls.
- Established by Dr Byers as a private institution: 1918
- Hospital Boards take responsibility: 1925
- Youth Prison (Borstal): 1960
- Closed by Government and sold: 1980
- Bought by the Bradfield family: 1987