Seacliff Lunatic Asylum

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Seacliff Lunatic Asylum
Established 1877
Construction Began 1878
Opened 1884
Closed 1973
Demolished 1992
Current Status Demolished
Building Style Echelon Plan
Architect(s) Robert Arthur Lawson
Location Dunedin, NZ
Alternate Names
  • Seacliff Mental Hospital


The Central Otago Gold Rush in the 1860′s brought about a huge expansion of the Dunedin area of New Zealand. The local asylum at the time became severely overcrowded, and it became clear that another facility was necessary. In 1877, the central government supported plans to build a new farm asylum, and construction began 20 miles north of Dunedin on the eastern coast of the South Island. The dense forest provided a serene location, but the Director of the Geological Survey declared the site to be unsafe to build the asylum. The surrounding hillside was known to be unstable, and concerns were raised over what that would mean to the operation of the asylum. Despite such concerns, the building went ahead, and by 1884, all of the patients from the local asylum were transferred to Seacliff Lunatic Asylum.

The building was designed by Robert Arthur Lawson, and it was modelled on the Scottish baronial style, which Lawson frequently used in his designs. He was also renowned for his range of work in the Gothic Revival style, and he combined both aspects to the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. With turrets and corbles on every corner, large towers and a spire, the building contained four and a half million bricks (made from local clay.) The great central tower was 50 metres in height, and overlooked the hospital as an observation tower, in case patients attempted to riot or escape. The asylum was built initially to accommodate 500 patients and 50 members of staff, and cost £78,000 to construct.

In 1889, Truby King was appointed as Medical Superintendent, and he brought in a ground-breaking treatment plan for his patients. He prescribed fresh air, a balanced diet, exercise and occasional work (such as working in the asylum’s laundry rooms or gardens.) It was King who transformed Seacliff Lunatic Asylum into a productive, working farm, creating additional funding for the institution and occupational therapy for the patients. He also introduced a number of small dormitories, each confined to their own building which were situated opposite the main structure. It is widely believed that this was the beginning of the villa system, which was later adopted by many mental health hospitals in the country.

The structural faults began at Seacliff before the first building was even completed. The day rooms received very little sunlight, the windows were too high for the patients to see out of, and maintaining a high level of security became almost impossible. There were 1,273 doors in Seacliff Asylum, and each one had its own individual key, and the foundations were crumbling on the unstable ground beneath.

In 1887 a colossal landslide occurred, resulting in the collapse of one of the temporary buildings. The dismissed concerns expressed by the Director of Geological Survey were accurate, and the structural issues could no longer be ignored. In 1888, an inquiry into the collapse was conceived, forcing architect Robert Lawson to apply for legal counsel and casting a shadow over his illustrious reputation. The inquiry called everyone involved in the build to give evidence, from the head of the Public Works Department, to the contractor, and Lawson was found to be both ‘negligent and incompetent’. Despite the inquiry findings, the institution remained upon for a further 85 years.

The hospital remained open for another 31 years after the fatal fire in 1942 (see below). The ground conditions continued to deteriorate, and both staff and patients were gradually moved to the close by, Cherry Farm hospital. Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was eventually closed in 1973, and the land was subdivided, with the land around the original building site becoming the Truby King Recreation Reserve. The last remaining building in the reserve was demolished in 1992, and the dense forest became known as the ‘Enchanted Forest.’

The remaining area of hospital buildings outside the reserve is privately owned. Tours of the hospital grounds began in the summer of 2007, operating in conjunctions with the the Taieri Gorge Railway service.

The Fire of 1942[edit]

"The fire that swept through Ward 5 of the Seacliff Mental Hospital killed 37 female patients. Most of the windows in the ward were locked and could only be opened by a key from inside. The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, 28 km north of Dunedin, opened in 1884. With accommodation for 500 patients and 50 staff, it was at the time the largest public building in New Zealand. Ward 5 was part of a two-storeyed wooden building that had been added to the original stone building at the end of the 19th century. That fateful evening Ward 5 held 39 women patients who had been locked into single rooms or the 20-bed dormitory. During the Second World War there was a nationwide shortage of nurses; that night there was no nurse on duty, although Ward 5 was checked by staff from other wards every hour. Around 9.45 p.m. a male attendant noticed the fire and raised the alarm. He then ran to the small hospital fire station and dragged the fire hoses and reels to a fire hydrant near Ward 5. Two women were lucky enough to be in rooms that did not have locked shutters on the windows. Nothing could be done for the remaining inmates of Ward 5. The fire was too fierce and within an hour the building had been reduced to ashes. A commission of inquiry followed. While the cause of the fire was never determined, the wooden building housing Ward 5 was roundly condemned. There was little hope of preventing fire spreading once it had broken out. While newer parts of Seacliff had been fitted with automatic fire alarms, in Ward 5 the alarm could only be raised by unlocking a cabinet and pushing a button. The fact that the windows were shuttered and locked from the inside at night was also criticised, although the efforts of the hospital fire brigade in saving two people in Ward 5 and successfully evacuating hundreds of others from the hospital were praised. The commission recommended the installation of sprinkler systems in all mental hospitals. The Seacliff Mental Hospital fire was the worst in New Zealand until the Ballantynes department store blaze in 1947. A new psychiatric hospital was opened at nearby Cherry Farm in 1954."[1]

Images of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum[edit]

Main Image Gallery: Seacliff Lunatic Asylum


  1. 'Fire at Seacliff Mental Hospital kills 37 ', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 18-Oct-2013