Mary McConnel (1824 – ) founder of Brisbane children’s hospital
The Brisbane Royal Children’s Hospital has continued to prosper. It is an enduring memorial to a woman who allowed God to take the tragedies of her life and use them “for some practical purpose”.
Queensland pioneer, Mary McConnel (nee McLeod), founded the Brisbane Children’s Hospital. She was born in Scotland in 1824, and in 1848 she emigrated to Moreton Bay (Brisbane) with her husband, David McConnel, who had spent several years pioneering in Australia. Mary’s family and friends had all advised against such a drastic step, but her decision had been made only after much thought and earnest prayer for guidance. “Surely I was helped”, she wrote later. “My subsequent life, I think, proves that my Father had chosen this way for His child.”
On the voyage out, David, an experienced bushman, had taken aboard two terrier dogs, which proved most useful, as the passengers were plagued by rats. One terrier was always out on loan; the other was constantly needed in the cabin. One night, after Mary had sat down to a supper of bread and cheese with Mrs Hobbs, the mother of the ship’s doctor, a large rat bounded across the table straight for the cheese. A tussle followed but the old lady won!
The McConnels settled at Cressbrook, a sheep and cattle station in the Moreton Bay area. Although they were reasonably well off, Mary was not exempt from the rigours of pioneer life. She still had to face the endless farm chores, domestic chores, child rearing, lack of conveniences, and loneliness. Letters from home (Scotland) were infrequent and her faith in God was tested daily. With characteristic resourcefulness, Mary used what she had to make her drab environment look cheerful. A roll of unbleached calico was good for curtains, cushions and covers. She took twelve of her husband’s red silk handkerchiefs, cut them into strips, used them as binding for the covers, “and then I had a pretty room to sit in”. The door opened onto the flower garden:
. . . and the beautiful hills beyond it. The bunya tree was growing quite stately by the path but it was all very solitary in this vastness, terribly so. I believed that the Lord must have sent me to this new land for some practical purpose.
Both McConnel and his wife were Presbyterians and deeply religious. Their faith in God had a practical outcome. They were the ideal settlers–hardworking, enterprising, thoughtful and caring. As they were able to afford it, they hired new immigrants, many of whom had been sponsored by the Presbyterian pioneer missionary Dr John Dunmore Lang, who had made arrangements with the British Government for the emigration of good quality Scottish folk. For the payment of two hundred pounds, an immigrant was able to buy land upon arrival in Australia. The McConnels helped many of these immigrants get started by selling them land on easy terms. McConnel would often bring many people to the station–splinters, sawyers, carpenters, bricklayers–for a cup of tea and fresh scones. Mary played her role also. She visited the wives and children in their huts. Her heart would also go out to the young wives who worked long hours alongside their husbands on the crosscut saws, digging out roots of trees, and living in tents until their huts were finished. However, she was particularly concerned about their children for they were very far from medical help in the event of sickness or accident. It was a long way to town on a cart pulled over rough roads. Besides, most people could not afford the doctor’s fee. As a result, some children died.
There was also no school, so Mary started one. Her dining room was converted to a schoolroom on weekdays, and to a church on Sundays. She taught lessons and Scripture, and hired a full-time teacher, started a library, held a weekly mothers’ meeting, and entertained the many visitors. The McConnels were deeply involved in the lives of the settlers, and in a few years Cressbrook station was the centre of a thriving busy district with homes, a church, a school, small shops and even a sugar mill. By the time Mary was an old lady writing her memoirs, three generations of some families had worked with them.
Mary’s greatest contribution to her country grew out of her concern for the welfare of the children–a concern reinforced by experiences and tragedies in her own life. The McConnel’s first baby, Harry, was a lively and adventurous child. One day, when she was busy preparing a keg of pineapple jam to send home to England–crushing the fruit into pulp, placing it in large earthenware containers, and sprinkling it with sugar–she had not noticed that the toddler was busy helping himself to the pulp. That night, as Mary described it in her memoirs, “the Lord” woke her up at 2.00 a.m. Immediately she sensed something was wrong and rushed down to the nursery. Harry was having a fit, foaming around the mouth. His face was dark purple, his eyes glazed, and his body cold and rigid. Mary remembered the advice of a neighbour who had given her a list of rules for young mothers. One was never to be without hot water. Mary had faithfully adhered to the rule and she quickly put Harry in a hot bath. Soon he became less rigid and vomited up a large amount of pineapple pulp! She wrote in her memoirs: “Could I ever doubt the ever watchful eye of our Father in Christ our Lord for this deliverance?”
After the birth of her second son, she became very ill herself and almost died, if it had not been for the help of an old German doctor. As was common in those days, medical help was often not readily available. It took four days by buggy on rough roads through swamps and mud, in rainy weather, to get Mary from Cressbrook to Brisbane. While she was still recovering from her own illness, her seven-month old baby became sick and died in her arms. McConnel, who was “the best and kindest of husbands”, tried to comfort her. She “tried not to fret” and to “accept [her] Father’s will”. Several years later, the McConnels lost their fourth baby, who was just two months old.
Although the death of an infant was common in those days, the loss of their two babies left an indelible mark on Mary. She pondered these things in her heart. What good purpose did her loving Heavenly Father have for her in these seeming tragedies? She resisted the temptation to become bitter, choosing rather to trust in Him and to believe that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; Gen. 50:20). Mary became very interested in infant and child welfare. She saw the need for a children’s hospital, as infants under five could not be admitted to the Brisbane Hospital, and there were no special wards for children. So while visiting Britain, she visited the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh and the famous Great Ormond Hospital for Sick Children to observe their methods.
When she returned, Mary instigated a fundraising campaign to build a children’s hospital. She also undertook to find staff for the new hospital. Since none could be found in the colony, she wrote to her brother, Dr McLeod, in Yorkshire. His wife was able to find and engage the services of a matron and two nursing sisters. They also purchased medical equipment. The new hospital opened on 11 March 1878 in a converted private house in Spring Hill. It rapidly outgrew the premises and was moved to its current site in Bowen Hills. The Brisbane Royal Children’s Hospital has continued to prosper. It is an enduring memorial to a woman who allowed God to take the tragedies of her life and use them “for some practical purpose”.
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