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Other Barrett Street Hospital, New Plymouth - April 2017

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The year is 1918 and the cold, motionless, body of Michael Dravitzki is being moved into the New Plymouth hospital morgue. His small frame is covered with a white sheet. It is believed the young boy has fallen victim to a very potent strain of the Spanish influenza virus. The medical staff at the hospital are overwhelmed with the increasing number of patients who are suffering from headaches, sore throats, breathing problems and high fevers. Many fear for their own lives as, day after day, patients and staff begin to dribble red froth from their lips and fall into a state of unconsciousness. Once this happens it is not long before each of their faces gradually darken purple, and then brown before they finally die. Many of the patients had been in good health and going about their everyday business only hours few hours ago, but now they are gravely ill; no one has ever seen anything like it before. To help contain the deadly virus and free up beds for those who desperately need them, the dead are swiftly removed from the hospital, to join the young boy, Michael. There is mass panic spreading throughout the facility and New Plymouth as people fear today could be their last; in many ways, the fear is just as potent as the virus itself. 

Despite the odds, however, Michael lived (up until he was 89 in fact), along with many other New Zealanders. An elderly lady whose job was to assess the bodies in the morgue later discovered that he was still breathing. All in all, though, 8,600 died from the virus (of those 2,160 were Maori). It is thought that the severe form of influenza arrived on the Royal Mail liner Niagara on the 12th October 1918. According to witnesses, even though there were several cases of the influenza on board, two key figures, Prime Minister William Massey and his deputy, Sir Joseph Ward, refused to be quarantined. Therefore, the ship is said to have docked in Auckland and this led to the subsequent release of the virus. However, alternative sources suggest that the case of influenza on board the ship was assessed by health authorities as being ‘ordinary’ and the same as that which already existed in the city, and that Massey and Ward took no part in making quarantine decisions. They argued, instead, that it was the war that caused the deadly pandemic. Yet, regardless of the conflicting stories and the uncertainty about the true cause, one thing is certain and that is that the pandemic that hit New Zealand was very real. 

Barrett Street hospital in New Plymouth – the major city of the Taranaki Region – played a major role in trying to treat the unfortunate victims of the outbreak. In point of fact, Barrett Street Hospital had originally been built in the 1860s to tackle increasing cases of typhus fever, scarlet fever and diphtheria in New Plymouth. It is for this reason the facility became one of the largest in New Zealand; it had more, equipment, suitable medical supplies, beds and staff to take care of patients. In the end, the hospital treated thousands of people and managed to save a large proportion of them. Of the 81,000 people in the area, only 635 died between October and December 1918. The number of fatalities could have been considerably higher without the hospital and its dedicated staff. 

After the flu pandemic, Barrett Street Hospital continued to grow and serve the general public. The first major addition to the site was a home for the nurses. This was constructed in 1905; however, another storey had to be added a year later because it was not large enough to accommodate the expanding staff. By 1916, though, the standards in the nurses’ home were deemed wholly inadequate and substandard. This resulted in a new accommodation block being constructed in 1918. The history on the nurses’ home, which still stands today, can be found in a supplementary report. Following the successful construction of the new onsite accommodation, the hospital expanded further as new offices, an out-patients block, a dedicated children’s ward and a tuberculosis ward were added to the site. 

Nonetheless, the ‘glory days’ at Barrett Street Hospital were numbered. In 1950 the Hospital Board revealed plans for a new, larger, hospital that would be located in Westown, as the existing site could no longer be extended due to the detection of unstable foundations. The hospital very gradually wound things down for the next forty-six years, and, in the end, the original hospital did not actually close until 1996; only by the end of the twentieth century was it completely empty of medical supplies and equipment and sold to the Government for $1 million. It was reported that many people, including staff and nearby residents, were sad to see the eventual closure of their historic centre of medicine. But, many of those people did also admit that the old hospital was getting too old and worn, and that the corridors and wards were too large which meant finding your way across the premises entailed a considerable amount of walking. Surprisingly, though, despite these unpopular features, new life was injected into the hospital as a number of legal (New Plymouth School of Gymnastics and Carrington Funeral Services) and illegal (squatters) tenants moved in.  

The year is 2012 and several heavy knocks coming from the front door have woken a group of squatters. Bleary eyed and slightly hungover from last night’s cans of Tui, several squalid-looking individuals take a minute for their surroundings to come into focus. Most of the windows have been shattered and the glass is strewn over the floor. A mixture of psychedelic colours sting their eyes as they struggle hard to open them. It’s the graffiti, which mostly consists of scruffily written names in red and green spray paint that is scrawled over all the walls in the room. One of the group coughs, retching as the taste of beer and vomit suddenly rises and stings the back of her throat. The glass on the floor crunches loudly as she struggles to stand up right. Three more heavy knocks ring out loudly throughout the room, followed by a loud, authoritative, voice. “Come on, open up. We know you’re in there. We’re Ministry officials, open the door!” The door opens and the Ministry officials enter the foul-smelling room. 

The hospital is to be evacuated. According to recent surveys, the entire site has been deemed earthquake prone. In addition, a large amount of asbestos has been discovered throughout the premises, making it extremely dangerous to enter any of the buildings. One by one the illegal tenants are rounded up and kicked out of the hospital, along with the gymnastic school and funeral company who had been using the old morgue to store their bodies. They are warned not to return, otherwise the police will be called. Just as the officials are about to leave, everyone present is informed that the fate of Barrett Street Hospital is imminent demolition. 

Our Version of Events

Our journey from Midhurst continued up to New Plymouth, where we decided to check out the historic Barrett Street Hospital.It took hours to get there, but bangin’ tunes and beer kept us going. When we finally arrived, the sun was shining and the temperature was twenty degrees, so things were looking good. It was time to get the pasty guns out and set up some tripods and cameras! Looking at the building from the outside, it looked as though it was going to be a right doddle getting inside. We were feeling confident. 

Several hours later, however, and we were still trying to find a way inside. If anything, we can say we were persistent… In the time we’d been there, we’d already bumped into a group of New Zealand’s equivalent of inbred chavs, two ladies (former nurses) who wanted to gain access to the old nurse’s home and a random guy who was checking out the local attractions as he’d just moved to the area. Perhaps we were a little too confident when we boldly told them, “we’ll find a way inside”, despite the metal sheeting that was covering every possible way of getting into the hospital. In the end, though, we did in fact manage to gain access to the main hospital, after failing miserably to get into the nurse’s site. Access was incredibly innovative and a wee bit ballsy to say the least. But desperate times call for desperate measures. 

Once inside the good old smell of rot and damp filled our nostrils. No doubt there was a bit of asbestos in there too, spicing the whole experience up that little bit more. Nice and content we’d finally managed to worm our way inside we began the usual activity of walking around aimlessly. When you think about it, it’s a bit weird really, waking around an entirebuilding for no other purpose than to see its rooms and take photographs. Nevertheless, this is exactly what we did, and this led us to discover the largest corridor any of us have ever seen. This thing was fucking massive, and it can be blamed for wasting many of our valuable minutes. At one point, we did think about giving up trying to find the end, but after thinking about it we decided that we might as well reach the other side to tell everyone about what it was like walking down the longest corridor EVER. As you might imagine, it was much like every other corridor. It had lots of adjoining doors, lightbulbs and terrible wallpaper. 

After walking around a good proportion of the hospital, we came to the conclusion that each of the wards were identical so we decided we weren’t going to get any shots that differed from the ones we’d already taken. In other words, it was all becoming a little samey. With that, we headed for our innovative entrance/exit. On the way, though, we chatted to one another once again about the old nurse’s home, and how it would be a shame to miss out on seeing it. It seemed like it was worth another shot at getting inside, especially since it’s the most historic building on the site and its future is uncertain. As we recalled, although there are talks to try and save it, based on its heritage value, there is no firm plan in place to guarantee its survival.  

Explored with Nillskill and Bane. 




















































































































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Picture 4 with the black parts and stripes looks interesting. Also the fifth photo, with the view through the door to the chair, is well captured.

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6 hours ago, hamtagger said:

Nice collection there :) 


What was up the reds steps in pic 10? :D 

Cheers. Hahaha. I was thinking, what red steps. I can't remember any red steps... :D

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