Heritage & History Reports

Conservation Study: Gladesville Hospital History

Conservation Study: Gladesville Hospital History


ArchitecturalHealthSydney - NorthernConservation Management PlansResearchHistory

Client: Hughes, Trueman and Ludlow

Authors: Beverley Johnson and Sue Rosen

This report was prepared in the last quarter of 1994 for Hughes Trueman and Ludlow by Beverley Johnson and Sue Rosen. Additional research assistance was provided by Mary Sparke and Richard Temple. Because the report was for a general conservation plan for the site and because most buildings of heritage significance were constructed prior to 1925 the research emphasis has been on the period from the establishment of the asylum until that time. Severe time constraints (only 40 hours was allocated for research and accession of material) also informed this decision. Any future studies should allow sufficient time for research of the later period to be conducted. Surprisingly the later period is less accessible as the Annual Reports were subsumed into more generalised reports and therefore the material pertinent to Gladesville is harder to extract. The authors wish to thank Sheila Swaine of the Hunter's Hill Trust; Eddy Friar and Linda Stewart, staff at Gladesville Hospital; and John Hamer.


The history report consists of a thematic history and a chronology, which details the physical development of the site. For reasons of accessibility/readability the chronology is divided into three sections major works, landscape and minor works.

Physically the site and the buildings bear witness to the change in the care of the insane over a period of 156 years.  Both have adapted or evolved to accommodate changing numbers and theories about the causes of insanity, of how it should be treated and who should be responsible for that treatment. It is a prime example of the continuing tension between the ideal and the possible, between government funding and public need.

Initially the buildings and site were the treatment. It was through the correct use of space - classification and separation of patients - that moral well being emerged and was maintained. As the nineteenth century aged, the buildings and landscaped grounds became the essential background to treatment by other means. It was then necessary to have a clean and efficient hospital, the right environment for rest, good food, comfort and pleasant surrounding.1 The site carries the evidence of the changing nature of transport and the need and ability of the hospital to adapt. The lengthy entrance to the original building and the positioning of the medical superintendent's house indicate a water-oriented site.

The first gatehouse and the imposing fountain placed in what was the rear of the original building indicate an orientation towards a road system. The second and later gatehouse indicates the need for access to the wards in that area and the greater significance of Victoria Road after the opening of the first Gladesville Bridge.

The thematic history presented here is divided into three sections or stages. The first, establishment phase, covers the setting up of the asylum and the role of Digby, its non-medical Keeper. This documents the history of the physical development of the site within the context of then current views on the appropriate treatment of the insane. In this phase 'medical men' began to assert a claim to the treatment of the insane. Digby was replaced by Campbell one of the chief colonial advocates of the disease/medical view of insanity. Campbell was no more successful than Digby in his management of the Asylum. The facts were that from the very beginning the facility was overcrowded and government cost cutting in the construction phase and subsequently, undermined the ability of anyone to offer the kind of environment or treatment conducive to the restoration of mental well being.

After years of complaint and inquiry the appointment of Dr. Norton Manning marked the beginning of the next lengthy phase, which lasted to about 1925. Under Manning, and his successor Dr. Eric Sinclair, the medical model together with the provision of a pastoral environment came to dominate. Manning and Sinclair were relatively successful in obtaining funds for appropriate buildings and under them the landscape and menagerie came as close to perfection as it got. The Asylum became a Hospital and physically despite overcrowding, came into its prime.

The third phase, i.e., post 1925, is the period when for a while the medical model dominated the environmental. After years of funding and staff shortages - throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the facilities became run down and subject to criticism reminiscent of Digby's and Campbell's earlier experience. A related area, which was not discussed here, was the wider repercussions of psychiatrists going in private practice and the separation of many of the 'curable' patients into areas away from the mental hospital. In 1927:  Dr. W. Ernest Jones, in speaking of the 'feeble minded', said that their care 'seemed to be slipping from the grasp of the medical profession.'2

Gradually the philosophy of care again turned toward the environment as community and professional attitudes toward psychiatric patients changed. The medical model was undermined and increasingly environmental factors have again been given priority. Specifically the community has been seen as the appropriate place for people who are developmentally delayed or suffering some mental illness. Support rather than institutionalisation now governs official policy. This has meant that large institutions such as Gladesville Hospital have become redundant.

1 For the complete argument see Stephen Garton, Medicine & Madness, UNSWP, Kensington, 1988, p.162.

2 W. Ernest Jones, Australasian Medical Congress, Sydney.  Reported in The Medical Journal of Australia, 5 October 1929.