Tenterfield Hospital isolation block becomes a Spanish flu museum

Almost 20 years ago, Dr Ian Unsworth started the campaign to save Tenterfield Hospital's former isolation ward, which had been built during the Spanish flu pandemic.

Since then the longtime Tenterfield resident has not only helped save it from demolition, but has headed a restoration group to restore it, gain government funding, and turn it into a museum.

Last week the retired doctor was there to see the new museum open, telling the story of the Spanish flu outbreak with memorabilia and displays.

The local isolation ward was the only one built for the pandemic in regional NSW. But it was never used.

Cases of Spanish flu had ceased in Tenterfield six months before its completion, and Dr Unsworth said the reason for its construction had been long forgotten by the turn of this century.

When plans were made to demolish it in 2003, to make way for a new hospital building, Dr Unsworth was on the advisory committee at the hospital and through research he discovered why the ward was built.

"I'd found out what that small, isolated, rundown building being used as a maintenance workshop actually represented," he said.

"It wasn't heritage listed anywhere, but I said it should be because my investigation suggested there was no other isolation ward built for the Spanish flu victims anywhere else in regional or rural NSW, or Australia.

"I said that is going to have to stay where it is."

While it upset the health service at the time, it was saved when plans for a new building eventually fell through.

In 2009 the National Trust of Australia (NSW) placed the site on its National Trust Register after almost five years of campaigning from Dr Unsworth.

"That gave us the first sign that we could work to start preserving the building," he said.

"That was a very important step."

But it was only a step, and the battle continued.

After the maintenance workshop closed in 2014, the empty building deteriorated.

All the debris from years and years of maintenance work, and broken equipment, were filling the rooms inside.

At that time, Dr Unsworth got access to the ward, despite reluctance from Hunter New England Health, and his efforts were bolstered in 2015 when a $100,000 grant came from Heritage NSW.

"That was a very big step to get the building made safe, get all the dry rot out and regutter it, and replace all the woodwork that had fallen apart," Dr Unsworth said.

Progress was then made on the museum.

Memorabilia was catalogued, photographs enlarged, descriptive plaques created and the story pieced together.

Dr Unsworth described it as ironic that the museum had finally opened while the country was in another pandemic.

"On one of the last panels to go up I compared the two pandemics and it is so interesting. Some of the things are so similar and some are very dissimilar," he said.