Seacliff Lunatic Asylum

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (often only Seacliff Asylum, later Seacliff Mental Hospital) was a psychiatric hospital in Seacliff, New Zealand. When built in the late 19th century, it was the largest building in New Zealand, noted for its scale and extravagant architecture. It would also become known for construction faults which led to a partial collapse, as well as for a fire during which a wooden outbuilding burnt down in 1942, killing 37 people (39 according to others). The victims were trapped in a locked ward. [ Fire: Seacliff Mental Hospital] (from the Christchurch City Libraries website)]

The asylum was located less than 20 miles north of Dunedin and close to the county centre of Palmerston, in an isolated coastal spot, within a forested reserve. [ The Seacliff Fire] (from Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)] The site is now divided between the Truby King Recreation Reserve, where all historical buildings have been demolished and most of the area still remains dense woodland, and The Asylum backpacker hostel, which uses some remaining hospital buildings."Seacliff asylum's painful and haunting history" - "Otago Daily Times", Saturday 27 January 2007]



The need for a new asylum in the Dunedin area was created the Otago gold rush expansion of the city, and was triggered by the inadequacy of the Littlebourne Mental Asylum. In 1875, the Provincial Council decided to build a new structure on "a reserve of fine land at Brinn's Point, north of Port Chalmers". Initial work was begun in the "dense trackless forest" in 1878. The Director of the Geological Survey criticised the site location, because he felt that the hillside was unstable.

Seacliff Asylum was one of the most important works of Robert Lawson, a New Zealand architect of the 19th century. Known for his designs in various styles, including the Gothic Revival, [ [ Historic Place Assessment Under Section 23 Criteria] (from the heritage assessment of the Mental Health Museum, Porirua, January 1999)] he started on the new asylum in 1874, and worked on it until the completion of the main block in 1884. At that time, it was New Zealand's largest building, and was to house 500 patients and 50 staff. It had cost £78,000 to construct.

Architecturally, Lawson's work on the asylum was very exuberant, making some of his previous designs look comparatively tame. The asylum had turrets on corbels projecting from nearly every corner, with the gabled roof line dominated by a large tower complete with further turrets and a spire. The building contained four and a half million bricks made of local clay on the site. It was 225 metres long by 67 metres wide. The great central tower of 50 m height, an essential element of many revivalist designs,Fact|date=August 2007 was also proposed to double as an observation tower if inmates should try to escape. [ Give me the Impossible - the story of Truby King and the Plunket Movement] (from 'Taranaki Stories' on the 'Puke Ariki' website, New Plymouth District Council)]

It was later said of the building, and its (forlorn) location, that: "The Victorians might not have wanted their lunatics living with them, but they liked to house them grandly.".

The asylum was later on progressively added to as it was transformed to function as a working farm, though most of the newer buildings were much simpler wooden structures. Staff lived in separate accommodation close to the wards, though they were also able to socialise in nearby Dunedin.


Structural problems began to manifest themselves even before the building was completed. In 1887, only 3 years after the opening of the main block, a major land slide occurred, as predicted as a risk by the surveyors, and affected a temporary building. The main block survived until 1959, when it was demolished because of further earth movement. [ Truby King Recreation Reserve Management Plan] (from the Dunedin City Council website, 05 August 1998)]

Still, the problems with the design could no longer be ignored even at the time, [ [ Papers Past (Transcription excerpts)] - "Hawkes Bay Herald", February 1888] and in 1888 an enquiry into the collapse was set up. In February of that year, realising that he could be in legal trouble, Lawson applied to the enquiry to be allowed counsel to defend him. During the enquiry all involved in the construction - including the contractor, the head of the Public Works Department, the projects clerk of works and Lawson himself - gave evidence to support their competence. The enquiry however decided that it was the architect who carried the ultimate responsibility, and Lawson was found both 'negligent and incompetent'. This may be considered an unreasonable finding as the nature of the site's underlying bentonite clays was beyond contemporary knowledge of soil mechanics, with Lawson singled out to bear the blameFact|date=August 2007 (this would however disregard the fact that the site's problems had been pointed out by the surveyors). As New Zealand was at this time suffering an economic recession, Lawson found himself virtually unemployable.Fact|date=June 2007


Treatment of the patients at Seacliff, whether truly insane, mentally retarded or held in the institution for what would today be classed as simply being difficult, [ [ Hospitals, Mental - Early Problems] (from Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)] was often very callous, or even outright cruel, a feature of many mental asylums of the times. [" [ Compo for psychiatric patients 'a difficult issue'] " - New Zealand Press Association, Friday 29 June 2007] Janet Frame, a famous New Zealand writer, was held at the asylum during the 1940s and wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic. [ [ A survivor against the odds - noted New Zealand writer Janet Frame dies] - Rees, Margaret; World Socialist Website, 02 March 2004] In her autobiography, she recalled that:

:"The attitude of those in charge, who unfortunately wrote the reports and influenced the treatment, was that of reprimand and punishment, with certain forms of medical treatment being threatened as punishment for failure to ‘co-operate’ and where ‘not co-operate’ might mean a refusal to obey an order, say, to go to the doorless lavatories with six others and urinate in public while suffering verbal abuse by the nurse for being unwilling. ‘Too fussy are we? Well, Miss Educated, you’ll learn a thing or two here." ["An Angel at My Table" - Frame, Janet; 1984]

Frame also describes other patients being beaten for bedwetting, and that all patients tended to continually look for the possibility to run away from the institution. [ [ Book Review - "Wrestling with the Angel"] - Mason, Carolyn; M.A. University of Canterbury, 01 August 2001] She herself only escaped lobotomy at Seacliff by fact of her new-found public success (she had won a literary prize while in the institution). Others were not so lucky, being forced to submit to what today would be considered barbaric procedures like the 'unsexing' operation (removal of fallopian tubes, ovaries and clitoris) of Annemarie Anon [sic] in what was at the time considered a 'successful' treatment. Electroconvulsive therapy was also widely used, a procedure whose use is nowadays very contested.

Seacliff was however also the site of some positive moves in hospital treatment of psychiatric patients, with Truby King, noted medical reformer, becoming Medical Superintendent in 1889, and holding the position for 30 years. He is credited as having turned what was essentially conceived as a prison into an efficient farm.

Nurses working at the hospital in the later years of its operation also describe the situation much less critically than Janet Frame, noting that while many patients at Seacliff during her time (1940s) would not have been confined in modern days, the atmosphere was more like that of a large working community. Patients capable of working were asked to help with various duties, partly because of the staff shortages in the war years. Unless considered dangerous, patients were also allowed some liberties, such as males being allowed to go fishing for example. [ "Memories are made of this"] - McLeod, Kath; Otago Age Concern publication, via Caversham Project, University of Otago] It should be noted however, that this was unlikely to be solely for their pleasure, as Truby King had long ago established an asylum-connected fishing business at nearby Karitane.

Fatal fire

Around 9:45 pm, on the 8th of December 1942, a fire broke out in Ward 5 of the hospital (also called the 'Simla' building). Ward 5 was a two-story wooden structure added onto the original construction, holding 39 (41 according to some sources) female patients. They were all locked into their rooms or into the 20-bed dormitory, partially because World War II had caused a nursing staff shortage - checks were therefore made only once an hour.

After the fire was noticed by a male attendant, the hospital's firefighters tried to extinguish the flames with water from a close-by hydrant, while two women were saved from rooms that did not have locked shutters. However, the flames were too strong, and after an hour, the ward was reduced to ashes. The fire could however be kept from spreading to other buildings. All patients who remained in Ward 5 are thought to have died via suffocation from smoke inhalation.

An inquiry into the fire criticised the lack of nursing staff, but praised the firefighters for their prompt and valiant actions, including the quick evacuation of many other patients in nearby, threatened buildings. It also remarked on the critical absence of sprinkler systems (present in other new sections of the institution), and recommended their installation in all psychiatric installations. The cause of the fire was not found, though there was speculation about an electrical short circuit due to shifting foundations. The disaster would remain New Zealand's worst loss of life in a fire until the Ballantyne's store disaster in Christchurch five years later. [ New Zealand Disasters - Seacliff Mental Hospital Fire] (from the New Zealand Society of Genealogists newsletter, Dunedin Branch, March/April 2004)]


Mainly due to worsening ground conditions which progressively affected many buildings, the hospital functions of Seacliff were progressively shut down and moved to Cherry Farm, with the hospital ceasing operation at its original location in 1973. The hospital site was divided up, with the land surrounding the original building site later becoming Truby King Recreation Reserve, having passed into the ownership of Dunedin City in 1991. Around 80% of the reserve is densely wooded, with the area commonly called the 'Enchanted Forest'. The last remaining building in the reserve was demolished due to structural faults in 1992, after an initiative to establish a transport museum had failed.

The remaining area of hospital buildings outside the Reserve is privately owned and operated as the Asylum Backpackers / Asylum Lodge. In the summer of 2006-2007, regular guided tours of the hospital grounds were operated in conjunction with the Taieri Gorge Railway's "Seasider" tourist train service.

ee also

*Janet Frame, the most famous of the asylum's patients / inmates
*Truby King, medical reformer, administrator of the asylum for 30 years
*Lionel Terry, a schizophrenic white supremacist murderer who died at Seacliff, after several escapes [ [ Lionel Terry] (from Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)]


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