People power, and Alice Henderson, built Deni’s maternity wing

A plaque honouring Alice Henderson’s role in establishing a maternity wing at Deniliquin is located at Deniliquin Hospital.

This is the ninth article in a series of monthly columns written by Alan Henderson about Deniliquin district historical events and issues. Alan’s grandfather purchased ‘Warragoon’ on the Finley Road in 1912. Alan was born in the Deniliquin Hospital in 1944 but moved to Canberra in 1967. In retirement he has written a family history, Boots, Gold and Wool, and will share some of his research in this local history column.

I have always taken great interest in the original maternity wing of the Deniliquin Hospital.

I spent the first 11 days of my life there in 1944, and also because there is a plaque on the outside wall, “in memory of Alice M Henderson, founder of this wing”.

Alice was my grandmother. Alice is commemorated for her sustained fundraising efforts.

She started lobbying in 1925 but the wing was not completed until 1934. She was invited to open the wing but declined because it was too soon after the death of her husband, John H Henderson, in July 1934. Moreover, she preferred operating in the background rather than in the spotlight like her husband.

I always assumed it was her persistence, in combination with members of the Birganbigil Auxiliary and Blighty branch of the Country Women’s Association, that ensured success.

Shirlee Burge’s letter to the editor in the Pastoral Times on November 5, 2021, about the role of the local member winning funds for the Tumut Hospital, possibly at the expense of Deniliquin, prompted me to check whether the members for Murray John Donovan (1930-32, Labor) or Joe Lawson (1932-73, Country Party and later, Independent) might have had a special relationship with Premiers Jack Lang or Bertram Stevens.

I found no such evidence, although Stevens did visit Deniliquin in November 1932, and again in August 1933. The latter visit was to launch work on the weir that was named after him. No mention of the hospital was reported during these visits. In March 1925, Alice Henderson wrote to the committee of the Deniliquin District Hospital, enclosing a donation of £10/10/ (about $880 in today’s prices) and emphasised the need for a maternity ward, stating that she would be “only too pleased to do all [she could] to assist” in that cause.

Her letter “was favourably received, but in view of the hospital’s low finances and the large expenditure to be undertaken … the suggestion was left in abeyance”. By 1928, Alice is reported as refusing to raise funds for the hospital until a maternity wing is established.

On August 8, 1929, there was a large meeting of ‘mostly ladies’ at the Deniliquin Town Hall, called at the request of the CWA.

Alice, speaking in her capacity as secretary of the Blighty CWA, referred to letters of support for a maternity wing from a late mayoress, as well as ‘medical men’ and Monsignor Treacy, the long-serving Catholic priest in Deniliquin.

In a further intervention, Alice was quick to dispute claims of local medical officers that “there was no need for a public maternity ward, as there was a private hospital with ample accommodation for these cases”.

Alerted to their resistance, the committee was “simply waiting to get the force of public opinion behind them. (Loud applause)”. A motion in support of maternity facilities was unanimously endorsed.

The Minister for Health in the Stevens Government, Reginald Weaver — a man of firm conservative views and a sharp tongue — was determined to ban honorary doctors from local hospital boards.

The conflict this generated with the NSW branch of the British Medical Association contributed to him losing his place in the ministry.

Later in August 1929, Alice was requested by the District Hospital Committee to “‘invite … various public bodies in Deniliquin and the district to convene a meeting to [form an] auxiliary” to raise funds.

At that meeting on September 24, Mayor Alderman E T Mathews was appointed as the chairman of the Deniliquin Hospital Appeal.

A meeting chaired by the mayor in November was informed that “an unnamed gentleman had offered the Blighty Country Women’s Association a donation of £100 towards the maternity ward drive, if four others would do likewise”.

Others were forthcoming with donations of £100, including Mrs Vera Landale, Messrs F S Falkiner & Sons and Mr J V Ingram.

Combined with the funds of the anonymous donor, the total collected since September 1928 amounted to £1706 ($138,000 in today’s prices).

These donations must have been sufficient to elicit government funding to finally commit to the establishment of the maternity wing.

I cannot recall occupying the wing, but I am proud of my grandmother.