By Alan O’Callaghan, Graduate Certificate in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Management student
I recently visited a historic site, Willow Court, located in New Norfolk, a town near Hobart.
I will be brief on Willow Court, as others have already covered its background and modern context in other posts. As far as this blog is concerned, Willow Court is the longest serving, purpose built psychiatric facility in Australia.
While cataloguing artefacts we observed many artefacts that related to patient-practitioner relations, a topic not well recorded outside their respective fields. We recorded 15 complete (or almost complete) beds, and many bed-related items. From these beds we deduced a rough typology, starting with these iron beds:
These iron beds are often described as the ‘Port Arthur’ pattern and were ordered for the Barracks by the medical superintendant, Dr Officer, at the end of 1830. An order for 200 iron beds originally went to England, but was refused on the grounds that they could be ‘procured on the spot’ (Gowlland 1981:14), causing delays. He ordered several smaller batches of military issue iron beds in 1830, 1831 and 1833 from New South Wales (Gowlland 1981:13), but needed more. In 1833 he finally succeeded in finding a way to make them locally:
Mr Turnbull, the Supt of Public Works here, informs me that if furnished with the materials he could make a sufficient number of bedsteads, either of wood with canvas bottoms, or of iron similar to those now in use. The latter are of course in every point of view preferable to the former, and I would therefore recommend that the materials necessary for their manufacture … be forwarded as soon as possible. (Robert Officer to Colonial Surgeon J. Scott, cited in Gowlland 1981:14).
The three remaining folding iron beds that are part of the Willow Court collection are typical 19th century British military beds and were designed to take up the minimum of space and to do double duty as a chair, if required. An identical example can be seen in the Port Macquarie Museum.
The differing batches and points of origin for the iron beds could explain the presence of a similar iron frame bed with a rigid frame like the one below (Bed 4), as well as some of the variation in other details.
Beds are rather unassuming to most people, but this is what makes them so important to our work. To begin with, these bed frames directly relate to the number of complete ‘Beds’. Beds, for their part, are most frequently used to measure a hospital’s success or failure. Not only have bed shortages affected all parts of the world, they have also occurred throughout time. To that effect, the beds above reflect a bed shortage at Willow Court in the 1830s and show that bed shortages in hospitals go back two centuries in Australia!
Not only did these beds survive, they were adapted: check out the different fasteners above which show the development of the humble nut! Over time their continued existence showed technological and economical change in the Derwent Valley on the peripheries of Hobart.
The original iron beds were added to in following years with newly designed beds utilising technology such as welding, while some traits, like foldability, as seen in Bed 5, continued.
Later on in our typological timeline, Bed 6, Bed 7 and Bed 8 show the transition to beds with wheels and an adjustable mechanism. So, while previously fold up beds were needed to accommodate both sleeping and other activities patients in large wards, as they stow away after sleep, now the focus was on more flexible and personal treatment. This shows that patients were being treated with greater and more specialised care.
So, while being deceptively unimportant, beds tell important, lost histories. Because of their ‘basic-ness’, they are often kept for a long time, dramatically prolonging our ability to understand patient conditions both now and in the future.
So even the beds of this collection, which can easily be overlooked, can stir lost stories of the past at Willow Court.
Gowlland R.W. 1981 Troubled Asylum: The History of the Invalid Barracks, New Norfolk, Colonial Hospital, New Norfolk, Madhouse, New Norfolk, Her Majesties Lunatic Asylum, New Norfolk, Mental Diseases Hospital, New Norfolk, Lachlan Park, New Norfolk and Derwent Hospital. Self Published.