Newcastle Psychiatric Centre

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Newcastle Psychiatric Centre
Established 1871
Opened 1871
Current Status Active
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Newcastle, NSW
Alternate Names
  • Lunatic Asylum for Imbeciles-1871 to 1878
  • Institution for Idiots, Newcastle-1879 to 1895
  • Hospital for the Insane, Newcastle-1896 to 1915
  • Hospital for Insane, Newcastle-1916
  • Hospital Mental, Newcastle-1917 to 1945
  • Mental Hospital, Newcastle-1946 to 1962
  • Newcastle Mental Hospital-1962
  • Newcastle Psychiatric Centre-1963 to February 1983
  • Hunter Hospital-February 1983 to July 1989
  • James Fletcher Hospital (Current)


There were five identified phases in the history of the Watt Street site. From 1804 to 1838 it was occupied by a government farm and glebe; from 1838 to 1851 it was a Military Barracks; from 1851 to 1867 it was Civil Servants Accommodation; and from 1867 to 1871 it was a Girls’ Reformatory. The Reformatory was closed in 1871, and from that time the site has been used as a hospital providing mental health care services to the community for over 130 years (Australian Heritage Commission Register of the National Estate Database, James Fletcher Hospital Group, Newcastle, New South Wales, 2003).

On 13 September 1871, the Colonial Secretary’s Office of Sydney reported that ‘His Excellency the Governor with the advice of the Executive Council,directs it to be notified,that the buildings lately used as an Industrial School and Reformatory School for Girls at Newcastle have been appointed to be a Public Lunatic Asylum for Imbeciles and an Institution for Idiots (The New South Wales Government Gazette, No. 227 (Friday, 15 September 1871).

The decision to use the buildings as an asylum was prompted by two factors: the overcrowding of state mental institutions particularly at Parramatta and Gladesville; and the need to provide separate accommodation for children. The presence of children at Gladesville and Parramatta was of concern to the medical superintendent of Gladesville, Dr Frederick Norton Manning and on 6 October, 1871 one hundred ‘feebleminded’ children and aged ‘imbecile’ men were transferred from the overcrowded wards of Parramatta Lunatic Asylum to Newcastle (Inspector of the Insane Report for 1876 in Votes and Proceedings 1876 – Vol. 4, p. 770, cited in New South Wales Government State Records Authority). The plan was that in time as the older patients died, the asylum would be solely devoted to the care of children. As children reached maturity they were transferred to adult mental institutions including the gender segregated Stockton Hospital in Newcastle, a centre primarily and almost exclusively for women and to Rabbit Island in the Hawkesbury River, a centre exclusively for male patients with what was termed ‘congenital mental deficiency’.[1]

By the 1890s, children as young as five and six years of age were relinquished into care, an economic depression in this decade made it difficult for families to cope. The admission of mostly intellectually disabled women and children continued well into the twentieth century. The institution at Newcastle was special; the community had a presence there, they were encouraged by Superintendent Frederick Cane to visit and were welcomed through the gates of the asylum. The community was part of care of the patients, here they participated in musical and sporting events.[2]

Although the plan to transform the Mental Hospital Newcastle from a centre for children with intellectual disability to an adult psychiatric centre was proposed as early as the mid-1930s, it was nearly 40 years until this plan was commenced and another ten years until the transformation was completed. In his annual report for the year ended 30 June 1936. In 1958, The New South Wales Mental Health Act was passed with an emphasis now placed on voluntary rather than enforced admissions with the result that it was no longer an offense to be mentally ill.