“This site is a poignant reminder that we must never again allow vulnerable people to be abandoned, devalued and hidden away.”
Story and photos by Warren Heggarty
The NSW Government recently closed a road through the former Gladesville Psychiatric Hospital because it is actually a cemetery. It is the final resting place for 1,229 people. These people had been admitted to the hospital with mental health issues and subsequently died there.
We have details of names, dates of admission and dates of death for 923 of the burials. The exact fate of the remains of the hospital’s 306 earlier deceased, from the 31 year period between 1838 and 1869, is not known.
Another 149 years went by before recognition was given to mark respect for this place in the form of signage and a road closure. Pedestrians only can enter the site, since No Entry signs were posted to prevent vehicular access.
Sydney’s ‘Shameful Asylums’
Ben Pike writing in the Daily Telegraph on March 2, 2015 did not mince words in his article ‘Sydney’s shameful asylums: The silent houses of pain where inmates were chained and sadists reigned.’
‘Any place built on top of more than 1,000 anonymous corpses would send a shiver up anyone’s spine’ the article commenced. ‘It was hoped the asylum doctors would befriend their patients, not chain them up, and help them become normal citizens once more.’
That’s not quite how it turned out. Pike cites a number of sexual assaults and violent deaths not only of patients but staff.
The horrors were not just confined to the 1800s. For example, a 1954 report ‘accused staff of burning the head of one female patient after zapping her with too many electric shock treatments.’
‘Families refused to pick up their relatives’ bodies when they died, forcing the institution to create mass graves… many patients having no relatives or friends to speak of.’
The Hospital, opened in 1838, was originally called the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum and it is clear that overcrowding and human rights violations were routine there. Janet Meagher AM, recent recipient of a lifetime achievement award for her work in mental health advocacy told Panorama that, sadly, institutional settings often provide opportunities for abusive and predatory people to operate.
Gladesville hospital was closed in 1993 and the site currently houses offices for a number of government and non-government organisations.
Two large signs have been erected at either end of the now-closed roadway which runs between Norton Manning Drive and Crown Close, parallel with Victoria Road at Henley. The signs say in part ‘This site is a poignant reminder that we must never again allow vulnerable people to be abandoned, devalued and hidden away.”
As there were no suitably qualified locals, NSW Governor Bourke had to recruit a married couple from England, Mr and Mrs Digby, to run the asylum from its opening. It was not until 1848 that a medical doctor was appointed as superintendent.
The graves of two subsequent medical superintendents can be found here among a set of only five marked graves. Two large stone crosses commemorate Dr Frederic Norton Manning and Eric Sinclair MD. Interestingly, Dr Sinclair had been employed at the hospital for only one year at the time he was made medical superintendent in 1883, at the age of 23! Fifteen years later, he became Inspector General of Mental Hospitals in NSW.
Next to these large crosses are two smaller stones. One of the plaques appears to have fallen off, but the other commemorates Philip Shepherd (1929-1984) ‘an honoured friend who inspired and gave so much to this hospital through his art.”
These eerie looking buildings perched above the Parramatta River to the south of the cemetery are now used for training health professionals.
Four of these stones can be found just inside the entrance off Norton Manning Road, and there is an obelisk nearby, but the rest of the cemetery precinct shows no indication of the 1200 people who lay beneath.
There was even a road built through the middle, although No Entry signs have now been posted.
The Cemetery Project
In 1960, the government passed the Gladesville Mental Hospital Cemetery Act to ‘authorise the use of a certain cemetery within the Mental Hospital at Gladesville for purposes other than a cemetery…’ The act gave the government the power to remove any remains or surface structures from the site. This act was repealed in 2011.
After the Richmond Report in 1983, Psychiatric Hospitals began to be phased out and their functions replaced by community based services and mental health units in local hospitals.
From 1993, Gladesville and Macquarie (North Ryde) Hospitals were amalgamated and by 1997, all inpatient services were run from Macquarie Hospital. The Gladesville site has since been used to house various organisations such as the NSW Mental Health Commission, One Door, The Mental Health Sports Network, The Mental Health Tribunal, Kids Mental Health, Cochlear and formerly the Mental Health Association.
In 2014, The NSW Ministry of Health and the NSW Mental Health Commission began collaborating on the Gladesville Hospital Cemetery Project. In 2017, the road that goes through the cemetery was closed to vehicles. The Commission and Ministry will be engaging with the media and wider public so that people know about the cemetery and its history.
Janet Meagher AM, Dr Kate Gill and Kris Havron have been three people advocating recognition for this cemetery. ‘I’ve been passionate about this issue for a long time’ said
Janet, who was a former patient at Gladesville Hospital.
A spokeswoman for the NSW Mental Health Commission said ‘we are working with the Department of Health to properly memorialise the site before the end of this financial year. The signs are a temporary measure, and we hope that the final design will provide an opportunity for visitors to respectfully learn. There will also be a ceremony at that time to acknowledge the lives and worth of those buried on the site.’
Pike, Ben, “Sydney’s Shameful asylums,” Daily Telegraph, 2nd of March 2015
Research Data Australia researchdata.ands.org.au/tarban-creek-lunatic-1915-93
Gladesville Mental Hospital Cemetery Act 1960 No 45
Memorials to (L-R) Eric Sinclair MD, Dr Frederick Norton Manning, anonymous, and Philip Shepherd can be found just inside the Western entrance. The obelisk just to the North of these is the only other marked memorial.