My journey in photos & words travelling through Tasmania exploring
convict & colonial sites and other sites of historical significance.





Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Willow Court Open Day

Hosted by the Friends Of Willow Court Special Committee on the 18th Nov 2012, the beautiful and historic Willow Court & Barracks precinct was open for tours and a full program of activities in a not to be missed opportunity to explore and learn about Australia’s oldest continually run mental hospital and Military Barracks that pre-dates Port Arthur.
A chance to look inside various buildings of the former Royal Derwent Hospital, which closed in 2000. Though derelict, the buildings provide a fascinating insight into practices and facilities used to treat people with disabilities and mental health issues over a period spanning more than 150 years. Willow Court & Royal Derwent Hospital currently comprise approximately 16 buildings set beside the Lachlan River.
Walking through the grounds and buildings is like stepping back in time when people with mental illness and disabilities were institutionalised. There is a vast range of architectural designs dating as far back as 1830s to the more modern Wards of around 1960.

Through the open day, it was hoped to raise awareness of the site and support for its preservation and development.
Planned activities included:
  • Guided tours of Willow Court
  • Art and photographic displays
  • Story telling and performances
The guided tours were conducted by former staff members of RDH who related their stories of life within Willow Court & RDH, sometimes sad, sometimes graphic but always interesting and enlightening. Starting in the grounds of the historic Barracks building, we were able to watch an short interpretive play called "Meet The Matron" and then undertake the tour of a number of buildings within the Willow Court complex.

The Barracks - 1830

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. 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. By 1952 all patients were transferred out of the Barracks into other Wards and it was used as a workshop for occupational therapy.


 Carlton House - 1908
Ward C was designed as a high security Ward for males “refractory’ patients. It has elements of institutional gothic characteristics. Patients in other wards were often sent to Ward C is they displayed challenging behaviours or became violet. Ward C accomdated approx 30 patients. Ward C has thick concrete walls, solid timber doors, and reinforced steel framed windows. Ward C has two exercise areas, one being a small maximum security court yard and the other a larger mixed court yard with high concrete walls. When Risdon’s Prison hospital opened most of the criminally insane were transferred there and Ward C became an open Ward. Two storey solid brick building designed for use as the male high security ward with mostly single room cell like, accommodation and sparse dayroom and washroom accommodation.
Bronte House - 1925
Because of cramped and unsatisfactory conditions orders were given to build a new 40 bed ward to accommodate male patients on the original sight of the wood yard. Patients were housed in 10 single rooms and 2 open planned rooms that led on to verandas. Bronte has pressed tin ceiling. Bronte House (sick ward) seen the introduction of Electro Convulsive Therapy ECT, Insulin Therapy and Marilia treatment. Once the Oval precinct Wards were constructed in the 1940 Bronte patients moved into the new hospital ward (Glenora) and Bronte accommodated boys. In 1964 Bronte was remodelled into a 35 bed ward for female imbeciles with a range of disabilities. These patients were locked inside until the 1970’s where they had access to Day activities and the pool on the south side which has been filled in. Bronte used to have a security alarm installed that would flash if there was an issue at either one of the high security wards Alonnah, OT Building or Ward C.
Alonnah - 1965
 Ward was built by a local builder Allan Rhodes at a time where there were some concerns around troubled girls with anti social behaviours. Alonnah was built to accommodate approximately 20 female high security patients. Alonnah had a small airing yard that was enclosed by a 15 foot concrete wall with rounded tops so that no one would climb out. Alonnah was conjoined to the Occupation Therapy building where the well behaved females did various work duties such as packing pegs for the local factory. Generally they were locked in their rooms from 8pm till 7am the next day. In 1985 patients left Alonnah and it was used as a workshop. Alonnah consist of a day room, dinning room, kitchen, doctors room, quiet room, seclusion room, visitors room, bathrooms, 12 single rooms and 1, 8 bed dormitory styled room. Alonnah was built like a prison with concrete walls, thick solid timber doors and reinforced windows with metal grilles. The day area had a raised surveillance room to monitor the patients. Built as a high security ward for female residents, this building is a mixture of reinforced concrete and solid brick. It is built on the lines of a prison with small cell like bedrooms and with small paned windows and sparse dayrooms. Structurally it appears to be in a sound condition.
Occupational Therapy Building - 1966
The OT building sits between Alonnah and Ward C and links the 2 facilities together. Security Patients from the adjoining wards would enter the OT building either via the Alonnah exercise yard or the security lock near the roller door entrance of Ward C. OT building is a high security building built out of redbrick and steel framed windows similar to Alonnah. OT building has female and males workrooms, one large main workroom, a stage, projection room, change rooms, toilets, locker room and staff rooms. The purpose of OT building was to be used by the security patients of Alonnah and Ward C and meant that the patients did not have step foot outside of their secure environment. The OT building was a facility where patients could engage in light industrial work, entertainment, social activities and arts/crafts. When Ward C closed in the 1980’s the OT building was used as a venue to hold activities by other patients of the Willow Court Wards.

All in all, a very interesting opportunity to view the interiors of some of the buildings and gain a greater understanding of how the institution looked and ran during its days of operation and what some of the conditions were like for the residents and staff. All of this was available for a gold coin donation which will go towards activities by the Friends of Willow Court committee as they develop plans & programs for the continual restoration and upgrading of the Willow Court buildings, particularly the development of an interpretation centre which visitors can see & hear stories from the history of the site. There will be opportunies to collect oral histories as well as documents & artifacts etc.

The site is unique, with an extraordinary history, both good & bad.  I hope that further Open Days will reveal many more facets of the site and its history.

Building Descriptions - Willow Court & RDH website:

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