Portrait of Francis Perry, first president of the hospital committee

From the outset, The Royal Children’s Hospital was unusual in that it was tightly governed by a committee, whereas other hospitals were subject to the preferences of their subscribers. The committee was the foremost decision-making body for the hospital in its early decades and oversaw most aspects; from funding, buildings and planning, to staffing and patient admissions.

After the Victorian gold-rush boom there were a number of wealthy Melbournians who had the time, money and inclination to put their funds to the benefit of those less fortunate. A hospital for children was seen as a particularly suitable area of interest for women. During the early days of the hospital, eight ladies formed a hospital committee, alongside doctors Smith and Singleton, and honorary treasurer Mars Buckley. At the next meeting, nine more women joined. The members of the committee were socially homogeneous; new members were acquired via their acquaintance with existing members and were usually upper-class wives of men engaged in medical, business, and legal professions.

The committee quickly became female-dominated; Elizabeth Buckley represented her husband at the meetings as he rarely attended, and following the resignation of doctors Smith and Singleton the committee consisted solely of female attendees. A ‘gentleman’s committee’ existed for consultation, but they were frequently over-ruled.

Frances Perry (pictured left), the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, was elected as the first president of the committee. Mrs Perry’s desire for religious involvement in the committee resulted in a clash of ideals and marked the beginning of the committee’s resolution for the hospital to exist as a non-secular institution. A majority of the committee and hospital staff were Protestant, however patients and their families were overwhelmingly Irish Catholic.

The committee actively sought an upgrade for the hospital premises and were instrumental in the move to Redmond Barry House and expansion of the hospital. While most members were of the wealthy upper-class, Mrs Elizabeth Testar lived in ‘strained circumstances’ and was an unusual addition to the committee. She took a leading role in the building design for many of the extensions and additions, reducing the builder’s role to that of a draughtsman.

Throughout the formative years, the ladies of the committee influenced patient admissions through methods of deciding who was ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ of charity. Children from wealthier families were often turned away as it was considered that private care could be afforded. The committee was also instrumental in assigning staff who would contribute their skills to the reputation of the hospital. Well aware of the efficacy of titles in opening doors and achieving goals, the ladies used their social standing to engage patrons such as the Governor of Victoria and his wife.

The Australian Medical Journal praised the committee’s success in running the hospital, stating that ‘they have not been afraid of the real work necessary to be done; but have shown a business capacity fully equal to the labour and administration required’.