The Thames gold fields were a treacherous place, so it comes as no surprise that the idea of setting up a local hospital is not much younger than the idea of setting up the gold field itself. In March 1868, just seven months after the gold field was proclaimed, a public meeting was held at Butt's American Theatre in Shortland (the site of Fresho’s fruit shop and the old information centre today) to discuss setting up Thames Hospital. Hundreds of people attended, all with the goal of making the fledgling town a safer place to live and work.
Searching for gold in the 1860s was a dangerous business. With most men living in tents or small huts in the first years of the gold field, it was easy to fall sick in the cold and muddy conditions before you even got as far as your gold claim. The tent city that first sprang up in Thames had little in the way of public amenities – no sewers and makeshift roads were the norm. The hunt for gold was physically and mentally demanding, with much of the gold found in quartz hidden deep underground in the hills. Accidents were common, as were illnesses caused by inhaling fumes and quartz dust. Getting professional medical help to injured miners could be a huge logistical nightmare.
The hospital’s opening in November 1868 was a huge cause for celebration, with the New Zealand Herald calling the new building ‘the most valuable institution yet established [on the Thames].’ Due to the hospital’s small size, it operated on a subscription system; while anyone could turn up in need of medical help, men who had subscribed to hospital tickets would take priority over those who had not, if there wasn’t enough space available. If you didn’t own a ticket, the doctors had the right to turn you away.
By February, however, Thames’ population explosion had already rendered the hospital far too small. The hospital had an average of ten indoor patients and twelve outdoor patients per day; although the New Zealand Herald noted that on the day it visited there were thirty outdoor patients, several of which should really be moved indoors. The Herald thought a new Thames Hospital would need space for about eighty patients to keep up with demand.
By November 1869, a year after the hospital opened, 101 patients had received treatment at the hospital. Eighty of those patients were from England or Ireland, and only seven had been born in New Zealand. Forty people had been involved in an accident, and only ten had subsequently died. The hospital had proved itself a huge asset to the frontier town.