Late Victorian Lunatic Asylums

The latest Penrose and Pyke Mystery, Murder Most Melancholy, is set in 1891, when mental health care was rather different from today. The asylum in the book is fictional and not based on any specific institution, but the story incorporates some real aspects of care at the time. The attendant uniforms and duties, the power of the superintendent and matron, the ubiquitous sets of keys hanging from their belts, jangling as they walked, as well as the adherence to the Rulebook and daily regime, and the medical treatments available at the time.

Medicines. Source: National Library

However, the fictional Stillwaters Sanctuary, being a private institution for young ladies, is also a far cry from the real public asylums of the era. So, what was it really like back then?

The mental health of colonial settlers in New Zealand reflected the short history of European colonisation, which only began in earnest after the signing of a treaty with the indigenous Maori population in 1840. By the 1890s, the European population had increased to over 620,000, all of whom had endured a months-long sea voyage to the other side of the world. (Of course, the indigenous population suffered far worse, through land confiscation, war and disease.)

For some settlers, the anticipation of a better life turned into despair and alcoholism, as they experienced the realities of an often harsh and lonely life in a new country, away from family. Mentally ill people (known back then as “lunatics”) who were a danger to society or themselves were at first cared for in gaols, then in small purpose-built asylums, which were overcrowded and little better than gaols. By the late 1870s, policy shifted in favour of larger institutions, which were built in country areas with their own farms and gardens.

Seacliff Asylum (Source: Hocken Library)
Seacliff Asylum (Source: Hocken Library)

One of these was the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, north of Dunedin, which was the largest building in the country. It was so huge that there was said to be over 1,000 keys to open the many doors, and close to 1,500 patients. Even this huge asylum was soon overcrowded, used as a dumping ground for every manner of person from the criminally insane, to chronic alcoholics, epileptics, elderly people with dementia, unwanted or difficult people (including “hysterical” women who failed to conform to the subservient, modest standards of the time), and everything in between.

Minimally trained staff worked extremely long hours with challenging patients and inadequate funding and staffing levels. At one asylum, attendants worked 12 hours daily in summer and 11 in winter, less 1.5 hours for meals. They were off duty for only one weekday and one Sunday and a half every five weeks. No overtime was paid. Standards were set out clearly in staff rulebooks and unquestioning obedience to their superiors was expected.

Nevertheless, the underlying philosophy of “moral management” of the late 19th century was ahead of its time.

As noted by James Hume, the lay superintendent of the Dunedin Asylum: “Patience, gentle treatment, nourishing diet, cleanliness with light employment or exercise goes far to recover the Lunatic and in Chronic Cases serves to make them comfortable or even happy. Amusements for the insane are indispensable …and where space can be found in an asylum, a weekly concert with dance – both sexes carefully chosen can join in the entertainment and conduct themselves with the greatest decorum. Good example in the attendants is the greatest guide, and gives confidence to the patients.

The food at Seacliff, under the direction of Dr Truby King, was far more nutritious than the meat-heavy (and alcohol-soaked) diets of the general population. Combined with outdoor work, exercise, and a relatively safe roof over their heads, the regime was far healthier than many patients had had in their previous lives, especially considering the derision and abuse levelled at ‘lunatics’ in the community.

The large asylums also provided a social hub for the wider community, known for their dances and balls, musical entertainments, sports days and picnics. Seacliff even had a football team in the national competition, taking home the trophy in 1923. [The concert clipping is from the Otago Daily Times, 5 July 1890; the football photo is from the Hocken Library.]

If that all sounds more charming than you might have expected, then spare a thought for what sensitive souls must have suffered, being locked up with the criminally insane with minimal privacy, far from their families. Readers of one of New Zealand’s best-known writers, Janet Frame, will appreciate the anguish she suffered, being forced to use the toilet and bathroom with no privacy. She was held at Seacliff Asylum during the 1940s, when treatment included brain surgery and shock treatment. Frame narrowly escaped a lobotomy after being wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

As she notes in her autobiography (An Angel At My Table): “There was a personal, geographical, even linguistic exclusiveness in this community of the insane who yet had no legal or personal external identity – no clothes of their own to wear, no handbags, no purses, no possessions but a temporary bed to sleep in with a locker beside it, and a room to sit in and stare, called the dayroom. Many patients confined in other wards of Seacliff had no name, only a nickname, no past, no future, only an imprisoned Now…”.

Seacliff, aerial view. Source: Hocken Library

As you might imagine, Seacliff Asylum had its share of challenges over the years, and not just from its patients. The building began to sink almost as soon as it was completed, as it was built on unstable ground, causing drainage and plumbing issues, while a fire in 1942 killed 37 female patients. All that can be seen of Seacliff now are a few ruins in the Truby King Reserve, on the coast road between Karitane and Waitati.

Seacliff wasn’t the only grand building used for mental health care during New Zealand’s history. Larnach Castle (now a tourist attraction) was used as a hospital for mental patients and for shell-shocked soldiers in the early 1900s, while the Chateau Tongariro (now a luxury hotel) was requisitioned for the patients of the psychiatric hospital at Porirua, which had been damaged in the 1942 earthquake. Its use was short-lived, due to the 1945 eruption of Mt Ruapehu.

I am grateful for the very detailed account of mental health care in Warwick Brunton’s PhD thesis (A choice of difficulties: national mental health policy in New Zealand, 1840-1947, University of Otago, Dunedin, 2001). Additional historical details were taken Te Ara ( and Heritage NZ ( Thanks also to the Hocken Library and National Library for their wonderful collections of old photographs and to Papers Past for news clippings.

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