Destroying the past.

By Janine Laity, Graduate Diploma of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

Willow Court, in all its glory, is a site full of history and intrigue. Since the hospital’s opening in 1827, Willow Court has been a place shrouded in secrecy and largely unknown to those outside its walls. It is partly because of this sense of mystery that many felt the need to break in and explore the now empty buildings of the old asylum.

Ward C (Carlton).

Ward C (Carlton).

Vandalism has been a great threat to the site since its closure in 2001. For years the site has lain dormant without an active presence on the grounds and with many of the buildings closed off to the general public. Destruction has been a constant issue even to this day, with graffiti scattering the external and internal walls.

Occupational Therapy theatre covered in graffiti.

Occupational Therapy theatre covered in graffiti.

Close up of graffiti in the Occupational Therapy theatre.

Close up of graffiti in the Occupational Therapy theatre.

Buildings such as Wards C (Carlton), A (Allonah), and the Occupational Therapy theatre have been affected significantly, with many of the roofs kicked in and windows broken. Copper infrastructure has also been a target for thieves. Walking throughout these buildings in particular, you could see the toll vandalism has taken.

Roof kicked in by vandals in Ward C (Carlton).

Roof kicked in by vandals in Ward C (Carlton).

Roof kicked in the Occupational Therapy theatre.

Roof kicked in the Occupational Therapy theatre.

Local councilmen shared their concerns and deep fears of vandals burning the remaining buildings down, as evidence of past attempts could be seen. Luckily for buildings such as Wards A and C, their sturdy construction makes it near impossible for them to burn down; however, this is not the case for buildings such as the early Frescati House, built in 1834, which are significantly less sturdy.

The issue of vandalism will hopefully be reduced as current restoration plans are carried out and access becomes more of an option. Educating the new generation and getting them more involved can also be the key to reducing further acts of vandalism.

The Writing on the Wall

By Amber Parrington, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

Walking in and around the buildings of the Royal Derwent Hospital, the oldest continuously used mental hospital in Australia, is an experience all to itself. Just by entering the site, one can feel the history, the presence of people long since gone, shifting and settling like a cloak on your shoulders. It pulls you in, invites you to walk the halls so many walked before, to share in their story.

Willow Court Barracks, Royal Derwent Hospital complex. View from right hand veranda.

Willow Court Barracks, Royal Derwent Hospital complex. View from right hand veranda.

Their story is visible too in the scattered remains of beds, doors, objects of various shapes and sizes all telling us something of this place. Objects large and small, broken and whole, all contributing in their own way.

Ward C hallway of doors

Ward C hallway of doors.

The Willow Court Barracks too, compel you to look and think back to what it must have been like during its operational years. In the right hand corner of the veranda that frames the Barracks lies the writing on the wall, which intrigued me as soon as I saw it.

Numbers on the wall of the right hand corner of the Willow Court Barracks veranda

Numbers on the wall of the right hand corner of the Willow Court Barracks veranda.

Hundreds of numbers and scratches resembling writing flow across the walls, overlapping and surrounding each other. Some written in pencil, others carved into the very walls of the building. Questions filter through my mind, who wrote these? What were they trying to say? Why numbers? Was it an attempt to copy the way builders do their calculations all over the walls? A form of expression or art? One after the other the questions come, leaving my mind swirling.

Writing on the wall of the right hand corner of the Barracks veranda

Writing on the wall of the right hand corner of the Barracks veranda.

The preservation of these numbers really hit home the fact that this site has history that isn’t just nearly 200 years old, but it also has a recent history which is just as important and significant. Archaeology looks to the past, be that 14 years ago or 1400 years, and all it can take for that journey to begin is something seemingly unimportant or uninteresting as some writing on the wall.

Writing on the wall right hand corner barracks veranda

Writing on the wall right hand corner barracks veranda.

Connecting to the past through the paranormal. Why ghosts matter.

By Jarrad Kowlessar, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student

Willow Court Barracks 1830

Willow Court Barracks, oldest building in the Royal Derwent Complex.

Walking the halls of the former Royal Derwent Hospital is a somewhat harrowing experience. Even in the middle of the day I need a torch to see into the murky darkness of some rooms. The smell of fourteen years of decay and disuse surrounds me, and with every step I take, loose floorboards creak, and glass or possum droppings crunch under foot.

Stairwell inside C-Ward

Stairwell in Ward C, former ward for violent male patients.

The knowledge that this location is often referred to as one of the most haunted locations in Australia makes the history of this place seem much more immediate. The feeling that the past is still lingering, perhaps with previous occupants still walking the halls, maybe watching me as I explore, is a unique way to interact with history.

Stairway into dark loft in the Barracks.

Stairway into dark loft in the Barracks.

Willow Court in Tasmania is the site of the oldest mental health facility in Australia, most recently named Royal Derwent Hospital. Reports of paranormal sightings started in the early 1990s whilst the hospital was still in use and over the years since there have been a huge variety of reports of a range of paranormal encounters. These reports have spurred a number of investigations into the paranormal at Willow Court, and currently a group named The Australian Paranormal Investigation Unit (APIU) regularly conduct paranormal investigations at the site.

Ward C Maximum Security Ward.

Ward C Maximum Security Ward.

The APIU has had a lot of community involvement and has been operating at the site for a number of years now. As the paranormal has become an increasingly dominant aspect of public interest in the site the local council have begun working with the APIU to preserve the site and to further spread interest and involvement in their investigations. The interest generated by the APIU and Willow Court stand as an example of the importance that ghosts and the paranormal can have on a community’s value of a site and their connection to its history.

Further Reading:

Sounds from Australia’s Oldest Mental Health Hospital

By Gemma Incerti, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

The ARCH8806, Historical Archaeology Field School, was held in February this year in New Norfolk, Tasmania. Along with nine of my fellow archaeology students, the task before us was to catalogue the remains of Willow Court, Australia’s oldest continually used asylum (1827-2001). Amongst the assortments of old medicines, countless reagent bottles, administrative files, medical books and miscellaneous medical equipment was a collection of LP records.

Music has often been appreciated for its therapeutic benefits and evidence of music records in the Willow Court catalogue collection may indicate just this. Musical assortments including the works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Debussy were located with what appear to be library-lending stamps, potentially from within the hospital.


LP Record with lending stamps, Willow Court

LP Record with lending stamps, Willow Court

To listen to a few of the records we found, click the links below:

Claude Debussy’s “Children’s Corner”

Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 2 in D Major”

A few more recent musical compositions, from the 1960s and 1970s, provided entertainment over dinner one evening for my fellow field school students and myself and may perhaps have been items from a more personal music collection. We relived the likes of Donny Osmond, Billy Vaughn, Katch 22, Barbara Streisand, Gene Pitney and Top of The Pops to some amusement. Several records had handwritten annotations adorning the covers indicating their previous owners and this made the cataloguing process seem all the more personal and relateable.

You can check out a few of the quirky record covers below and listen to some of the sounds from Australia’s oldest mental health hospital.

LP Record ‘Its Soft Rock & Allsorts’ by Katch 22, Willow Court

LP Record ‘Its Soft Rock & Allsorts’ by Katch 22, Willow Court

Katch 22 “Don’t Listen”

LP Record ‘Too Young’ by Donny Osmond, Willow Court

LP Record ‘Too Young’ by Donny Osmond, Willow Court

Donny Osmond “Too Young”

LP Record ‘Top of the Pops’, Willow Court

LP Record ‘Top of the Pops’, Willow Court

Chairmen of the Board “You’ve Got Me Dangling On a String”

Bobby Sherman “Julie, Do Ya Love Me”

LP Record ‘Play It Again’ by Alan Gardiner Accordion Band, Willow Court

LP Record ‘Play It Again’ by the Alan Gardiner Accordion Band, Willow Court


Ole Bonde, L. and T. Wigram 2002 A Comprehensive Guide to Music Therapy: Theory, Clinical Practice, Research and Training. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Mimburi Magic Book is Finished!

My Directed Study project, the creation of a Mimburi Bush Tucker/Bush Medicine Book is now finished! We ended up with the title: Mimburi Magic: Some of the Flora and Fauna of Mimburi and Their Uses.

Mimburi Magic book Cover

It was a fantastic experience working with Aunty Beverly Hand from Mimburi Upper Mary Aboriginal Association (MUMAA), on the property at Belli Park in South East Queensland.

We managed to create:

  • A database of photographs of the different floral and faunal species found at Mimburi
  • The Mimburi Magic Book (50 pages)
  • The Birds of Mimburi DVD
  • A map of the location of species included in the Magic of Mimburi book.

Map of species

We did this through in the field recording of:

  • The flora and fauna on the Mimburi property.
  • Mapping  their locations.
  • Photographing the species.

And a literature review of:

  • Historical documents that were from around  Mimburi and the surrounding area
  • Language recordings
  • Anthropological recordings of people at Cherbourg
  • Flora and fauna books

As well as expert advice:

  • That the species we had identified were the right species, and
  • Aunty Beverly Hand’s traditional ecological knowledge.

Lessons learnt from my Directed Study project include:

  • The sheer quantity of information. There are are so many species that call Mimburi home and we tried to capture as many as was possible, however the book became bigger than Ben Hur. We now have a draft version of the bigger version of the book that includes all the species we documented (about 120) for the community to work on. From the start it would have been better, instead of trying to capture all species, to only focus on a few key species.
  • Photographing all the species for the book was great, however the time it took to capture the species and then edit and crop the photographs was not taken into account.
  • The video of bird species worked well, however, this also took a great deal of time to put together.
  • Meetings early on with publishers was great to get an overall idea of the layout of the book, however, it would have been much more beneficial to seek funding early for a graphic designer. I did try with the programs that we had available to produce something that was print worthy, however the time it takes to learn a program in order to have a quality product was just not feasible. We ended up doing the book in Microsoft Word and it is sitting there waiting for either funding or a volunteer graphic designer to convert it into a publishable product.

All in all, it was a great experience working alongside Aunty Beverly Hand, spending time at Mimburi with her, recording her traditional ecological knowledge and photographing the species that call Mimburi home. We now have a book of eighteen species, each with their own photograph taken at Mimburi, and a description of their habitat, location and cultural use. We are hoping that in the future, a graphic designer will transform the book into one that is ready for print. Many thanks to MUMAA and Flinders University for allowing me to undertake this project.