Inside an asylum

Bedlam. That’s how most people think of 19th century hospitals for the mentally unwell. The phrase ‘lunatic asylums’ – which was how such institutions were known at the time – doesn’t conjure up much better images. But what if the situation were quite different? What if, instead of the mentally unwell being chained up, never visited and hidden from sight, the patients of the mid-19th century were instead treated with respect and kindness, interacted with the broader community through plays and dances, gardened, participated in trades and were never restrained and rarely treated with medicines?

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. Image:  Te Papa O.034082.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

In fact, this is what many mid-late 19th century asylums aimed for. The treatment of patients at this time was based on a philosophy known as ‘moral management’ and, fortunately for Christchurch residents, one Edward Seager, first superintendent of Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, was a strong supporter of this philosophy. The four principles that underlay the philosophy were:

  • patients should not be restrained but should instead be supervised;
  • patients should be classified according to the degree of insanity and their stage of recovery, both during the day and at night;
  • patients should be given the opportunity to participate in activities and employment; and
  • patients should have the opportunity to participate in exercise (Piddock 2001, 2004).

In many ways, the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum – now Hillmorton Hospital – epitomised these principles in its early years. The hospital was established in 1863, and the complex expanded throughout the 19th century, with a number of the buildings designed in the Gothic revival style by Benjamin Mountfort. The hospital grounds were large enough to include a farm (initially, at least), gardens, airing yards and numerous workshops for practising trades. Patients resident at Sunnyside worked in the grounds and workshops, exercised in the airing yards and took part in a range of social activities, including cricket, church services, plays and weekly (later fortnightly) dances. The public were encouraged to attend many of these events. This focus on entertainment and engagement with the broader community seems to have fallen off with Seager’s departure, and as the number of patients in the asylum increased (Seager 1987).

An inspector's comments after visiting Sunnyside in 1875 (AJHR 1875 H2:5).

An inspector’s comments after visiting Sunnyside in 1875 (AJHR 1875 H2:5).

In spite of the best efforts of Seager, later superintendents, and the asylum inspectors, the archaeology of the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum revealed that the reality lay somewhere between the horrors of Bedlam and the ideal of moral management.

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A gravel path with brick edges in east airing courts. Image: K. Watson.

Documentary records reveal a range of details about the asylum. Plans tell us that the grounds of the asylum were landscaped with sinuous paths (and the archaeology confirmed this). There is little mention of medication in the records, but detailed descriptions of patient classification systems and the employment and entertainment opportunities they were provided with. What the documentary evidence does not highlight is the degree of separation between staff and patients, nor does it provide much detail about how patients rebelled against the institution. Archaeology, however, does.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum china. Image: K. Watson.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum china. Image: K. Watson.

During the 19th century, the separation between ‘us’ (the staff and, by association, ‘normal’ people)  and ‘them’ (the patients) was reinforced by forming the male airing courts so that the staff outside looked down on the patients inside. While this would have made monitoring patients’ behaviour easier, it also reinforced the differences between the staff and patients and ensured that both were fully aware of these differences. The staff – and possibly visitors – were also separated from the patients in the airing courts through substantial brick and cast iron fences. At meals, the use of branded asylum china reinforced to patients their position as ‘lunatics’ and, consequently, both their position in society and their ‘difference’ from the rest of society.

The toilet block, with an enclosed drain to the left and the open drain to the right. Image: K. Watson.

The toilet block in the East Wing airing courts, with an enclosed drain to the left and the open drain to the right. Image: K. Watson.

Further evidence that the patients were seen as different, and thus could be treated differently – and, significantly, could be treated badly – was found in the airing courts associated with the East Wing. These airing courts, which were used by male patients, had an open drain running around the inside of the courts. Built to promote drainage, the open drain also carried waste from the toilet block through the airing courts. While sanitary conditions in 19th century New Zealand might not always have met our 20th century standards, these drains were built in the late 1890s and were deliberately built as open drains carrying raw sewerage – they were not the result of ad hoc development. Such a situation would have been regarded as unacceptable in any public space, but was somehow acceptable at the asylum, a product, perhaps, of how the patients were seen and how different they were believed to be.

Some of the buttons, with a Hobday button is in the centre. Image: K. Watson.

Some of the buttons, with a Hobday button in the centre. Image: K. Watson.

Evidence of rebellion against the institution, and all that it entailed, was found in the male airing courts, where two features containing artefacts were found. The small artefacts recovered from these features, including spectacle frames, buttons, food remains, and ceramic and glass fragments, were almost certainly deposited there by the patients. The nature of these artefacts suggests that they were unlikely to have been the personal possessions of the patients but were probably items owned by the asylum (the spectacles may be an exception). Thus, it seems likely that these items were stolen from the asylum, perhaps as a small act of rebellion. Petty theft would have been a means of expressing dissatisfaction with a diagnosis of insanity, the living conditions, the staff and the asylum itself.

While some of the archaeological remains confirmed that the practices of moral management were adhered to at Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, others indicate that this was only part of the story. Those details of life at Sunnyside revealed by the excavation but discussed in little detail in the official reports were, unsurprisingly, the less pleasant elements. Further, the degree to which patients were seen as being different or abnormal is not revealed in the official reports. The archaeology of the asylum, however, has revealed these attitudes, and the small acts of rebellion by the patients against the asylum, these attitudes and their position in society. In so doing, the archaeology of Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum has given the patients at the asylum a voice, albeit a small one.

Katharine Watson


Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives. [online] Available at: <>.

Piddock, S., 2001. Convicts and the free: Nineteenth century lunatic asylums in South Australia and Tasmania (1830-1883). Australasian Historical Archaeology 19:84-96.

Piddock, S., 2004. Possibilities and realities: South Australia’s asylums in the 19th century. Australian Psychiatry 12(2): 172-175.

Seager, M., 1987. Edward William Seager: Pioneer of mental health. The Heritage Press, Waikanae.