The AIM at Leigh Creek

The AIM at Leigh Creek


Rev. Dr John Flynn

The Australian Inland Mission or AIM was established by Rev. Dr John Flynn in 1912. Soon there were a number of hostels and hospitals established, including one at Oodnadatta in 1912 and Beltana in 1919. In 1923 there were 20 nurses in some of the most isolated places of the inland. By 1926 the AIM had established a network of ten hostels.

With the opening up of the Leigh Creek Coalfield the Unions pushed for a doctor to visit the field every month. Before that all cases needing medical attention were treated at the AIM at Beltana. On several occasions the Charge Sister would direct the patients to Hawker or Quorn. Serious accidents were treated by the Flying Doctor Service.

On one of his visits to the Leigh Creek coalfield in 1944, Premier Thomas Playford announced plans for the provision of a medical service for the residents of the field and those of the surrounding area. Previously, the Minister of Health, Lyell McEwin, had arranged for a considerable subsidy for the permanent appointment of a doctor at Hawker. This doctor was to visit Beltana, Copley and Blinman once every week. It soon became obvious that some kind of medical facility was needed for Leigh Creek.

Beltana, where the Australian Inland Mission had offered excellent services for the last 25 years, was just too far away in case of an emergency so the government decided that a hospital should be built in Leigh Creek and staffed by nurses from the AIM. After all, said Playford, the Government feels ‘that people who spend their lives in developing and working these areas are entitled to the best medical service that can be provided’.

The complex became the fifteenth Nursing Home opened by the AIM. It would consist of three buildings, a converted house, which would be updated for use as a hospital and expanded as the town grew, an infectious diseases block, separate building for sick Aborigines and nurses quarters. The AIM would equip the hospital at a cost of £1,000 and provide the staff. A pedal radio would also be installed to communicate with the Flying Doctor at Broken Hill.

Sisters Jones and Church

The first two sisters to take charge of the hospital were Sisters Phyllis Jones and Dorothy Church from Sydney. On Monday 30 July 1945 they left Sydney for Leigh Creek. On their stopover in Adelaide, the two Sisters were assisted with the buying of furniture and other equipment, by Sister M. Henderson of Oodnadatta.

They were taken to meet the Premier and were also received at Government House by Sir Willoughby and Lady Norrie. When they left Adelaide for Leigh Creek they were accompanied by the Rev D. McTaggert, who would stay with them until they were settled into their new home, which turned out rather small for a nursing home and nurses’ quarters. However according to plans a modern District Hospital would be erected and the present building turned into nurses’ quarters.

After their arrival at Copley the two Sisters stayed with Mrs Pierpoint for a few days whilst unpacking and setting up the Hostel. Emily Violet Pierpoint, although living in Copley, for many years supported ‘good causes’ in and around Leigh Creek. She often provided ‘unsecured loans’ to struggling residents, without charging interest for them. She could always be relied on to make donations to the Hostel and both the Copley and later Leigh Creek school. For many years she was regarded as the ‘Mother of the North’. In 1976 her philanthropic efforts were recognised when she received an MBE for the outstanding work she had done for the people of the North of South Australia.

Skipper Partridge leaving Sisters.
Taken during the making of The Inlanders

When everything was finished, the AIM hostel was opened on 18 October 1945 by the Hon. Chief Secretary Lyell McEwin. Among those attending were Rev J. Gray Robertson, Superintendent Rev. Dr John Flynn, most of the town’s people and several visitors from NSW, Victoria and South Australia. During the opening ceremony Dr J. Woods, flying from Finniss Springs to Broken Hill, circled the hospital and dropped a message expressing good wishes to the staff. At the end of the day the Very Rev. Dr John Flynn, founder of the AIM proposed a vote of thanks.

Hostel, originally intended as a private home
for manager.

Members of the 'opening party and
ambulance donated by the
Kurin-gai NES Ambulance drivers.

Soon arrangements were finalised with Dr David Shepherd from Hawker for a subsidised medical scheme. Although Dr Shepherd was supposed to be ‘a bit of a grump’, Leigh Creek residents, in particular his patients soon realised that he had ‘a heart of gold’. Within a short time Dr Shepherd became famous for his ‘low-flying trips’ on the dirt road between Hawker and Leigh Creek when he was called out for an emergency.

Apparently he had the fastest car in the north! It was also rumoured that the doctor would hook up to the roadside phone wires to keep tab on his practice in Hawker when he was out of town. Even so, no matter how hard Dr Shepherd tried or how fast he drove his car, he was not always on time when needed most. On 5 June 1945, on his way north to meet a car with a very sick child coming down to Hawker, he conducted a roadside examination at Puttapa Gap but had to pronounce the child dead.

Under the new subsidised medical scheme the doctor would make weekly visits to the field. Employees on the field paid a weekly fee which entitled their families and themselves to free medical treatment and medicines. One of the first official visitors to call at the AIM Hostel was Lady Norrie, who had nothing but praise for Sisters Church and Jones.

During the first five months they nursed 29 in-patients for 117 days and attended to 235 out-patients who required a total of 576 treatments. Even so, the two Sisters still managed to provide a Christmas Tree party on 15 December for 32 children. They also opened and conducted the first Sunday School.

Sunday School 1946

As both Sisters lived on the hospital grounds, they were probably the two busiest women out of the eight living on the field. They attended to all the medical needs of the residents, and conducted the Sunday School each week, attended by twenty-eight children. They did their own cleaning and cooking, looked after a vegetable and flower garden and kept chickens in the yard for a supply of fresh eggs. They even prepared bodies for burial in mail-order coffins, which were not always available or when at hand were the wrong size.

The Sisters were also kept busy cooking cakes and entertaining the many parties of official visitors at morning and afternoon teas. Although they had not yet handled any maternity cases, they expected that these services would be needed very shortly. The first lucky mother who was able to have her child at the Leigh Creek hospital was Elsa Jaensch. Her daughter Christine was born on 6 February 1947. The occasion was considered important enough for Premier Playford to send a telegram congratulating the happy parents. Later that year they had a few exceptional busy days when they had to treat 30 men for food poisoning. Twelve were still unable to report for work the next day.

By 1947, when the hospital had its own ambulance on the field for the transportation of casualties to Hawker there were fewer low flying trips by Dr Shepherd. However he still did the rounds which included the Copley and Beltana schools. Although Sisters O'Dalgleish and Whitehead received a donation of £25 from the Leigh Creek Progress Association for the Hostel in November 1949, this was insufficient for all the equipment needed and not all emergencies could be handled at that time.

In 1950 it took six hours to transport a six-month old seriously ill baby twenty kilometres to the Leigh Creek hospital through flooded creeks and over muddy roads. As the hospital was not staffed, nor equipped to perform the necessary surgery, it once again meant a trip to Hawker. Unfortunately as a result of particularly bad weather the road to Hawker was impassable. The Flying Doctor was not prepared to take the risk either. Only the help of a private pilot, who did risk the shocking conditions, saved the life of that baby.

A brand new and especially fitted-out ambulance was delivered to Leigh Creek in January 1951. It made a valuable contribution to the few available medical facilities. A trip to the Hawker hospital could still be a very unpleasant affair. On an emergency dash to Hawker, a distance of 160 kilometres over dirt roads, the ambulance would rock like a ship in a storm, stop occasionally to open and close station gates or a little longer to put the stomachs at ease, and arrive in Hawker with both patient and nurse in a terrible condition.

Often the nursing staff at Hawker wondered which one of the occupants was the patient. Owing to the large increase of women and children on the field it became obvious that more and better medical facilities were badly needed. It was for these reasons that Dr Shepherd had taken twenty-four year old Dr Dean Richards, who was a brand new graduate, into partnership to live in Leigh Creek. From then on there was a succession of doctors, often young and inexperienced, some very good and some not so good, some who would go to any length to be of assistance and others who would perform their duties while allegedly under the influence of alcohol. One even burnt some of the practice’s records!

Dr Richards

The hospital, which had only a small operating theatre, was extended, and plans were made for the extension of the medical scheme whereby not only medical benefits but also hospital treatment were provided free of charge. This would be paid for by regular subscriptions from employees and by subsidies from ETSA. Dr Richards, being without any experience and having no one to consult had to manage as best as he could, not an easy task. Somehow he did manage, and did it well.

Labour shortage often resulted in a shortage of nurses. As there were not enough personnel to provide night staff, nurses took it in turns to sleep in the hospital. They had to get up every time a patient arrived at the door or needed attention in the ward or when a baby cried. During the early 1950s there was no shortage of babies. In fact, Sister Lyndall Trudinger, the last AIM Sister, often slept on the veranda of the Hostel as there were more babies and their mothers than beds.

On 1 February 1952 ETSA took over the running of the hospital from the AIM with a local committee set up to co-ordinate the day to day running of it. During these early years the AIM hospital had been run by Sisters E.P. Jones from 1945-1948, D.J. Church 1945-1947, O’Dalgleish 1948-1950, E. Whitebread 1948-1950, D. Boyd 1950-1951 and R. Buchan from 1950 to 1951.

Several of the Sisters at Leigh Creek, and other locations, would marry one of the local lads. Sister Chub, who worked at the AIM Hostel at Beltana married A.L. Possum Kipling, the fastest ambulance driver in the north. He later earned his fame as a Redex driver. After having settled down he and his wife operated the Port Wakefield Roadhouse.

Apart from all the other reasons, there was one additional important reason why it was so difficult to keep matrons, sisters and nurses. At that time all matrons, sisters and nurses were young, single and female! According to one of the matrons ‘it was at times a bit hard to fend off the attentions of lonely men’. There were a lot of lonely young single men but very few single women. They were snapped up very quickly. When Sister Dorothy Church left, at the end of 1947, to be married to Don Knuckey on 7 February 1948, she was farewelled at a party organised by the CWA.

When Ruth Erry started, the hospital had only two trained nurses and three young girls. Within two months one had left and four had married which left Ruth in charge with one untrained girl, only seventeen years old. Ruth herself came on a one year contract, got married to Adam Jamrozik and was soon admitted to hospital herself to give birth to a 10 lb baby boy Konrad. When Gordon Lewis had his appendix removed by Dr Richards, there was no trained nurse available to assist the doctor. However with the help of Marie Liebeknecht the operation was performed successfully.

The first Matron to serve in the new hospital was Ruth Erry. When she arrived at Leigh Creek in 1952, to work with Sister Florence Coyne, and nurses’ aides Maggie and Susie Leolkes, she was just twenty-six years old and had worked in three other hospitals. Facilities at the hospital at that time were, a men’s ward with three beds, an operating theatre, steriliser room, day room, labour room, a women’s and children’s ward with two beds each, dispensary room, doctor’s consulting room, nursery and the matron’s office.

Unfortunately very little improvement occurred in the staffing problems. ETSA still faced extreme difficulty in obtaining and keeping qualified nursing staff. From November 1951 until November 1957 a total of nineteen qualified Sisters had been employed, either on a full-time or casual basis. In August 1957 Sisters Gaynor Davidson and P. Weldon started, but there was still no Matron. This problem was not solved until 29 January 1958 when Sister Davidson was promoted to that position.


The A.I.M. now called Frontier Services will be celebrating its Centenary in 2012.

All pictures courtesy of Dorothy Church's children

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