From 1897 the large stone building stood on the hill above Seacliff village, an Otago institution for nearly a century. Locals understood that someone referred to as being ‘up the line' (i.e. the railway line north of Dunedin) was a patient at Seacliff Hospital.
Said to resemble Balmoral Castle, the three-storeyed building was completed in 1884 at a cost of 78,000 pounds. Less than a year after it was built, signs of subsidence and distortion were evident. The hillside site offered magnificent views over Blueskin Bay but the land was very unstable.
Janet Frame was a patient and wrote about it in her autobiography.
In 1942, 37 of the 39 inpatients in a ward named number five, were burned to death in a night time blaze. The occupancy of the institute at the time was such that the massive three storey castle was full to the brim, and ward five was a timber addition. The women there incarcerated, were all considered to be difficult and required to be under lock and key.
And they were, with hourly checks throughout the night. Though it was December, almost all the windows were closed, locked, and shuttered. By the time the the alarm was raised, there was time for one nurse to pull the grating from a window and rescue one woman, and then another from the first floor. Soon the rest were dead and the ward was a pile of ash. Because there were only two survivors and limited science relating to fire origins at the time, the cause of the blaze was never discovered.
The ensuing investigation, which took the form of a commission of inquiry, was highly critical of leaving patients locked in and unattended by staff, and brought about the regulations which are in use today regarding the use of fire alarms, exits and sprinklers.
In 1959, the original hospital building, for 50 years the largest public building in New Zealand, had to be demolished. A blessing in disguise, as it became totally unsuited to modern nursing practices. The replacement facility, called Cherry Farm had begun to house patients from 1952, it was entirely different in its construction and was operated upon the principles of Dr Truby King.
Image Credit: Seacliff Asylum, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Te Papa