Mental Health Milestone – 150 years

For Mental Health Week 2021 we are sharing photos from Special Collections at the Univerity Library of a mental health site in Newcastle. The James Fletcher Hospital commemorates 150 years in October 2021. It is the longest established mental health site in continuous use in NSW. We acknowledge the traditional Aboriginal owners of the lands on which the James Fletcher is sited,  Awabakal Lands.

Over time there have been changes in treatment and therapies. The historic photos show an era of ‘moral therapy’ where the outdoors was central to care. The grounds were improved with vegetable gardens, and an openness that saw clients, staff and the wider community come together for events and recreation.

Built by the British Ordnance in 1842, the former military buildings have fared very well over 3 centuries. The site carefully maintained and continue to be used for the purpose of mental health care. Currently managed by the Hunter New England Local Health District.

This historic precinct Newcastle Government Domain was listed on the NSW Heritage Register in 2011. Also the site of Newcastle’s first Government House and early coal shafts.

A specialist institution

The Newcastle “Asylum” opened temporarily in October 1871 in former military buildings after the Industrial Girls school and reformatory (1867-71) abruptly vacated the site, after pressure from local residents.

There hadn’t been any grand plan for a mental hospital, however NSW was in crisis in terms of providing mental health care in the 1870s. The opening of the institution at Newcastle was about dispersal of clients in government care to free up space in institutions in Sydney. Idea of a specialist asylum may have been a ‘smokescreen’ to conceal the stark reality of the crisis occurring in the mental health system in the 1860s.  Especially in terms of the needs of ageing men in NSW. Many of the first clients at Newcastle were lone figures, isolated and without familial support. The institution opened hastily with minimal preparation. Despite this, it emerged as the leading regional ‘asylum’ and outlived all of its contemporaries.

Inspector General for the Insane

Frederic Norton Manning (1839-1903) became Inspector General for the Insane in 1876. He had experience and knowledge of mental health care from his extensive research worldwide. Newcastle Asylum was the first asylum in NSW under the modern mental health regulations. It represented a break away from the colonial asylums that had origins with convict care.

A key aspect was the government’s ability to establish institutions for those with intellectual disabilities, then labelled ‘imbecile and idiots’, as well as the mentally ill. (Note: Terms ‘idiot’ and’ imbecile’ are common in the historic case records and today their use is derogatory. The term used today in Australia is intellectual disability) By 1871, a regional ‘upcountry’ asylum was supported to relieve overcrowding in Sydney’s asylums. At Newcastle moral therapy could be implemented under the guidance of non-medical personnel. And postpone building a new asylum in Sydney.

Lack of specialist care

As a specialist institution, the Newcastle institution was established well before it became a ‘hospital’ managed by medical personnel. It represents the break away from the old system of lunacy care. When considered in the wider context of similar institutions worldwide; the Newcastle asylum was the third public institution of its type.
Prior to this specialist instituion there was no adequate care for people with intellectual disability in NSW. Instead people were admitted to large asylums and cared for alongside the general population.

Manning urged his medical colleagues to do what was ‘expedient or possible’ in terms of improving mental health care in NSW, rather than what was ‘right or best’ and to be content with the attainable good rather than with the unattainable better. Manning, “Report into Lunacy”

Manning’s intention that people with intellectual disability should be kept entirely separate from those with mental disorders in a special institution. This was a radical shift from the way mental health care had been implemented in NSW. It reflected care that saw more recreation, education and training. The Australian asylum culture had up to this point been heavily influenced by medical doctors, but the instituion at Newcastle was a temporary experiment in non-medical care. After only a quarter of a century the institutional care of this group was handed to the medical profession.The first clients at Newcastle were a specific group, seen as incurable, a quieter class of patient in need of long-term care. They were and able to be managed by non-medical personnel as in other parts of the world. There was a genuine belief in the effectiveness of early education.


Frederick Cane was an early Superintendent (1872-89) at Newcastle. He had no medical training and relied on alternative forms of treatment, including out-of-doors activities and events. A more caring model, in full view of the community.

At the heart of all this activity was Cane, who believed that work was conducive to health, happiness and mental restoration. Seen as important to make every effort to increase the number of young clients able to be employed.

The Brisbane Courier published a letter describing the environment and culture of ‘care’ and ‘attention’ of the Newcastle Asylum in the 1870s. The author describes the landscaped gardens, sports and recreation, as well as social events there and the ‘curative agents’ including occupation, amusement and as much freedom for the inmates as required. Credit is given to Cane as a non-medical superintendent who, like an ideal manager of a lunatic asylum was “…good and even tempered, full of kindness and forbearance…”. The Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum,” The Brisbane Courier (Brisbane) March 17, 1877, 6.

Former Military Hospital – Residence of Mr Cane in 1880 and later of the other superintendents of the asylum. Courtesy Special Collections, 2013.

The Lower Reserve

Cane was able to make a long lasting contribution to the city’s amenities when he extended his efforts at beautification beyond the formal boundaries of the insitution. The Lower Reserve with its dramatic coastal seascape setting of high coal cliffs and magnificent views. This park was treated as part of the asylum grounds, despite it being outside the wall and separated from it by Watt Street. The Lower Reserve had been part of the grounds of Government House. Until the mid-1870s, it was fenced off and out of bounds. It was dedicated as a public park in 1878 and a drinking fountain constructed. The Lower Reserve was landscaped by Cane who made it attractive by planting ornamental shrubs and trees. As well as a neat hardwood fence and seats for the pleasure seekers.

Fletcher Park, Newcastle, NSW, 2 November 1905
Lower Reserve, later Fletcher Park, Newcastle 1905. Source: Ralph Snowball Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle ‘Fletcher Park, Newcastle, NSW, 2 November 1905’

The proximity of the reserve across the road (known today as Fletcher Park) made community outings possible and were a great social benefit for clients as they were able to mix with the wider community. Clients ventured on outings to the Lower Reserve the scenery was magnificent with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and to Port Stephens.
Cane was responsible for the plantings of ornamental shrubs there and seats for the comfort of the public. “Recreation Reserve at top of Watt street, “Newcastle Herald & Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle) January 15, 1878.

Beautification and Gardens

The photo below shows open areas divided into neat rectangular garden plots, including vegetable gardens and further enhanced by the alignment of paths laid out by Colonial Architect James Barnett and shown in his ‘Plan for the Hospital for the Insane’. Together the photo and the plan provide a detailed account of the institution a decade into its existence. Most of the built environment and spaces are relatively unchanged today.

Women’s Asylum, Watt Street Newcastle. Ralph Snowball Collection, Special Collections University of Newcastle. 22 November 1888.


James Barnett. “Plan of the Newcastle Hospital for the Insane.” 1880. Collection of Hunter New England Health, Waratah Campus library. (Uncatalogued)

The main entrance is shown in the photo below. It was formally styled with plantings and Roman style vases on plinths along the drive. Small shrubs lined the roadway. There are also several Norfolk Island Pine trees.

Ralph Snowball Collection, Special Collections University of Newcastle. 22 November 1888.

An Ideal ‘Asylum’

The wide fronted barracks offered continuous windows for natural light and fresh air. Good light and ventilation was the result of the coastal location which brought direct sea breezes. The open verandas and large high windows on either side of the buildings allowed air to circulate.

This institution didn’t conform to the belief that care could only be achieved by new purpose designed for the care of the mentally ill. Nor did it appear to share architectural and landscape traits with other colonial institutions, or resemble either the ‘asylums’ of England or Australia. It did however share many of their features and may explain why it functioned as well as it did.


Women’s Asylum, Watt Street Newcastle. Source: Ralph Snowball Collection, Special Collections University of Newcastle. 22 November 1888.

The photo above shows the northern section of the precinct.  It was in close proximity to the prestigious residential area known as ‘the Hill,’ including Jesmond House with its distinctive tower. The home of prominent brewer John Wood and his wife, the actress Essie Jenyns. The prominent barrack style building on the right of the photo is the former Officer’s Quarters. This was used to accommodate women and children, whilst the former military barracks to the left of the image was for men. In the foreground is a formal garden that echoes the openness of the military parade ground, but is also very reminiscent of the government gardens located there during the penal settlement. On the perimeter of the grounds at the north east was the largest of the asylum gardens. It was rectangular with numerous paths and ‘walks’ containing a manicured garden with ‘green plat’ and a “…handsome fountain” that clients to enjoy.

“There are numerous ornamental walks, and the ground is covered with a rich velvet of buffalo and other choice grasses. This portion is given over exclusively to the female patients, who take great delight in promenading through it, admiring the flowers, and in other ways relieving the monotony and tedium of their lives. In this and all other portions of the ground everything is being done to make the surroundings attractive to the eye, with the object, not only to beautify the place, but of remaining as far as possible the barrier which were formally so prominent a feature of asylum life and habitation.“Imbecile Hospital,” Newcastle Herald & Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle) January 22,1890.

View across Newcastle Government Domain from Watt Street towards Newcomen and Church Streets. Source: Special Collections,University of Newcaslte, 1890s.

The photo above is a view from inside the Hospital looking from the Watt Street entry across the Vegetable Garden towards the Newcomen and Church Street intersection. The two storey Kirkwood house was an addition to the 1819 Anglican parsonage or deanery on the corner of Church and Newcomen Streets. Having been started in the convict period when Anglican clergy were appointed to minister to the convicts, it continued in use as a deanery until 1902. A masonry retaining wall alongside Church Street can be seen on the right-hand side of the photo. The 1860 Newcastle East Public School building can be seen over the retaining wall as can three terraces on Church Street that still exist today. The Police premises are behind the photographer on Watt Street. Also on the precinct was a Court House erected in 1892 and Police Barracks and Inspector’s residence, although these are not visible in the photograph. The block was never exclusively used for a single purpose by any one group; it has had multiple occupancies, all reflecting government use.


The mental health institution at Newcastle did not start out primarily caring for those with intellectually disability. Instead it absorbed other cases that were seen as ‘chronic and incurable’. The Newcastle records show that the first clients transferred may not have been intellectually disabled at all, but a diverse group socially, culturally and mentally. The first person admitted to Newcastle was Mr William B on 6 October 1871, transferred from Bathurst where he had been since August 1858. William arrived with 50 others on the same day and likely to have come via Sydney. The mental health needs of aging and foreign men, as well as children in NSW during the 1860s and 1870s was significant. Many of them had spent years in institutions in Sydney. They were a diverse group both socially and culturally. A vulnerable group because of their incapacity to work or be financially independent. Many needing long-term care.

In 1871, more than half of the first one hundred patients admitted came directly from other government institutions. Others came from metropolitan and regional areas and it is unknown whether they had resided privately or with others in the community. In total forty per cent are unknown as to their residential address prior to admission. (Colonial Government of New South Wales, Newcastle “Medical Case Books”, Reference CGS 5066. Sydney: NSW State Archives, 1871. 6 October 1871 – 28 Feb 1973.)

From 1871 to 1900 there were over 800 people admitted.


Postcard ‘The Fountain Hospital for the Insane, Newcastle’. Private collection. Date unknown.

In contrast with other mental institutions of the 19th Century and most later psychiatric hospitals, visitors were encouraged on site to interact with clients. This was seen as therapeutic.

In the 1880s the Newcastle institution became an attraction. Its location in the centre of the city made it ideal for events.  As shown in the postcard ‘The Fountain, Hospital for Insane, Newcastle’, seen as a tourist destination. This may represent the community’s acceptance of the place, to the extent that some would purchase an image of it to share with family or friends. The scene includes the angel on a high plinth at the end of the main avenue, a decorative fountain and a field gun reflecting the former military use.

As well as casual visitors for band concerts or sporting matches, the Visitors Book shows the number and types of official visitors who played a role in the life of the ‘asylum’. It suggests the modest level of social support available to the intellectually disabled in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Colonial Government of New South Wales. (“Visitors’ Book [Newcastle Psychiatric Centre] “, Reference CGS 5064. Sydney: NSW State archives, 23 March 1881 – 10 May 1936.)

International Visitors

During the 1880s and 1890s, entertainers performed providing a social experience. This was something fashionable in other parts of the world. The ‘institutional tourism’ phenomena. The Visitors’ Books shows entertainers including ‘minstrels’ visited from many parts of the world. They came in their free time.
A group named ‘Happy Hours’ visited 28 July 1882, another were the fourteen member ‘Opera Company’ who performed on 7 June 1883. International artists included the ‘Fish Jubilee Singers,’ a troupe of five from the American state of Virginia, visited 16 April 1887.

Transition to Medical Model

It was difficult to sustain moral therapy in later years because of the growing influence of the medical profession on lunacy policy. The significant increase of children in the 1900s meant more specialist resources were needed for this group. Increasingly care was out of sight from the community due to the idea that this group was contagious. The mental hygiene movement of this era believed that these children were better cared for behind the walls of a hospital. remote locations, such as at Morisset and Stockton.

Twentieth Century

The period from 1900 to 1950 was a time of change. The openness and outdoor culture of the Newcastle institution during the 19th century would not last. Instead the early 20th century saw a strong focus on education and training.  This new culture of care took clients increasingly indoors, although some activities, such as gardening and sport continued outdoors. The transition from ‘asylum’ with its connotations of a place which provided an escape into a less stressful environment to a hospital in which people would be subject to medical treatments to try to cure their mental illness seemed eventually to create a culture of inactivity. There was a shift from clients as ‘workers’, to the passive patients of the 1950s onwards.

The role of government authorities throughout the many phases of care was significant.  Although influenced by models from institutions worldwide, the NSW system did not follow the British tradition of charitable and private care. Instead placed the government squarely in charge of providing care for the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled.

Timeline – names changes to the institution (1871 – current)

1871 – 1878     Lunatic Asylum for Imbeciles and Institution for Idiots.
1879 – 1915     Newcastle Hospital for the Insane
1916 – 1945     Mental Hospital, Newcastle
1946 – 1962     Newcastle Mental Hospital
1962 – 1983     Newcastle Psychiatric Centre (also known as Watt Street Mental Hospital)
1983 – 1989     Hunter Hospital
1989 – current James Fletcher Hospital

Timeline – use pre Mental Health institution

1801               used by first Europeans to attempt settlement at Coal River when coal was found in the area.
1804 – 1823   Centre of local administration for Newcastle secondary penal settlement; site of coal mining
1823 – 1830s  Site of civil administration for free town of Newcastle after withdrawal of convict establishment
1841 – 1851    Military barracks
1851 – 1867    Government offices and depots; offices of A.A. Company
1860s              Newcastle Volunteer Rifles
1867 – 1871    Girls’ Industrial School
1869 – 1871    Reformatory for Girls

For more on the history of the James Fletcher Hospital, NSW see  “. . . here is an Asylum open . . .” Constructing a Culture of Government Care in Australia 1801 – 2014

Visit ‘The Future of Madness Network’ aims to bring established, emerging and future scholars together at the University of Newcastle to provide a community of interest in the future of madness studies.

Related Resources

Kirkwood House, James Fletcher Hospital – Final archaeological report . June 2012. AMAC Archaeological.

After Wards: From Patients to Participants – Community mental health services in Newcastle, NSW 1967 – 1987 – By PhD Candidate in History, Robyn Dunlop

Compiled by Dr Ann Hardy
Coordinator GLAMx Lab & Digitisation projects, Special Collections
University of Newcastle (Australia)


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3 thoughts on “Mental Health Milestone – 150 years

  1. The photo “View across Newcastle Government Domain from corner of Newcomen and Church Streets” is incorrectly titled. The view is from inside the Hospital looking from the Watt Street entry across the Vegetable Garden towards the Newcomen and Church Street intersection. The two storey Kirkwood house was an addition to the 1819 Deanery and the Court House site can be seen on the RHS of the picture with a masonry retaining wall to Church St. The 1860 Newcastle East Public School building can be seen over the retaining wall as can three terraces on Church St that still exist today. The Police premises are behind the photographer on Watt Street.

    1. Hi John, thanks you very much for picking up that correction, we have edited the text so that it reflects the photo. Kind regards.

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