HISTORIC: Tarmons, the original St Vincents Hospital, Sydney.
HISTORIC: Tarmons, the original St Vincents Hospital, Sydney.

History: Sisters of Charity help women convicts

ON December 31, 1838 five women arrived in Australia aboard the Francis Spaight. They were members of the Religious Sisters of Charity based in Cork, Ireland, and had come to New South Wales at the request of Bishop Polding of Sydney. He was concerned at the sorry state of women convicts, especially Irish women, in the Colony at that time. Many worked for the government at the Female Factory in Parramatta. Some had children who were generally neglected. There was much illness and no hope of education, especially for the children.

Early in 1839 the Sisters went to Parramatta, possibly walking most of the way as there were few roads and vehicles were rare at that time. They were the first religious sisters in Australia and soon made themselves known, if only because of their "strange" dress. Most of their time they spent visiting the poor and the sick but they also found time to establish a school for children of convicts. Three of the Sisters had trained as professional nurses in France so their skills were vital, especially when there was a bad influenza epidemic in the 1840s. They trained other girls to become nurses.

Numbers soon began to increase as local girls joined the Order. Their work at Parramatta ended in 1847. However, they had also established themselves in the Sydney community. As well, requests came for them to go to other areas including to Tasmania. The sisters visited government hospitals, orphanages, schools and gaols. They had little or no transport at these times so walking was still the usual method of travel when visiting institutions. They received some financial support from donations but largely they had to rely on their own resourcefulness which included sewing.

However, it was in 1856 that a major event occurred - the Sisters obtained a building which was to be opened twelve months later as the first St Vincents Hospital in Sydney. The building known as "Tarmons" had been built at Potts Point about 1840 by Sir Maurice O'Connell, the second husband of Mary Bligh, daughter of Governor William Bligh of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame. Sir Maurice called the building Tarmons (meaning sanctuary) after his family's home in County Kerry, Ireland. On the death of Sir Maurice in 1848 "Tarmons" was sold to Sir Charles Nicholson.

In 1855 Sir Charles decided to return to England so he put his mansion up for sale for £10,000 ($20,000). The Sisters decided it would make an ideal hospital. They held a huge bazaar and the proceeds of this, plus donations (including £1,000 from Sir Charles) achieved their purpose. The building also housed the Convent as well as a school for poor children. As the years went by other buildings were built on the five-acre site. Eventually the old building was demolished but the name "Tarmons" was transferred to one of the new buildings.

In 1921 Bishop Carroll of Lismore asked the Sisters of Charity to come and open a hospital in Lismore. Three Sisters volunteered and they were given a section of land previously obtained by the Catholic Church. It contained a fine house built by the first Mayor of Lismore, James Stocks, and it was here that the first St Vincents Hospital in Lismore was born. The Sisters named the building "Tarmons". It housed the Convent as well as a 12-bed hospital unit. This building is still in use though it is now dwarfed by other buildings in the hospital complex. Sadly, the Sisters of Charity are no longer there, though their legend lives on.

Prepared by Geoff & Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, Lismore.

Telephone: 02 6621 9993. Email: info@richhistory.org.au

Hours: Museum - Monday-Friday 10am-4pm; Research Room - Monday & Wednesday 10am-4pm.



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