No. 1.7 - Oldest Lunatic Asylum in Australia

Otago Witness , Issue 1898, 6 April 1888, Page 15


Dr Crampton, the assistant surgeon of the New Norfolk Asylum, having tendered me an invitation to visit the asylum, we left Hobart at 8 a.m. by the Main Line railway, and reached South Bridgewater at 8.30, after which the train crossed the river Derwent by the aid of a causeway which was made over half a century ago by prison labour. Approaching North Bridgewater, we see before us two bridges, swing and draw — one the old coach road, the other one for the railway. We then transfer ourselves from the company's line to the Government railway, and we are soon on our way to New Norfolk. The train keeps close to the river all the way up, and the scenery is delightful. The tourist looking up from the carriage gazes on massive pillars of rock 300ft and 400ft high, almost overstretching the railway line. For half a mile there is nothing but one mountain, whilst on the other side of the river the ground is not above 20ft high. One rock in particular appears in the distance like the pulpit used in many of the Roman Catholic churches, and it is known as the "Pulpit Rock." New Norfolk is situated upon the southern bank of the river Derwent, something like 25 miles from Hobart. Twenty years ago New Norfolk was a great place for hop growing, and Messrs Shoebridge, Allwright, and many others launched out very extensively in this industry, but of late years, between Protectionist Victoria and the large amount of chemicals substituted for hops by 99 out of 100 tinpot and syndicate brewers of ale, the hopgrowing industry in Tasmania has gone completely to the dogs and ruined several well-known men in the "tight little island."

Before dealing with the asylum I might mention the strenuous efforts of many Tasmanians during the last flve-and-twenty years to rear salmon ova. In 1864 the late Sir Robert Officer, then Dr Officer, in conjunction with several other gentlemen, tried the experiment of domesticating, so to speak, the salmon, and for that purpose they chose the Plenty river, about 25 miles from Hobart, on a small tributary of the Derwent, called the Plenty, which takes its rise in the high basaltic range of which old Mount Wellington forms the eastern spur, and traverses from 15 or 20 miles of rocky and forest country until it reaches the estate of Redlands (where the ponds are constructed), about a mile above its junction with the river Derwent. The Plenty possesses special advantages for breeding salmon, for its water is clear as crystal and remarkably pure, its equable low temperature, the comparative absence of natural enemies to fish, and the ease of access and supervision. In its alternate quiet deep pools and tumbling gravelly rapids, now passing through a rocky gorge overhung with what was once a dense forest, and anon sparkling in the bright sunshine over a bed of shingle, it closely resembles, from engravings I have often seen, a good Scotch trout stream. Should any of my readers visit Hobart, they should be sure to spend a day at the Salmon Ponds. Good anglers will enjoy a good holiday.



The readers of the Witness must allow me to take them back 40 years before entering on my account of the asylum at New Norfolk. Freethinkers and others often condemn Christianity for its uncharitableness. As regards the treatment of lunatics, I am about to quote an article from the Illustrated Melbourne Post (in conjunction with the Herald) of the 18th June 1865, and in doing so I wish to show the vast improvement in the treatment of lunatics in 1848 and 1888 respectively. Bishop Wilson (Roman Catholic) of Tasmania, was, if not the very first to advocate the mild treatment of lunatics, at all events in the front van. He was ever among the most active in carrying out this humane system in the county asylums. As every reformer of abuses and introducer of better systems must expect, he had to contend with many difficulties, and these were of no ordinary kind, as will be clear to anyone who reflects for a moment with what tenacity old-fashioned medical men cling to their stereotyped notions of practice in general, and the treatment of the insane in particular. Corporal punishment, straight waistcoats, bags, unhealthy, damp, illventilated asylum buildings, and such like were Bishop Wilson's abhorrence. When he could not carry his point fully in the local asylum, and induce the medical officers to believe in the mild system, as it was called, he took some lunatics into his own house, and treated them there under his own supervision with the greatest success. Patiently enduring and steadily working wherever he could in this direction, he lived to see the old barbarism of lunatic asylums abolished, and to reap a heartfelt gratification from the results he had already attained through modern improvements, many of which were of Bishop Wilson's own devising. Our new lunatic asylum at Kew is owing in no small degree to his exertions. This noble philanthropist was born in one of the midland counties of England in 1794. He arrived in Tasmania in 1842, and remained two-and-twenty years, when he took his departure for England, and died nine months afterwards. Extinctus amabitur idem.


One knock at a large gate, and the warder admits "Warrior," not into the press room at Flemington, but into a lunatic asylum. Having shown my authority for entering the grounds, I was escorted to tho office of the medical superintendent, where I found my old friend from the Lakes, Dr Crampton, hard an work with correspondence. He was rather busy on account of having been on leave of absence for 10 days. Before making an inspection of the grounds and inmates the doctor gave me an outline of the -


Dr Macfarlane, the medical superintendent, although having entire charge of the institution, is subservient to a board of official visitors, composed ot independent gentlemen, reappointed or superseded from year to year, so as to act as a safeguard and guarantee to the public and the friends of the inmates of the asylum that no persons will be detained unless they are of unsound mind. The board consists of Dr Smart (chairman), Dr Gray, and Mr F. W. Mitchell, J.P. These gentlemen are at liberty to visit the asylum as often as they think fit, and they must at least once in 30 days forward a report to the Chief Secretary on the state of the asylum, and suggesting any improvements that they may think necessary. The Church of England and Roman Catholic chaplains hold divine service every Sunday. Dr Crampton having introduced me to Dr Macfarlane as the representative in Australia of the Daily Times snd Otago Witness, "Warrior" commenced his unthankful inspection of the asylum.

It would be perhaps as well, before commencing the tedious task of describing the ins and outs of the institution, to say a few words about the place I am visiting. The buildings are erected on a rectangular block of land 16 acres in extent. Of this, 11 & 1/2 acres contain the buildings occupied by the inmates and attendants. There are now in course of erection an idiot cottage and a house for chronic and dirty female patients on the remaining 4 & 1/2 acres. The oldest buildings in the asylum were erected in 1827, 61 years ago for a convict hospital, which was at that time under the control of the late Sir Robert Officer. The land reserved for the use of the hospital for the insane, New Norfolk, amounts in all to 48 acres, two acres of which are occupied by the residence of Dr Macfarlane, and the remainder as a farm and vegetable garden.


When I say "the well-to-do female cottage," I mean the residence of the ladies whose friends are prepared to pay any sum of money so that they may be looked after. The head matron, a lady of good family, a relative of Sir W. J. Clarke's, and who has done good service in England, and will in all probability, owing to her vigorous discipline, make her mark in the Tasmanian Lunatic Asylum attended Dr Crampton in showing me round this and the other wards. A stranger to such scenes, as myself, would have thought from their conduct that the majority of the inmates in this division — 18 in all — were sane. As I said before, Dr Crampton had only been away 10 days, but he received quite a reception from the ladies. "I am so glad, doctor, you have returned," said one and another would add, "How did you enjoy yourself, doctor ? l am so glad you have come back," &c. From what I could see from personal observation, Dr Crampton, who has made the study of lunacy a specialty, has almost, so to say, mesmerised his patients. There were scarcely three of the poor unfortunates who did not shake him by the hand. There was one lady, a daughter of a rich, man, lying on a velvet couch, who would neither speak nor look at us. Now and then she rises from the couch and performs on the pianoforte selections from some of the best operas. From what I learned it appears that pride brought her within the walls of a lunatic asylum. An elderly lady sitting in a chair sewing away was addressed as her Majesty. When I asked why she was addressed thus, the doctor replied that she imagined that she was Queen Victoria. The inmates of this cottage are very quiet, and when they wish to have a little fresh air, walk in the garden, which is overshadowed by a row of eucalyptus trees. The cottage is a model of neatness and cleanliness, and reflects great credit on those in charge of it. Neither Kew, Gladesville, nor Karum Park can boast of such bedrooms, either for attendants or patients, or such padded cells, bathrooms, or kitchen as those of the "Ladies cottage" at New Norfolk. The 18 patients are attended by two day nurses and one at night. We then directed our steps to the rear of the cottage, and we immediately found ourselves in the -


Half-a-dozen horses coming down a cropper on their jocks in a steeplechase is a bad enough sight for any cormorant, but the refractory ward beats anything that can be seen in any asylum north of the line. The inmates, many of whom have the stamp of the Imperial Government on their face, present the most melancholy and saddening picture of mental disease. Here are found many forms of acute mania some patients are so violent and dangerous to themselves and others that they have to be kept under the most painful restraint. Go where you will in this division, and true insanity and hopeless imbecility are plainly visible. Dr Crampton asked me whether I was alarmed. I replied, "Well, doctor, £50 don't bait me in here again. Not for Joseph, if he knows it." A number of the bedrooms are padded and the windows secured with wooden shutters. Altogether there are 41 patients in this division, several of them Imperial prisoners. They have to be watched day and night, and four nurses are in attendance in the daytime and one at night for this purpose. The inmates retire to rest in this division at 8 o'clock, and during the long hours of the night, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., are visited every two hours.


Opposite a large grass lawn stands a two storeyed building, which is occupied by a class of patients whose madness is not so pronounced as some people would imagine, and of whom 30 per cent, gain their liberty. Here I came across a couple of idiots, one of whom was harmless, but the other, if approached, would screech like an owl and act like a fiend, She was a living exemplification of perpetual motion as she shrank into her corner.
"Well, doctor," said I, "how about these cases ?""Nothing can be done, sir. The greatest physician that ever breathed or will ever exist could not prevent those horrid contortions."
"How do you account for such calamities ?""All I can say is, and I have made insanity my specialty, that in many cases the disease has been handed down from the third generation back."
"Is it true, doctor, that it is only from the lower class that idiots such as you have got here spring ?""Not at all, Mr 'Warrior.' It's six of one and half-a-dozen of the other."
"How long do these poor creatures live ?""They scarcely live to the age of 30 years."
"Can they feed themselves ?""Oh, no. They would starve if left to themselves. They have to be fed. They cannot do anything for themselves. They are dead to the world."

There are several large dormitories and a number of smaller sleeping apartments on the first floor whilst on the ground floor there is a large dining hall (used for divine service, and at times for concerts, &c), sub-matron's apartments, and additional bedrooms and dormitories. At the rear of this building is a compact little kitchen, in which are cooked the meals for the female attendants, the hospital regulations compelling them to board and sleep on the premises. There are 99 patients in this division, eight nurses on day duty and one at night. This building, as regards lofty rooms and ventilation, far surpasses the ladies' cottage. Of course the large number of occupants necessitates this. The beds were clean, and one could have almost partaken of a meal off the floors. The quarters for the matron and some of the nurses are in a neat cottage behind the refractory ward, the sub-matron having her apartments in the centre of the main building.


What struck me most about the female department of the asylum was the manner in which some dozen of the female patients worked at the washtub and mangled and ironed the clothes. They appeared to relish their work. One young girl in particular, who would turn the scale at 13st, "grafted" like a Trojan. Considering there are 300 patients in the asylum, and the females are only helped. by four or five males, the washerwomen lunatics in the New Norfolk Asylum have got their work cut out for them. If they were sane people they would soon find it was "not all beer and skittles." The sooner the Official Board of Visitors recommend to the Tasmanian Government the desirability — in fact the immediate necessity, for the erection of a steam laundry, the better for the unfortunate lunatics who are daily called upon to do the washing. It is simply a disgrace that these poor unfortunates have to sweat their eyebrows out over a washtub.

I must admit, however, that they appeared none the worse for their employment; in fact they were as "fat as butter," and looked better than any of the other patients. The New Norfolk Asylum authorities have in the lady superintendent one who I feel certain knows her business. She is most obliging and what few questions I put to her she readily answered. The sub-matron and the nurses are all young women, but well coached up in the charitable vocation they have chosen to follow. They dress very neatly, something after the style of the English hospital nurses.

In next issue "Warrior" will conclude this article by giving a description of the male department.