Regular readers of this blog and followers of my Instagram will know I really like urban exploration. I didn’t get a chance to do much of it in the Czech Republic while we were there, however the little bit I did was awesome! Now that we’re in Tasmania I’ve been hoping to check out the various sights of interest in and around Hobart. There is of course the Hobart Rivulet which I’ll be writing about soon and then there’s Willow Court, a former mental asylum in New Norfolk, a short drive north of Hobart.
After posting an image from the Rivulet under the city I received a message from the lovely @milesawaymax who does a fantastic job of organising Instameets in Tasmania under the @instatassie account. She’s also a fan of urban exploration and the fascinating history and stories behind abandoned places. She suggested Willow Court and within minutes we had arranged to take a trip there the very next day!
I had seen a few images online and it certainly looked like a very interesting place with a storied past. The story of Willow Court and New Norfolk is far broader than this blog so here’s a link to an excellent article on the early history of the place in the mid to late 1800’s. The New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane was originally constructed as a convict hospital but with a growing number of mentally ill patients, many as a result of poor conditions, the site gradually became used as the main mental asylum for Hobart and surrounds. The numbers of mentally ill patients only grew as penal sites around the state closed down following the end of the convict transportation era.
The site remained in use up until the year 2000 when government funding dried up and much of the treatment was transferred to smaller care units around the state. Today it is a bit of a surreal place to visit as it seems to be trapped in a bit of a time bubble. There’s dozens of vintage cars in various states of disrepair and the buildings which you can access have an eerie nostalgia to them that’s hard to describe. The cars, vans, buses and boats dotted around the courtyard are classics from a bygone era with beautiful retro dashes and peeling paint textures that would excite the most discerning of texturephiles.
We managed to access one of the buildings on site which seems to have become a storage facility for the nearby antique dealers but it also contains a number of reminders of its former life. We had been exploring the ground floor of the building when we were suddenly alarmed to hear sounds from upstairs. We cautiously returned to the main hallway and were greeted by the sight of a gentleman with an unkempt beard and stained clothes. Explaining that we were merely photographers wanting to take a look around he agreed to let us keep exploring and to check out upstairs.
It turns out he is sort of a caretaker of the building, he keeps riff-raff out in exchange for free lodging in a corner of the upstairs area. The building was, I believe the former nurses cottage but the layout certainly seemed to suggest that there were wards for patients, particularly on the upper level. One of the rooms in particular was quite disturbing indeed, with a number of sculptures and art works that were clearly the work of an ill mind. There was a huge diorama comprised of multiple tiles which when put together would create a large scale battlefield from the early days of muskets and cannon. Many of the soldiers were depicted with terrible injuries with dollops of red paint and clay used to signify blood. Perhaps the most disturbing piece was a clay sculpture of a horse with its legs tied to poles, some of them having been chopped off. It really was an unpleasant room and although fascinating to document, I was happy to return downstairs and be free from it.
We had another chat with the caretaker chap who’d decided to head outside and water some plants. He told us a little more about the current state of ownership/restoration of the various buildings, after which we decided to check out the antique shop which had been set up in one of the former hospital buildings. Wanting to respect the shop owners I only took the one image below and put my camera away while taking a look around the rest of the shop. If you’re any way into antiques and are in the area, it is a place you absolutely cannot afford to miss! There’s wall to wall nostalgia with beautiful pieces covering anything you can possibly think of. The phrase Aladdin’s Cave most definitely applies to this place. It turns out there’s even more shops that open on the weekend selling even more fascinating antiques so yes, long story short it’s awesome. There’s even a cafe on site in the former school room, further adding to the area’s strange abandoned but occupied appearance.
We left the antique store promising to do the lottery more and ventured over to some interesting looking buildings we had seen on the drive in. The Willow Court site is quite expansive and covers many acres of land with buildings ranging in age from the early 1800s to more recent constructions of glass and concrete. We mad our way towards the fenced of D,E,F and G wards. These housed a number of different patients ranging from children to adults suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia and autism.
The buildings have been largely gutted and are covered in large amounts of graffiti, most of which is just basic tags or childish insults but there are some more intricate and detailed pieces here and there. It’s difficult to get a sense of what these wards must have been like when they were operating but there are certain features that remind you this was a hospital and mental asylum. Some of the wards still have their observation rooms clearly visible while in others you can see the hatches where medication would have been dispensed. The children’s wards were quite upsetting in particular as the bright coloured doors and painted floors were still visible and you really got a sense of their suffering, as well as the efforts of the medical staff and hospital designers to make them as comfortable as possible.
The Willow Court site is a fascinating place to explore and I’m glad we got to check it out before the planned restoration and re-purposing of many of the buildings covers over the interesting and at times harrowing history of the place. Urban explorers often get a bad reputation as trespassers but the majority of us, Max and myself included have only the utmost respect for the areas we explore. The sites we visit are treated like a national park, you bring out with you what you took in and under no circumstances do you take anything else with you or damage or alter the place in any way. I think the word “vandal” is often wrongly associated with those looking to explore these places and we are thrown in the same pile as those who wish to plaster their awful “tag” all over a building or have a party with their friends and set a fire in the building.
Sites like Willow Court need to be remembered for what they were and although we can’t stop progress and redevelopment, particularly if private investors have legitimately paid for the property, I think it’s really important to document the sites for future generations so that there is a record of their history, particularly in relation to physical and mental health and the general human experience.
The Willow Court Project is a great resource for information on the history of Willow Court and the current lay of the land regarding the various reconstruction projects taking place.