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New tours of historic Willsmere have opened to the public. These are exceptionally popular, so you would do well to book as soon, as the next lot of tours open on July 20 at 8.30 am.
Established in 1870, Willsmere is a rare, mostly intact 19th-century former lunatic asylum. Drive along the Eastern and you can still see it sitting on the hill, looking so foreboding.
Operating from 1871 to 1988, Kew was one of the largest asylums ever built in Australia. Its purpose was to house the growing number of "lunatics", "inebriates", and "idiots" in the Colony of Victoria. While such terms are not used today, it was the language of the time.
The Italianate and French Second Empire buildings were designed to portray Melbourne as a civilised and kind society. It was intended as a paradise where agitated patients could do farm work in the fresh air amid tranquil gardens and fine buildings.
But freedom was an allusion as the design included 'ha-ha' walls. The name came from the fact that the brick walls were built into the hill, so you could see over them, but up close they were too high to climb over. See the video below.
There is a preserved ward, which is now a museum. This is where the well-off patients paid for rooms with great views, but the poor and insane slept in large dormitories down the hill.
You can also see the barred bluestone cells that housed the most disturbed patients.
But despite the grand building and magnanimous intentions it was often overcrowded and lacking in resources. The planned 600 patients grew to 1000, poor sanitation and lack of government funding made it so squalid, it helped prompt an 1884-86 royal commission.
It had a reputation as a last resort for drunks, mad people and "idiots". Not all of the buildings will be open but you can visit the fine gardens, the museum and the bluestone cells. There are restrictions on photography.
This event is part of the Open House Weekend in Melbourne when tens of thousands of people come out to celebrate architecture in our city.
This tour costs $5. As the tour is mostly outside you should dress for the weather.
The tour release dates open on Friday 20 July at 8:30 am until booked out.
Tours run on the 28th and 29th July Sat & Sun 10am-4pm at 10am, 10.30am; 11am, 11.30am, 12pm, 12.30pm, 1pm, 1.30 pm, 2pm, 2.30pm, 3pm, 3.30pm, running for 40minutes, in groups of 17.
As a child, we frequently visited relatives in Barnard Grove and Princess St. i always felt haunted by images of the Asylum, and disturbed by despair and sickness of the inmates. It looked like a Jail to me, and i imagined what life must be like inside. A sad place.