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Last updated: 22 August 2018

Seacliff Hospital

Collection | Ref # ZARCH 286 | Held by

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Seacliff Hospital



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1 folder

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Seacliff Hospital, (also known as Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, Seacliff Asylum, and later Seacliff Mental Hospital) was a psychiatric hospital built on a reserve of some 900 acres at Seacliff, less than 20 miles north of Dunedin, in an isolated coastal spot within a forested reserve.
The hospital was one of the most important works of Robert Lawson, a New Zealand architect of the 19th century. He started work on the new asylum in 1874, and was involved with it until the completion of the main block in 1884. At that time, it was New Zealand's largest building, and was to house 500 patients and 50 staff. It had cost £78,000 to construct.

Treatment of the patients at Seacliff, whether insane, mentally retarded, or held in the institution for what would today be classed as simply being difficult, was often callous, or even outright cruel, a feature of many mental asylums of the times. However, Seacliff was groundbreaking in some parts of its treatment programme. Noted medical reformer Truby King was appointed Medical Superintendent in 1889, a position he held for 30 years, and patients were 'prescribed' fresh air, exercise, good nutrition and productive work. The asylum was progressively added to in later years and King is credited as having turned what was essentially a prison into an efficient working farm. Most of the newer buildings were much simpler wooden structures and staff lived in separate accommodation close to the wards.

The hospital was plagued with structural faults from the start, and the Director of the Geological Survey had criticised the location before building began, because he felt that the hillside was unstable. Only three years after the opening of the main block, a major landslide occurred, affecting a temporary building. An enquiry was held and it was decided that it was the architect who carried the ultimate responsibility. Robert Lawson was found both 'negligent and incompetent'.

On 8 December 1942, a fire broke out in Ward 5 of the hospital. The Ward was a two-storey wooden structure added onto the original construction and most of the doors and windows were locked. Due to the wartime shortage of nurses there was no nurse on duty and 37 of the 39 women patients died from suffocation.
Primarily as a result of worsening ground conditions which progressively affected many of the buildings, the hospital functions of Seacliff were gradually moved to nearby Cherry Farm, and Seacliff closed in 1973. The site was subdivided, and is now divided between the Truby King Recreation Reserve, where most of the old buildings have been demolished, and privately-owned land where several of the smaller hospital buildings have been renovated completely.

Scope & Content:
A collection of 51 loose pages of text and newspaper clippings about Seacliff Hospital and its history. The pages are contained inside hard outer covers, and they are numbered and indexed. The text has no date, newspaper clippings are dated 1942-73. A note with the item says that “This is the original – there are now 3 new (updated) copies in existance….”
[NB A bound copy of the photocopied pages is held in the McNab Collection in Heritage. The copy includes updated information and lists of those who died in the 1942 fire. It is dated Dunedin Public Libraries 2003 (Z362.2.SEA). There are also copies at Blueskin Bay and Waikouaiti Libraries]

Dates covered:

Circa 1942 - Circa 1973

Access conditions:

No restrictions.

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