Yass history of maternity

Currently, Yass Hospital is without a maternity ward. Instead, women have to travel to Queanbeyan or Canberra to access full maternity services. But it hasn’t always been so.

Many local people talk about having been born in Shannon House at Yass Hospital. Shannon House opened in the old refurbished fever ward in August 1950, 100 years after the opening of the hospital.

Shannon House is thought to have closed as a maternity ward in the early 2000s. The last birth at Yass Hospital was in 2005.

CLOCKWISE: Frances Worthy of Worthwell; Devonia, North Yass maternity home, which closed in 1950; Yass Hospital fever ward, refurbished in 1950 to the Shannon House maternity unit. Pictures: Yass & District Historical Society Collection

CLOCKWISE: Frances Worthy of Worthwell; Devonia, North Yass maternity home, which closed in 1950; Yass Hospital fever ward, refurbished in 1950 to the Shannon House maternity unit. Pictures: Yass & District Historical Society Collection

In the early days of the settlement of Yass Valley, provision of birthing assistance to women was fraught with difficulties. Women were often living in very isolated areas. Poor living conditions and lack of medical knowledge meant rates of childhood illness and death were higher than we now experience.

Distance, terrain, river crossings and transport were all obstacles to getting assistance for births and women relied on other local women to help them.

Mary Anne Davis (widely known as Granny Davis) of Gounyan near Murrumbateman, was believed to have provided midwifery to her own family, as well as to other local settler women in the mid-nineteenth century.

In some areas, white settlers were fortunate to have assistance from local Indigenous women. These women held knowledge of practices that incorporated effective strategies for preventing infection, well ahead of medical knowledge at the time.

More experienced female settlers would come to other women’s homes to provide assistance and gradually these women, without the benefit of formal training or accreditation, became known in their local area as midwives.

In 1874, the NSW Medical Gazette claimed two-thirds of all labours were attended by midwives. 

Beryl Buissen worked in the Yass area in the 1890s, travelling by coach to wealthy country homes.

Frances Worthy of Nanima visited her patients in her horse and sulky.

As population centres developed, private lying in hospitals developed and in 1908, the Private Hospitals Act was passed, requiring registration of all such places. 

From 1909, Frances Worthy registered and operated Worthwell in North Yass as a maternity home. Rosebank, also in North Yass, was run by Nurse Ruth Walmsley between 1915 and 1924. Nurse Caldwell operated a maternity hospital in Gunning from 1916 to 1936.

Devonia was opened in 1927 in Demestre Street, Yass by Sister Stadtmiller. It continued until Shannon House opened in 1950.

The closure of the maternity ward at Yass Hospital means women are having to travel, once again, an hour or more for birthing services. Many are asking if this is in the best interests of women and their babies.

The Yass and District Historical Society is an organisation run by volunteers to preserve the heritage of our community.

Members of the public can visit the society at the archives, upstairs in the Soldiers' Memorial Hall, Comur Street to conduct historical research, including family trees, every Tuesday, 2pm-5pm, and the first Saturday of every month, 11am-3pm.