Seacliff Lunatic Asylum

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1872 in New Zealand, and was quickly named the largest and most extravagant building in the country. Amid the dismal treatments and punishments offered to patients, Seacliff was notorious for structural damage, partial collapses and a fatal fire which claimed the lives of 37 female patients. Patients were finally transferred to Cherry Farm Hospital upon Seacliff’s closure in 1973.


The Central Otago Gold Rush in the 1860’s brought about a huge expansion of the Dunedin area of New Zealand. The local asylum at the time became severely overcrowded, and it became clear that another facility was necessary. In 1877, the central government supported plans to build a new farm asylum, and construction began 20 miles north of Dunedin on the eastern coast of the South Island. The dense forest provided a serene location, but the Director of the Geological Survey declared the site to be unsafe to build the asylum. The surrounding hillside was known to be unstable, and concerns were raised over what that would mean to the operation of the asylum. Despite such concerns, the building went ahead, and by 1884, all of the patients from the local asylum were transferred to Seacliff Lunatic Asylum.

The building was designed by Robert Arthur Lawson, and it was modelled on the Scottish baronial style, which Lawson frequently used in his designs. He was also renowned for his range of work in the Gothic Revival style, and he combined both aspects to the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. With turrets and corbles on every corner, large towers and a spire, the building contained four and a half million bricks (made from local clay.) The great central tower was 50 metres in height, and overlooked the hospital as an observation tower, in case patients attempted to riot or escape. The asylum was built initially to accommodate 500 patients and 50 members of staff, and cost £78,000 to construct.

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum

In 1889, Truby King was appointed as Medical Superintendent, and he brought in a ground-breaking treatment plan for his patients. He prescribed fresh air, a balanced diet, exercise and occasional work (such as working in the asylum’s laundry rooms or gardens.) It was King who transformed Seacliff Lunatic Asylum into a productive, working farm, creating additional funding for the institution and occupational therapy for the patients. He also introduced a number of small dormitories, each confined to their own building which were situated opposite the main structure. It is widely believed that this was the beginning of the villa system, which was later adopted by all mental health hospitals in the country. 


Seacliff Lunatic Asylum has a particularly grotesque history of patient treatment, labelled by many as callus and cruel. Patients were often diagnosed with conditions they did not have, such as schizophrenia and were wrongly imprisoned for many years. A famous writer at the time, Janet Frame was held at Seacliff asylum during the 1940s and was quoted in her autobiography on her time in the institution:

“The attitude of those in charge, who unfortunately wrote the reports and influenced the treatment, was that of reprimand andSeacliff Patient punishment, with certain forms of medical treatment being threatened as punishment for failure to ‘co-operate’ and where ‘not co-operate’ might mean a refusal to obey an order, say, to go to the door-less lavatories with six others and urinate in public while suffering verbal abuse by the nurse for being unwilling. ‘Too fussy are we? Well, Miss Educated, you’ll learn a thing or two here.”

Frame escaped the feared lobotomy due to her writing career, but other patients were not so fortunate, and were subjected to not only lobotomies, but to other treatments such as the ‘unsexing’ operation. Fallopian tubes, ovaries and the clitoris were all ripped out, leaving the female patients unable to bear children for the rest of their lives. Electro-Convulsive therapy was also used among the Seacliff patients, and Frame describes how this was also served out as punishment for ‘bad behaviour.’

Patients were reportedly beaten for ‘misbehaving’, which encompassed a range of actions from bed wetting to not waking up on demand. On the contrary to such claims, a nurse who worked at Seacliff during the 1940s claims that Frames’ descriptions were grossly enhanced. Whilst she agreed that many patients confined in Seacliff should not have been, the nurse also reports that those patients who were capable of work would be given duties, or chores, mainly because of the shortage of staff during World War II. Unless the patients were specifically dangerous or violent, they would be given privileges and leisure time, and allowed to partake in such activities as fishing. 

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand was an encyclopedia based on life in New Zealand between 1897 and 1908. Six volumes were published by the Cyclopedia Company Ltd of Christchurch, each one focusing on the people, places and businesses in New Zealand. The articles inside the encyclopedia were predominantly paid for by their subjects, bringing bias into the texts. Despite this, the six volumes are considered as a key historical resource, due to the fact that no other media coverage existed of the smaller towns and institutions.

The six volumes were:

  • Volume 1. Wellington Provincial District. Published 1897
  • Volume 2. Auckland Povincial District. Published 1902
  • Volume 3. Canterbury Provincial District. Published 1903
  • Volume 4. Otago and Southland Provincial Districts. Published 1905
  • Volume 5. Nelson, Marlborough and Westland Provincial Districts. Published 1906
  • Volume 6. Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Wellington Provincial Districts. Published 1908

Volume 4 contains an in-depth description of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum:

The Cyclopedia o f New Zealand

This asylum was established in 1877. As it now exists it is one of the most noteworthy institutions in the Colony. The asylum estate comprises about 1000 acres, and the building commands a noble view of the surrounding country, and is itself visible from the deck of passing steamers. In front there is a large lawn, which is used by patients and attendants for cricket. There is also an enclosed and prettily laid out recreation ground for female patients; there is a summer house provided with seats in the ground; walks are asphalted, and the surrounding fence is hid from view, which at first sight gives an impression of perfect freedom from restraint; a circumstance which at first sight gives an impression of perfect freedom from restraint; a circumstance which must prove beneficial to patients.

The building itself is of brick, with cement facings. It is of a bold design, and is three stories high in front and two behind. Female patients occupy the northern half, and males the southern portion of the building. There is an entrance hall in the centre of the building, with offices off the entrance, to the right. At the end of the hall there is a large reception room for visitors seeing patients, and to the left are the surgery and laboratory, accident ward, etc. On the first floor there are convalescent and refractory wards for each sex, and these are provided with all necessary hospital accommodation, lavatories, cells, etc. The bedrooms are on the second floor. The convalescent ward for men is provided with billiard, sitting and dining rooms, and similar provision is made for the women patients, with the difference that a sewing room takes the place of a billiard room.

Seacliff Asylum floor plan

Immediately over the entrance hall there is the general dining room, with all necessary provision for both patients and attendants; and above it, again, there is the large music hall, which serves as a chapel, and there is a concert hall and ball room, with a gallery, a large stage and the usual appliances. The building is fitted with proper fire escapes and fire alarms, and there is a patent electric tally to denote the rounds of the night watchman, and the times of his visits to the different wards. A very complete system of heating is provided for the whole building. A large fine weather recreation ground, surrounded with a high picket fence, with a shelter shed, is provided for men whose cases are classified as refractory. At the back of the building there are asphalted courts for the use of both sexes during wet weather. Convalescent male patients are permitted to roam through the grounds, on the understanding that they do not leave the precincts of the estate; and this rule has, in its effect, greatly lessened the number of escapes.

Out of a total of 700 patients less than 100 are not at work. The men follow various occupations on the estate, and the women are engaged in washing, sewing, and other light work. Close to the back of the men’s quarters there is a large blue stone building, which provides accommodation for blacksmiths, painters, carpenters, upholsterers, plumbers, bootmakers, tailors, and bookbinders; and the fire brigade appliances and outfit are in the same section of the building. Standing about ten chains backwards from the main building, there is an auxiliary asylum, which has all necessary offices and equipments, and is connected with the main building by means of a covered way. To the north of this auxiliary building, on a prominent and picturesque site, stands the residence of the farm manager. Close to this again is the poultry farm, which carries on an extensive trade in sittings of eggs, and in pullets and cockerels with many persons in Otago, Southland and Canterbury. There is an incubation house with all necessary apparatus and a good fowl run.

The cow byres are in a large wooden building, with concrete floor. In the centre, accommodation is provided for sixty milking cows; on the eastern side there are eight stalls and a loose box for horses; on the west, there are the piggeries and calf pens—all beautifully clean, well aired and well paved. One of the industries connected with the asylum is stone-breaking. For this purpose a ten-horse power steam engine is kept, and it is worked beside the tramway used for the conveyance of firewood to the asylum, which consumes about seven cords per day. There are various small gardens in connection with the asylum, which is never without fresh vegetables. It has an orchard, fruit gardens, nursery, several propagating houses, and a number of glass houses, some of which are devoted to tomato growing.

Seacliff Asylum Garden

There is a promising plantation of 250 walnut trees, eight years old, and walnuts, chestnuts and filberts are growing in other parts of the grounds. The water supply is brought from above Warrington, about three miles distant, along the railway line, and thence up the district road and into the asylum. A small reservoir is also provided on the estate. The laundry, a large handsome red brick building, is situated between the farm manager’s house and the asylum; it is continually working, and a never-ending washing day is carried on. The work is done by female patients, superintended by attendants of their own sex. The residence of the medical superintendent is a large two-storey wooden building, in the grounds of which there are rustic bridges over rivulets, and an artistic summer-house, which was constructed by one of the patients. Since these particulars were first drawn together many improvements have been made in connection with the asylum. They include a cottage for convalescent female patients. It stands a few chains from the main building and contains ten well furnished rooms.

Then there is the Nurses’ Home, a large wooden building of a pretty design; this stands close to the north end of the institution, and was built in 1901. A fourth ward, attached to the north end of the main building, has considerably increased the accommodation for female patients. It is a long wooden building of one storey, and was erected in 1900. A smoke house and fish shop has recently been erected at the back of the asylum, and there is a fully equipped fishing station at Karitane, four miles distant. Simla, situated on the hill, about half a mile from the institution, is one of the most important of the more recent additions. It is a wooden building of one storey, contains seven dormitories, fourteen single rooms, one large dining room, one billiard room, lavatories, bath rooms, and store rooms, and provides accommodation for 100 male patients. Bella Vista, about one mile and a quarter north from Simla, was erected to provide a place of isolation, and has proved of great value in cases of contagion. The farm connected with the institution has been much improved during recent years; new byres have been erected, and the general work of clearing and cultivating has proceeded apace. In May, 1902, electric light was installed throughout the establishment. The power-house for that purpose is situated to the rear of the main building. The first medical superintendent of Seacliff Asylum was Dr. Neill. He was succeeded by Dr. Ratford King, and then came the present superintendent, Dr. Truby King, whose tenure of office dates from early in 1889. Dr. Truby King was first honoursman in his year at Edinburgh University. 

Structural faults

The structural faults began at Seacliff before the first building was even completed. The day rooms received very little sunlight, the windows were too high for the patients to see out of, and maintaining a high level of security became almost impossible. There were 1,273 doors in Seacliff Asylum, and each one had its own individual key, and the foundations were crumbling on the unstable ground beneath.

Seacliff Asylum surrounding land

In 1887 a colossal landslide occurred, resulting in the collapse of one of the temporary buildings. The dismissed concerns expressed by the Director of Geological Survey were accurate, and the structural issues could no longer be ignored. In 1888, an inquiry into the collapse was conceived, forcing architect Robert Lawson to apply for legal counsel and casting a shadow over his illustrious reputation. The inquiry called everyone involved in the build to give evidence, from the head of the Public Works Department, to the contractor, and Lawson was found to be both ‘negligent and incompetent’. Despite the inquiry findings, the institution remained upon for a further 85 years. 

The Fire

Around 9.45pm on 8 December 1942, a fire was spotted by a male attendant in ward 5 (also known as the ‘Simla’ building.) Built from wood, this two storied dormitory was one of Truby Kings additions which consisted of a number of single rooms and a 20-bed ward, holding 39 female patients.

Fire at Seacliff Asylum

It was during Word War II, and there was a shortage of nurses throughout Seacliff. As it was not possible to post a nurse in each ward, the doors and windows were locked to prevent the patients escaping. When the fire broke out, the patients in ward 5 became trapped. Two of these women did not have shutters on their windows and were dragged to safety, but the remaining 37 mentally ill females all perished. The asylum’s fire fighters attempted to extinguish the flames, but the fire was too fierce, and after an hour ward 5 was burned to ashes. The fire fighters contained the flames, preventing them from spreading to the other wooden dormitories close by.

The second inquiry in less than a century took place, investigating how the fire had begun, how it spread and how it claimed the lives of 37 female patients. The commission found:

  • The design and plan of the ward was inadequate dangerous.
  • The only fire alarm in the dormitory was manual. It required a nurse to unlock the cabinet and press the button, and as there were no nurses available on ward 5, it could not be used.
  • The windows were covered with shutters from the outside and were kept locked at night time, providing no fire escape route for the patients.
  • There was no sprinkler system set in place
  • The asylum had too few nurses, which led to the windows and doors being locked.

The commissioners praised the fire fighters on the site, claiming that without their quick actions, the fire would have spread across to the other wards, claiming many more lives. However, the actual cause of the fire was never determined, but the commissioners suspect it began with an electrical short circuit due to shifting foundations.

The fire at Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was known as the worst in New Zealand, until Ballantyne’s fire in Christchurch Central City in 1947. 


The hospital remained open for another 31 years after the fatal fire in 1942. The ground conditions continued to deteriorate, and both staff and patients were gradually moved to the close by, Cherry Farm hospital. Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was eventually closed in 1973, and the land was subdivided, with the land around the original building site becoming the Truby King Recreation Reserve. The last remaining building in the reserve was demolished in 1992, and the dense forest became known as the ‘Enchanted Forest.’

Seacliff asylum demolition

The remaining area of hospital buildings outside the reserve is privately owned. Tours of the hospital grounds began in the summer of 2007, operating in conjunctions with the the Taieri Gorge Railway service. 

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