In a 1944 report, Dr Catarinich, Victoria's Director of Mental Hygiene, condemned the buildings of Lachlan Park as too crowded, old-fashioned, unhygienic, and structurally unsound to carry out modern therapies. He recommended a new mental hospital and abandonment of the site. In 1949, a Parliamentary Standing Committee, appointed to comment on Dr Catarinich's findings, recommended that a new hospital be built on the eastern side of the Lachlan River using land bought in the nineteenth century to extend the hospital's pastoral and agricultural activities. Construction began in the 1950s. The new hospital opened in 1968.
The former Lachlan Park site on the western side of the Lachlan River did not close. Instead residents with mental illnesses were transferred across the river to the new site on the eastern side while those diagnosed with intellectual disabilities remained at the former Lachlan Park. In combination with the former Millbrook Rise Psychopathic Hospital, the two sites became the Royal Derwent Hospital. Lachlan Park was also known as Willow Court. The name came from a willow tree planted in the front court yard which was supposed to be a cutting from the one on Napoleon's grave in St Helena.
This roughly followed the recommendation of a 1964 Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works that the old Lachlan Park complex be used as a 'Mental Defectives Colony'. According to Dr JRV Foxton, Director of Psychiatric Services its purpose was:
'to care for mentally deficient patients, ranging from infancy to old age on one hand and from total idiocy to high-grade feeble mindedness on the other. Therefore provision [had] to be made for those who [were] totally dependent... For children adolescent [sic] and adults, and for patients who require secure detention to protect the public.'
These categories reflect those of the Mental Deficiency Act 1920.
The old Lachlan Park site housed about 400 people with intellectual disabilities, with just under a quarter of them children. The parents of many of those children had committed them on the advice of doctors but others were wards of state placed at the Hospital from various institutions because they had been classified as 'mentally deficient'. The Tasmanian Ombudsman's inquiry, which reported in 2004, received submissions from wards of state who had been in the Hospital.
A new development on the Lachlan Park site was the Female Maximum Security Ward known as Alonnah or Ward A, for girls classified under the Mental Deficiency Act. This often meant, not an intellectual disability, but refusing to conform to social attitudes about sexual behaviour. Even though the Mental Health Act 1963, which superseded the Mental Deficiency Act, specifically stated that 'promiscuity' did not imply an intellectual disability, policy more suited to the old act appears to have persisted for a while. Miranda Morris ascribes this to a 'moral panic' about teenage girls and young women in the 1960s that led to the establishment of Weeroona Girls' Training Centre and a new women's prison at Risdon, as well as Alonnah Ward.
The walls of Alonnah were made of thick concrete and the windows were covered with metal grilles. There was one eight bed dormitory and 12 isolation cells for punishment. These had huge doors with one way peepholes, known as Judas windows, and asylum locks. The day rooms could be constantly surveyed from a glassed-in office on a dais. There was no privacy in the bathrooms. The only outside space was a small yard enclosed by 15 foot high concrete walls. With the help of a staff member, the girls made a little garden against the walls.
Some of the girls had employment in the occupational therapy centre, also on the site, packing pegs for the Pioneer Peg Factory in New Norfolk or collating for the Government Printer. They earned enough to buy cigarettes. Other activities included pottery, physical exercises, and playing a modified form of netball in the yard. There was a gramophone and TV. Bed time was at eight pm, except on the rare occasions the girls attended a social at the occupational therapy centre.
Although Alonnah was meant to be high security, by 1969, it was apparently more like an open ward. Only 10 girls lived there and they made a trip with staff to Maria Island that year. Morris suggests that Alonnah was 'obsolete even whilst it was being built'. The last girls left in 1985 and boys lived there temporarily. By 1990 it was closed and the building was used as a plant nursery in a sheltered work program for people with intellectual disabilities.
An oral history project conducted by Margaret Reynolds and Monica Hols led to the publication in 2011 of: Remember the children: stories about the lives of young people in Tasmania's last mental institution, 1950-2000. It contains stories from former residents of Millbrook Rise Psychopathic and Royal Derwent Hospitals, many of whom had traumatic experiences. Contributors to the book spoke of distressing treatments and children being unwashed, tied to their beds, and beaten as well as deprived of food, meaningful activity, and their own clothes. Similarly, Through the window, the autobiography of Rachel Greene, a former resident of the children's ward, briefly describes the very difficult childhood that she had there.
In the later years of the Royal Derwent Hospital, conditions improved. Contributors to Remember the Children, remember the staff as 'co-operative, courteous and helpful'. There was a special facility outside the ward where about 10 children could do activities supervised by two nurses.
When the Royal Derwent Hospital closed in 2000, residents, many of whom had been there since childhood, were sent back to their place of origin, sometimes to families who did not know that they existed. A number of lifelong friends were split up in the process. In 2013, former residents of the Hospital live in group homes and supported accommodation run by not-for-profit organisations. The former Lachlan Park site is registered by the Tasmanian Heritage Council.
The Ombudsman's Review of claims of abuse from adults in state care as children: Final Report - Phase 2 of 2006 mentions the Royal Derwent Hospital.
01 June 2021
Cite this: http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/tas/TE00241
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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