Saturday, 15 December 2012

Willow Court & The Barracks

In 1827 Governor Arthur requested that all Invalid convicts across all Tasmania to be transferred from where they were to New Norfolk to be accommodated in wooden huts until more suitable accommodation was built on the site. The first invalid patient arrived later that year in 1827. In 1829 William Pritchard the first Lunatic patient arrived. The first Female patient arrived in Willow Court in 1830.
In 1830 the old site Willow Court site accommodated 45 Invalids, 20 Lunatics and a total of 23 staff all but 3 of them were ex convicts. In 1831 the construction of the Barracks was completed, part of which still stands today. The Barracks was described as a hollow square of a building for the insane attached to a three sided court for invalids. The Barracks has eight large single storey wards all with doors into the court yard. The barracks was designed by colonial architect John Lee Archer. The Barracks is a Palladian style with a series of pavilions interconnected by wards that form a central courtyard. The building was divided into male and female divisions. It included surgery, store room, dispensary, kitchens, wash house, mortuary (dead house), chapel, and offices.
The Lunatic Asylum was not purpose built; rather the New Norfolk barracks were chosen to house the insane among the convict invalids. The first male ‘invalids’ were admitted on 8th April 1829 followed by the first female admission on 14th January 1831. The u-shaped building was completed in 1834 with a capacity for 110 males and 20 females. However, in 1848 the general hospital admissions were transported to the Hobart Colonial Hospital and the New Norfolk Lunatic Asylum became solely a mental institution. Both free settlers and convicts were treated there, but the pressure of overcrowding was evident. Separate cottages were built for men, women and ‘better class’ boys, throughout the 1800s.
The name Willow Court comes from a Willow Tree that was planted in the court yard by Lady Jane Franklin from slips taken from the Willow Tree at the grave of Napoleon. The Barracks courtyard is paved with bricks from the demolition of old wards during the 1960’s. By 1952 all patients were transferred out of the Barracks into other Wards and it was used as a workshop for occupational therapy.

Name changes of the New Norfolk institution reflect changes in social, community and government stances towards physical disability and mental illness. The primary names, reflected of the historical literature of the different time periods, include:

Lunatic Asylum, New Norfolk 1829 – 1859
Hospital For The Insane, New Norfolk, 1859 – 1915
Mental Diseases Hospital, New Norfolk 1915 – 1937
Lachlan Park Hospital 1937 - 1968
and Royal Derwent Hospital 1968-2001.

The Willow Court Asylum Complex is of national historical importance as the longest continuously operating mental health institution in Australia. The Royal Derwent supported up to about 1600 patients and 1500 staff at its maximum. It was a contained town in itself with a dairy, pharmacy, heating plant, farmland, orchards, recreational facilities and kitchen. In 1893 when the Campbell Street Gaol that housed the ‘criminally insane’ was closed, the New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane became the only mental institution in the entire state of Tasmania.

Millbrook Rise Psychiatric Hospital, located about two kilometres from the outskirts of the complex road, was opened in 1934. After World War II, returned veterans with post traumatic stress were sent there. Staff and patients were shared between Millbrook Rise and the institution known as Lachlan Park Hospital. However, on 27th March, 1968 when Lachlan Park was renamed the Royal Derwent Hospital, Millbrook Rise lost its independence. Millbrook Rise housed the wealthier residents who had a croquet pitch and cricket field. Lyprenny, built in1966-67, is a significant example of modernist architecture and received recognition by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) in 1968.
Willow Court and Royal Derwent underwent a series of constant changes and development from 1830 until its closure in 2000. At Its peak the hospital supported approximately 1500 patients and 1500 staff and operated like a small village. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s new theories and ideas started to emerge in relation to the treatment of people with disabilities and mental illness. Little did they know at the time but these new theories were beginning of the end for Willow Court as an institution that had accommodated people with disabilities and mental health illness for over 170 years.The Tasmanian Government eventually made the decision to gradually close Willow Court as a result of de-institutionalisation and involved the re-settlement of residents into the community, typically into group homes where they still reside today.
Willow Court officially closed its doors to its staff and patients in October 2000, to the joy and despair of many.

The Willow Court Asylum Complex is permanently registered on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.
Unfortunately, in the 12 years since the site closed, it has suffered at the hands of vandals who have caused immense damage to the buildings, in some case, burning them down. Some buildings are now under private ownership and small businesses such as antique shops are starting to appear on the site. The local council is now taking a more proactive approach to the preservation & restoration of the site, in particular the more historically important buildings such as the barracks area.

For more information on Willow Court, visit the website:

You can also see what is being done to restore & reuse the site as an interpretation site on the Willow Court Advocacy Group website: