Royal Derwent Hospital

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Royal Derwent Hospital
Opened 1827
Closed 2000
Current Status Closed
Building Style Cottage Plan
Alternate Names
  • New Norfolk Insane Asylum
  • Lachlan Park


The New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane was not a purpose built a lunatic asylum rather it was to grow out of the need to provide for the insane among the convict invalids. The town of New Norfolk was located 22 miles from what was to become the capital of Tasmania, Hobart Town. Situated on the river Derwent, the town was accessible by boat and by road. In 1827 it was decided to use the invalid barracks at New Norfolk for all the colony’s invalids. Due to poor conditions in the two room building, Dr. Robert Officer, the District Surgeon in charge of the establishment requested a new building. A positive reply was received and Officer and the Police Magistrate of New Norfolk, W. H. Hamilton sought a site and prepared a plan of the proposed Hospital. The hospital plan appears from a surviving map sent by Hamilton to Governor Arthur to be a u-shaped building designed to house sixty convict invalids and importantly ten lunatics.

The hospital included accommodation for the Medical Superintendent and occasional patients. Arthur approved the proposal and the Colonial Engineer John Lee Archer was asked to prepare a final plan which was ready by 1829. Hamilton indicated in his letter of Feb. 5th 1829 that there was an area of 4 acres behind the intended building that could be made into vegetable gardens, and he recommended its inclusion in the purchase.

By June 1831, possibly in response to a request by Governor Arthur, Dr. Officer had prepared a plan of a building suitable for housing insane persons at New Norfolk. Archer approved of the plan with the only suggested change being a change from small windows to small skylights or trunks in the ceiling to ventilate and light the cells. In August Archer informed the Colonial Secretary that additions to New Norfolk would cost £604 0s. 2d. Along with asking Officer for a plan, Governor Arthur had also appointed a Board of three military officers, J. Logan, J. Briggs and J. Russell to consider the best means of providing medical assistance to insane persons or sick paupers – the Board defined these as free rather than convict. They found that insane individuals were being accommodated in the Colonial Hospital at Hobart town which was small, confined and not secure, while others roamed the street. The Board supported the erection of a suitable building for the insane adjoining the Invalid Hospital: “The building should be sufficiently large and well-enclosed to allow of the lunatics being kept under that restraint and moral discipline which can alone (sic) their comfort and security, or hold out a prospect of their being ultimately cured.”

The New Norfolk Invalid Hospital and Lunatic Asylum was funded by the Imperial Government because the establishment was intended for convicts for whom they were responsible. Free persons could only be admitted to Colonial Hospitals in cases of extreme poverty and by written permission of the Colonial Secretary. It is unclear whether the same restriction was placed on the admission of the insane, possibly the numbers involved did not make the matter so urgent. As in late 1833 there was only 20 lunatics compared to 89 invalids. In 1834 the number had risen to 136 and 300 in early 1836 (including 3 children). Officer in a letter to the Colonial Surgeon dated 27th June 1836 indicated the need for additional buildings, particular as it was impossible to achieve any classification among the lunatics based on their malady or constitution of mind: “under such circumstances, the chance of recovery is greatly lessened and their domestic comforts (a most necessary part in their treatment), sadly diminished”.

One of the few surviving plans of the Hospital, dating to 1829 and including the proposed additions of 1836, shows it to be composed of two squares with the invalids occupying the front section and the lunatics the rear. This rear quadrangle was divided into male and female sections. Roger Kelsall’s plan and elevation shows a modified H plan with extensions to the right and left of the back building line. Some rooms are identifiable, while on others the legend is not clear. On the left hand side of the front quadrangle were two wards in a two storey building extending out from an overseer’s room (sic). Moving upwards there was a store room, office, dead room, wash room, two wards, a store, two wards in the dividing section, with the kitchen in the centre, then another two wards with a store in the corner. Down the right hand side were three wards, an unidentifiable room, the surgery and dispensary, an overseer’s room (sic) and the two wards extending to the right. The left side of the back quadrangle had two rooms, then 12 pairs of cells, a ward and a store in the corner.

There is very little evidence about the conditions under which the insane were being kept at New Norfolk for these early years. Concerns about the management of New Norfolk and its closed nature found vent in the Colonial Times and Tasmanian of December 10th 1847. The Editorial clearly indicates that New Norfolk was a convict establishment in the eyes of its inmates who did not welcome free people who paid heavy fees to be there. The Editor also expressed the belief that no cure was being attempted rather inmates were imprisoned, a factor that had led to mental derangement in the first place for some. Visitors were not welcome at New Norfolk, which was viewed as an attempt to hide what went on behind the walls. A view echoed by John Morgan of Hobart who in a letter in The Hobart Town Courier of June 7th 1855 indicated that no records were kept nor inquests conducted, and in fact a secret Bastille system was still be practised in Tasmania with no regulation of the administration of New Norfolk or public monitoring of the asylum. This latter factor the Editor of the Courier believed was a consequence of the financial control of the institution by England and a lack of legislative power among Tasmanians. This was to change with the handing over of the New Norfolk establishment to the Colony on October 18th 1855.

In their first Report, dated December 31st 1859, the Commissioners found the grounds too small in extant. The whole space within the walls was 12 acres, while a six acre field across the road from the Asylum was cultivated by the patients. The Commissioners felt this should be included within the walls. To extend the grounds the Commissioners recommended the purchase of several private properties containing 20 acres in the immediate vicinity of the Hospital. This would link the Hospital to 64 acres of Crown Land. The buildings were in many parts defective both in capacity and construction.

By 1889 a new female building and the idiots cottage had been completed, while the new male building was opened in 1893. The block plan of 1888 while not indicative of room use does show how little New Norfolk had changed from the original Invalid Hospital and Hospital for the Insane. Despite modifications the original Willow Court and back square were retained intact. The main changes being the addition of a bath house in the back square, a larger kitchen, wash house and workshops off of the two squares. It was not until the twentieth century that significant additions were made to New Norfolk, which continues to operate as a psychiatric hospital today. The original part of the hospital from the early nineteenth century remains as a heritage listed building but is no longer used. [1]