Controversy over public buildings in Sydney – and especially how they are financed – has a long history. The turbulent Scottish-born Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang wrote An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, both as a Penal Settlement and as a British Colony while on a voyage to Britain. The Westminster Review suggested that its title should read ‘The History of Doctor Lang, to which is added the History of New South Wales’. Here he charts the building of the ‘Rum Hospital‘:
The demoralizing influence indirectly resulting from the gratification of Governor Macquarie’s taste for public buildings, cannot be more fitly illustrated than in the plan he pursued for the erection of a general hospital in Sydney. Had the convicts been dispersed over the territory in the way I have suggested, an hospital of comparatively small dimensions would have been sufficient at head-quarters : at all events, a plain, substantial edifice was all that was wanted for such a purpose, till the expense of erecting ornamental buildings could be borne by the revenue of the colony. The colonial architect, however, having submitted to Governor Macquarie a plan of a spacious and costly edifice, consisting of a centre building and two detached wings, to be erected of cut stone, with a double verandah or covered portico completely surrounding each of the three piles of building, he determined that it should by all means be carried into effect. With this view, as there were comparatively few artificers among the convicts at the time when this measure was resolved on, he made an agreement, on the part of the colonial government, with Messrs. D’Arcy Wentworth, Blaxcell, and Riley, by which these gentlemen stipulated to erect a building agreeably to the plan proposed, on condition of receiving a certain quantity of rum from the King’s store, and of having the sole right to purchase, or to land free of duty, all the ardent spirits that should be imported into the colony for a term of years. The Rum Hospital, as it was called at the time, was accordingly erected on these conditions; and, standing, as it does, on the summit of one of the two ridges on which the town of Sydney is built, with a valley terminating in the beautiful inlet called Sydney Cove between, it is doubtless a highly interesting and striking feature in the general aspect of one of the most thriving and best situated commercial towns in the world.
I leave to the mere financier the task of reprobating the arrangement I have just mentioned, (which, it was universally believed at the time, was a highly gainful one to the parties concerned,) on the ground of its gross injustice to the community at large, as well as to those persons in particular who imported ardent spirits into the colony, and who were consequently obliged either to sell their commodity at whatever price the monopolists chose to offer them, or to keep it in bond for three or four years. My sole concern with the transaction is to calculate its true bearings on the professed object of General Macquarie’s administration— the reformation of the convict population of New South Wales : and this is by no means a work of difficulty. The wages of the artificers and labourers, and the prices of the materials employed in the erection of the hospital, were, agreeably to the usual practice of the colony at the time, paid half in money and half in property, i. e., in tea, sugar, ardent spirits, wine, clothing, or any other article, either of necessity or of luxury, which the employer happened to have in his store, and which was uniformly charged to the labourer at an enormous per-centage above its real value, or even above its market-price in the colony. Determined, however, that not a single shilling of the money-half of the wages should, if it could possibly be prevented, ultimately find its way into any other pockets than their own, the worthy contractors erected one or more public-houses in the immediate vicinity of the place, where their numerous convict and emancipated convict mechanics and labourers received that moiety of their wages; doubtless, to induce the miserable wretches, whose inability to withstand such temptation may well be conceived, to expend the last farthing of their earnings in the purchase of their exorbitantly priced and accursed liquor. In providing, therefore, for the physical health of the colony, Governor Macquarie was actually overspreading the whole surface of its body politic, in a moral and spiritual sense, with wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores, which have hitherto surpassed the skill of the ablest chirurgeon to bind up, or the efficacy of the most powerful ointment to mollify.
–John Dunmore Lang, Scottish-Australian, 1799-1878