Tarban Creek Asylum, Gladesville – A Heritage Walking Tour

Last year, I joined in a heritage walking tour of the Gladesville Hospital, originally known as the Tarban Creek Asylum. From the meeting point at the old sandstone gates on Punt Road, we walked down towards the Parramatta River, passing by various buildings within the large complex and remaining sections of the high sandstone walls which encompassed much of the original grounds. The road tapers down to Bedlam Point.

Bedlam Point existed before the construction of the state’s first purpose-built asylum. The origins of the naming of the point are unclear, but it was located opposite a wharf at Drummoyne which became the crossing point of the Parramatta River as part of The Great North Road. The stretch of water is the narrowest point across the Parramatta River, and a punt was set up on a cable to allow for the river crossing.

Gladesville Hospital Heritage Walk
Bedlam Point wharf on the Parramatta River

When authorities were casting about for a place to house the growing number of people with mental illness, the location at Tarban Creek near Bedlam Point was chosen, not least of all for its outlook and beautiful surroundings. Accommodation to this point had been predominately in jails, although there had been some sites at Castle Hill, Parramatta and Hyde Parks Barracks. Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis designed the initial buildings for the asylum, and the first patients arrived in November 1838.

There are buildings on the site designed by major colonial architects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These include Lewis, Blackett and Barnet. Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, the site was expanded significantly, and the clutch of remaining buildings include the site of the bakery; part of this building is now used as a pottery.

Gladesville Hospital Heritage Walk
Hospital buildings near the cemetery (rear of pottery building)

One of the saddest parts of the hospital grounds is the cemetery. There is a large sign at the entrance to the cemetery advising that the access road has been blocked as a sign of respect to the people buried there. There were over a thousand people who died at Gladesville Hospital over the decades, and for the first few decades the majority of those who died did not have their graves marked or details recorded. It is difficult to comprehend this degree of callousness, but it is a reminder of the stigma that was associated with mental illness.

Inevitably the layout of the hospital changed over time. The initial vision was to create a place that was conducive to recovery, with peaceful surroundings and calming views. The erection of high stone walls to enclose the asylum limited this somewhat; containment and safety providing the impetus. Buildings were designed with internal courtyards, providing spaces to take in the air. There were extensive gardens, vegetable patches and orchards. A winery was constructed where the terraced playing field is now. There was a bathhouse down on the shore, and in the early years, patients bathed in the river itself. There was a piggery and bakery, and the asylum was designed to be largely self-sufficient. Over the decades, workshops were added for the industrial occupation of patients.

Gladesville Hospital Heritage Walk
Hospital buildings

From its beginnings, there were more patients at the hospital than it was designed to cope with. A damning report into the asylum in the 1950s outlined the severe overcrowding and deplorable conditions. Some of the wards were in such a state as to be condemned buildings. There were 1500 patients and only two psychiatrists on site supported by two visiting general practitioners. The majority of staff were untrained, contrasting sharply with the earlier eras when some of the hospital administrators implemented a customised training course to ensure patients were given the best possible care.

Overcrowding is a consistent theme until the 1960s and 1970s when changes in attitudes towards the segregation of people with mental illness combined with psychotropic medication and an increased focus on community care and inclusion resulted in the decline of the hospital population. The 1983 Richmond Report sounded the death knell for hospital asylums, and the Gladesville Hospital was to be closed with remaining facilities merged with Macquarie Hospital at North Ryde.

Gladesville Hospital Heritage Walk
Original hospital building (Building 38) under restoration

To walk around the remaining buildings and infrastructure of Gladesville Hospital is to be aware of the continued rehabilitation of the site in order to make it as useful as possible following its decommission in 1993. There are various government and health based organisations with offices on the site. On the day of my visit, stonemasons were at work restoring the sandstone gates which face into Punt Road, and the original hospital building designed by Lewis was also being refurbished. Other people on the walk noted that the care and restoration work being carried out on site is more significant than that at Callan Park or Cumberland Hospital, which share a similar history of services to mental health in New South Wales.

Gladesville Hospital Heritage Walk
Dappled sunshine softens the sandstone buildings

The heritage walk around this significant site offered insights and access to purpose-built buildings, with several now providing services to the community in a historic setting. The Hunters Hill Trust website includes some historic photos and an overview of the site. In a letter written in 1994 by Sheila Swan, Chair, Friends of Gladesville, it was noted that:

The Gladesville Hospital is the oldest purpose-built asylum in Australia, and is of national significance with its unique collection of buildings demonstrating the evolution of mental health care in Australia, set in an unique and most picturesque landscape setting designed by most of Australia’s Colonial and New South Wales’ Government Architects.

Cited in The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta by Gregory Blaxell, pp 103-104.

Further insights into the attitudes and treatment of mental illness from the earlier decades of colonisation can be taken from a recently published book on the development of mental health facilities in Victoria from the 1870s. ‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ is written by Jill Giese and there is an interesting interview with her here.

[Photo: clock tower at Gladesville Hospital]

6 thoughts on “Tarban Creek Asylum, Gladesville – A Heritage Walking Tour

  1. Thank you very much for this thought-provoking report on the history of the Gladesville asylum! The treatment of mentally ill patients has much improved with the change in societal attitudes. Now a mental illness is treated like any other disease with the aim of finding a real cure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started my psychiatric training at the Nursing School at Gladesville in May 1959. I then was transferred to Callan Park (Rozelle) after the school. I think there was about 2500 patients between the two hospitals. I was terrified, as a 17 year old, working in wards with 9 patients in one ward in straight jackets. After 61 years I hung up my stethoscope in March this year. It has been a nursing career that you could only imagine.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Dawn
        Thank you so much for sharing your story and what an incredible start to your nursing career. What a steep learning curve it must have been for a 17 year old, and what an amazing contribution you have made throughout your career.
        May your well-earned retirement be all that you hoped for.
        Best wishes


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