The New Dunedin Hospital is set to bring so many positive outcomes to the people of the Southern district. Innovative models of care, integrated health services, a submarine, a digital approach to healthcare.


A submarine?

According to Dr Hayden Cawte, yes. The New Dunedin Hospital could give us a submarine. Well, perhaps the missing piece of quite a special one.

Dr Hayden Cawte is the director of New Zealand Heritage Properties, the company providing insight into the heritage and archaeological components for the New Dunedin Hospital project, and he has a hunch that the mystery surrounding a submarine that dates back to the Otago gold rush might be solved with the excavation of the New Dunedin Hospital site.

Back in 1873, Thomas and Sparrow of Dunedin built the Platypus, a small submarine dredge that was designed to be used in the booming mining industry at the time. After a few tests in the Otago harbour, it became apparent that the Platypus might not be the safest vehicle ever built. According to folklore, after its third unsuccessful manned test, a note from the crew reading “we are prepared to meet our maker” floated to the surface.

After its short and unproductive life as a submarine, the Platypus was bought by a man who lived near Middlemarch. Painful irony lay ahead for the submarine as it began a new life above sea level as... a water tank.

However, before the Platypus made its way to Middlemarch, its three metre middle section mysteriously disappeared.

“There are reports that a portion ended up in a soap factory, which is within the New Dunedin Hospital project area. Whether it’s still there, we’re not sure, but it is possible.” says Dr Hayden Cawte.

The remaining sections of the Platypus submarine can be found at the Middlemarch Museum, and funding was recently awarded to develop a covered exhibition space for it. Hopes are high at the museum that the missing three metre section can be found so the Platypus can be made whole again.

However, Pete Sparrow, Chair of the Submarine Committee for the Strath Taieri Historical Society (and Great Grandson of Joseph Sparrow, the original builder of the Platypus), thinks the chances of finding it on the hospital site are slim.

“I would love to think it would be, but I just think the chance of it showing up there are remote. We’re 145 years on from when it was kept at McLeod’s Soap Works, which is on the hospital site, and we had many reports of it being moved around and used as various types of tanks in other areas, but the trail’s gone cold.”

“But you don’t know with these things. Everyone thinks they’ve got a piece!”
Wherever the missing section is found, Mr Sparrow just hopes the finder will be generous enough to donate it to the Middlemarch museum and complete their submarine display.

As demolition of the new hospital site gets underway this month, the steps toward full excavation get closer and closer, as well as a possible denouement to the mystery of the Platypus submarine.

Artist impression of the Platypus. Image courtesy of Pete Sparrow.

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