Letters from Florence

While most people know the roots of modern nursing practice originate from Florence Nightingale’s ideas, it’s less well known that the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ directly shone her light into Sydney’s paediatric nursing wards.

In addition to the contribution that Lucy Osborne and her six Nightingale-trained counterparts had on colonial Sydney when they arrived on Sydney’s shores in March 1868, with a mission to reform the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary (now Sydney Hospital), both Sydney’s children’s hospitals boast direct links with Nightingale.

Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick

In late 1867, Florence Nightingale wrote to Sir Edward Deas-Thomson, Colonial Secretary of NSW to endorse the plans for the new Catherine Hayes Hospital which later became the Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick. 

Nightingale said the plans were “admirable” and “appear to be a most ingenious adaptation of the very soundest principles—much better than anything we have” [in England].

The excerpt references Nightingale’s post-war career in health care reform, where she was active in hospital design, advocated for sanitary improvements, supervised the modernisation of nursing practices, and advised governments on Army health reform. For more on these specific contributions, read this article. 

The Catherine Hayes Hospital was designed as a two-storey, 4-ward hospital by Colonial Architect Edmund Blackett following the death of 77 children from whooping cough in 1867 at the Randwick Asylum. 

The Hospital was built using funds predominately donated by the Irish singer Catherine Hayes and operated as part of the Randwick Asylum that cared for children suffering from illness, poverty and famine. The Hospital opened in 1870, and the Hayes’ Hospital buildings on Avoca Street, Randwick, are today part of the Prince of Wales Hospital.

The Children's Hospital at Westmead

The connection between Florence Nightingale and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children) also comes in the form of a letter.

Uncovered in 2018 in the RAHC archive by Beth Robinson, USYD Masters of Museum and Heritage Studies, the unassuming note is dated 30th October 1863 and penned in blue ink in a difficult-to-read cursive script. 

Given that the date predates the foundation of The Hospital for Sick Children—the original name of RAHC which was founded in 1880—the provenance of the letter and its relevance to the Hospital proved worthy of further investigation. 

  • How did the note find its way into the Hospital archive?  
  • Who was Florence writing to, and why?  

Beth, with guidance from the Heritage Committee for The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, made significant inroads into finding these answers. Read what she discovered.

Florence’s connections to both buildings and persons past, remind us not only of the major contributions she made to modern healthcare but also of our own long heritage in paediatric care.


This year, join us in celebrating the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale and spend a moment to reflect on the road travelled and the journey ahead in helping sick kids live their healthiest lives possible.

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