The Hahndorf Private Hospital
Article by Reg Butler (Hahndorf)
At popular request, I am compiling a short history of the Hahndorf Private Hospital. This business operated for only a short while - between 1935-1940. Doctors from Hahndorf, Lobethal and Woodside were between them responsible for admitting patients and prescribing their treatment. A nursing sister from outside the area oversaw the general running of the hospital, while the enrolled nurses and domestic staff came from local families. Patients arrived from most of the immediate vicinity in the Adelaide Hills and amazingly, in some instances, from much further afield. What were the connections which spread the patient net so wide?
Although the Hahndorf Private Hospital survived for only five years, like so much else connected with Hahndorf’s long history, that story is complicated and controversial. With the survival of only a handful of public records, the saga must be written from a most diverse series of sources. Unfortunately, that process takes much time and patience to tell with any logic.
Brief History of The Hahndorf Private Hospital
The Hahndorf Private Hospital grew out of the Ambleside Private Hospital which operated in the former Hahndorf College building [better known to modern Hahndorf residents as the Hahndorf Academy] between 1925-1935.
Dr Theo Auricht, incidentally a former pupil of Hahndorf College, Hahndorf’s greatly respected long-serving resident general practitioner, ran the Ambleside Private Hospital both for general patients and expectant mothers. This hospital drew inmates from many surrounding areas in the Adelaide Hills. Unfortunately, various severe difficulties concerning the conduct of the hospital arose with the College building owners, and early in 1935, the good doctor was abruptly asked to take his business elsewhere.
Suddenly inspired, Dr Auricht decided to ask his widowed cousin, Mrs Selma Nitschke, whether she would consider leasing her spacious stone residence on the hill directly north of Hahndorf to him as the new premises for his requirements. No doubt, he emphasised what a permanent boon this move would be for the town, a wonderful boost amid South Australia’s current deep economic depression.
Ever generous, sometimes to a fault, Selma Nitschke was horrified to learn of her relative’s unenviable predicament and eventually agreed to his request. Essentially a very private person, little did she realise how much her own life would be turned upside down in such a short time through helping to make her relative’s dream come true.
Fortuitously for Dr Auricht, Mrs Nitschke was in a receptive mood for confident experiment. Since the recent death of her father-in-law Carl Nitschke in 1932, under the terms of his will, she could use his farm in trust during her lifetime to make an income as she pleased, with the agreement of the trustee, in order to maintain herself, her two teenage daughters and her mother-in-law.
The following year, 1933, Selma Nitschke concluded a satisfactory lease of part of the property to two energetic and practical brothers in their late twenties, Oliver and Hardy Butler, who wanted to set up a modern sawmill on a prominent site along the main road into Hahndorf. As a bonus, it now appeared more than likely that Oliver would soon become her son-in-law, a most re-assuring prospect for a mixed farming widow without sons attempting to survive successfully in what was still very much a man’s world.
A complicated series of negotiated events moved at lightning speed over the next six months. The farm’s trustee, Selma’s brother-in-law Gus Nitschke, agreed to take his mother under his care at Carlton, a well-known property just out of Ambleside on the way to Balhannah. Neighbouring cousins, the farmers and builders Benno and Oscar Nitschke, undertook to erect a compact four-room brick cottage across the back yard from the proposed hospital for Selma and her daughters, Ruby and Lucie, to live in. Furniture from the big house which didn’t fit into the smaller home would be left in the adjacent stone storage room under the barn.
Meanwhile, the large residence had to be converted into suitable hospital quarters. As there was no inside bathroom and toilet, a strong commodious cast iron bath tub and several septic toilets with dark stained heavy wooden seats were installed in the Nitschke family’s former photography dark room, and connected to a new sewerage system which operated downhill into the sloping garden. Scarcely any other Hahndorf dwellings boasted even remotely similar conveniences.
Durants of Brighton came to install frosted glass doors to close in the draughty breeze-way between the main house and the kitchen. Huge wooden linen presses were fitted in the former dining room, which would now act as the dining and common room for the general hospital staff. A heavy white porcelain hand sink was placed in the bedroom chosen to become the operating theatre, whose natural illumination was now augmented by a clear glass skylight cut into the outside verandah roof to allow medical staff more light for their surgery, because the lower window pane had been painted white to preserve privacy.
Next to the new bathroom, the former farm house’s airy and sun-lit concrete floored milk separator and butter making room had to be refurnished appropriately to become the supervising nursing sister’s private haven.
Those twin tedious processes of milk separating and butter making retreated to a cramped gloomy corner of the cold stone store room across the back yard where the excess furniture was stored. In another dark recess, Mrs Nitschke and her daughters would soon bathe in a noisy new tin bath tub on legs, screened off by a flimsy plyboard partition, together with a green pull-back curtain which acted as a door. Switched on and off at the storeroom’s only entrance, a newly installed single electric light bulb dimly illuminated everything.
At the same time, the entire main house also had to be wired for Adelaide Electricity Supply Company power which came on tall poles up that challenging steep hill from the main street. A solid varnished wood encased telephone, with a side black operating handle to alert Mrs Annie Tilby, the post mistress cum telephonist at the Hahndorf post office, was installed on a wall board in the passage, central both to the wards and the rest of the hospital. Nearby, a compact glass-fronted box containing numbered squares capable of illumination, connected to a series of press-button electric bells, was made ready to alert staff where they were needed in the wards, and at the public entrance door.
But ah! The vagaries of human affairs. Murphy’s Law worked a positive charm during this period. Onset of the 1935 Hahndorf winter proved one of the wettest and coldest for years. Of necessity, this slowed down progress on finishing Mrs Nitschke’s cosy cottage. Such was the doctors’ anxiety to move into their comfortable new accommodation, that Selma and her daughters somehow found themselves agreeing to exist for something over a month in their own new home amid the mind-boggling inconvenience of interior plastering and joinery works still slowly under way in damp, draughty weather conditions.
Concurrent with this turmoil over the Nitschkes’ future housing, strenuous activity swung into action to complete the transfer and settling in of patients and equipment from the Hahndorf College building to their spanking new palatial quarters on the hill, while meanwhile the Heavens regularly opened copiously. What an occasional vicarious inner thrill it would provide now to know just how many heavy loads were bogged and soaked in the process, while attempting to negotiate the slippery steep track from the main street!
Briefly still called the Ambleside Private Hospital, the Hahndorf Private Hospital began its life at least somewhat before Yvonne Thiele’s birth on 9 July 1935 which definitely occurred there. Later Mrs Ray Percy, Yvonne was the second daughter of Hahndorf labourer Tom Thiele and his wife, Myra nee Condon.
Fate decreed that Selma Nitschke had yet another hefty expense, and and on this occasion totally unexpected. Hahndorf regained its former name, in November 1935. This highly popular move amongst local residents necessitated quite a costly piece of bureaucratic paper work to re-register the fledgling hospital’s business name.
For some reason, Mrs Nitschke had to pay this fee. Usually a strong supporter of Hahndorf’s traditions, she occasionally observed years later how, uncharacteristically but vastly understandingly for her, at this point, she would have given anything for the town’s existing Ambleside name to remain. Luckily, the regular Ambleside Private Hospital business stationery would suffice until it ran out, but on this occasion, I expect, the doctors then stood the cost of providing updated new forms.
A separate men’s and women’s ward, both with three white painted iron hospital beds and adjacent metal locker, occupied the two large front rooms of the newly opened hospital; this left plenty of space for nursing and cleaning staff to do their work. When necessary, the beds could be easily wheeled along the long, wide passage to the operating theatre.
The south-facing of two smaller rooms in the centre of the residence served as a private ward, while the other was used as a nursing staff bedroom. Strangely enough, one of those few patients to die in the hospital was Selma Nitschke’s mother-in-law, Clara Nitschke, who had the peace of the private ward for her last earthly hours in April 1937. Even more ironical, this was the same room where her photographer son Alfred Nitschke, Selma’s husband, had died of injuries following a farm accident in 1922.
By now well into late middle age, Dr Auricht went into professional partnership with Doctors Oscar Frewin of Woodside and Clifford Jungfer of Lobethal, both in their energetic ambitious mid-thirties, to supply patients for the hospital. If all went to plan, Dr Auricht’s Hahndorf general practice patients would also be able to consult with particularly Dr Frewin over the next few years to allow Poppa Auricht a chance to work at a less strenuous pace until his retirement, when a new doctor would arrive in Hahndorf and join the charmed circle.
Patient care was under the supervision of an experienced nursing sister, the first being Sister Caporn, assisted by several trainee nurses. Sister Caporn immediately displayed admirable professional versatllity when she undertook to make suitable curtains for the new hospital’s many huge windows.
After Sister Caporn came Sister Hay, Sister Margaret Bedford (1938), Nurse Snooky (??), and Sister Hackett. Trainee nursing staff remembered included Audrey Abraham (later Mrs Colin Grivell), Ivy Haebich (later Mrs Vic Nitschke) and Margaret Mullin (later Mrs Bob Tilby).
Out in the kitchen, a local farm girl, Monica Neumann, later the wife of the above-mentioned builder Oscar Nitschke, prepared the meals. Monica must have taken passionately to the challenges of patient care, because soon she became keen to join the trainee nursing staff. Another local lass, Nellie Rayson (soon to become Mrs Clarence Faehrmann), carried trays of individual serves to patients, and in between, did the heavy cleaning throughout the hospital premises.
In addition to keeping her own mixed farm running smoothly, which included enlisting her two daughters to assist hand milk a huge number of cows twice daily, often far into the night by lantern light, Selma Nitschke somehow found time to help prepare the vegetables for the hospital’s daily meals. Moreover, she also undertook the regular huge hospital wash, in a small, draughty slab outhouse next to a large underground rainwater tank, from where water was pumped by hand with a Douglas pump as required.
Certain rituals had to be followed for boiling dirty clothing and bed linen in a cast-iron held copper heated with carefully axe chopped wood lengths, a process repeated again and again until all the soiled articles had gone through the process. Nearby were the heavy grey cement double wash troughs for hand scrubbing items clean over wooden-framed glass scrubbing boards, and then wringing out excess water with a rubber mangle.
Everything eventually piled high into cumbersome wicker baskets to carry outside for thorough drying on long wire wash lines held up with slender wooden poles amongst the trees in the nearby orchard. On windy days, several solid walls of flapping sheets proved quite a sight for townsfolk looking up towards the hospital.
In return for renting out the premises she had renovated at such high expense in order to establish the hospital, and for her daily assistance to help run the establishment, Mrs Nitschke received the princely sum of £2 ($4) a week. It was such a huge loss, she used to remark wistfully in later years to her family, quite an understatement by any responsible budgeting standards.
However, the superior facilities eventually made the residence a most desirable place to rent out at a good price to a succession of tenants after the hospital closed, when decent family housing was in short supply during the war and long afterwards in lean post-war years. Naturally, of course, Mrs Nitschke sometimes found excuses to avoid charging a realistic rental fee. Those people were struggling, she commented reflectively. Of interest, it may be noted that amongst the first tenants were recently-married Ron and Mollie Crafter, whose eldest child, Tony, later a well-known Australian Test Cricket umpire, spent his earliest years calling the former private hospital his home.
All in all, Hahndorf residents were rather proud of their new local hospital. Just as they had toiled up the hill some years previously to pose for Nitschke photographs taken in the adjoining garden or amongst the picturesque stand of gums further along the ridge, it was now a popular Sunday afternoon outing to visit patients.
Charming views to admire opened up between the glistening white gums, there were were mushrooms and wildflowers to pick in season, and a chance to exchange lively conversation with Lucie Nitschke whenever she happened to check on her small flock of pet sheep, sentimentally still labelled lambs, grazing contentedly amid rocky hillside outcrops. In the background on weekdays rose the occasional continuous staccato metallic hum from the electric saws at Butler Bros sawmill on the main street-Ambleside Road corner.
Finally, the hospital loomed. Here, not least of the highlights was a chance to ring the electric bell at the public entrance; electricity was not yet universally available in private homes to provide lighting, let alone operate the array of electrical goods not yet invented which modern Hahndorfians simply take for granted.
Outwardly, the Hahndorf Private Hospital was a cheerful, welcoming place. Professional staff and patients mostly knew each other well, as the Adelaide Hills population was small and stable, and often intricately inter-related into the bargain.
Members of the kitchen contingent co-operated happily, because as local residents, they also mixed elsewhere to a greater or lesser extent outside of work hours. Peals of uncontrolled laughter coming from the kitchen were a regular event amid the busy clatter of meal preparation. One supervising nursing sister, a foreigner of course, who put on airs out there soon felt an indefinable discomfort whenever her starchy manner became in any way unbearable and the under staff decided that enough was enough.
Patients enjoyed the relaxed bushland setting, punctuated by familiar well-loved bird calls, in which to recover from their various ailments.
Nature could be unkind, though. On one occasion when local bushfire threatened Hahndorf over the southern ridge directly opposite the hospital across from what is now Fairview Road, early in 1939, the hospital babies were somehow placed for safe-keeping in the huge underground tank behind the back door.
Still, nothing is forever. That triumverate of fiercely independent-minded medico partners quickly realised that the practicalities of running even what was admittedly a small hospital harmoniously and profitably were indeed a daunting task, quite a different matter from initially establishing such an business where a generous landlord footed the major bills.
Unbelievably by modern expectations, in addition to their professional duties, the doctors joined the nurses in acting as their own office staff. Paid secretarial help was simply an unaffordable dream. Between them, the doctors and nurses kept the medical records in order and issued patient bills and receipts whenever required.
The supervising nursing sister, who was never a local identity, changed yearly, occasionally more frequently. Both Doctors Frewin and Jungfer had their own busy general practice to maintain elsewhere, which included acting as their own pharmacist and maintaining regular visits to hospitals in Lobethal and Woodside. Into the bargain, Messrs Frewin and Jungfer had only recently married and were in the throes of establishing their own private households.
Occasionally, too, tensions arose when Dr Auricht and Dr Frewin conducted independent surgery and/or home visits of the same Hahndorf patients for any particular ailment. Treatment sometimes differed radically, which could foster ill feeling if the clashing opinions happened to be revealed to the other doctor when patients talked. More informed patients also tended to compare Dr Auricht’s sometimes casual attention to cleanliness while on duty, unfavourably with Dr Frewin’s unfailingly scrupulous approach.
Was the vision of trying to incorporate Hahndorf and its private hospital into a wider Onkaparinga Valley health care association worth so much angst? Well-run Government supported hospitals in other Adelaide Hills townships, particularly nearby Mount Barker and Stirling, were proving to be steadily more powerful alluring alternatives for Hahndorf residents and beyond requiring hospitalisation.
Not surprisingly, Dr Auricht’s young partners became increasingly unsettled. Dr Frewin dreamed of transferring interstate to Melbourne to further his career as a surgeon, while Dr Jungfer set his sights on higher medical studies somewhere overseas. The outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939 made such ambitions impractical and indeed heralded further challenges towards maintaining those basic staff, patient and equipment levels necessary for keeping Hahndorf’s private hospital ticking over smoothly.
Suddenly, something snapped! The three doctors in partnership clearly had had enough.
Quietly, Selma Nitschke’s business agents, HB Chapman of Mount Barker, inserted a modest public notice in The Advertiser of 25 October 1939, offering a three-year lease to anyone prepared to continue the Hahndorf Private Hospital, or even adapt it to becoming a superior guest house or rest home. The rooms were lofty and boasted electric light proclaimed the seductive blurb. Sealed tenders had to be in by noon on 4 November 1939, just a week hence. Realistically, no one expected any rush of applicants amid the heady distractions of an Australian nation newly engaged in world-wide warfare, perhaps for its very existence. And so things turned out; there were no takers!
Those who had been so eager to take possession were even more keen to depart. Armed with mostly their personal effects, the three doctors and their professional nursing staff quietly melted away from Hahndorf’s private hospital early in 1940. Lessons learnt from the nightmarish Hahndorf experience no doubt stood everyone in excellent stead.
Messrs Hitler, Mussolini & Co’s dangerous international ambitions made it much more enticing for Dr Frewin to seize the opportunity to operate elsewhere safely in his home state, including from a small private hospital at 8 Harrow Road, St Peters, in leafy metropolitan Adelaide. Likewise, Dr Jungfer declared himself content to expand facilities creatively at his local Lobethal Hospital, followed soon after temporarily also at Woodside Hospital, while Dr Frewin’s successor there, Dr Colin Juttner, enlisted as a military medical practitioner for the duration of the war.
Elderly now, Dr Auricht was more than relieved to be able to potter along much more quietly professionally at Hahndorf for another few years, although it is clear that he continued to maintain some official professional association with the Onkaparinga Valley doctors. What a homely, tranquil atmosphere. People seeking appointments or medicine could visit Dr Auricht personally at his comfortable Pine Avenue residence, or make a phone call, as he was, of course, one of Hahndorf’s small number of telephone subscribers.
In the waiting room, small children found it fascinating to gaze upon a decorative stuffed macaw upon a stand. More modern young minds, could wonder at the single bar radiator which also illuminated an artificial flickering wood fire while warming the air there in winter.
Anyone ready to pick up potions or pills could either go during surgery hours, or knock on the back door afterwards, when perhaps the doctor or else Mrs Auricht, or perhaps even their housemaid Ella Kuchel, would oblige. Whenever the Aurichts happened to be out, local folk peered for their goods, clearly labelled in large handwriting, in a box stowed beneath a garden seat under the front verandah. Outlying customers looked forward to deliveries per the good offices of baker EGP Smith’s bread van, which made regular rounds each week.
For kindly Poppa Auricht, well-earned retirement descended quietly c1946. Suddenly, Hahndorf townsfolk found themselves in a health care vacuum – no doctor and no chemist. The immediate dislocation which followed in numerous local lives can easily be imagined.
Luckily, some time later, perhaps several months - Hahndorf attracted an energetic well-qualified young practitioner, with prior experience at Unley, prepared to live in the town to take over. Dr Kenneth Crafter rented a freestone fronted solid brick residence next to the Hahndorf Institute, added a sunroom to serve as a waiting room, while consulting from the adjoining front room in the main building. He and his parents, and not too long afterwards, his new wife as well, lived in the rest of the house.
Similarly on the chemist front, a youthful newly graduated Adelaide University trained pharmacist arrived at much the same time. Donald Webb rented two rooms from Otto Haebich who lived in a modest cottage on the corner of the Main and English Streets. Don opened a pharmacy in the front room and batched in the room behind.
Both Ken Crafter and Don Webb possessed genial personalities and soon made themselves widely popular in Hahndorf and beyond. The town’s tight-knit social scene began to hum in somewhat more lively fashion. Thankfully, the lengthy era of combined physician and chemist at Hahndorf, while attempting to run a private hospital into the bargain, was well and truly over. Times had changed too much for this to work satisfactorily.
Probably, Dr Auricht somehow foresaw back in 1935 what could happen when he became too old to work, and so the new Hahndorf Private Hospital plan committed to a three doctor solution was born. All appeared workable on paper. However, this ambitious arrangement failed to think through possible consequences, because of the ability of human nature to change viewpoint with lightning speed concerning a matter, further complicated by the influence of external events in life which no one person can control. As a result, trust evaporated where formerly there had been no thought of disharmony.
Perhaps the most telling long-term reminder that the land-mark Nitschke residence overlooking Hahndorf had served briefly as a hospital was the state of the former operating theatre. Its stark pale green walls and gradually decreasing pungent smell of ether lingered on for decades. This echoing, now empty room was never let to tenants, but remained firmly locked. From time to time, having given prior notice, Mrs Nitschke conducted a thorough inspection. She opened the window to air the place, cleared up any dust, dead beetles and insects, and brought down stray cobwebs lurking in corners or dangling from the ceiling.
With no one to stand by her, Selma Nitschke was left with an overwhelming load of assorted hospital effects, including bulky furnishings, to dispose of as best she could. Ever ready to assist anyone in need, Mrs Nitschke could now cheer those who would find a sturdy iron bedstead, warm Onkaparinga blankets, long-wearing linen and/or an assortment of plain white chinaware a wonderful gift, at a period when local homes sometimes still lacked proper floors or basic comfortable furnishings. Nevertheless, the dispersal required immense reservoirs of time and patience to carry through.
How do I know so many details about the Hahndorf Private Hospital? Well, Selma Nitschke was my grandmother, with whom I spent many happy hours in my boyhood and from whom I loved to hear tales of old Hahndorf related over and over again. From time to time, I used to help carry those above mentioned precious presents to their new homes, besides making myself useful as fetch and carry boy on operating theatre inspections.
Remnants of the hospital hardware which failed to be happily relocated gradually gathered dust in the barn above the afore-mentioned stone store room, along with now useless registers and fee cards. Several increasingly bedraggled enormous lace window curtains with gold metal hanging rings proved just right for playing noisy games of Ghosts with my brothers and cousins, while pointed end curtain rods were perfect for jousting.
More sedately, some of the chinaware came in handy for impromptu tea parties whenever boistrous enthusiasm began to dim. A landslide of vividly illustrated bumper wartime editions of Australasian Pix magazines, hugely popular in that pre-TV era, collected and left by Aunt Lucie, provided fascinating yet educational reading matter whenever our energy flagged further.
At this point, a confession to thoughtless youthful vandalism! Much to my regret now, I clearly remember tearing out the used pages of one of the hospital’s surviving oblong grey stiff cardboard- bound admission registers; the patients’ names came first in the wide left-hand column, followed by a much more narrow column which recorded the admission date. A series of blank squares came next; each square represented a day, which was half or fully crossed to record how long each patient individually remained in hospital. At a time when butcher paper was a grainy off-white, the crisp white blank admission sheets remaining in the register, augmented by a wonderful pile of neat white cards detailing the various hospital fees, provided a superior supply of paper for childish scribbles and drawings.
On still moonlit nights, possums regularly became noisily playful in the barn, a session which occasionally included an almighty crash as lively playmates suddenly collided with untidily piled crockery, glassware and all manner of tins and utensils. Afterwards, dark urine tracings left over everything by these excitable creatures emitted a distinctive stench in the closed environment. Next morning involved a daylight inspection to see what had survived intact, and sometimes led to a clean-up of broken china which headed off in a voluminous chaff bag atop a noisy clumsy iron wheelbarrow for dumping in handy deep rubbish holes amongst the gums behind the farm sheds.
So often I now wish that Gran were still here to answer much more intelligent questions about what she had to tell me with such obvious clarity and enjoyment concerning an event which made her personal life so enormously difficult.
Still, as I must remind myself occasionally, you can’t always put wise heads on young shoulders. As my grandmother so positively demonstrated, we must move on through life without bitterness, and grow stronger by doing good deeds whenever an opportunity arises. Her legacy to me as an example for my own life has been incalcuable.
Babies Known to Have Been Born in The Hahndorf Private Hospital
- 7/8/1935 Barbara Dorothy Liebelt, Parents – Oscar Alfred Liebelt & Dorothy Amalie Kruse
- 10/12/1935 Brian Louis Domeyer, Parents – Laurance Albert Domeyer & Irene Maud Forrester
- 6/1/1936 Victor Malcolm Hampton, Parents – Victor Atlee Hampton & Winnifred Amy Plane
- 5/4/1936 Kathleen Rosada Beaumont, Parents – Ivon Clifford Beaumont & Dora Olene Pratt
- 25/8/1936 Brian Anton Seifert, Parents – Paul Friedrch Josef Seifert & Phyllis Norma Kruse
- 20/4/1937 daughter, Parents – Herbert Victor Rothe & Meta Selma Keil
- 19/9/1937 Bryce Carroll, Parents – James William Carroll & Ivy Dorita Emery
- 26/9/1937 Darrell James Barrett, Parents – Lionel Clem Barrett & Dorothea Eileen Kelly
- 3/2/1938 Dorreen Margaret Osmond
- Gweneth May Osmond, Parents – Allan Golding Osmond & Elsie Sussie van Heythusen
- 2/2/1938 Maxwell John Wilson, Parents – Richard Henry Wilson & Muriel McGuire
- 12/6/1938 Beryl Avis Alley, Parents – Kenneth Alfred Alley & Gracie Ada Weidenhofer
- 3/9/1938 Wendy Wuttke, Parents – Alfred Heinrich Wuttke & Melita Melva Thiele
- 31/12/1938 Lyell William Hamilton, Parents – Clarence Lionel Hamilton & Phillis Maria Slade
- 20/5/1939 Glen Ivan Rodert, Parents – Edwin Julius Rodert &
- John Fulwood, Parents – Roy William Fulwood & Frieda Eugenie Semler
- Errol Hentschke, Parents – Herbert Hugo Hentschke & Laurine Ella Lindner