Sunday, March 1, 2009

Asylum Days

Auckland Lunatic Asylum, Point Chevalier, 1870s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 918-03.

Updated: 9 February 2023

The history of the Auckland Lunatic Asylum/Mental Hospital at Pt Chevalier is huge. Seriously, it is. I have four ringbinders full of copies of reports from newspapers, the AJHR, photos and photocopies of documents testifying to what an enormous undertaking a general history, both of the site and its buildings and its deep social historical associations, would be. One day, I'd like to do it. Not because my own grandfather died there (committed for senility, died from pneumonia), but because it's a hole in our region's history. It's something which, in my view, still seems to be skirted around by historians.

Recently, I was approached by a staff member at Unitec about anything I knew as to the site's history. Well, I pointed him in the direction of the three works I have published which include some aspects of the site's story: A Doctor in the Whau, Wairaka's Waters, and Terminus. But I also mentioned I'd see if I could pull together a limited chronology. Here it is -- still with gaping holes due to lack of knowledge, and by no means therefore anywhere near as comprehensive as I'd like it to be.

Perhaps, though, it might be the start of something more which is very much needed in terms of filling that gap in our history.

1841 The Queen Street Gaol is constructed. Between 1841 and 1853, cells would be set aside at the Queens Street-Victoria Street West site for those who were deemed insane, alongside other prisoners. 

In February 1843, one unnamed individual died at the gaol, and attempts were made to blame the Sheriff and his team for not looking after the person properly, including dietary needs. But, as the Auckland Times pointed out, “The Sheriff had no legal custody of the man, be it remembered, beyond what his own humanity prompted, and the turnkeys of the gaol have of course their own business to attend to. Religious feeling and common sense require alike that these things should be properly attended to. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Died by the visitation of God.’”

In 1846 Joseph Hale, “pronounced by the Medical Officer to be labouring under insanity” was lodged at the gaol, to the consternation of the Sheriff, Percival Berry. “The man is incessantly raving and requires the constant attention of a keeper. The gaol at present is so full that it is impossible to keep him apart from the other prisoners and not only is it unsafe to approach him but he keeps the prison and its neighbourhood in an uproar day and night.” Whenever the man was in a rational state, he requested that he be sent to Sydney. Unfortunately, the asylum at Sydney was too full, so Auckland’s request was turned down.

Another man in the same year, Owen Connor, required a strait jacket, and was provided with 12 ounces of beef daily. Connor, “in a state of violent madness” made his escape from the gaol on 17 May after he had been removed from his cell in order for it to be cleaned and himself washed. Appearing tranquil, he abruptly changed, overcame the keeper in charge, rushed over the debtors’ yard and went over the fence to freedom. He was recaptured an hour later.

December 1850
Plans begin for subscription drive to build Auckland’s first insane asylum.

7 January 1851
Public meeting in the Mechanics’ Institute Hall “to consider the expediency of establishing a lunatic asylum in the district of Auckland.”

17 April 1851
The Governor expresses his support for the endeavour, with the opinion “that a detached building on the grounds connected with the existing Hospital would for the present be most convenient and suitable.” Management of the asylum was to be not by the appointment of Trustees by the subscribers, but under a comprehensive plan of Executive Council control, to be vested in a Corporation once that body came into being.

April 1852
After opposition from the short-lived Auckland Borough Council (main opposing point being to the location on the Domain grounds), the building of the asylum commences.

January 1853
By now, the building is completed. The city gaol in Queen Street is no longer the only repository for those deemed to be of diminished capacity. It may be from this point that additional Asylum Endowment properties are set aside by the Governor from out of the Crown’s waste lands to provide an income for the institution.

The asylum building is found to be inadequate, and requires extension. The Provincial Council Superintendent is petitioned to, instead, choose an alternative site in the region and build a new asylum there.

15 January 1863
Specifications for a proposed asylum published in the New Zealander.

September 1863
By now, imported plans from England had been submitted to the Provincial Council’s appointed architect, James Wrigley. The Auckland Loan Act and Empowering Act of 1863 are passed, giving the Provincial Council power to raise funds for capital works, including the asylum. For a time, the Meola Reef area is considered as a site, but then the site close to Oakley Creek is chosen.

Work begins on the building of the asylum. John Thomas’ tender for brick supply submitted 5 January. Detail on the difficulties around his tender published in Terminus (2008).

8 March 1867 No official opening, but this was the first day patients were removed from the Domain site to Great North Road at Pt Chevalier.

"The removal of the lunatics to the new Asylum on the Great North Road took place yesterday morning, when three of Mr. Hardington's 'buses conveyed them out in two trips. The ride appeared to give them much pleasure, and the manner in which they conducted themselves was really surprising. The keepers accompanied them, but not the slightest trouble was given, and all were conveyed in safety to their new home in charge of Dr Fisher. Every praise is due to the drivers, who not only showed proficiency in the manner they conveyed the patients out, but also behaved in a most kindly manner, giving every comfort that lay in their power. The inmates of the Asylum are to have more liberty and open-air exercise in future. They will work at their respective trades, and those who have no trade will be employed in cultivating the ground." (Southern Cross, 9 March 1867)

May 1867
The main asylum building at Pt Chevalier completed. Further history of the asylum provided in Doctor in the Whau (2007) and Wairaka’s Waters (2007).

31 October 1869
Death of the first Resident Surgeon (effectively superintendent) of the Auckland Asylum, Dr. Robert Fisher.

20 September 1877
First major fire at the asylum. After the fire, the Colonial Government appointed architect Philip Herapath to plan and undertake repairs to the building so the male patients, removed to the Albert Barracks, could return in the shortest possible time. By the middle of October, the repairs were sufficient that the male patients were able to be shifted back to the asylum. Herapath was also called upon to draw up plans for the long asked-for extensions to the building, as well as the setting up of a supply connection with the Auckland City mains.

29 September 1879
The farmland immediately behind the asylum is purchased by the Crown. The Asylum’s farm begins. This process of title ownership completed 1888-1893 by extinction of the water right formerly held by John Thomas for the Star Mill operation.

Extensions completed to the asylum’s main building.

Tenders advertised for laundry building and boiler rooms.

Tenders advertised for auxiliary asylum building and workshops. “The farm-overseer and family live at present in a very miserable wooden house, old and filled with all sorts of vermin. While erecting the proposed new buildings, a very little additional expense would enable a house to be added to said building, and supply the present want.”

“The erection of the wooden building for 60 quiet male patients has just been commenced.”

“The auxiliary asylum is not yet ready for occupation, the drainage not having been completed, and other necessary work remaining yet unfinished.”

Drains from the asylum and auxiliary building complete and running into the Oakley Creek, “below high-water mark”. Auxiliary asylum now in full occupation.

October 1885
Death of 3rd medical superintendent, Dr. Alexander Young.

New female block for 100 patients “is being built on the site of the old refractory division.” The kitchen block was enlarged, and new boiler-house erected.

New wing “all but completed.” The old workshops were burned to the ground, and now replaced by a brick building.

Bell, Engineer for Buildings, inspected the site, and in the wake of a typhoid outbreak made plans for reform in the sewage outfall, preferably out to the sea.

Stone-crusher machine now at work, preparing metal for new airing-courts, and roads on the site. (This was likely also used by the Avondale Roads Board during later construction of Oakley Creek culvert bridge.) Stone probably came from Meola Reef area of asylum endowment.

New farmsteading erected by asylum labour, supervised by C R Vickerman of Public Works Dept. Asylum still looking to establish a “gravitation system” of sewage disposal into the mouth of the Oakley Creek.

“The system of sewage irrigation is nearly finished, and is already at work over a considerable area of the garden. The concrete swimming-bath is rapidly approaching completion – a very considerable work, which has been admirably carried on by attendants and patients. New workshops at the rear of the farm buildings are being put up in the same way.”

20 December 1894
The Asylum’s auxiliary building destroyed by fire.

December 1895
Tenders advertised for the supply of bricks for the new auxiliary building. This was completed in 1896.

“A large number worked in the garden and on the farm, not only in maintaining the property and cultivating produce for consumption, but much has been done by them in the way of improvements. The orchard has been enlarged, and upwards of five hundred new fruit-trees planted. Unusually fine piggeries have been erected on a suitable site. Some progress has been made in reclaiming rocky ground, which forms so large a proportion of the Asylum property. The sewage irrigation scheme has also been practically completed. This work serves its purpose admirably, and very materially adds to the productive capacity of both the vegetable-garden and the farm.”

A new female wing added, by altering the laundries. During the second decade of the 20th century, the Wolfe Home was erected on the other side of Carrington Road from the asylum site, to serve as another auxiliary hospital.

A nurses home was built, for 60 nurses.

Medical Superintendent’s residence proposed to be converted into a neuropathic unit for female patients. “A new Superintendent’s residence can be built with a view to its saleability when the evacuation of the institution becomes possible). Said evacuation was intended to be to Kingseat. 1932 By now, the old superintendent’s residence had been converted into a residential clinic for women. The new residence was completed by 1935

An assistant-superintendent’s residence built.

Drives on the site formed and tarsealed.

By 1936, the proposal to completely evacuate the Auckland Asylum to Kingseat was abandoned.

1962, 1 January, official renaming as Oakley Hospital.

Mid 1973, Oakley Hospital divided into Oakley and Carrington Hospitals. 10.4 hectares of the asylum farm designated as a site for a technical institute, which takes the name of Carrington as well.

“The barn” erected to house Carrington Technical Institutes workshops. Part of the farmland leased to Mt Albert Grammar.

“Carrington Village”, a collection of cottage-sized buildings, transported to the site.

Late 1980s, Titiwhai Harawira established Whare Paia mental health unit at Carrington Hospital. 

Old asylum building sold to Carrington Polytechnic Today, the Mason Clinic is the last vestige of the original land use as a mental hospital remaining on the site.


  1. Ice that is very very cool!!! Thanks for posting it up now I know how a timeline is done. Awesome

  2. hi there
    thanks for such comprehensive work
    I'm pulling together a brief talk on the history for a specialist group. Wondered if you had any pic's to illustrate my talk?
    (and yes I'll cite you as the source)
    cheers Yvonne

  3. Hi Yvonne,
    I recommend contacting the Sir George Grey Special Collections, and the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library for copies of their images. All the best!

  4. Very interesting, as my gg grandfather died there in 1891 from complications brought on by diabetes. I have his medical records, and found him in the paupers section out at Waikumete with no markings on his gravesite.
    Are there many photos of the asylum of the time?

  5. There are quite a number around, yes. Check out both the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library's catalogue, and also that for Sir George Grey Special Collections, Central Library (Heritage Images Online).

  6. Hi Could any help with getting information on my gt gt gt grandmother who died in this hospital in 1912, I have a copy of her death cert, but apart from her name and date of death there is no other information. she was Elizabeth caroline Brown, she died 14 october 1912.

    1. She was born 1842 Ireland. Maiden name WARREN. She is interred Purewa Cemetery.

  7. I'd say your best bet would be to check out patient records for the Auckland Mental Hospital from that time. Contact Archives New Zealand to find out about the availability of those records. There shouldn't be any restrictions on information from 1912.

  8. Thanks for the access to all your great research. My husband is descended from the younger brother of the first Resident Surgeon, Dr. Robert Elliot Fisher. Do you have any further information on Dr. Fisher, in particular the date of his appointment? Thanking you, Deb.

  9. Hi Deborah,
    The Superintendent of the Provincial Council announced in Message No. 12, late November 1866, that Dr. Fisher, then house surgeon at the Auckland Hospital, was appointed Resident Surgeon for the (at that time yet to be completed) asylum out at Point Chevalier. The Southern Cross reported on it on 26 November so, short of looking up the Provincial Council transactions for a more exact date, I'd say the appointment was around 25 November 1866.

  10. Any person re history (and I recognise the name Yvonne if or Doctor or Otago student past ) any person should recognise Neville Carlsen ( a once partner of J C Williamson) who would through his vaudeville and revue history constantly bring shows including the very best singers who were in town and gave their free time of the standard of Joan Sutherland etc to Oakley Hospital. They and the prisoners at Mt Eden each signed 2 huge plaques in the 1961-3 period and presented him with them. He died from my bedroom a little while later. Orphanages are yet to acknowledge but a viewing of Guy fawkes day any year in the Auckland Star will see photo of huge ships flares given by shipping lines to Neville and shot up by his grandson Brent. Neville was also involved in intelligence

    1. The comparison , however ancient the treatment and conditions , should be measured against what was then the mother coutry, the workhouses, some towns with one third of persons in the asylum, and include in this , USA institutions as this was an alternative for those who considered conditions of the industrial revolution had got the better of them or new grass lay ahead somewhere. Given that , as late as the beginning of the sixties there was according to the New Zealand Herald a holding cell below sea level. Similarly the father of the present health advisor Professor Gluckman , Dr Gluckman sort to prevent peoples being sent there and even then medicines were still ancient , and one English nurse was heard to say we hold them down and pour reserpine down their throat( reserpine a drug of choice of the bad side of the KGB to get information out of their spy subject. Dr Gluckman in 1964 told an official inquiry seekin how truth could be obtained from prisoners , stated that when given drugs they eventually talked. As a reformist Dr Gluckman was at once saying how it was amd publicly warning of things. he coined the phrase and Supreme Court defence "maori schizophrenia" ( see Beattie QC and Ryan QC)

  11. Were you able to obtain your grandfather's medical records? I would like to get my grandmother's records who was a patient, however I know you have to apply for them. Just wondering what this process is like? Thanks

  12. No, I didn't go as far as asking for his records -- because he died in 1964, there would still be considerable red tape wrapped around them.

    Archives New Zealand have issued a guide to mental health records, here. Hope that helps.

  13. Wow - your research is very comprehensive. thank you for taking the time to share it. Do you know anything about what is now known as 'Building 6'? It is a brick building that looks similar in style to the main building, and is located just off to the side and behind it. Would it be the auxilliary building that was built in 1896 do you think?

  14. At the moment, I'll go with "possibly, pending a fair bit of time to go through the online AJHRs, and maybe (hopefully!) coming across an Archives NZ file with a handy map on it."

  15. Hi would you have any information on deaths at Avondale mental hospital? i'm looking for info on my Great aunt who died there in 1931, her name is Ivy Stephens.

  16. You mean Auckland Mental Hospital, Lita. Archives New Zealand holds patient records from there -- contact them, or look up their research guide for Mental Health which is online.

  17. I appreciate this so much... thank you for this page. My Great-Grandfather died there and I am in the process of requesting records. :)

  18. My g. grandfather Wm. H. Dampier was admitted numerous times from 1870 - 1895. He was a permanent resident from 1895-1899 & died there. I have his medical records, letters of committal and inquest results. Home this helps. Tina