Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site

22, 36 Russell Road And Coast Road, Seacliff

  • Seacliff. Kitchen Block & Blacksmith's Shop.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: H Bauchop. Date: 1/11/2011.
  • Courtyard of Stable/Blacksmith's Building 2010-2011.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust.
  • Main Entrance and Grounds of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (left) and part of the Female Wing, about 1900 (Archives Reference: DAHI/20271/D266/520d).
    Copyright: Archives New Zealand.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 9050 Date Entered 19th April 2012 Date of Effect 19th April 2012


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Secs 1-3 SO 23214 (RT OT15C/200 and Truby King Recreation Reserve NZ Gazette, 1991, p.1052) Otago Land District, and the buildings, structures and archaeological remains associated with Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site thereon, and their fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Secs 1-3 SO 23214 (RT OT15C/200 and Truby King Recreation Reserve NZ Gazette, 1991, p.1052) Otago Land District

Location description

The site of the former Seacliff Lunatic Asylum is located at Seacliff, approximately 25 kilometres north of Dunedin. The Truby King Recreation Reserve is adjacent to Coast Road. Access is off Russell Road, approximately a kilometre form the intersection with Coast Road.


A pleasant, grassed lawn with remnant stone standing to shoulder height; a hedge shielding the view of a clutter of institutional buildings; a winding walk through a woodland path to stone stairs leading to nowhere - these structures form the remains of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, a site that was once dominated by the vast, 1880s Asylum building and which continues to have a dark place in the public imagination.

Locked in a building so large that there were over 1,000 keys to open the many doors, close to 1,500 patients judged as insane (or who, after 1911, committed themselves for voluntary treatment) lived out their lives until Seacliff’s closure and demolition by the mid-1970s. Many people spent much of their lives in the locked wards in this corridor asylum built in accordance with the international trend toward the construction of vast institutions that characterised Victorian care of the mentally ill.

Built in the Scottish Baronial style to the design by prominent Dunedin architect Robert Arthur Lawson, the former Seacliff Asylum was notorious for its size, the threat and unfortunate structural history. Built on unstable ground, the long main block began to fail almost as soon as it was completed. The largest architectural commission in the country at the time of its construction, the failure was a public humiliation for Lawson who fled to Melbourne following a commission of inquiry which found him negligent. The building was plagued with problems throughout its life. Further notoriety resulted from the fire in a ward block in 1942 in which 37 female patients died in the locked building.

Despite the best attempts of prominent physician and health campaigner Sir Frederic Truby King, superintendent for over 30 years, to introduce healthy diets, fresh air and villa-style wards, the asylum architecture restricted the kind of care that could be provided. The experience of those treated within the asylum is vividly portrayed by writers such as Janet Frame, whose life story and work has kept Seacliff alive in the public imagination. The asylum’s uncompromising architecture and changing attitudes to mental health ultimately led to the abandonment of such institutions in favour of community care in the late twentieth century.

Seacliff Asylum Site is made up of the cluster of service buildings which survived the demolition of the main buildings. The buildings include the morgue, two isolation cells, the kitchen and laundry block as well as the blacksmith’s shop. The landscaped grounds and lawns (including the remains of the medical superintendent’s house) form what is now the Truby King Recreation Reserve.

In 2011 the remaining buildings are in private ownership, while the grounds of the asylum form the Truby King Recreation Reserve, commemorating the history of Seacliff Asylum Site.

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site has special significance as a place which recalls the history of the mental health care in New Zealand and the structures associated with the Victorian asylum architecture. Even in the absence of the vast buildings, the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site evokes the tragic history of the place and is a reminder of the cost of transgressing the boundary between sanity and madness, and the thousands of lives touched or ruined by institutionalisation. The remaining outbuildings are important, representative and now rare remaining examples of the buildings constructed to support the operation of lunatic asylums. Together with the archaeological remains of the site, and of the extant garden, Seacliff reflects the cultural and medical practices in the treatment of mental illness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site has outstanding historic significance. The Site draws together the strands of social and medical history and the treatment of those judged to be mentally ill. The history of the place represents the changing history of medical practice and also the experiences of those who lived out their lives in the institution, or who were only briefly incarcerated. The associated records, still accessible to researchers provide an important body of historical material which adds to the importance to New Zealand’s history, and has formed the basis for published work which centres on the history of insanity as shown through the Seacliff site.

The history of the buildings themselves, through their design and construction, and the subsequent failure and on-going difficulties with structural instability was significant historical moment and one which added to Seacliff’s notoriety. The notoriety compounded with the Seacliff fire, where 37 women died in a locked ward. The history of Seacliff in New Zealand literature via the writings of Janet Frame is also of great significance.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site, with its remnant buildings, archaeological remains, and the woodland grounds, has special aesthetic significance. The Site allows the visitor to create an imagined past recalling the disturbing history of the place while walking through the relict landscape - alongside the foundations of the vast asylum and the pathways through sanity and insanity. The outstanding power of the place is in its absence but in its ability to evoke the history of the Seacliff Asylum, and all the forgotten inmates.

Archaeological Significance or Value:

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site, a vast and complicated series of structures occupying the site from the 1870s through to the 1970s has potential to reveal information through archaeological methods and as such has archaeological significance.

Architectural Significance or Value:

While only a few structures reflecting the institutional architecture of Seacliff remain, they provide an indication of the architectural scale of Seacliff. The remaining outbuildings are important, representative and now rare remaining examples of the buildings constructed to support the operation of lunatic asylums, including the Morgue, Kitchen, Laundry, Garage, Blacksmith’s, Administration Block, Boiler House, and Isolation Cells. The architectural history of the site, the largest commission in New Zealand at its time of construction, is of outstanding importance in the history of New Zealand architecture. The building’s spectacular failure was (and remains) notorious in New Zealand’s architectural history.

Cultural Significance or Value:

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site represents the cultural and medical practices in the treatment of mental illness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The creation of the asylum represented the culture first of the moral management of insanity, medicalization of mental illness, and the development of community care philosophies which ultimately led to the closure of Seacliff. Seacliff represents the culture of incarceration and seclusion of those judged to be mentally ill or arguably to have deviated from social norms.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

Seacliff Asylum Site represents the history of the development of mental health care in nineteenth century New Zealand. This history reflects the international trends in the care and treatment of those judged ‘insane’ which saw the construction of vast and imposing buildings which epitomised Victorian asylums. Within New Zealand Seacliff was one of a network of provincial asylums built in the later part of the nineteenth century which provided residential ‘care’ for inmates until their closure in the later twentieth century as community care replaced incarceration.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site is associated with a number of individuals who have importance in New Zealand’s history. Architect Robert Arthur Lawson is one of the most significant architects of the nineteenth century in Dunedin and his role in designing the Seacliff Asylum and its structural failure was a major architectural scandal and gained huge public attention.

The Director of the Asylum from the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century was Frederic Truby King who played a pivotal role in New Zealand’s medical history, both in the care and treatment of those with mental illness, and as founder of the Plunket Society.

The portrayal of life in the asylum by writer Janet Frame has become a cultural icon in New Zealand’s literature and her association with Seacliff is of special significance and can also be seen to represent many of those who could not express with such insight and clarity their experiences behind the locked doors of a mental hospital.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site has a strong community association. The grounds are set aside as a public reserve recalling the significance of the place, managed by a committee from the local community. The Seacliff Asylum was a significant place as the biggest employer in this area of Otago, and a key place of bicultural relationships between those whose whanau worked at Seacliff.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site already provides for some public education. The Truby King Reserve has interpretation about the history of the Asylum which provides insight into the archaeological remnant structures within the reserve.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site has special symbolic and commemorative value. The remnant buildings and landscape commemorate the history of the place and as a whole the Site symbolises the experiences of those who lived out their lives in the asylum and who have no other voice than the place itself.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

Seacliff Asylum Site is an historical and cultural landscape in its own right, as well as contributing to the associated historic landscape of the Seacliff settlement. The Site is made up of the remnant buildings, the archaeological remains of the structures which were demolished, the landscapes and plantings associated with the Asylum.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e, f, h and k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site recalls the notorious and tragic history of this place which operated for nearly 100 years. It occupies a dark place in the public imagination through its spectacular structural failure which ruined the career of one of Otago’s most well-known architects, and its association with prominent doctor and superintendent Frederic Truby King. Its position as a symbol of the threat of insanity and committal was further entrenched through the literary works of Janet Frame. The Site, even without its vast buildings, recalls this poignant history. The remaining outbuildings are important, representative and now rare remaining examples of the buildings constructed to support the operation of lunatic asylums. Together with the archaeological remains of the site, and of the extant garden, Seacliff reflects the cultural and medical practices in the treatment of mental illness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Lawson, Robert Arthur

Born in Scotland, Lawson (1833-1902) began his professional career in Perth. At the age of 25 he moved to Melbourne and was engaged in goldmining and journalism before resuming architectural practice. In 1862 Lawson sailed for Dunedin, where his sketch plans had won the competition for the design of First Church. This was built 1867-73. Lawson went on to become one of the most important architects in New Zealand. First Church is regarded as his masterpiece and one of the finest nineteenth century churches in New Zealand.

He was also responsible for the design of the Trinity Church (now Fortune Theatre), Dunedin (1869-70), the East Taieri Presbyterian Church (1870), and Knox Church, Dunedin (1874). He designed Park's School (1864) and the ANZ Bank (originally Union Bank, 1874). In Oamaru he designed the Bank of Otago (later National Bank building, 1870) and the adjoining Bank of New South Wales (now Forrester Gallery, 1881).

See also: Ledgerwood, Norman, 2013. 'R.A. Lawson: Victorian Architect of Dunedin'. Historic Cemeteries Conservation NZ.

Gore, James

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Lunacy in New Zealand:

Seacliff Asylum, built in the early 1880s and largely demolished in the early 1970s, towered over those incarcerated within and in the imagination of the ‘sane’, a symbol of control and a warning against transgression from ‘normality’ for nearly 100 years. In the nineteenth century a science grew up around ‘insanity’ with ‘control, care and cure’ at the centre of mental health policy. Sociologist Andrew Scull writes that the architecture (and landscape) of insanity of the nineteenth century housed a ‘particular and peculiar set of cultural assumptions about madness’ and continue to leave an imprint on the psyche of our society. Seacliff is such an imprint, many of the buildings removed, but the impression remaining in the mental and physical landscapes.

The ‘statutory foundations and organisational framework’ used to establish a mental health system in New Zealand had English roots. ‘Te taha hinengaro’, Maori notions of mental health, did not feature in public health policy until late in the twentieth century. Historian and policy analyst Warwick Brunton identifies three ‘foundational policies’ of nineteenth century mental health treatment: institutional care, state provision of care for the mentally ill, and ‘functional and administrative separatism of a social problem distinct from illness, crime or poverty.’

The colony’s first mental health legislation was the Lunatics Ordinance 1846 which allowed for the holding of a ‘lunatic’ (a person who had been legally certified as insane) to a gaol, house of correction or public hospital until they were discharged or sent to an asylum. Mentally ill behaviour was seen as a law and order problem, an upset of public peace, and dealt with accordingly.

Following English practice, a chain of public lunatic asylums was established. Wellington was the first to build an asylum: the Karori Lunatic Asylum opened in 1854. The colonial setting, however, created its own dynamic of madness and committal in asylums, as demonstrated by Catharine Coleborne in her writings on madness in Australia and New Zealand in the Victorian era. Poverty, ‘colonial dislocation and family separation’ set up different patterns in the colonies compared with European jurisdictions.

By the early 1860s policy favoured a network of provincial asylums, with the central government holding legislative responsibility. Brunton writes asylums remained the ‘cornerstone of psychiatric care and treatment’ throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. The new institutions were built in rural areas, capturing what ‘the therapeutic value of rustic charm’, but also representing ‘a retreat before suburban encroachment and negative public opinion’ which saw mental illness as synonymous with ‘violence, failure and unpredictability.’ The idea of ‘moral management’ was central to treatment - a programme of manual work, church services and recreational programmes. Medical treatment would come to the forefront after a parliamentary inquiry in the early 1870s recommended that a medical officer should control and supervise all lunatic asylums. Insanity became more secluded and aberrant behaviour concealed, as reflected in the relocation of urban asylums - Dunedin Lunatic Asylum to Seacliff (1878) and Mount View (Wellington) to Porirua (1887), a ‘healthy’ distance from the population they were to serve, warn or protect.

Medical historian Edward Shorter writes that asylums started with good intentions but circumstance meant that good intentions were ‘relentlessly and repeatedly disappointed’ and asylums became ‘vast warehouses for the chronically insane and demented.’ In the minds of those with the precarious ‘normal’ label, the threat of insanity loomed in the form of the asylum building; each province had its own dark fear - be it incarceration in Sunnyside, Whau, Porirua, or Seacliff. Asylums were associated with ‘stereotypes of violence, detention and fear, closed institutions governed by strict rules, places of concealment.’

The first Dunedin Lunatic Asylum:

The Dunedin Lunatic Asylum opened on its central site in January 1863. The Asylum was seen as temporary until a permanent site was found. Almost immediately it was too small (leading to overcrowding), insecure (leading to escapes) and too public (nosy passers-by).

James Hume (who was to play a significant role in establishing the Seacliff Asylum) was lay keeper. Glasgow born Hume (1823-1896), who had worked in asylums in Scotland, arrived in Dunedin in 1863. In line with the idea of moral management, he believed work and diet were important to mental health, though overcrowding and the real inability to treat medical conditions limited his effectiveness. Committals grew with the development of other institutions: hospitals and charitable institutions were ready to commit elderly people they viewed as eccentric; compulsory education revealed ‘intellectual disability and multiple handicaps in children’, and the justice system brought ‘deviant’ behaviour to the public eye. The majority of those institutionalised were judged incurable until the mid-twentieth century when medical treatments and psychopharmacology advanced sufficiently to treat some previously untreatable disorders.

The Choice of Seacliff:

The coastal area to the north of Dunedin, around what is now known as Waikouaiti and Karitane, was a resource rich area for iwi, an area with strategic views from the cliff tops up and down the coast. In the nineteenth century the centre of the takiwa was at Puketeraki, along the coast from what would later become known as Seacliff. There were scattered small camps of people associated with Huriawa and Puketeraki for collecting shellfish, eels, and other sites at places like Te Awakoeo (Brinns Point - as the Seacliff area was first known by European settlers on the 1850s). A trail existed along the cliff top from what is now Evansdale, to Puketeraki. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand records that the area where the Seacliff Asylum was located was known as Turau Aruhe, and the Seacliff Creek was Waikoko. The bush at Seacliff was known as Potaerua. The area between Te Awakoeo and Puketeraki was set as a native reserve in the late 1840s as part of the 20,000,000 acre Kemp purchase. The reserve, surveyed again in the 1880s, before it was largely subdivided, shows its position immediately adjacent to the site set apart for an Asylum.

A Crown grant was issued for a ‘Lunatic Asylum and Industrial School’ in July 1876. In 1878 Hume sent suitable patients and attendants to work clearing the bush, putting up temporary buildings and establishing a farm. Tenders were advertised for clearing the site in August 1878, with the tenders for temporary buildings (designed by R.A. Lawson, of whom more will be heard) advertised in October 1878. The completion of the main trunk railway line from Dunedin to Hawkesbury (Waikouaiti) in May 1878, allowed building materials to be carried by rail.

The site at Seacliff was nearly 1000 fertile acres, an important consideration for a farm asylum. There were intentions to shift other institutions to this site, including the Industrial School and the Benevolent Asylum (though this never eventuated). Contractor William Mill erected the farm buildings, which were to accommodate 60-80 working patients. By March 1879 the buildings were nearly complete. The Otago Daily Times described the first facilities:

‘The main building and the two wings, which will enclose a court-yard with verandahs, are 132 x 90 feet [40 by 27 metres]. The foundations are of concrete, and the superstructures of sawn timber, roofed with iron. Underneath each wing there is a fine concrete cellar, 42 x 22 feet [12 by 6 metres]. The central portion of the main building is two storeys in height. A quantity of brick has just been made upon the ground, and is ready for the kiln. Patients are now engaged in cutting roads and clearing ground for the Asylum, but the precise spot for the building has not yet been selected, nor has it been determined of what material it will be constructed. There is, we believe, an abundance of bluestone upon the land, and there will be the choice between it and brick and concrete.’

The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum opened in 1879.

Asylum Architecture - Seacliff’s permanent buildings:

The contract for the permanent buildings was tendered in July 1879. Architect Robert Arthur Lawson was commissioned to design the building and was paid the largest commission up to that date in the colony. The Asylum was designed in Scottish Baronial style, Lawson’s own Scottish background influencing his architectural practice. Lawson later explained why he chose this style:

‘for a large building of this kind, I thought it extremely suitable, and because of the fact that it can be erected in plainest possible manner, and yet has a boldness suited to its purpose in every respect. I think from end to end of the building there are few mouldings of any kind, and only a touch here and there of anything like ornament introduced; the grouping of the parts of the building and its distinctive style, rather than any other attempt at ornament, conducing its whole effect...’

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was the largest building in the colony on its completion: 750 feet long (228 metres) and 228 feet (70 metres) at its broadest point (and this being only a portion of the original design, the site precluding the over 314 metre long building first proposed). The contractor was James Gore (1835-1917). Liverpool-born Gore, who had come to Dunedin in 1861, was mayor of Dunedin 1881-1882, and went on to be a Member of Parliament 1884-1887. Ancillary buildings were also built, such as the bluestone Stable and Blacksmith Shop (later used as a general workshop), and the Morgue, both thought to date from the late 1880s or early 1890s.

Psychologist Peter Barham describes the main features of nineteenth century asylums, all of which apply to Seacliff. He writes that these institutions were:

‘the centrepieces of the Victorian asylum landscape: hierarchical, enclosed, largely self-sufficient communities of mental patients, on whose labour the asylum very largely depended...presided over by a medical superintendent who lived in commodious style, in a large house with open fires, with patient labour to fetch and carry coal for him.’

Asylums were seen as a ‘guarantor of the social order’ as well as ‘an important symbolic reminder of the awful consequences of nonconformity.’ The Seacliff site, with its remnant buildings and relict landscape strongly recall the stark history of the place. It is hard to conceptualise the scale of the building, and harder to imagine the effect on patients as they approached the asylum from the diminutive Seacliff Railway Station. Odd details indicate size and scale: there were, as one historian notes, 1,273 doors with ‘such a diversity of keys that they were an embarrassment to the staff.’

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was an imposing building, emphasising incarceration, the architecture imposing a rational order on madness. Deputy Inspector Bradshaw wrote in 1884 that Seacliff resembled ‘...a prison for the confinement of evil doers [rather] than a place for the care and treatment of the insane….’ Art historian Jonathan Howard writes that institutional architecture adopted a ‘defensive façade to provoke fear of incarceration’, and that at Seacliff, the elevated site accentuated the defensive qualities of the design, symbolising hierarchy and authority, with sublime effect. Doctor McGregor, Inspector of Mental Hospitals, found Seacliff ‘forbidding’, ‘dreary and depressing.’

Unstable subsoil led to structural problems even before the building was completed. In 1887 a slip left the north wing uninhabitable; major controversy followed, which attracted national attention and resulted in a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

In March 1888 the report of the Royal Commission on the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum was released. The authors were critical and held Lawson and the contractor responsible. Lawson contested the findings but the damage to his career was done. Disgraced, he moved to Melbourne in 1890. When the dust had settled (but the Seacliff buildings still had not) he returned to Dunedin in 1900, dying suddenly at Pleasant Point in 1902. Historiography has swung back and forth about attributing blame. Later historians have been more sympathetic to Lawson’s plight.

Historian Michael King in his biography of Janet Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, writes that the problems associated with the hospital, put down to poor engineering were given a different explanation by Otago Maori. King writes that they believed that ‘the authorities had courted physical and psychic disaster by building the hospital over a tribal burial ground’ - the structural collapses, fire and ‘general air of terror said to prevail in wards holding the most disturbed patients were all consequences of a failure to respect the ethos and the tapu of the location.’

Frederic Truby King’s Seacliff (Superintendant 1889-1923):

In 1882 the government decided that all public asylums had to be superintended by doctors and Hume had to leave his post, and the new appointee was a medical doctor.

In 1889 Frederic Truby King was appointed medical superintendant of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. Truby King lived in the main building until a residence was completed in 1892. Born in Taranaki he was trained in medicine at Edinburgh University before returning to New Zealand in 1887. Truby King’s involvement was hands on: he designed buildings, trained attendants, improved sanitation and treated inmates. He promoted fresh air, exercise and a good diet as treatments for mental illness (and other social ills). He developed separate facilities for inmates with different classes of illness, including villas for convalescents erected out of sight from the main block. Truby King was fighting against the built environment at Seacliff, from the poor construction, with the gases from the cracking pipes permeating the atmosphere, and the intimidating building, believing ‘the great enemy’ was ‘that institutional feeling.’ Truby King struggled against the massive corridor asylum, painting halls and rooms and putting art on the walls and flowers in the wards (though one rather imagines it was like a flea trying to paint an elephant).

Truby King saw the grounds as part of the therapeutic environment, appointing a landscape gardener as a matter of importance (gardening would remain an obsession for the rest of his life) believing that fresh air and exercise was vital. The drive curved through the gardens rather than approaching the intimidating buildings directly, with the initial assessment of patients completed in an entry lodge.

His daughter Mary’s biography of her father describes the Seacliff grounds as ‘a veritable dream garden’, ‘patients wandered through small woodlands of native trees, up and down narrow, undulating paths bordered by flowering shrubs, with unexpected vistas of aquilegia beds, rhododendron dells, rose gardens, pine walks...and orchards.’ Lawns were used for more formal recreation. The grounds included a ha ha, meandering paths and curved edges with extensive plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers.

While King improved the environment of Seacliff, some of the treatments are brutal to modern eyes and reflect contemporary beliefs about the basis of insanity, and also cultural norms of appropriate behaviour. The experience of most institutions, whatever the underlying good intentions was the ‘victory of custodial realities over rehabilitative good intentions.’ The locked door and the need to control the keys won. ‘Loose scattered madness’ was brought ‘under observation in vast warehouses of seemingly intractable lunatics’, and the role of social control, issues of class, gender and poverty are all intricately defined in the categorisation as ‘insane.’ The experiences of Annemarie Anon, outlined in The Book of New Zealand Women, provide a representative insight into the treatment practiced in the late nineteenth century. Originally a patient at Ashburn Hall, subject to periods of both excitement (which included masturbation) and withdrawal, Annemarie was committed to Seacliff when she ‘lapsed into profound melancholy.’ Annemarie’s family consulted their doctor who suggested that some improvement might follow if she were ’unsexed.’ In July 1890, Dr Ferdinand Batchelor, assisted by three other doctors, including Truby King, removed Annemarie’s fallopian tubes, ovaries and clitoris. She was discharged six months after the operation, apparently improved. There is no further information on the life she was able to live.

Women’s experiences in the asylum were different from that of the male patients. The therapeutic value of work saw the men in healthy outdoor pursuits, such as farming and gardening, which were not seen as appropriate for women. The women were largely confined to inside work, cleaning, laundry and kitchen work, a reflection of their limited role outside the home. Women’s behaviour was often seen as worse because they couldn’t participate in outside work.

Asylum to Hospital - the early twentieth century:

Seacliff was central to medical education, its staff being, from 1889 to 1948, almost the sole resources for teaching psychiatry at the University of Otago, and it was amongst the first of the psychiatric hospitals to start outpatient clinics at public hospitals. Seacliff developed with medical thinking.

In 1905 the term ‘mental hospital’ was officially adopted, replacing the outmoded ‘lunatic asylum.’ These hospitals, Brunton writes, came to ‘incorporate ‘reception homes’ and other residential facilities for early treatment’. A major change in the legal context of mental hospitals was the change of law which allowed voluntary admission. Prior to 1911 people came to the hospital only through a legal process: committal. In 1911 the law changed and enabled people to come informally, as voluntary boarders.

Villa-style accommodation, aspiring to a more domestic scale of accommodation, was a feature of mental hospitals built from the early twentieth century on. Community amenities, such as sports fields and halls were often added. Mental hospitals became identified with the medical specialty of psychiatry. Despite these changes the design of Victorian-era institutions limited their ability to adapt with changing treatment philosophies. There had been local experiments with cottages at Seacliff in the late 1890s. Truby King supported the idea of a series of detached buildings rather than large blocks, and this lead to the construction of separate more intimate buildings for inmates. The scale and environments were not well suited to the growing philosophy of the 1920s, such as the villa-system of accommodation. Nor were they designed to incorporate the move towards ‘intermediate facilities’ (such as the establishment of outpatient services) which would avoid the stigma of a stay in a mental hospital.

Truby King maintained an active role at Seacliff until the early 1920s when he was appointed Director of Child Welfare, and in 1924 Acting Inspector-General of Mental Defectives. He died at his home in Wellington in February 1938, after a long and influential career in medicine.

The experience of those incarcerated in the nineteenth century asylums has been one that has lived in the public imagination. Together with the site itself, the records of asylums like Seacliff are a vital part of its history. In the case of Seacliff the medical case books (from 1868-1916) provide a largely untapped source, a heart-breaking medical picture of lost lives.

While the mass of patients and their experiences have remained voiceless some of the inmates at Seacliff gained a national notoriety. Edward Lionel Terry was one. He came to public attention when he murdered Joe Kum Yung, an elderly Chinese man. Terry believed in racial segregation and his obsession drove him to kill. He was tried for the murder and sentenced to death, the sentence later being commuted to life imprisonment by reason of insanity. From 1914 he resided at Seacliff where he was given a suite of rooms, where he wrote poetry and painted. Terry’s privileges were later withdrawn and he spent the last twelve years of his life in solitary confinement. He died at Seacliff in August 1952.

The reaction to those respectably ill individuals being sent to Seacliff shows the wider stigma of mental illness. In 1917 Clifton House was built to house soldiers suffering from ‘shell shock’, what would probably be recognised now as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after serving during World War One. There was considerable disquiet about the accommodation of soldiers in an asylum and the stigma attached to the stay. The treatment of soldiers, which saw their illness treated through a range of talking cures, saw psychoanalysis and other allied therapies gaining a valid place in the psychiatric repertoire. Ultimately soldiers were treated at a specialist facility developed at St Mary’s Hospital at Hanmer, away from those tainted with insanity.

Seacliff’s significance went beyond the bounds of its walls, and it was a central element in this area of coastal Otago. Seacliff was the main employer for the Blueskin Bay area. Many attendants lived in the Seacliff/Warrington area. Seacliff was an important point of bicultural contact between Maori and Pakeha - whanau from Karitane and Pakeha both worked at Seacliff. These relationships have created lasting links with iwi at Puketeraki, recalling the major role Seacliff Hospital played in the community.

From the mid-1920s onward there was slow movement within the health system where some hospital boards allowed mental hospital staff to run outpatient clinics. This allowed for people to be treated without the label of committal or voluntary admission to a mental hospital. This would lead, in the late twentieth century, to a policy of deinstitutionalisation that would see the closure of the many of the large Victorian institutions.

In 1942 a tragic fire, the worst in New Zealand’s history to that date, broke out in Ward 5 at Seacliff, the horror amplified by the deaths in a locked ward. The fire swept through the ward, killing 37 female patients. Most of the windows were locked and could only be opened by a key from inside. The 39 women inmates of Ward 5 were either locked in single rooms, or in the 20-bed dormitory. Only two women escaped. The tragedy led to a commission of inquiry. Though the cause of the fire was never identified, the timber construction of Ward 5 was condemned. The locked windows and lack of fire protection was criticised. The commission recommended the installation of sprinklers in all mental hospitals.

The complex of buildings that made up the Seacliff Mental Hospital continued to develop and change through the 1920s to the 1960s. In the 1930s a new kitchen, laundry and stores block was built. Temporary buildings were shifted to Seacliff in the 1940s designed to be adjusted when the ground moved. Contractors started to demolish unsafe parts of the main building, including the tower, in 1945. Michael King writes that for those who ‘hated and feared the institution, the dismantling of Seaciff was analogous to the removal of a cancerous growth from the Otago landscape and the body politic.’

‘Therapeutic Communities’: Deinstitutionalisation:

In 1945 nearby Cherry Farm was chosen as the site for a new mental hospital, billed as a ‘therapeutic community’, the first of its kind in New Zealand. The change in the treatment for mental illness in the mid-twentieth century was profound: the introduction of insulin therapy, convulsive therapy, and the discovery of new drug treatments medicalised mental illness. Seen as enormous therapeutic advances, some of the new treatments also added a further layer of horror in the public mind. Electroconvulsive therapy and prefrontal leucotomy (lobotomy) in particular feature highly in the image of mental illness. It was originally thought that Seacliff could continue to house the more disturbed patients, but the buildings were becoming unsafe. Seacliff ceased taking admissions in 1964.

Popular portrayals in film, fiction and autobiography, such as Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water (1961), were accurate insights of institutionalisation in the 1940s and 1950s. Frame spent time both as a committed and a voluntary patient at Seacliff and Auckland’s Avondale Hospital in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Descriptions of treatments used at the hospital appear at Faces in the Water, while the gardens are described in An Angel at my Table. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, she was treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and insulin therapy. In her autobiography she claimed that winning the Hubert Church Memorial Award for The lagoon in 1952 persuaded the superintendent at Seacliff to forbid a prefrontal lobotomy. Her writing provides graphic insight into life behind the closed doors of Seacliff.

From the 1950s on there was further questioning of the institutional model of psychiatric care, a tension between the idea of the romantic idea of early asylums (with their farms and grounds and healthy work) and the reality of overcrowded, understaffed hospitals with the inmates little more than prisoners. Increasingly the idea of community care replaced institutionalisation, leading to the close of the institutions such as Seacliff.

Closure was a slow process. In 1959 the central block main building was demolished, the demolition programme taking eighteen months. Despite all the instability and cracking, the buildings proved difficult to dismantle, even resulting in a traction engine pulling itself in half, rather than destroying the building.

In 1963 the centenary of the establishment of the first asylum in Dunedin was celebrated at Seacliff. The celebrations included screening a film showing the demolition of the main building. There were 1,365 patients at Seacliff in 1965, an all-time high.

In 1970 [Seacliff ceased operating as a mental hospital], the reservation as a lunatic asylum and industrial school site was revoked in March 1974. Control of the land reverted to the Department of Lands and Survey.

The Deputy Director-General of Health (and former superintendent of Seacliff), Dr Blake-Palmer, indicated there was concern about the heritage buildings on the site and that buildings such as the blacksmith’s shop should be preserved. The Commissioner of Crown Lands was reluctant, indicating that the building was ‘a very small part of a very large building (37m2 of 371m2), which had housed the old carpentry, plumbing and metal training areas. He recognised the heritage of Seacliff, noting that the trees and the medical superintendent’s house were worth retaining, perhaps as a historic reserve, but also that for some people, Seacliff was a place of ‘many unhappy memories’ which ‘should be forgotten as soon as possible.’

In 1974 the Seacliff site was leased by the Dunedin Museum of Transport and Technology Inc. By 1991 the Museum had closed. A site plan from that time indicates there were fifteen structures remaining – including the Boiler House, Laundry Building, Garage, Forge Building, Morgue and Administration building.

In 1991 the Department of Conservation (which had succeeded the Department of Lands and Survey as manager of the site) divested its responsibility for the reserve to the Dunedin City Council. In 1992 the last building within the bounds of the reserve, Clifton House, was demolished. The demolition of Seacliff was part of an international trend. Psychologist Peter Barham writes that ‘today we are inclined to view with ambivalence, if not disdain, expressions of aesthetic rapture over the spectacle of these magnificent estates in Victorian lunacy…preferring to regard them as the grandiose creations.’ This disaffection and changing focus of mental health policy led, like at Seacliff, to the demolition of most asylum buildings. The site still retains an aura, a sense of the forbidding past, where a visitor can imagine the experience of staff and patients, knowing that they can leave for the safety of their own minds.

In 1993 the Waikouaiti Coast Community Board asked the Seacliff Advisory Committee to manage the Truby King Recreation Reserve. The adjoining site, where the surviving hospital buildings were located was sold in 1996.

In 1998 the Dunedin City Council prepared a management plan for the Reserve which noted its historic values, the elements associated with the site’s original use as a hospital, including the tennis court, tracks and pathways, recognising that the story of the Seacliff Hospital its staff and patients was ‘an important part of the history of the Reserve’, and that it was of ‘high historic importance at a local, community city wide and national level’ because of Seacliff Hospital, the work of Truby King, the 1942 fire and Janet Frame’s stay at the hospital. The plan also states that the historical significance of the reserve is inadequately recognised. Much of the lower slopes of the reserve are covered by a woodland known as the ‘Enchanted Forest’, described as a historical and cultural landscape. It is managed as a ‘wild garden’ and park that ‘commemorates Sir Frederic [sic] Truby King and patients and staff at Seacliff Mental Hospital.’

In 2011 the remaining buildings are in private ownership and the reserve remains as a memorial to the history of the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site.

Physical Description

Construction Professionals:

Architect: Robert Arthur Lawson

Contractor: James Gore


The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site is located in Seacliff, a small rural settlement on the coast north of Dunedin. The area is notable for its spectacular situation, above cliffs overlooking the ocean with views up and down the coast.

The former Asylum Site is at the edge of what is now Seacliff Village. The Site is divided into two sections, the land in private ownership (on which the remaining buildings stand), and the reserve land on which some buildings stood previously (including the medical superintendent’s house) and was landscaped as an area for walking. The reserve has flat grassed areas and the tennis courts (from the Asylum), and remnant building remains from the asylum. The reserve is a wild landscape, a remnant of the therapeutic landscape developed for the asylum by superintendant Fredric Truby King. The garden setting was an integral part of the Asylum and King’s interest in such landscapes was part of other institutional landscapes he developed including for the Karitane Hospital in Melrose in Wellington (part of the Truby King Historic Area, Record No.7040)

The remaining buildings are located in a cluster on the section in private ownership. The Morgue is located close to Russell Road alongside the entrance drive. The Kitchen Block, Laundry and Motor Garage are located on one side of the drive, while the Blacksmith’s Shop, Administration Block (now a residence), Boiler House and Isolation Cells are located on the other. The grounds have some mature trees and hedges and open grassed areas. The foundations of the other buildings which used to stand on this site are evident beneath the grass.

The Grounds and Archaeological Remains of Built Structures:

This site has not had an archaeological survey but it is clear that there is considerable archaeological evidence relating to the asylum period on both the recreation reserve and the private land. The remains include the footprint of the many Seacliff Asylum Buildings (including the main block) as well as ancillary structures, the ruins of the Medical Superintendent’s House and associated structures (located within the recreation reserve), and the remnant structures, roads and pathways associated with the layout of the Asylum grounds, which formed an integral part of the institutional environment. Sections of the main block have been preserved and interpreted and provide an indication of the massive scale of the complex.

The Buildings:

The Morgue:

The Morgue is a small single storey building, rectangular in plan. It is located close to Russell Road, which runs along the southern boundary of the Seacliff Site. It is heavily overgrown with wilding trees. Entrance is through a single door in the north gable end elevation. There is a round vent on the gable end of the north elevation. Construction details would seem to indicate a pre-1900 date of construction. The interior is matchlined with tongue and groove timber. The Morgue interior is divided into two rooms.

The Morgue is a significant building in its own right as morgues were an integral part of early hospital complexes. In the nineteenth century, morgues, ‘deadhouses’ or ‘mortuaries’ were typically housed in a building separate from the main hospital building. Lunatic Asylums were self-sufficient environments and morgues were among the service buildings constructed. Porirua Lunatic Asylum (Category I historic place; Register no. 7444), the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum (now demolished) and the Hokitika Lunatic Asylum (Seaview) both had their own morgues. The morgue at Porirua has been demolished. Information on the Hokitika morgue has not been located. A small brick building that appears to have been built as a M.E.D. substation in circa 1918 and was for a time converted for use as the mortuary for Sunnyside hospital and is still extant. It is not known how many hospital morgues survive. The earliest hospital morgue on the NZHPT Register was built in association with the Colonial Hospital in New Plymouth (Category I historic place; Register no. 29). Completed in 1848 and designed by the first Colonial Architect Frederick Thatcher, this morgue was part of one of four colonial hospitals built on the orders of Governor Sir George Grey [1812-1898], to provide medical care for Maori and Pakeha. The Colonial Hospital in New Plymouth is the only one of the four left standing. The morgue is a located a short distance away from the main hospital. It is a small, wooden building with a pitched roof. A separate morgue or dead house was built for the Hawke's Bay Provincial Hospital (Former) (Category II historic place; Register no. 2797) in 1859. While a small outbuilding exists on the site, it is unclear whether this was the morgue. The Pelichet Bay Infectious Diseases Hospital (Category I historic place; Register no. 9575) in Dunedin, was built in 1908 to care for patients with serious communicable illnesses. The original morgue remains standing a short distance to the north of the hospital. It is a small wooden structure with a pitched iron roof. Wellington’s Fever Hospital (Category II historic place; Register no. 5376) has outbuildings that appear to include an original mortuary. The Costley Home for the Aged Poor (1889-90) at Green Lane Hospital (Category I historic place; Register no. 4536) included a morgue within the main hospital building. A morgue associated with the former Riverton Hospital is also extant. Other buildings were sometimes used temporarily as morgues (such as the Provincial Buildings Fire Engine House (Former) in Nelson, (Category I historic place; Register no. 257). Cemeteries often included morgues, with early examples remainingat Dunedin’s Southern Cemetery (Category I historic place; Register no. 7657) and at Heads Road Cemetery in Whanganui (Category I historic place; Register no. 7700).

The Kitchen Block:

The Kitchen Block is a large two storey structure, U-shaped in plan. It is constructed of concrete, has steel framed windows and is likely to have cement (possibly asbestos) sheeting on the roof. The glazing reaches the full height of the building. The ground floor has the remains of the hospital bakery ovens and reflects the institutional scale of production. Part of the first floor which probably housed a sewing workshop is partitioned to provide office space. There are skylights in the central double height space. The space is largely unused except for storage.

The Laundry Block:

The Laundry Block is single storey at one end, and two storeys at the other end. It is built from concrete and has a main gable with a hipped roof transected by a pair of parallel gables (basically forming a rectangle in plan). In common with the Kitchen Block, the windows are multi-paned and the roof may be cement sheeting (possibly asbestos). It is used for storage.

The Motor Garage:

This is a lightly constructed structure with a timber frame and corrugated iron cladding and cement sheet cladding. It is used for storage.

The Isolation Cells:

The Isolation Cells are located on the northern boundary of the Seacliff Asylum Site. They stand as a reminder of the experience of patients of Seacliff and are a graphic symbol of the position of those now forgotten who were confined within these walls. These are a pair of freestanding timber cells, the remains of a larger grouping. They rest on a concrete foundation. There are two cells - each with a heavy wooden door and closed in window with a grilled vent. The entrance is protected by a wide curved eave. The skillion roof is clad in corrugated iron.

The Boiler House:

The Boiler House is a substantially built two storey structure (basement and ground floor). It is built of concrete with multi-pane steel framed windows. It is partially built into the bank. The main entrance is through the ground floor doorway. It is built in several sections - the central section with a hipped roof, and two smaller wings as well as a tower to the rear. It is the most industrial of the buildings recalling its central role in providing heating and has many remnants of this function.

The Administration Block:

This is a utilitarian timber building which has been converted to backpacker and residential accommodation and is currently being converted into a two private residences.

The Blacksmith’s Shop:

The Blacksmith’s Shop, once part of a larger structure which provided accommodation for the tradespeople who worked on site, is a single storey U-shaped building. It is built of bluestone with contrasting stone work (now painted) providing a decorative element. There is access to the attic which is an open space lit by windows at the gable ends. There are stone quoins and facings around the doors, windows and parapets. The building still houses an original forge, reflecting its past use. Some window and door openings have been altered, but the typical original details show multi-paned windows and wide timber entrance doors, as well as single doors.

Other Asylums and Psychiatric Institutions:

Seacliff was part of a chain of large provincial asylums built in the latter part of the nineteenth century or early twentieth century. Others include Porirua (1910), of which a portion of the original building survives as a museum (Category I historic place, Register no. 7444); Sunnyside Hospital (registration removed) which was been demolished leaving just the gardens remaining, Whau Asylum (also known as Auckland Lunatic Asylum, Carrington Hospital or Oakley Hospital, now Unitec Institute of Technology (Category I historic place, Register no. 96). Asylums in smaller centres included Seaview Lunatic Asylum (1872) at Hokitika (closed in 2009 and sold to a property developer), Nelson Lunatic Asylum (1864, replaced in 1922 by Ngawhatu Psychiatric Hospital at Stoke).

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Site, not overtaken by suburban sprawl retains its aloof and isolated position, which was an integral part of the decision to locate the institution at Seacliff as a farm asylum, and symbolic of the distancing of those people confined within the institution and the ‘normal’ population.

Construction Dates

1879 -
Erection Temporary Asylum Buildings on Seacliff Site

Original Construction
1880 -
Construction begun on permanent Seacliff Lunatic Asylum Buildings

Original Construction
Construction bluestone Blacksmith’s Shop/Workshop

Original Construction
Construction Morgue

1886 -
Commission of Inquiry into Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (land and building instability)

Original Construction
Medical Superintendent’s House built

Original Construction
Kitchen and Store, Laundry Block built

Original Construction
1933 -
Boiler House built

Partial Demolition
First demolition of part of main block (the tower)

Demolished - Other
1959 -
Further demolition of main block

Demolished - Other
1967 -
D ward (which incorporated part of the temporary asylum buildings) demolished

Demolished - Other
1974 -
Major demolition of surviving buildings

1974 -
Museum operating on site

1991 -
Museum ceased operation

1991 -
Truby King Recreation Reserve gazetted

1996 -
Reservation revoked, land sold into private ownership

Demolished - additional building on site
2000 - 2010
Demolition of some structures associated with the Blacksmith’s Shop

Construction Details

Bluestone, corrugated iron, concrete, steel, brick, timber

Completion Date

27th January 2012

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Brookes, 2001

B. Brookes, J. Thomson, (eds)., 'Unfortunate folk' Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992, University of Otago Press, 2001

Chapman, 2003

Lloyd Chapman, In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King, Penguin Books, Auckland, 2003

Moore, 1958

C.W.S. Moore, 'Northern Approaches', Otago Centennial Historical Publications, 1958

Theses and Essays

Theses and Essays

Jonathan G.R. Howard, ‘The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, An Expression of the Sublime’ BA Hons thesis, University of Otago, 1998.

Coleborne, 2010

Catharine Coleborne, Madness in the Family: Insanity and Institutions in the Australasian Colonial World, 1860-1914, Basingstoke, UK; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

King, 2000

Michael King, Wrestling with the Angel: a life of janet frame, Viking (Penguin NZ Ltd), 2000

Shorter, 1997

Edward Shorter, A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997

Other Information

A fully referenced report is available from the Southern Region office of NZHPT.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.