The Eyes Have It

By Virginia Ward, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

The Willow Court Barracks building is iconic for this large and varied site, which spreads over both sides of the Lachlan River in New Norfolk Tasmania. It has survived when others have been demolished in phases of rebuilding. It is beautiful. The current work to stabilise the structure and renovate rooms in the south wing has removed protective boards, restoring all the windows—the building’s eyes.

The New Norfolk Invalid Hospital and Lunatic Asylum opened in 1830 with remains of an earlier wooden building thought to be under the Barracks square. The plan below by Roger Kelsall includes the proposed additions of 1836.


In 1885 after a Royal Commission, the name was changed to the Hospital for Mental Diseases, with further name changes to reflect changing attitudes until its final incarnation, the Royal Derwent Hospital.

After progressive moves to community integration Willow Court closed in 2000. Many buildings were sold to private enterprise for redevelopment, but some were retained by the Derwent Valley Council, including the Barracks. Major theft and vandalism, along with the ravages of time and weather, left the Barracks in a sad state, with its eyes closed by protective boards.

Willow Court has many friends and captivating stories. In 2012 the Council gained funding to repair the precinct and breathe new life into the area.


‘Eyes so transparent, that through them one sees the soul.’ Theophile Gautier

It is the site of tragedy and deep sadness but also of fierce activism on behalf of residents, for example when units were being closed down. Once touched by this place, it never leaves you. If you get a chance to see it, or work there, go.

View Out

Susan Piddock 2007 A Space of Their Own. The Archaeology of Nineteenth Century Lunatic Asylums in Britain, South Australia and Tasmania. Springer: New York.

Terrifying Training

By Hannah D. Martin-Brown, Graduate Diploma of Archaeology and Heritage Management Student

 When dealing with a site like a Mental Institution, one would expect to find items that are, shall we say, different, even slightly scary. But who would have thought the most terrifying items would be simply used for training purposes?

From the late 1800s and well into the 1900s nurses were trained at hospitals in an apprenticeship-style of learning. This meant that hospitals had to develop their own libraries and training equipment to ensure the best training for their nurses.

The first item we spotted took a moment to identify its purpose,


The mouth and nose both have holes in them and a tube that led to a balloon under a wooden panel. That’s when we realised: it was for practicing mouth to mouth resuscitation. Simple.

Next we found a severed arm!!!

At least that’s what it looked like.

Blood Arm

It had tubes that ran to a bottle, with a balloon attached to it. It became clear that this was for blood drawing practice. They would pump the “blood” from the bottle, through the arm then draw it with a needle. The truly terrifying thing about this device was the fact that for at least 14 years the liquid in the bottle and arm had been sitting there growing mold. The veins were green. And don’t get me started on what was in the bottle.  Oh, the horror!

But perhaps the most terrifying of all was found lying behind some boxes.

Hidden Dummy

At first we thought it was just a mannequin, but once we got it out we realised it was yet another training device.

Sitting Dummy

We believe the red dots were for procedures, though we weren’t sure what kind, but we could also see bandages with stitches in them, which, as a purpose, was a bit more obvious—after all stitching practice is very important for nurses and of course patients.

Despite the disturbing appearance of these objects, they played an important role in training nurses, making them very valuable finds.


What’s so creepy about an Abandoned Mental Hospital?

A case study in fearing the unknown at Tasmania’s Willow Court

Jacob Gwiazdzinski – Graduate Diploma of Archaeology and Heritage Management.

Few things can elicit the anxiety of the superstitious like being told about travelling to an infamous, derelict  mental institution. The patients are gone, and so too is their exclusive world. All that remains are the buildings which sit in silent testimony to the ideas, regulations and experiences of a different era. But it’s perhaps the walls themselves, and what lingers within, that continues to make such a place so tantalisingly creepy.

For a start, the site remains just as exclusionary. Where the large brick walls have crumbled, they are replaced with modern steel gating, just as intent on keeping  the outside world out. Of course, the reasons have changed, but the sense of the forbidden, the concealed and the unknown  have not. Once inside, the feeling remains inescapable; the eeriness of utilitarian architecture and un-inviting locked doors somehow accentuated by the fancily-rendered false windows. A stoic façade hinting at a more emotional past.

Perhaps spookier than the place  are the things that still inhabit it, the strange equipment and sundries; a wheelchair so intrinsically linked to its past owner that their shape can still be seen in its form.


Wheelchair, C Ward.

And so long after the light was turned  off, and as it stands to face  an uncertain future, this place  continues to haunt  its society. A symbol of a very controversial yet incompletely understood aspect of the past; a point which itself contributes to the creepiness of this place.

Fake window, Barracks.

Fake window, Barracks.

From Administrivia to Archaeology

By Penny Mules, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student

My first foray as an archaeology student was a field school at Willow Court, New Norfolk, in Tasmania.  Willow Court began housing mentally ill convicts in 1829 and remained open until 2000.

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Those with typical preconceived notions about what archaeology entails may have been surprised that this field school involved sitting inside, re-cataloguing a collection of (occasionally possum-poo encrusted) objects gathered from the many and varied present and former buildings of the site – including looming towers of filing boxes containing relatively recent hospital records.

But it is surprising how much you can learn from such administrivia. The sheer volume of order forms, policy documents and memoranda paint a real picture of a place, revealing the inner life of even such a complex institution as a mental hospital. And even the worst dullness of bureaucracy eventually succumbs to the drama of an asylum. This was evinced by memos for nursing staff regarding the frequent outbreaks of fires in bedding, and the oversupply of dead bodies for the mortuary during the “hot weather spell”:

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One would think this so self-evident that you wouldn’t need to issue a memo about it. It also makes you wonder just how many random bodies were turning up – and what exactly they did with them while waiting for police authority.

Perhaps the most relevant memo from the many boxes of files was the second of the three “Physician Superintendent’s Niggles” from 1971, as it makes the case so eloquently for the need of good filing (and cataloguing) when dealing with large bureaucracies (and archaeological collections):

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Communicating archaeology: What the asylum taught me

By Kathleen Gorey, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

One of the things we are taught as students of archaeology is that the discipline should be accessible to those who don’t reside within it. Archaeology relies on people, and this means that people need to be able to access it in order for the discipline to progress.

But this relationship isn’t one sided. Archaeology has the potential to help communities come to terms with, and better understand, their history and heritage. It can renew interest in a site that may have been forgotten, or shed new light on one that never will. For the most part, then, it is about opening a dialogue in which the views of the people and the views of the archaeologists are equally shared and understood.

The benefits of this approach are what I observed on the recent historical archaeology field school based around Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania.

The Barracks, Willow Court.

The Barracks, Willow Court.

Willow court is Australia’s oldest, continually used mental health facility, so it’s no surprise that there are many individuals and interest groups that are passionate about the site. In the week we spent cataloguing items that had accumulated since the site’s closure, we received a number of visits from interested parties. And whether it was providing us with information, snacks, or helping us to identify and understand what we were actually cataloguing, the success of the field school was largely a result of their insight and generosity.

Barry Lathey, councillor, and Janine Laity, student, admiring the site. Photo courtesy of Emma Somyden Davey.

Barry Lathey, councillor, and Janine Laity, student, admiring the site. Photo courtesy of Emma Somyden Davey.

So through engaging with the community and communicating our research, a kind of mutually beneficial relationship emerged: while we were involved in a project that will benefit both Willow Court and the surrounding community, it is the community that have helped us understand a lot of what we were working with.

This field school forms part of a long-term project aimed at understanding the archaeology of Willow Court, and I look forward to seeing what emerges in the years to come.