175 years of Cumberland Hospital – recognising five nurses who profoundly changed mental health in NSW

Cumberland Hospital is the largest mental health facility in New South Wales (NSW) and the oldest in Australia, with a strong history of incredible nurses who have significantly influenced mental health care across 175 years.

This year marks 175 years since Cumberland Hospital was gazetted on 28 December 1849.

Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) is recognising the special place the hospital holds in the district by acknowledging past achievements and moments of historical significance, while also looking to the future.

In honour of International Nurses Day on 12 May, The Pulse has taken a deep dive into the rich history of nursing at Cumberland Hospital by looking back on the careers of five nurses from Cumberland Hospital who have profoundly changed mental health in NSW. 

Please note: Over time, Cumberland Hospital was previously known by names such as Parramatta Female Factory, the Lunatic Asylum and Hospital for the Insane. These are used below as they are the historically accurate names for the site, but do not at all reflect current mental health treatments in Australia.

Matron Elizabeth Statham

Elizabeth was formerly the matron of the convict-era Parramatta Female Factory and was then the first Matron of the Lunatic Asylum, Parramatta from 1847 to 1865. Elizabeth was responsible for managing female staff, patients and areas set aside for women.

Matron Jane Burn

In 1865, Mrs Jane Burn replaced Elizabeth Stratham as Matron of the Asylum, and was the Matron for an incredible 27 years until 1892. She presided during a key moment, with the change of name from the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum to the Hospital for the Insane, Parramatta.

Matron Francis Spencer

Francis was the first Matron who was a formally trained Nurse, having undergone her education under the Nightingale system at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London. She was matron from 1892 – 1893, and in 1899 she was involved in the monumental establishment of the Australasian Trained Nurses’ Association (ATNA).

Nurse Rebecca “Becky” Williams

In August 1911, Becky was one of only two graduates from Parramatta to sit the first Registration Examination for Mental Health Nurses conducted by the newly formed ATNA, receiving her certificate on 5 September 1911. During WW1 she volunteered her services and joined the Australian Imperial Force, and in 1915 she left Sydney aboard the R.M.S ‘Morea’ as a staff Nurse.

Ruby Buchanan

Ruby was a nursing sister around 1907 – aside from her everyday nursing duties, she would have helped to organise and run activities provided for the patients’ entertainment and emotional well-being, including balls, musicals and picnics. Nurses like Ruby engaged in their everyday nursing duties, as well as engaging in occupational and diversional therapy.

This year, as we honour the dedicated and compassionate staff across our district, we also reflect on the incredible Nurses who have come before, pathing the way to a bright new chapter.