Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital

From Asylum Projects
Jump to: navigation, search
Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital
Established 1888
Opened 1890
Closed 1985
Current Status Preserved
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Sydney, NSW
Alternate Names
  • Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane
  • Rydalmere Mental Hospital


Up until 1811, ‘lunatics’ were accommodated at the old Parramatta gaol with male prisoners and female convicts, but over subsequent decades, dedicated asylums were established at Castle Hill, Tarban Creek (Gladesville), Parramatta, Callan Park, Kenmore and Goulburn. By the turn of the century, the number of people in New South Wales deemed to be ‘insane’ outstripped the number of places in institutions to accommodate them. The Inspector-General of the Insane, Norton Manning, attributed this to the economic depression affecting Australian society at the time. After the closure of the Protestant Orphan School in 1886, the building and the site it stood on were transferred to the Department of Lunacy so that a new branch of the Parramatta Hospital could be established there in 1888. By the end of 1890, 120 male patients were accommodated in the building and two years later it became an independent facility.

Facilities like Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital were established with the intention of not just accommodating, but segregating people who had some form of mental illness, out of concern for the character of the population as a whole. Many psychiatrists practicing at the time of the establishment of the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital believed in the theory of eugenics, and saw the isolation of the mentally ill in such facilities as an important way of ensuring that ‘mental defectiveness’ was not passed on to subsequent generations.

The original Female Orphan School building underwent extensions and renovations in order to house the patients of the hospital – the east and west wings were further extended to provide accommodation, and the verandas of the building were enclosed. Particular emphasis was placed on the natural environment around the building in the belief that this would assist in the recovery of patients. The land around the building was landscaped extensively – in 1893 the Royal Botanic Gardens sent 275 trees and 120 shrubs to improve the gardens on the site.

Early patients had to periodically move to different parts of the building, while urgent repair and alteration works were conducted. As the facility grew, more ward space was needed, so the central block of the building was extensively remodeled. In 1905 for example, a stairwell was built at the back of the building, so that the main stairway could be removed and more wards installed in its place. Progressive improvements were made to the building over the subsequent decades, with electricity installed for the first time after the First World War. In 1931, the eastern pavilion was extended with a two storey addition in order to provide additional recreation and dormitory space.

No longer alone on its hilltop, the original Female Orphan School building became part of a large campus of wards, medical facilities, and support buildings that made up the psychiatric hospital. The hospital complex gradually advanced northward towards Victoria Road and a new entrance road linking the hospital to Victoria Road was constructed on the north-western corner of the site. This meant that the orientation of the complex turned northward, and the former Female Orphan School precinct became the ‘back’ of the site. By the 1920s, the site was no longer set amidst a rural landscape – it was gradually becoming surrounded by a developing residential district. The Rydalmere and Ermington Council saw the hospital as an impediment to the prosperity of the area, because potential residents would be reluctant to buy houses close to a psychiatric facility. The council argued that the hospital should be moved to a more isolated location, distant from residential areas.

As early as the 1940s, serious concerns were raised about the treatment of mentally ill patients in large institutional facilities throughout New South Wales. In 1949, the Sunday Herald pointed out that at Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital, there were only three doctors employed to care for over 900 patients, describing the system as ‘unscientific, obsolete and inhuman’, treating patients like ‘convicts and animals’. It was argued that the accommodating patients in buildings that weren’t designed for that purpose (such as the Female Orphan School building) meant that patients were treated more like prisoners – an experience that exacerbated their conditions rather than eased them. It was said that the overcrowding, and lack of individual care meant that mental illness was treated simplistically, without an appreciation of the fact that mental illness came in many forms, and was caused by many different factors. Patients with developmental disabilities, epilepsy, mental illness and dementia were treated with a lack of differentiation that was greatly at odds with newer understandings of these conditions.

The management of patients accommodated in facilities like Rydalmere gradually changed over the second half of the 20th Century. By the 1960s, the treatment of psychiatric patients with new medications meant that their detention in custodial environments like the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital was seen as unnecessary. By 1986, fewer than 300 patients remained at the hospital, and it closed in stages over the years that followed.

The Parramatta South Campus of UWS was established on the site from 1993. In March 1998 UWS opened classrooms to students. Conservation works and adaptive reuse of parts of the complex have been undertaken by UWS for educational use. New buildings including the auditorium, library and student union have been added and some heritage buildings require urgent remediation work