Centaur House, Queen St, Brisbane: A Memorial Edifice to Queensland’s Nurses in two World Wars

Guest blogger: Dr Madonna Grehan – 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow.

Exton House was a four-storey, decorative brick and concrete building with a basement, on a 34.3 perch block at 337-339 Queen Street, Brisbane, with Eagle Lane at the rear. Constructed in 1919, it was designed by Lange Leopold Powell for R.S. Exton & Company, painters and decorators, as a retail establishment.¹

Exton House, Queen Street, Brisbane. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Exton House, Queen Street, Brisbane, October 1948. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

RS Exton’s product showroom was on the ground floor. There, shoppers could inspect samples of lead-lighting, stained glass, metal ceilings, wall papers, and artists’ supplies. Floors and walls of the expansive ground-floor entrance were lined with Australian marble. The upper floors were tenanted office spaces.

From November 1946, the Australasian Trained Nurses Association’s Queensland Branch (ATNA QLD) occupied the third floor.² ATNA QLD wanted to establish a permanent tribute to Queensland’s military and civilian nurses who served in two World Wars. They saw a physical centre for the nursing profession as the ideal memorial.³ In January 1948, ATNA QLD launched a state-wide War Memorial Appeal to realise their plan. Coincidentally, Exton House was on the market in late 1948.

Support the Nurse: War Memorial appeal poster, 1948. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Support the Nurse: War Memorial appeal poster, 1948. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

With funds raised to October 1948, the Centaur Memorial Fund purchased Exton House for £57,000. Renamed “Centaur House”, this structure became Queensland’s memorial to war nurses who died on active service.

Centaur House, 1952. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Centaur House, 1952. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

To develop the centre for the nursing profession, some long-term tenants had to vacate. Lessees who remained included: doctors, dentists, accountants and a wool broker. On the ground floor were A..R Sharpe’s hardware shop, Centaur Café (formerly Exton Café) and Collinson’s chemist shop. After renovations, the College of Nursing and Queensland’s Bush Nursing Association moved in to Centaur House, joining ATNA QLD.

Centaur House pamphlet. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Centaur House pamphlet -front cover. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Centaur House pamphlet - inner. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Centaur House pamphlet – inner. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

For the next twenty years, the large club room on the third floor was used for lectures and meetings of nursing organisations. Although lacking a liquor licence, it was hired to the public for weddings and parties, bridge tournaments, wool auctions, and meetings of organisations such as the Tall Women’s Association of Australia and the Royal Empire Society.

Centaur House club room, 1957. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Centaur House club room, 1957. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Accommodation at Centaur House initially was restricted to nurses. Sister Ellen Savage GM, the only nurse to survive the sinking of the 2/3 AHS Centaur in May 1943, was the inaugural guest. She visited Brisbane in May 1949, as the Fund’s guest of honour at a Centaur Memorial Fund concert held at City Hall. Savage gave Centaur House the tick of approval.

Ellen Savage GM at Centaur House, May 1949. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Ellen Savage GM at Centaur House, May 1949. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Centaur House was a temporary home for QLD nurses studying for a certificate in maternal and child health. Other visitors were from overseas. Jean Wilson and Kathleen Sharp, graduates of Auckland Hospital, stayed at Centaur House in 1949 before taking up positions at Peel Island’s Lazarette.4 Also in 1949, Scotswoman Jean Howland stayed on her way from Shanghai to a position at Surat Hospital. She described Centaur House as ‘a boon and a blessing’ for immigrant nurses arriving in a new country.5 A relaxation of the accommodation restrictions in 1954 and 1958, enabled members of the British Royal Household to stay during visits of Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother, respectively.

As early as 1959, the Fund considered selling the ageing building because of rising maintenance costs. Plans for a roof-top ballroom and theatrette were abandoned in light of structural complexities. In the 1960s, pressure to develop the river end of Queen St mounted. Centaur House was sold in 1969 to an existing tenant, the wool-broking firm of Corrie & Co. A new Centaur House was constructed at 391 Wickham Terrace.

The Centaur Memorial Fund’s collection at SLQ highlights the everyday workings of Centaur House. It includes: architectural plans, samples of coloured venetian blinds, designs for paint colours, images, accommodation lists, correspondence and business records.

Dr Madonna Grehan

Plan for Neon Signage to facade, 1958. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Plan for Neon Signage to facade, 1958. From OMEG Centaur House Records. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Dr Madonna Grehan was the 2015 John Oxley Library Fellow. Her previous research on the Centaur Memorial Fund can be found here:

References

1. John W. East (2017). The Art of Architecture: the Brisbane Architect Lange Leopold Powell (1886-1938) and his work, available at J.W. East The Art of Architecture

2. Courier Mail 12 November 1946, p.5

3. Courier Mail 29 January 1948, p.4

4. Brisbane Telegraph, 30 August 1949, p.14.

5. 1 Dec 1949 letter from Jean Howland, Surat Hospital Surat to Joe Cranitch, OMEG 4/1 Correspondence Inward 2 February 1948 – June 1951, OMEG 4_1, Centaur Fund Records, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

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  1. Diane Collins

    This is a fascinating post Madonna. Thank you. The provision of secure accommodation for visiting nurses in the centre of the city must have been a boon particularly at a time when nurses received poor pay. Was there a curfew similar to nurses’ homes in the past?
    How interesting to hear there was an association for tall women at the time. I guess that is another story…

  2. Madonna Grehan

    Hello Diane, thank you. There was no curfew at Centaur House. There was a manageress who lived on site but the visitors had key access. So it was not a nurses’ home like those attached to hospitals and with which many nurses are familiar if they trained before 1985.

    The accommodation fees at CH were modest, that was the whole point. If a nurse was coming from Normanton or Boulia to do maternal and child health for 3 or 6 months, and didn’t have relatives or friends in Brisbane, they’d otherwise have to stay in a boarding house and that could be grim as well as expensive. So it was an important contribution of the public to educating the profession, particularly nurses from rural areas.

    One of the surprising things about the Centaur Memorial Fund records is who hired the meeting room. The number of bridge games played there is astonishing. The Tall Women’s Association will have to wait for another blog!

  3. Rosalie

    Thanks Madonna for another newsy blog. I really enjoy reading all the history and look forward to your regulr blogs. I would be interested to know how much this original Centaur building was sold for and how much it cost to build the new structure on Wickham Terrace. The accommodation would have been such a benefit to the visiting nurses.
    Rosalie.

    • Madonna Grehan

      Hi Rosalie
      Thanks for your feedback. Centaur House Queen St was sold in December 1969 for $500,000.

      What happened with the purpose built Centaur House No 2 at 391 Wickham Terrace is complex. I’ll be covering it in a future blog. The building design was quite radical for 1972. It survives as Alatai on the Park.

  4. Madonna Grehan

    After doing a presentation on the Centaur Memorial Fund yesterday I discovered that Centaur House was used by student nurses to escape the curfews applied by their training schools.

    Nurses in training had to “live in” on site at the nurses home. They had to be in no later than midnight or they were locked out.
    The students at one hospital in Brisbane overcame that restriction by asking their hospital for weekend or other leave. That granted, they applied for a bed at Centaur House. It had no restrictions on what sort of nurse could stay and there was no curfew! The student nurse was given a key to Centaur House and her room, so she could come and go at any time, day or night..

  5. Gregory Cope

    Thanks for another wonderful story about the Centaur and the legacy with Centaur House in Brisbane. It is really interesting and amazing what was achieved out of such a terrible tragedy. Keep up the excellent work.

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