The recent proposal to remove the giant magnolia at Hartford 244 Glebe Point Rd aroused my interest in one of Glebe’s most distinctive mansions, and the man who named it after his birthplace.

Hartford on the subdivided Toxteth Estate was built for dentist E Randolph Magnus (his preferred name), the driving force behind the establishment of Sydney’s Dental Hospital. In 1898 Edwin, his wife Lilian, their three young sons and Lilian’s widowed mother Elizabeth Gillam moved to Glebe from single-storey Lingwood, presumably named after the area in London where Lilian was born and now part of Meriden School Strathfield.

‘Scottish Baronial’ Hartford’sfeatures included multiple public rooms, two bathrooms, five bedrooms plus a nursery and servants’ quarters (Protestant ‘help’ included a housemaid, general servant, parlour maid, cook and laundress). During the Magnus family’s occupancy gardens and lawns were established, a conservatory and bush house built, and a croquet court laid out. An adjoining allotment fronting Allen St – big enough for tennis courts, stables or a cricket pitch – was not developed.

Edwin Magnus was born in Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating DDS from the Philadelphia Dental College, he had by 1891 set up practice in Sydney where in 1894 he married Lilian Watson, mother of Edward Oliver (1887-1952). Rudolph Piercey (1895-1958) and Alexander Noel (1896-1967) were born at Strathfield; their sisters Eugenie ‘Gene’ Lilian Florence (1899-1977) and Sylvia Elizabeth Mary (1904-73) at Glebe.

After the passing on 1 Jan 1901 of the Dentists Act allowing for dental practitioners to be licensed in Australia, the country’s first dental school was established by the University of Sydney in rented city premises. Most of its teachers had been trained in Philadelphia. In Sept 1901 Edwin and his younger brother Frank Douglas became core members of a committee to establish a dental hospital providing free care to those who could not afford it. Within a month they had received donations of two dental chairs and a vulcaniser, and a subcommittee had begun organising fundraising balls and theatricals, with a list of subscribers (including Glebe’s George Boyce Allen).

The dental hospital idea was controversial. Some saw it as of particular benefit to the poor who couldn’t afford to pick and choose their foods. Some hoped it would increase numbers in the armed forces — volunteers were rejected because their teeth were bad and with bad teeth they couldn’t eat battlefield food. Others saw the hospital as a threat to those in private practice: a service at RPA Hospital was abused by people who could afford to pay something, and there were dentists who pulled out teeth for nothing or a nominal charge. To those who said the enterprise was a waste of taxpayers’ money Edwin responded that it was a charity. He told the parliamentarian who claimed dental students would be given free rein to practise on people that only qualified dentists would treat patients.

On 17 Oct 1902 the hospital was officially opened by the governor who was taken by Edwin on a tour of its four rooms on the first floor of 219 Elizabeth St. Three days later the first patient was seen. Within its first two years the hospital treated over 12,000 people, mostly with extractions and fillings.

A decade later these were still the most common procedures; a few facial restorations were undertaken.

Magnus in the original four-room dental hospital ca 1902 (image: Report of United Dental Hospital 1903)
Magnus in the original four-room dental hospital ca 1902 (image: Report of United Dental Hospital 1903)

Edwin, inventor of several dental appliances, was the United Dental Hospital’s chief honorary dental surgeon, President and Life Governor in its formative years. By 1912, when it was relocated to Chalmers St, he was dealing with ongoing problems of finances and changing staff. Temporary financial relief was obtained with a one-off government grant plus matched public/private moneys.

A fellow oral surgeon at the hospital and councillor with the NSW Odontological Society was Edwin’s brother Frank who had also trained in the USA. Frank’s son Everett in turn became an honorary dental surgeon at the Dental Hospital and at RPA (but his chief claim to fame was as chief forensic witness in the sensational ‘Pyjama Girl’ case. He identified the victim – preserved in a formalin bath for a decade – from the composition and location of her seven fillings). Edwin’s brother-in-law George Louis Gillam was the Dental Hospital’s Secretary.

In 1915 Edwin attended a dental congress in San Francisco in connection with the Panama World’s Exposition. In the same year the first of his sons went to war. In July medical student Rudolph embarked on the hospital ship Karoola; in April 1916Alexander, also a medical student, left with the light horse field ambulance; and in June 1916 Edward Oliver Watson (who had graduated in dentistry from Sydney University in 1909 and was in practice with his stepfather at Wyoming Macquarie St) went to the Front with the Army Medical Corps’ dental unit, leaving behind his new bride Hazel Fraser née Fry. Alexander returned to Australia in Nov 1917 and resumed his studies at Sydney University, graduating ChM MB in 1923. Captain Watson, mentioned in despatches, returned in Oct 1918. Rudolph, a sergeant, was seriously injured in France in 1917 but also made his way back home.

‘Artistic modern residence’ Hartford together with its contents was put up for auction in 1907 but not sold until ca 1909. The Magnus family then lived in their new Lingwood — a landmark building at Chatswood until fire swept through it in 1914. They were at Elizabeth Bay before (apart from Edward Watson who stayed in Sydney and ‘Gene’ who moved to New York) settling in Western Australia where Rudolph and Alexander became prominent medical practitioners and Sylvia married surgeon Eric Kyle. E Randolph Magnus died at Perth on 9 Dec 1931; his widow on died 27 Feb 1941 at Bassendean.