Stop by Childers in Queensland and you’ll find Childers Dental Practice—Australia’s oldest dental practice. By Clea Sherman
Located in the Bundaberg region, Childers is over 300kms north of Brisbane. Known for its heritage character and local sugarcane crops, this tiny town is home to just over 1500 people.
It is also home to Gaydon’s Building, where you’ll find an intriguing pharmaceutical museum and what’s widely regarded as Australia’s oldest operating dental practice. Now owned and operated by dentist Brett Phillips, the site was first established 125 years ago.
A bite of history
Childers hit its stride back in the 1880s, when growing sugarcane became a profitable venture and a railway line made the area more accessible. It was around this time when apothecarist Thomas Gaydon arrived in the locality. A versatile man with talents for construction, business and healthcare, Gaydon cleared land, laid a slab and set up shop as a chemist, vet, optometrist, anaesthetist and dentist.
Erected in 1894, Gaydon’s first timber structure housed the local pharmacy and dental practice, before being levelled by fire in 1902. Undeterred, the entrepreneur re-established his premises with the help of an architect. Business went so well that he was able to add a second storey in 1909, and the resulting commercial building remains on Childers’ main street today.
Thomas Gaydon had a finger in almost every pie in Childers. He was on the Freemason’s board and local church board as well as involved with the shire council; he even stepped up as president of the Chamber of Commerce. In between dispensing medical supplies at the pharmacy and helping with toothaches, he also practised as an anaesthetist at the local hospital. This energetic all-rounder also had an interest in photography, converting a shed outside his dental office and pharmacy into a dark room.
After his death in 1935, Gaydon’s sons Noel and Geoff took over the pharmacy and practice, keeping the business in the family until the late 1960s. From there, the business has changed hands only a few times, with Dr Phillips taking over in 1994.
Childers’ crowning glory
Still in its original location, the Childers Dental Practice treats the majority of the local community.
“Time has to march forward and march the right way, but we try not to forget the past. It is important to look after the place as much as I can, while still providing an efficient surgery.”
Dr Brett Phillips, Childers Dental Practice
But changing times mean that while the decorative facade remains and the building is still home to a dental practice and pharmacy, the interior of Gaydon’s Building would no longer be recognisable to its founder.
Two more surgical areas have been added upstairs, plus there is now a self-contained flat where records, models and equipment are stored. A crack in one window remains as a reminder of a small earthquake that struck the area in 2014. There is also some water damage from a massive hail storm in 2018. However, the mosaic tile entryway has stood the test of time, as have the multi-paned arched windows.
As well as being a clinic owner, Dr Phillips has had to contend with his premises’ heritage listing. While the building has historic significance, “you need it to be usable and sterile so patients can come to a hygienic environment with proper infection control”, says Dr Phillips, who consults with heritage professionals before making upgrades.
“Time has to march forward and march the right way, but we try not to forget the past. It is important to look after the place as much as I can, while still providing an efficient surgery. The place has definitely been modernised but the ‘bones’ are still the same, and you’ll find the old photographer’s shed still out the back.”
At Childers Dental Practice, Dr Phillips provides an essential service to his community via his ‘Decay Slayer’ program, offering free dental care to the town’s most deserving residents.
“I used the name Decay Slayer because dental disease is the most major chronic disease in Australia and my objective is to reduce it in my area,” he explains.
“The Decay Slayer slaying decay in beautiful old Gaydon’s Building … life could be a lot worse!”
Dr Brett Phillips, Childers Dental Practice
With Childers being a low socio-economic area and the community taking regular knocks from drought, floods, fires and the fluctuation of sugar prices, Dr Phillips does as much as he can to encourage good dental health.
Looking back on a dental practice with a 125-year history provides the opportunity to reflect on the development of the profession. As Dr Phillips explains, “Thomas Gaydon had portable equipment and used to travel by horse to treat members of the community, stopping to pull out teeth in a shady spot under a tree.”
When the Childers Dental Practice first opened its doors, record keeping was limited to two or three words handwritten on a notecard, which often already contained the details of the patient’s entire family. Tooth removal required an uncomfortable pulley system instead of a drill and despite Gaydon’s anaesthetic prowess, it’s unlikely his clients were treated in near-total comfort like the patients of today.
The town of Childers hosted a celebration to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Gaydon’s Building, with Thomas Gaydon’s ancestors travelling from around the country to take part. Many stories were shared, including the tale of the dental technician and pharmacy assistant who would sit out the front and enjoy their lunch together before going on to marry and stay together over 50 years.
Then there was the former owner Billy Steel, who would often come to work on his old motorbike, eating an always open avocado sandwich he prepared atop the petrol tank.
A passionate dentist, Dr Phillips loves the history of his practice. “I like the place and it’s nice to be still going,” he says. “The Decay Slayer slaying decay in beautiful old Gaydon’s Building … life could be a lot worse!”