Access by Various artists


Cool asylum: Porirua Hospital Museum

by Hilary Stace

The patients in F. Ward were terribly violent. They screamed and yelled all night and half the day. There were no drugs – they were locked in single rooms and you couldn’t go near them. You’d almost get the sack if fewer than three or four people went to their room to give them dinner or tea. Sedatives were almost unknown. Straitjackets were used a lot and great big leather gloves that were locked on – they had a key to lock them on – because some of them would tear you to pieces.

Recollections from 1925 by a nurse in ‘Out of mind, out of sight: the story of Porirua Hospital’ p. 83 by Wendy Hunter Williams, written for the 1987 centennial of the hospital.


As with all good museums, the main impressions are sensory. You enter this hundred year old wooden villa formerly known as F Ward of the old Porirua Hospital through a heavy door. In the porch, there is evidence of roosting pigeons. Once inside it is silent, but noisy with history.

The main part of the museum is a long dormitory with thin windows and a high celling. Two rows of narrow iron-framed beds would have been the norm here. Perhaps a staff member controlled the scene while standing behind the high desk that is on display. Although there is autumn sun outside it is cold inside this uninsulated wooden building. My colleague reminds me that the schools and houses of our childhood were also cold in winter – so not unusual.

Historical interpretation is provided in the form of neatly hand written posters around the walls, enhanced by fading photos. The arrangement is chronological starting with the first Wellington asylum in 1854 on the current site of Karori Normal school. Overcrowding led to a bigger building on the hill where Government House now stands. That too outgrew its site and in 1887 a large new asylum was built here near the township of Porirua, up the hill from the railway station. Bricks for the building were made by prisoners at Wellington’s Mt Cook gaol, and some bricks, with their indented arrows, are on display. This ward was a later 1909 addition.

In the early decades such asylums (meaning respite from the stressful world) provided a home for the homeless, old, poor, ill and disabled, as well as those with mental health conditions. Up to 1500 residents/patients (the preferred terms) lived on this site. Some were free to come and go, some were locked up, and others were merely unable to care for themselves. My great uncle’s wife was here and he took the train every weekend to visit her. She was never mentioned by the family, and I don’t even know her name.

This was a working farm until the 1960s so farm implements are on display. In glass cases there are examples of specially made hospital crockery, key chains, old medicine bottles and a variety of medical implements including an enema kit. There is an ancient x ray machine. There are also machines for delivering electroconvulsive therapy which are smaller and more portable than I expected. A photo shows a group of nurses administering the therapy to a patient in bed. Our guide says that properly used, anaesthetised ECT helped many patients, probably because it acted ‒ much like the newer SSRI drugs ‒ by raising serotonin.

Truby King (1924-7) and Theodore Gray (1927-46) are listed among the men who headed this institution. Official Visitors – community-appointed vigilance– included political activists Janet Fraser (1924-34) and Annie McVicar (1926-50). The first social worker wasn’t appointed until 1952, and psychologists only gradually came into the picture. There weren’t many tools for treating mental illness in the early days so newly-developed drugs were embraced with enthusiasm. Many patients had dementia from syphilis and one treatment used inoculation with malaria parasites to induce fever and thus hopefully kill the syphilis.

A low ceilinged corridor leads us to other rooms. The seclusion room is small and a lockable shutter covers the window. A hole in the wall provides surveillance. The unrippable canvas blanket and bristly mattress would have been among the only objects in the room. Pipes now lead across the roof and our guide says of course they wouldn’t have been there in the old days. The walls bear the scratches and names of former inmates.

Further along we are shown some of the former single rooms (as mentioned above). They have been opened up into bigger rooms housing valuable collections, including research materials and registers (waiting for students looking for interesting research topics).The room I find the hardest has a collection of dental weaponry that transports me back to the painful days of the ‘murder house’. I sympathise with those who react to some of the other memorabilia here in this museum. The irony is that in the old days the patients apparently had as good dental care as the welfare state’s children. A former classroom for younger patients is now an office. A larger room was a teaching space where students were paid to train as specialist psych nurses. We learn that since nursing training became Polytech-based, user pays and generic, it has not attracted the numbers of males it used to.

Above a wheeled bath are a long list of instructions for the patients’ weekly bath. Beside it an abandoned doll in a bassinet reminds us that intellectually disabled adults lived here too.

Our guide reminds us that this facility was built, run and staffed by people who mainly had the best of intentions. They followed the latest theories about the science of mental illness and for the provision of an asylum for healing. But insufficient staff and resources allowed systemic practices to develop that often undermined those ideals.

We walk out another door, down a couple of battered steps and are back in the 21st century. We drive out past the current facilities – the forensic and intellectual disability mental health units - where some of those from the back rooms of the institutions now reside.

The Hospital site on the hills above Tawa is extensive, green and sunny. The land and buildings belong to Capital and Coast District Health Board, but they are not loved. The Museum is a Category 1 historic place, open on Tuesdays 1-4 pm and staffed by volunteers. Its future is precarious. Do visit while you can. But don’t go alone.

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