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The Old Liverpool Men's Asylum

Home > Sydney > Free | Architecture
by glenop (subscribe)
So much to little time to see it all.
Published August 4th 2014
God's waiting room for Sydney's old men
A grand entrance to the asylum

Three old men of the asylum (Photo courtesy of the Liverpool and District Historical Society)

The old asylum morgue

The Flying Pieman

A young John Brown when only aged 116

Racing car hero Rupert Jeffkins
Before we had aged care centres and retirement villages, before there were meals on wheels and pensioner concessions, if you were old and could not take care of your self, you would end up in an asylum for the aged, infirm and destitute.

The Liverpool asylum for men operated from 1853 to 1958. After moving from Sydney to Liverpool in 1853, the Sydney Benevolent Society operated the asylum for men until it was handed over to the government in 1862.

At its peak, some 900 men from around Sydney were crammed into its wards and dormitories. In 1889, the total population of Liverpool was estimated to be 1800. Not surprising, Liverpool became known as the asylum town with its disproportionate population of old and destitute men. Over 10,000 inmates are buried in Liverpool's two cemeteries, almost all in unmarked pauper's graves.

There was a large disparity between the male and female population in 19th century Australia. There had always been significantly more male convicts than women and many sailors and fortune seekers ended up in Sydney. Many were unable to find a wife or able to take care of themselves as they aged or found themselves destitute.

What is remarkable is the background of some of the men that ended up here. It didn't matter who you were or what you had done, if you were down on your luck or simply had no one to look after you, you could have ended up here in Liverpool. Former convicts may have shared a ward with an army officer. Former politicians and lawyers associating with criminals. Farmers and failed businessmen. Men who were drawn to Australia from around the world seeking their fortune in gold rushes were often left stranded and destitute.

The legendary 'Flying Pieman' William Francis King spent his final years here. He acquired celebrity status in the mid 19th century for his many madcap marathon walking feats throughout the colony of New South Wales. He is best known for selling pies to passengers as they boarded the ferry in Sydney for Parramatta. He would then run the 18 miles to Parramatta with the unsold pies and arrive before the ferry so he could sell them to the same passengers as they disembarked. He also walked from Campbelltown to Sydney in 7 hours 50 minutes carrying a large dog.

Racing car driver Rupert Jeffkins who drove in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 fell on hard times and died with his feats forgotten.

One of the world's oldest men, John Brown died at the asylum at the extraordinary age of 119 in 1907. He was born in 1788, the same year as the arrival of the first fleet.

The asylum system was largely self sufficient. Able inmates would be paid a small allowance to work the farm growing all sorts of produce as well as live stock such as pigs and chickens. They would carry out the cooking, cleaning and laundry as well as making clothes and shoes.

The building that housed the asylum was constructed by convict labour and opened as the Liverpool Hospital. It replaced an earlier hospital built around 1813. Like many significant public buildings of the era, it was designed by renowned former convict architect Francis Greenway. Construction commenced in 1822 and despite the large engraved stone above the entrance stating 1825, building was not completed until 1830. The Liverpool Hospital closed in 1853 as the population of Liverpool and district decreased sharply at the end of the convict era in the 1840's.

Over time, the population of Liverpool and district began to recover after the opening of the railway in 1856. The asylum began to provide more services and eventually became a general hospital in the early part of the 20th century before closing in 1958 when the new Liverpool hospital opened.

Dining at the asylum (Photo courtesy of the Liverpool and District Historical Society)

The asylum was originally built as the Liverpool hospital

Stair case to the dome

The site was taken over by the Department of Education and opened as the Liverpool TAFE college. The first classes were held in 1960.

Today the building is busy with mostly young students largely unaware that it was the last refuge of desperate and sick old men. Many of them came unwillingly as convicts; many had bravely sailed to a new country seeking opportunities from the other side of the world. There's little evidence what went on here. There is a small cabinet displaying convict era artefacts and some early photos courtesy of the Liverpool and District Historical Society on the ground floor of the central building. If only these walls could talk, they could tell the early history of the colony of New South Wales.

View out over the entrance and Bigge Park
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Why? Visit one on the oldest and most significant convict buildings in Australia
When: Monday
Where: Liverpool
Your Comment
GREAT article glen! Storytelling at it's best :)
by Julian Groneberg (score: 3|1802) 1315 days ago
thanks for this post!
by jolie (score: 1|90) 1325 days ago
Well-researched and beautifully-written feature - thanks!
by flewf (score: 0|6) 857 days ago
Beautifully written, Glen! Never knew this existed.
by jolie (score: 1|90) 1325 days ago
What a fantastic story. Who would have known that this facility existed.
by emare (score: 1|48) 1323 days ago
Fascinating and very interesting. I'd never heard of it either. Vicki
by vicki (score: 0|4) 1323 days ago
Absolutely fascinating - thank you. I'm printing it off so my 15yo can read and learn.
by Vivie (score: 2|116) 1321 days ago
Now its liverpool tafe
by kanzz (score: 0|2) 610 days ago
Now its liverpool tafe
by kanzz (score: 0|2) 610 days ago
I've been from Liverpool since in the mid 1980's. Unbelievable of how Liverpool has changed so much since then. I've always found the history of Liverpool very interesting though how Glen explained it has hit the nail on the head. Well done Glen and awesome work.
Thank you,
by scard (score: 0|2) 531 days ago
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