Tag Archives: Tasmania

Nothing But Dirt

By Renee Smith, Graduate Certificate in Archaeology student

I recently participated in the ARCH8806 Historical Archaeology field school at Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania. We were split into two groups at the start of the week: half remained in Willow Court and excavated under the floorboards of ward 12; the other half, including me, went across the road to Frescati House, which had been built for Colonial Secretary, John Burnett, as a convenient summer retreat. It was later sold to the hospital and housed the Medical Superintendents and their families for many years.

Aerial view of Frescati house in 1930

The goal for our group was to find evidence of a courtyard located at the back of the house. We went in suspecting there wouldn’t be a lot, perhaps some buttons or clay pipes, possibly even some sandstone pavers. However, after the first day of excavating we had no such luck: in a 3×3 metre trench all we found were some rusty modern nails. We weren’t discouraged! After all, the trench was only about 10cm from the surface.

We returned the next day hopeful that we might find something, but we had more than just the lack of artefacts to discourage us. The ground was so hard and compact a trowel made little impact, which was when our trusty supervisor suggested we use mattocks to get through the hard surface. MATTOCKS! Surely not—we’re archaeologists, we can’t use such a destructive and imprecise tool. To be clear, we were asked to use a long-handled mattock and if mattocks are used as an excavation tool they are only used to loosen the top few centimetres and a flat surface and straight trench walls are still aimed for.

But even with the mattock and six archaeologists slaving over the trench we only found more modern nails, glass and a child’s marble. What made matters worse were the stories of the other group finding bones and various other artefacts.

Using a Mattock in trench F1: photo by Ian Edmondson

It was at this point that the group could have become sour; we were all tired and disheartened remembering our childhood dreams of archaeology and realising the hard truth that not every trench contains treasures of times past. Instead the ‘banter’ began and inter-trench warfare broke out as it became a challenge between the ‘boys’ and the ‘girls’ to find the next artefact, whatever that may be. It was on the third day that we found sherds of willow patterned ceramic and nails matching the date of the building. That was also when we accidentally came across an old lead pipe (we may have put our mattock through it) and a ferrous item we can only assume was a saw—it lay halfway through the trench wall so we could not excavate it. We also found the natural surface, so had to stop.

This experience really showed the importance of ‘trench morale’ when you’re finding nothing but dirt. It makes the difference between what could be a nightmare dig and an enjoyable week with new friends.

The Way of the Trowel: Archaeology and Teaching

By Lauren Bryant, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student

Archaeology is misunderstood by many people because of its well known representations in popular culture, which are explored by many bloggers. As part of the ARCH8806 Historical Archaeology Field School run at Willow Court, Tasmania, a group of teachers and student teachers from across Australia were invited to participate in the excavation and to think about how archaeology could be taught in schools. These teachers came from various areas of education, including high school history and science, primary teaching and curriculum development, and were from several states. Their feedback showed that they all found the experience of being involved in a dig valuable to understand what archaeological work is really like, especially the simulated children’s dig which operated on the Willow Court Open Day and gave them practical experience introducing children to archaeology.

Teachers preparing for excavation at Frescati House, Willow Court. Photo Credit Lauren Bryant.

The teachers were asked how archaeology could link in with the learning outcomes relevant to their area and how they planned to use their experiences to engage students in the classroom, and several highlighted the role that archaeology could play in increasing tactile learning in the classroom through activities like simulated digs. They also highlighted how using local archaeological sites and shipwrecks in teaching could help students of all levels to engage with history, particularly Australian history. The teachers also found that archaeological methods could help students’ analytical skills, which could then be applied to written sources, objects, and learning about other people, as well as developing the imagination of students to picture things outside their own experience. Having these mental tools would then equip students to apply these ways of thinking to other areas.

Teachers excavating at Frescati House, Willow Court. Photo credit Lauren Bryant.

From this feedback, it is clear that these teachers think that learning about archaeology could be valuable and engaging in all areas of school, and will use this to teach the next generation of archaeologists the way of the trowel.

Morbid Fascination: The Dark Tourism of Willow Court

By Meg Haas, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

There is a long standing fascination with the darker and more macabre aspects of human history. People who engage in dark tourism, a kind of pilgrimage to places associated either with death or acute human suffering, do so for many reasons. Some feel it necessary to visit such places to atone for the actions of people in the past, while others simply enjoy the thrill of visiting somewhere ‘creepy’.

Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania, is a prime candidate for dark tourism. The oldest continuously used mental asylum in Australia, Willow Court has an unhappy history, and a lot of suffering and stigma is attached to memories of the place and its patients.

(Here Carla Paul, a former patient at Willow Court, speaks about her experience)

Walking around the grounds and through the abandoned and decaying wards, you get a real feel for the grim history of the place, and begin to wonder why anyone could have thought it could be a therapeutic environment. This is especially helped by the current state of the wards and buildings of the complex, which for the large part are in a state of extreme disrepair and give off a distinctly ‘creepy’ feeling.

willow court 1

(Enclosed walkway of women’s ward A. Photo credit Meg Haas)

Some members of the New Norfolk community see Willow Court as an opportunity to bring more visitors to the town and, while they don’t necessarily wish to celebrate the suffering or the stigma afforded to inmates at the asylum, they recognise its potential as a tourist destination.

For some, dark tourism helps promote awareness of a site in a way that ensures that the events of the past will not be allowed to happen again. Others see it as a kind of perverse commendation of these events that should be avoided. To this end, in New Norfolk, there are dissenting opinions in the community over how the buildings associated with Willow Court should be used or re-used. One major concern is that if the asylum is promoted as a tourist destination, it will serve only to remind people of the bad stories, and in a way, celebrate them.

Whatever the future holds for Willow Court, its dark legacy will remain, and I suspect that, even without its explicit promotion as a tourist destination, many people will still travel to New Norfolk to experience for themselves the conditions in which patients at the asylum lived.

Believe it or not!

By Matthew Thorley, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student


Everyone has herd of some kind of ghost story or been to a place that is supposedly haunted, but these stories and themes have greater relevance than scaring small children. The stories of the paranormal contribute to the meanings and history that people assign to places. They can give an additional history to a place; it can either be positive, negative or indifferent.

In the case of Willow Court, stories of the paranormal have forged a close bond between people and  the sense of place they have given to the site. Willow Court is the home of the first lunatic asylum in Australia, dating back to 1827. More importantly, the place is supposedly  one of the most haunted places in the country: you can Google Willow Court and find many sites and videos about the paranormal investigations of its various wards.

Ghostbusters aside, Willow Court’s ghost stories are linked with the place’s asylum identity. An honours thesis by Tony Stagg connects these stories with the place’s identity. Stories of the ghosts of Willow Court appear in the 1990s, haunting nurses during the Royal Derwent Hospital stage of Willow Court’s history. These ghosts appear to be former patients linked to the place’s lunatic heritage and exhibit strange behaviours akin to the insane, but they are not violent. In the world of the believer it is proposed that these ghost are not aware they are dead because they had no conception of death when alive, so they wander around Willow Court like zombies. To an archaeologist it is hard to give credence to the idea of ghosts, as they leave no material trace, yet the stories linking unearthly figures to place give an interesting insight into the intangible meanings people assign to places. These meanings are often informal or unaccepted by many, but recur in the popular imagination, which makes them an enticing subject for further investigation.


In the process of investigating Willow Court no ghosts were seen by the archaeological group. However, one night at the accommodation down the road a loud noise was heard in the middle of the night, like someone running down the hall. However, no one could attribute the noise to any obvious cause … queue spooky music …

Further reading


Stagg, T. 2000 Mything Persons: Apparitional Pasts in Ambiguous Spaces. Unpublished Honours thesis, Department of History, University of Tasmania.


Sleeping History

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.


Willow Court’s Regional Position Compared with Hobart. Google Maps

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.


Sketch of Willow Court c1833. Courtesy

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: 

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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.

Folding beds

British Army folding iron bed (http://www.cmhg.gc.ca/cmh/image-451-eng.asp?page_id=517)

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.

Iron Bed 4, Rigid iron frame

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! 

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 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.

Iron Bed 5, Mid-Twentieth Century, foldable galvanized bed

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.

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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.

Willow Court All Wrapped Up

By Jacinta Uznik, Master of Archaeology and Heritage Management student

Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania, contains many intriguing and ‘spooky’ stories, secrets and hidden gems. Ghosts are said to roam the halls and the abandoned medical equipment, hospital beds, and personal belongings are enough to send shivers up the bravest of spines. All these aspects, however, are nothing compared to the horror that lurks below. Underneath the verandah floor of the old Ladies’ cottage is a truly horrifying site: an assemblage of 16 empty chocolate wrappers!

Cadbury wrappers found under the Ladies’ cottage in Willow Court

As disappointing and unexciting as this find may be to some, to an archaeologist these wrappers hold much more than the remnants of a simple chocolate bar. Food and food containers can provide information about a site and the culture of its occupants. This information can range from diet and human behaviour to trade and food preparation techniques (see Susan Lawrence’s work about diet on  two Tasmanian whaling stations 2001).

The chocolate wrappers found at Willow Court can also be used to date the site, or the event(s) that caused them to be put under the verandah. The age of the wrappers was determined by identifying changes that Cadbury had made to their chocolate wrappers throughout history. This information is available through the Cadbury website: https://www.cadbury.co.uk/the-story. The key changes included Cadbury changing the wrappers to purple in 1920, releasing wartime chocolate in 1939, and changing the script to cursive in 1952. All the wrappers found fit into this timeline and were dated between the 1930s and early 1950s.

Cadbury wartime chocolate wrapper found under the Ladies' cottage in Willow Court

Cadbury wartime chocolate wrapper found under the Ladies’ cottage in Willow Court

Many of the wrappers identify the factory they were made in: Claremont, Tasmania. Cadbury expanded into Australia in 1922, choosing to locate its new factory in Tasmania because of the cheap hydro-electric power available.

Cadbury Made at Claremont, Tasmaniasml

Cadbury – ‘Made at Claremont, Tasmania”

The chocolate wrappers can also identify human behaviour and social class. If further investigation reveals chocolate was only found in the staff areas, it could indicate that it was a privilege awarded to the staff and not the patients. On the other hand, if chocolate was being consumed in patient areas, it could indicate that the patients in the Ladies’ cottage had access to outside foods that other wards did not. Either way, someone certainly had a sweet tooth, but if the wrappers belonged to one person, this suggests that they were possibly in the Ladies’ cottage for over 20 years.

Chocolate is amazing, but the wrappers are what hold the vital clues to unlocking the full historical mystery of Willow Court.

Further reading:


Lawrence, S. 2001 Foodways on two colonial whaling stations: Archaeological and historical evidence for diet in nineteenth-century Tasmania. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 87(2):209 –229.

Screaming Willows: Confinement in Ward C at Willow Court, New Norfolk

By Darren Watton, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student

1962 was an “unhappy year” at Lachlan Park Hospital in New Norfolk (Gowlland 1981:167). A fire in the Male Hostel building had ‘sparked’ allegations that hospital administration was involved in “drunken, parties, assaults etc” and that men were living in “disgusting and deplorable conditions” (Gowlland 1981:167-169). This fueled political wrangling and public outcry that something must be done. Part of the problem was that there were reports that patients were escaping from the old ward A building and many of these were people with a history of crimes ranging from “car theft to sexual perversion with some of the most ‘abusive and aggressive’ being mental defectives and alcoholics” (The Plummer Report October 1962:172). This was not new, Willow Court had always had a chequered history and it raised questions of how to deal with and house those in society who at that time were considered as having a psychiatric disorder.

Ward C from the secure yard

Ward C from the secure yard

The image above is cast in light, but it seems there would have been little light for those who were housed here. The renovations and additions to Ward C as a “male security ward” followed the Cunnungham-Dax report in September, 1962 and these were part of a general overhaul of the facilities (Gowlland, 1981:173). Over the coming years Lachlan Park became a political ‘football’ and place of public debate. What is most visible today is a result of years of spending “very large sums of money” to make it into a maximum security ward.

As an archaeology student visiting Willow Court, Ward C represents part of the evolution and history of the site. Housing of society’s ‘others’ (Davies, Crook and Murray 2013) began here in 1827 and Ward C was the pinnacle of development when it closed in 2000. It is a stark reminder of life in a mental institution over time. The thick wooden security doors with the tiny windows, the shower cubicles that offer very little privacy, the small rooms, crude writings offering snippets of information about room functions or patients names and the 10mm security glass windows that are punctuated with vandals attempts to breach the building all relate to how mental institutions have changed. Willow Court is a rare opportunity to see the complete history of an Australian site from colonial times to the present.

large thick door with small window

Large thick wooden door with small window

a shower for those who do not need privacy

A shower cubicle in Ward C

a room in Ward C

A room in Ward C

10mm thick security glass panes

10mm thick security glass panes

the room where the records of the deceased and discharged where kept

The room where the records of the deceased and discharged where kept

A patient in Ward C?

A patient in Ward C?

The links below testify to how complex perceptions and experiences of mental institutions can be. However, it is important for us to separate the social issues from the reality. As an archaeologist, the history and evolution of Willow Court is important in understanding the archaeology of confinement and the social values that surround this small community in rural Tasmania.

Closing the door on Ward C – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmBdyc8YLTg&feature=youtu.be







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.

Davies P., P. Crook, and T. Murray, 2013, An Archaeology of Institutional Confinement: The Hyde Park Barracks, 1848-1886, Sydney, Sydney University Press.