Tag Archives: Willow Court

Reading buildings…


Willow Court Barracks. Photo credit: Ian Edmondson

Reading Buildings

By Ian Edmondson, Graduate Diploma in Archaeology and Heritage Management student.

The Willow Court complex is architecturally confounding, an eclectic mismatch of buildings liberally scattered over a broad acreage. The observer is engaged initially by a confusing array of architectural styles. Buildings have been adapted, altered or added in response to changes in (mostly European) architectural trends (Georgian, Victorian, Gothic Revival, Art Deco) with varying functional and stylistic features. Changes in use, evolving beliefs, managerial decisions and changing practices and technologies of caregiving have all influenced the architectural decisions taken at the site and added to the complexity of interpreting the standing buildings.

The Willow Court Barracks (1830-1833) creates, envelops and commands space. In 1832, convicts represented almost thirty five percent of Hobart’s population (Solomon 1976) and the commanding architectural style of the Barracks reflects a need to maintain rule and control. The symmetry that is evident is intentional, and typical of the Georgian style (Irving 1985). Where room arrangement or construction materials failed to maintain this order to the outside viewer, false elements were placed instead, including blind windows in trompe l’oeil (blank spaces structured and painted to look like windows) and rough brickwork that was rendered and pointed to mimic fine cut sandstone.


“Blind” windows featuring trompe l’oeil decoration. Photo credit: Ian Edmondson

As archaeologists we strive to read spaces and places more deeply, seeking evidence, signs and symbols to recreate a story of the past. Piddock describes institutional spaces in asylums as artefacts in themselves, not mere buildings (2007).

At a deeper level of reading we observe evidence of human occupation. The wear that is evident on steps from hundreds of feet ascending and descending gives clues to the common paths that people used, indicating areas of greater or lesser use. We imagine the feet that caused them and think about where they might have been coming from, or going to. We read the wear on door handles, hand-smoothed edges of window and door frames, observe changes in floorboards and note former exits, altered claddings and the age of fittings.

Use Wear… Stair, sill and doorstep wear from the Willow Court Barracks. Photo credit Ian Edmondson

On the false external window sills there are obvious marks of wear (presumably from resting bottoms), which show the importance of claiming private space in a public domain. Here is evidence that suggests occupants enjoying a conversation away from watching eyes, and perhaps avoiding being seen while doing it.

The pencil scribbling of letters and numbers on external walls tells a more personal story. They are not coherent words or expression of feelings, but signs and symbols of boredom, confusion, perhaps despair. They might also reflect moments of enjoyment or happiness, tucked into a warm, sheltered corner, claiming personal space.

Written and numeric graffiti, Willow Court complex. Photo credit Ian Edmondson

Through reading buildings we can begin to appreciate the past experiences of those within them. Buildings, in their spatial arrangement, have the capacity shape social interaction, to order and structure human behavior, and to create or prevent social connections. Built environments have the power to condition how we think, feel and behave (Greenman 1988).

The Willow Court complex is sited in an elevated position within a beautiful river valley. Before we consider what lies under the ground, perhaps we need to read the broader aspect of its position and location and look outwards, to appreciate the beauty of the distant hills and trees, imagine the changing seasons, and see beyond the institutional spaces.


New Norfolk from Pulpit Rock Lookout: Photo Credit: JJ Harrison


Greenman, J. 1988 Caring Spaces, Learning Places: Children’s Environments That Work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.

Irving, R. 1985 The History and Design of the Australian House. Sydney: Oxford.

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

Solomon, R.J. 1976 Urbanisation: The Evolution of an Australian Capital. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.


Willow Court History Group

Georgian Architecture: False, or “blind” windows

Georgian Architectural Style and Features

Buttons and Bones and the Value of Community

by Doreen Kosak, Bachelor of Archaeology student

Excavations at The Barracks, Willow Court in New Norfolk, Tasmania, during the recent Flinders University Historical Archaeology Field School revealed that findings in an archaeological dig can sometimes be unexpected.

Originally built between 1830-1833 as an invalid hospital for convicts, the Barracks at Willow Court became part of Australia’s first asylum catering for the needs of people with mental illness or disabilities. Changing requirements saw building additions and name changes that spanned more than 170 years and the asylum ran continuously until its closure in late 2000 (Willow Court History Group nd.).

Our task was to excavate and interpret the artefacts recovered from under the floor of two rooms in the Barracks. Partial removal of the floorboards had occurred for this purpose. Unlike modern timber floors which are joined ‘tongue and groove’ then nailed, the method of construction of early timber floorboards was ‘butt-joined’, that is, straight-edged planks laid and nailed alongside each other. Over time these timbers shrink, thus widening the gaps between the planks and allowing small items such as buttons or coins to fall (or be deliberately pushed) through the gaps. The floorboards in our working area, although butt-joined, were newer and had smaller gaps, so only small items could fall through.

Left: Example of butt-joined floors with wide gaps



Right: Our working area in Room 12, note narrow gaps between floorboards

We were surprised to find that the Room 12 assemblage not only contained a small selection of buttons made of shell, bone and metal, a coin, clay pipe bowls and fragments of stems, but also an unexpectedly large quantity of animal bones. After washing and examining, the bones were identified as mainly sheep forequarters and beef bones. Some bones showed signs of saw marks. Food for the inmates perhaps?


Left: Bones recovered from Room 12 in the Barracks






At the Community Open Day a chance conversation with a former Willow Court staff member revealed that a butcher may have worked in that corner of The Barracks, re-enforcing our belief that the bones were the remnants of butchering and the newer Room 12 floor was laid over them.

Another conversation with a former gardener assisted us to understand the previous uses of the grounds around Frescati House (the former residence of the Asylum’s Superintendent), enabling a better interpretation of the trenches (left). These contacts indicate the value of local knowledge and the importance of community involvement. Community members may also be the custodians of diaries, letters and other memorabilia that they are willing to share. Their memories and personal experiences can add great value to the archaeological interpretation of a site and should be actively encouraged (Robertson 2000:3).

Photos by author


Robertson, B.M. 2000 Oral History Handbook: Fourth Edition. Adelaide: Oral History Association of Australia (South Australian Branch) Inc.

Willow Court History Group nd. About Us. Retrieved 18 February 2017 from .

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.

Dinner is Served: Bones and Butchery at Willow Court Asylum

by Annabelle Brealey, short course student

Recently, I travelled to a little town in Tasmania called New Norfolk to participate in the Historical Archaeology field school run by Flinders University. The object of our research – Willow Court Asylum, the longest running mental hospital in Australian history. This year the focus of our excavations was on the two oldest remaining buildings: The Barracks, constructed between 1830-1833 and Frescati House, built 1834.

During excavations at The Barracks in Room 12 (circled below) a sizable cache of butchered animal bones was uncovered underneath the floorboards. Due to my experience in the analysis of historical animal remains I was tasked to lead the classification of the recovered bones for cataloguing and analysis purposes.

The location of Room 12 in the Barracks, Willow Court

We identified an overwhelming amount of sheep bones, but some cow, pig and bird remains were also recovered. During the 1800s in early Australia, sheep were the most common stock to hold as they thrived in the harsh Australian climate and could also be exploited for their wool. This abundance meant mutton was very cheap in comparison to beef and pork. The fact that such a large amount of sheep remains were found at Willow Court is not surprising given the funding challenges the institution often faced during its operation.

There were obvious signs of butchery on the bones in the form of saw (Figure 2A), hack (Figure 2B) and cut marks (Figure 2C). There were some reports of a butcher working out of that corner of the Barracks, but unfortunately these accounts are yet to be confirmed through historical documentation and records.

Butchery marks visible on the bones from the Barracks, Willow Court

One thing I  noticed about the butchered remains was that very few of the hind leg bones were recovered, even though there were plenty of bones from forelimbs. The meat taken from the hind limb is of a higher quality than the fore limb cuts, therefore we can assume the patients staying in and around the Barracks were often fed low quality mutton and the better quality cuts were sent elsewhere. I would be very interested in exploring the buildings occupied by high status patients to see if the remains of these better quality meals have been left behind.

The Willow Court Archaeo-Prank or ‘Mysterious Happenings at Willow Court’

By Sasha Jessop, History and Humanities Teacher Educator, Australian Catholic University

It was really exciting to be a participant at the UTas Archaeology for Teachers ‘Dirty Weekend’. I’m glad to be able to share one of the more memorable experiences from the weekend.

We learned a great deal, and some of the learning was rather unexpected, such as the importance of humour on a dig.

Day one, after deliberation and measuring, we got stuck into pegging out the trench. It was a high stakes event, testing all of our mathematical skills and ancient memory of Pythagoras’ theorem in action. Still, not a bad effort for beginners – a 3×3 metre trench pegged out in under an hour.

So when we arrived in the morning we were excited to see the pristine square ready and waiting to be dug. But, what’s that?… what’s happened to the builder’s line?
The square is there: check
Pegs in place: check
Spool, and the remainder of the line next to the trench: No!
The line from the last peg continued beyond the trench, up off the ground and towards the hedge. My first thought was that the wind had picked up the spool and run it along the ground and out into the space beyond. And my next thought was … Or was it some clever Archeo-Prank? (I think this is my own term but I’m not sure, as I get the feeling pranks might be a ‘thing’ with archaeology.)

Expecting to see the spool in a knotty mess beyond the hedge, I was surprised to see, as I emerged from the gap into the dazzling early morning light, the line continuing neatly along the hedgerow. Argument for Archeo-Prank gathers momentum. When I noticed it had actually been wrapped around the nearest tree, and then around another several metres beyond, I started to laugh: the line continued. Calling Mel over to share the giggle, we decided a well meaning wag had definitely decided to pull some witty gag on us. Vandals surely would have kicked out our pegs or stuffed up the lines. The next several minutes were spent in tracing the line around three more trees, across a road and around an electrical box before terminating at a large tree near the main road. They had taken great care to loop each junction neatly and zigzag around a range of obstacles.

At the final tree I found the spool, neatly placed near the base, with a lovely, neat bowline knot to finish, meaning the line didn’t even need to be cut. Effort had been made.

Archaeo-Prankster leaves the spool behind

But by whom??
We quizzed our colleagues – what time did you leave the pub last night? Did you go straight home? No, wasn’t them. Stories corroborated. It must have been the Flinders archaeologists, having a gentle joke with us Baby Archaeological Rookies. I asked Heather Burke, but no, not her or any of her crew. I think she was quite amused at the suggestion she was involved, or maybe she just wished she had been. I was really sure Sarah L and Sasha Seal had been involved, but after some intense interrogations they, too, were cleared.

So, the mystery persists. Who dunnit? Who would have had the brains and the time to perform such a non-destructive, archeologically hilarious joke? New Norfolk must have some local jokester who roams around looking for easy targets.

Or was it some benevolent spirit of place who used to inhabit the site we were excavating? We will have to ask the ghost tour operators to keep and eye out for a spectre, carrying a spool of orange builder’s line, marking off trees under the moonlight.

Respect, Archaeo-Prankster

Trench F05 on completion of excavation

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.