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At Willow Court -Reflections on an abandoned Mental Hospital

Entrance to Willow Court

What both Mona and Dark Mofo do rather well is to make us confront our fears and the things we would rather repress. In that respect, if that was the aim, then it was a stroke of genius to make the former Mental Hospital at New Norfolk the venue for some Dark Mofo events.

The main buildings date from the 1830's and were originally built to house invalid convicts.  Until its closure in 2000, it was the oldest continously operating asylum in  Australia
 The previous Saturday, Mike Parr, notable for his confrontational performance art, put in seventy two hours exploring the theme of madness. He has some acquaintance with the subject. His own brother committed suicide in an institution like this. I didn’t see this particular opus, but his video with respect to the treatment of refugees whose plight he highlighted by sewing his own lips together as they had done, was showing in one of the alcoves. That was quite disconcerting enough.

We enter by the East Wing

 Willow Court is what remains of the Royal Derwent Mental Hospital which has long cast its shadow over New Norfolk. Although the original buildings begun in 1827 were intended to house infirm convicts, it soon became the dumping ground for all those others whom society preferred to forget - the mentally ill,  senile dementia  sufferers, the intellectually impaired, alcoholics,  juvenile delinquents and the criminally insane.
Beginning in 1936 more wards and facilities were added until there were 23 buildings in all. Since the primary aim was containment, treament revolved around the use of restraints, drugs and electroshock treatment and punishments of various kinds. While horror stories of abuse and neglect abounded, such conditions were  very much the norm in institutions of its kind at the time, not just in Australia but in other countries as well.

The price of admission is one mirror, which we are invited to leave wherever we feel moved to. They are everywhere
Being the only such facility in the state and the oldest continually operating one in the country, it continued to be overcrowded and under -resourced.  At its peak it accommodated around 1500 patients and was a closed, virtually self -contained community. Up to 40 people in one ward had to share a single shower and  had no privacy at all in bathrooms. In the event of complaints, sins of omission or commission were blamed on understaffing, or on the patients themselves who, having no voice and being anyway regarded as unreliable witnesses, could easily be ignored.  

View through the window

Not an electroshock machine, Thank goodness, but an early X-ray machine

The view within- the aim now is to stabilise the buildings
 In the 1950's there were the first ripples of a seachange. New anti -psychotic drugs such as lithium and more effective anti -depressants were developed which enabled many patients to live relatively normal lives.  Gradually attitudes towards those with intellectual or emotional difficulties also began to change.  Diagnoses such as “imbecile” or “moral mania” were no longer acceptable. Recreational opportunities, occupational therapies and education became more important. 

By 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, the rights of disabled people, including those with mental conditions began to be recognised in law if not always in practice. Advocacy groups formed and consultations with ‘consumers’ of mental health care began.

Not sure if this was a laundry or a bathroom or whether the graffiti predates or post dates closure
For those in the Royal  Derwent  Hospital, variously known  as the Lunatic Asylum (1829), The Hospital for the Insane (1859 – 1915), The Mental Diseases Hospital (1915 -1937), Lachlan Park Hospital (1937 – 1968) and The Royal Derwent Hospital (1968 -2001), reflecting changing views of mental health, things did not improve greatly and reports of abuse and neglect continued, leading to a major independent enquiry. This ultimately resulted in the closure of the Royal Derwent Hospital in October 2000 with most patients being rehoused in group homes in the community. The criminally insane were moved to a special wing at Risdon Prison and the few remaining ones were transferred to the somewhat more salubrious Millbrook Rise on the far side of the highway.
One of the more shocking exhibits since it conveys the smell of an institution where many people were forced to lie in their own excrement
The process of deinstitutionalisation was not always a success especially for those patients who lacked family or community support. People with "mental problems” continue to swell the ranks of the homeless and prison populations or become part of a “revolving door” culture where they move in and out of other institutions such as hospitals, halfway houses and charity hostels.
 I think of Hobart’s Dancing Man, Anthony Day and wondered if it was always a kindness or another way of society washing its hands of a problem. I don't know for certain if he was ever a patient at the Royal Derwent but the tragic course of his life followed a similar trajectory to that of many who were released. He committed suicide in Melbourne in May 2003, after being charged by the police in Hobart’s mall. Our greater tolerance of difference does not yet extend very far.
Women's exercise yard

In the sixteen years which followed its closure, the Hospital became a blot on the landscape and a drain on the local council, already reeling  from the loss of income which the hospital used to bring into the community. Some buildings were sold to developers; some were demolished. Others were vandalised and or became the target of arson attacks. Most artifacts and fittings were destroyed or plundered. While some attempts were made to turn it into a tourist ‘attraction’ with ghost tours and the like, these met with strong resistance from former patients and relatives of those who had suffered within its walls. 

Yet it is a historic building. Just as Port Arthur – formerly a place of shame and inhumanity is now of great importance as a visitor site, this sad chapter should also not be airbrushed out. It comes into the category of Sites of Conscience like Dachau in Munich or the Gulags of Russia. Unlike Port Arthur however, this is still a raw wound in many people’s lives, still too fresh in people’s minds. On the other hand, if it can evoke empathy and concern for those who are still suffering from mental disorders, and the stigma that goes with it, then this the diamond which can be forged out of their suffering. This should be of concern to all of us as it is now estimated that one in five of us is likely to be troubled by a mental disorder at some time in our lives.  

Bronte House - Ward C  originally a maximum security ward for male offenders, but later used to house young males guilty of anti social behaviour
 I’m not sure what I expected to see when I visited. The facility is now called by the pleasant name of Willow Court after the two giant willows planted by the indefatigable Lady Franklin. Although the trees are no longer there, they were reputedly grown from cuttings taken from a tree on Napoleon’s grave. Only the black wrought iron bars hint at what lies beyond. Although it’s sunny, it’s chilly. It’s as if a cold sad wind seeps out from those empty buildings.  Only a few people are allowed in at a time and as we queue, I wonder what brings us all here. Is it to gawp at the forbidden, the hidden,  in much the same way as we might once have laughed at the antics of the insane or attended a public hanging? A brazier burns cheerily at the entrance. At at last we are permitted to enter.

A video of Mike Parr's other work  highlighting the plight of refugees in detention, is on show in one of the alcoves- accompanied by the sound of retching in the background
The scale of these derelict buildings is already intimidating and they are rumoured to be haunted. Several  paranormal investigations have already taken place here. If walls could scream and sadness and despair could leave an imprint, they would certainly do so here. There is no sign of the straps and straightjackets or the dreaded electrodes, but visitors become noticeably quieter as they pass respectfully through these ruined and desolate spaces.  Mirrors - the price of admission, are everywhere.  They are intended to make one reflect – on oneself, on broken lives, on those incarcerated here. We don’t hear the screams of inmates, but the smell wafting from buckets of urine placed in one of the old wards, conveys far more than words or even pictures can. I fear that smell will cling to my clothes and hair and certainly my mind forever.

Alonnah, the Women's Ward from the outside. No pictures are allowed inside
At Alonnah, which was the women’s maximum security ward, no pictures may be taken. I have seen gulag cells that look more hospitable than these. The ceilings are low and the windows are not only tightly barred, but have another wall of concrete grillwork behind them followed by the perimeter wall, making them very dark indeed. Graffiti and possum droppings which have presumably accumulated since the building became vacant, have been left  in place. It is in this building that Mike Parr chose to put on his performance. Only dark scribbles and scraps of paper remain.

Reflections  - on ourselves, on broken lives, on a society that allows people to be treated this way or turns a blind eye
People walk slowly back towards the exit - in shock perhaps, thoughtful and hopefully moved. We need places like this this on the National Heritage list to remind us to be kinder and more compassionate. A society is judged on the way it treats its weakest members. Although Australia signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2008, you do not have to look hard to find violations or traces of the old attitudes. An apology to those affected may help to heal the wounds. If the aim of Dark Mofo (and MONA) is to shock us into thinking about such things, then they have succeeded  admirably.



Nick said…
What a great wrap up, thanks for sharing. If you want more info on Willow Court please visit