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Published January 10th 2014
A different kind of asylum
Adelaide Lunatic Asylum About 1878 (Courtesy SLSA B39362/12)
The last fifty years have seen treatment of people with mental illness improve dramatically in Adelaide. No longer are people incarcerated under inhumane conditions in asylums - sometimes simply because they were poor or homeless.
Adelaide Lunatic Asylum opened in 1852 and was the first purpose built place in SA designed to hold and treat mentally ill people. Situated on North Terrace, it was in an elevated position allowing the inmates to see over the walls down the hill into the Botanic Gardens (established in 1854) and feel the fresh breezes.
The Former Morgue in the Grounds of the Botanic Gardens
The new asylum held sixty patients plus staff, and was situated sufficient distance from town to avoid annoying the inhabitants, yet close enough for official Visitors to inspect the facilities. It soon became clear that the facilities were simply not big enough to accommodate increasing demand and it was proposed that a new building housing 200 patients be built further from Adelaide.
By 1866 plans were under way for the new Parkside Lunatic Asylum - later known as Glenside Hospital, which eventually opened a separate secure ward for the criminally insane called the Z Ward.
Meanwhile Adelaide Lunatic Asylum continued operation, but the number of patient deaths made a dead house or morgue necessary. In 1882 The South Australian Register announced that a tender to build the new asylum dead house had been accepted.
The morgue was built from Yatala stone, probably quarried by prisoners from stone along the Dry Creek Linear Park. It was a simple rectangular building with white rendered internal walls with timber roof supports and a galvanised iron roof. Windows and ventilators provide the air flow that would have been essential during autopsies, while a slate floor is canted to a central drain.
On the left of the door a long stone slab has a trough where a body can exsanguinate. The room is a similar size to the morgue at Torrens Island Quarantine Station which was constructed 30 years later.
The former Adelaide Lunatic Asylum Morgue or death house is one of only a few buildings from the original asylum to survive today. Situated not far from the ultra modern Bicentennial Conservatory, the original morgue table was reputedly used in the 1980's by gardeners as a table for potting plants, but these days the building is only used as a storage shed.
The former asylum's Yarrabee House and stables survive nearby as part of the National Wine Centre, and you can read more about them at this fascinating National Trust site dedicated to Adelaide history.
The new Adelaidia website from History SA contains a wealth of information about Adelaide - old photographs, maps, and well researched history stories are all available on many topics including the Adelaide Lunatic Asylum.
Today the serene atmosphere of the Botanic Gardens and the National Wine Centre give little indication of its more disturbing past. But it does demonstrate that Adelaide has some well kept secrets, and should never be thought to be boring.
The Bicentennial Conservatory and Cascade Glass Sculpture Nearby
For a scholarly historical look at Adelaide's lunatic asylums, see this thesis extract by Susan Piddock. The ABC have also produced this well illustrated article about Hospital history in Adelaide's Botanic Gardens which you can read here.
Fascinating article Dave but you got me thinking, so I did a quick google. The population of SA around 1860 was around 100 000 and they're building lunatic asylums to house 200, so that's about one in 500 is a loony. Is this normal? Not that I'm insinuating anything lol
The morgue at the former Parkside Lunatic Asylum was in the middle of being restored last May/June, even the original slate slab. I didn't realise this building was the morgue for the Adelaide Lunatic Asylum. Thanks for a great article.
That asylum and morgue featured in a short comic-book story called 'House of Horrors' in issue #2 of DECAY (back in May 2010), produced written and drawn by local Adelaide creators and published by DARK OZ.
The asylum and morgue featured in a short comic-book story called 'House of Horrors' in issue #2 of DECAY (back in May 2010), produced written and drawn by local Adelaide creators and published by DARK OZ.
Dave I keep reading Weekend Notes because your articles are so interesting and well researched. You have opened my eyes to many historic and cultural places and events in and around Adelaide. Keep it up I am a fan.
I was an apprentice at botanic gardens in the 1980s and the morgue was used as a tools shed,/lunch room I'm now a mental health nurse! Not related to this experience but an irony really. We never thought twice about it being a morgue , we always knew thoguh..
Interesting article , do you know anything about the Destitute Asylum at Walkerville that I believe was around a the same time for children of poor families and unmarried pregnant girls until they gave birth ?
Thank you for your captivating article Mr. Walsh, few things are so fascinating as a good lunatic asylum. What a chilling edifice that initial photo shows! Imagine being led up that long grey path to the entrance one cold morning- how the heart would pound...