On Sunday, March 4th, I was privileged to visit Willsmere in Kew and participate in a Heritage Walk with a resident as our guide. This 25-acre site including buildings is now a beautiful community of apartments and gardens.
Referred to as the ‘lunatic asylum” Willsmere was converted and developed in 1993, but with the proviso that certain areas of the heritage listed site are opened to the public twice a year.
The former Kew Lunatic Asylum was built in 1872 during a period when several large public buildings were constructed after the gold rush enriched many people and the Colonial Government. Victoria was an independent state (hence the flag outside Willsmere today) and the authorities promoted the idea of an asylum to “portray Melbourne as a civilized and benevolent city.’
The building displays the influence of Europe with the architects GW Vivian and Frederick Kawerau creating Italianate and the French Second Empire buildings. There are two distinct entrances flanking the main door, one each for male and female inmates who were always separated. Inside they had separate exercise yards as well as wards and cells.
Many historical details remain and the effort to retain architectural features, including paint schemes, brickwork, tiles, wooden window surrounds, doors and balustrades make it an interesting site to access.
I have volunteered for several years at Open House Melbourne and was thrilled to receive the invitation as a thank you gift for being part of the team. The Open House Movement is worldwide and a wonderful addition to Melbourne’s community calendar.
I encourage everyone to set aside the last weekend in July to learn more about Melbourne and its buildings. (Last year the program extended to Ballarat so mark the last weekend in October too!)
Many of the buildings listed for Open House don’t have a museum (like Willsmere) but most provide historical information and/or context that makes visiting memorable.
History Attached to Willsmere
As a history buff, I love learning about old buildings. Willsmere has links to the architecture of colonial times but there is much more to uncover because it was built for a specific purpose.
My mother did “mental nursing” as it was called in the 1940s, and I recall her stories about how shocking it was that people with epilepsy were locked away and treated as ‘lunatics’ along with those with a psychiatric illness. She nursed alongside my father’s older sister Mary in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland.
I grew up with parents who were experienced, understanding, and compassionate and over the years I witnessed Mum providing a cup of tea and listening ear to several people recovering from breakdowns or bouts of mental ill health.
Delving into the history of places like Willsmere reminds us that even with the best intentions a society can go down a terrible path through ignorance.
In a brochure about Willsmere, three famous patients are listed with the barest of details and I am sure their full stories would involve serious heartbreak and trauma. They were probably paying patients too.
- Thomas Wentworth “Tom” Wills, (August 1835 – May 1880). He was an Australian sportsman credited with being the first cricketer of significance and a pioneer of Australian Rules football.
- Edward De Lacy Evans who was born Ellen Tremayne or Tremaye. (? 1830 – August 1901) A servant, blacksmith and gold miner, who immigrated from Ireland to Australia in 1856, and made international news in 1879 when it was revealed he was a woman.
- George Henry Stevens “Harry” Trott (August 1866 – November 1917). An Australian Test Cricketer committed to Kew Asylum after a series of seizures. Eventually discharged, he returned to play cricket for Victoria between 1888 and 1898.
Everyone in the asylum had a category: male/female, paying/pauper, manageable/refractory… the latter put into punishment cells that even with doors permanently open will make you shudder.
The museum established to preserve the history of the Kew Asylum and Willsmere Mental Hospital is a sobering place. Credit must be given to Central Equity Ltd., the developers for providing funding to preserve this part of our heritage.
The archive comprises over 60 objects salvaged during the redevelopment of the site, plus reproductions of historical documents, plans, and photographs.
The museum is a gallery, some bedrooms and an old day room converted to a library. The area, originally Ward A-A, which housed female private patients who had a view across the Yarra towards the city – whether this taunted or relaxed the women we may never know, but certainly, some of the equipment like the machine for electric shock therapy, hint at the barbaric treatment of earlier days.
One of the largest asylums in the world, the Kew Mental Asylum symbolised Victoria’s civic confidence after the gold rush. It was anticipated that being ‘sent to Kew’ would cure the mentally ill, through humane conditions, a moral environment, routine work and medical treatment.
…Enlightenment principles were applied to the treatment of mental illness. “Lunatics” were placed in new asylums where illnesses of the mind would be cured by a scientific approach…Unfortunately, Kew never lived up to these benevolent intentions. Few patients were ever cured and released into the community…Kew was subject to repeated public criticism leading to a Royal Commission in 1876… conditions and morale were low…
Within years of construction, Kew was condemned as a failure. Governments never provided sufficient funding to prevent overcrowding or employ sufficient staff. (Now isn’t that a familiar story!!)
As a result, many patients simply locked away until their death. The Royal Commission declared:
For a large percentage of our insane population we are quite sure no restraint is necessary, and yet they are all confined together under a system that must be monotonous and oppressive.
In the 1950s, Dr E. Cunningham Dax, director of the Mental Hygiene Authority, initiated a series of reforms to make conditions more tolerable. Kew Asylum gradually converted into Willsmere Mental Hospital, specialising in the care of the aged, including patients with Alzheimer’s Disease.
The paintwork, lighting and floor coverings in the museum area are typical of the Willsmere Hospital when it closed in 1988.
Female patients lived in the northern half of the building, men lived in identical southern wings. On both sides of the Asylum, paupers were housed apart from paying patients, and the difficult inmates were confined to the wards at the back near the kitchens and laundry.
Life on The Wards
Patients were encouraged to take part in activities that gave structure to their day and considered therapeutic. Some worked on the asylum’s farm, which included an orchard, fowl house, 200 pigs, 30 cows and extensive vegetable gardens.
Others worked in the laundry, kitchen or workshops, sewed clothes and made cushions, cared for fellow patients, or assembled components for outside firms. Social activities were held when staffing permitted, such as dancing, music and games on the cricket field built by the asylum community.
A staff psychiatrist from the 1920s recalled the ‘daily scene of desolation and despair’:
Most of the patients were on the airing courts walking backwards and forwards in solitary perambulation, untidily huddled together in groups like resting sheep, or isolated and stationary, looking into space as though they were held in the crystal of a dream.”
Willsmere constitutes a rare, mostly intact, 19th-century lunatic asylum and is still an architectural Melbourne landmark above the Yarra Bend Park. At one time it was the highest constructed point in Melbourne with the site considered suitable for Government House but dismissed by early colonists as too isolated.
Walking around you get the sense of its height and the slope of the grounds. There’s the necessity for stairs to access some apartments from the outside as well as internally.
The design included “ha-ha” walls. These retained a view without the feeling of being enclosed. The height of these brick walls deceptive being built at an angle at the bottom making them impossible to scale.
I was fortunate to be part of the smallest group shown through Willsmere that morning. Jack, an extremely well-versed resident was our guide. Knowledgeable and a longtime Open House volunteer, he explained about the conversion of the site into a modern community of apartments and townhouses. Every sentence he spoke laced with well-deserved pride. The surroundings show love and care and the shared facilities remarkable.
The restoration work tastefully done. Red painted doorways, windows and other features are restored or new versions of the original design. Green painted features are new additions, such as the entrances to many of the apartments.
The modern concrete paths were built during the redevelopment because originally, patients and staff used the covered walkways, now converted into verandahs.
Gardens of Trees, Flowers, and More Trees
I fell in love with the gardens, especially the trees, some of which are on a heritage list too. There is an ancient peppercorn which may be one of the oldest surviving trees left in suburban Melbourne. It is as old as Willsmere.
How many thousands of feet tramped past this gnarled trunk, how many people sat in its shade, praying, relaxing, contemplating life and death?
Male patients and staff played lawn games from 1878 and the bowling green was rebuilt by the Lawn Bowls and Greenkeepers Association as a gift to the hospital in the 1950s. There was also a cricket oval north of the asylum walls during the 1870s.
Today there is a communal barbecue area, a swimming pool, a tennis court and paths crisscrossing lawns providing lovely walks for residents to play and walk.
Jack put the conversion of this site in perspective when he said there are about 800 residents on this 25-acre site in beautiful surroundings which encourage community and a healthy lifestyle.
He pointed to the other side of the Yarra River where there is a proposed development of an old industrial site of similar acreage. The planned capacity is 2000! I can imagine the future residents of that development will look at the 1990s as a golden age.
How to Get to Willsmere
It was a difficult but not impossible trek by public transport for me, especially on a Sunday, which explains why the email invite said ‘not suitable access via public transport’.
However, I’ve never driven or owned a car and believe ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ – or I’d have limited outings and adventures!
Metro’s My Journey and double-checking with Google Maps works well for public transport. I caught a train from Mordialloc to Melbourne Central where I had a choice of two buses leaving close by and dropping me at different streets off the Chandler Highway.
One bus route offered a walk of 1.5km (19 mins) and the other 1.8km (23 mins). Therefore it’s approximately a twenty-minute walk to Willsmere once you get off the bus – mainly uphill if trusting Google where you find yourself at an entrance not accessible to the general public!
I reread the email I received and realised I should have keyed in a different entrance gate. Just as well it was a gorgeous day and an interesting walk through a suburb regarded as ‘well-to-do’. Definitely not poverty row and the housing development tastefully done, even keeping the original entrance wall to what was once the Kew Gardens.
I chose the bus heading for Box Hill Station going and a different one returning to the city. However, heading home I had the benefit of residents’ know-how with a more direct route to the bus stop. There is no substitute for local knowledge – even better than a combination of Google Maps and Metro Journey Planner!
A pleasant, mildly undulating, treed walk to catch the alternative bus took me past the site of where Kew Children’s Cottages used to be. This stirred up memories of visiting there as a teenager in the 1960s.
As part of Croydon Uniting Church’s outreach program, my Sunday School teacher, Mr Alabaster organised for our group to each be assigned “a child” to take home for an afternoon to share the experience of a family meal.
We hadn’t lived long in Australia and had no idea the “Children” at Kew included adults. The young man we entertained as he devoured Mum’s scones was closer to 25 than 15.
I have vivid memories of Trevor who was dressed in brand new clothes, including a black vinyl jacket and tan trousers plus polished black leather shoes. No doubt he was told to be on his best behaviour but he couldn’t help boasting about his clothes.
When we picked him up it was the first time I had ever been inside an institution for people with a mental disability and it was confronting. Trevor was spruced up, but those left behind wandering the corridors and grounds not so nicely dressed or as politely behaved.
I remember a conversation Dad had with Trevor that still makes me smile.
‘What do you do during the day, Trevor?’
“I have a job.”
“That’s wonderful, son. What’s your job?”
“I drive my truck and take all the bottles to be recycled.”
Dad was gobsmacked and sat bolt upright in his Jason Recliner. An ex-truck driver, he knew a thing or two about trucks. “You drive a truck? How big is it.”
Trevor sat still and silent as he contemplated his answer. Then he opted to indicate with his arms and a description. We worked out Trevor’s truck was red and, in fact, a four-wheeled cart he pulled and steered with a swivelled handle.
Dad relaxed and asked Trevor what music he liked!
There were several scandals regarding the treatment of disabled children in care and the Kew Cottages parents’ Association was formed in 1957, providing a founding group of 130 parents with the opportunity to advocate over issues concerning the care of their children resident at Kew Cottages.
The group was later renamed the Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association. In 1991 the group established a living memorial of a sensory garden designed to capture the imagination through touch, sound and smell.
The original garden planted with Australian native plants which were later replaced with exotic plants in a circular bed.
I love walking and the day offered several pleasant walks through a leafy part of Melbourne sporting beautiful houses, luscious parks and a misty view of the city sprawl from a completely new angle.
However, the past is not so loving… and another plaque reminded me of the fire in April 1996 when 9 male residents of Kew Cottages, aged between 30 and 40 years, tragically died. Two other residents and a staff member were injured.
The Kew Cottages & St Nicholas Parents’ Association erected a memorial for the victims of the fire to ensure the names will not be forgotten. I sat on a nearby bench surrounded by natural beauty trying to imagine the chaos and trauma of that night and the terrible loss to the families of the men.
History important and memorials important because the tragedy would have been newspaper headlines for only a couple of days.
I hope people walking along the path – and there is plenty of evidence dog walkers proliferate! – take the time to pause, even sit, and think about the past residents of Willsmere and Kew Cottages.
I hope they think about how the residents were treated and the failures caused by lack of funding and resources. Think about how we must ensure our society does better, and our governments don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.