Lake Macquarie History

Light on Morisset: Is this a nice place?

photo:light on morisset. is this a nice place. exhibition panel

Morisset Hospital grounds are nice. You can see Lake Macquarie from many of the hospital buildings. The hospital is set in a beautiful natural environment. Patients had access to a broad range of recreational opportunities. Walking, fishing, swimming, gardening, bowling, tennis, football and cricket, as well as regular dances and movie nights held in the Recreation Hall. There was a swimming pool inside the walls of the maximum security unit, and a swimming enclosure with toilets and change rooms off the hospital wharf. Many staff made strong efforts to improve conditions for patients. Nan Shipley and Rob Henderson recall having idyllic childhoods living within the grounds of Morisset Hospital with their parents. The Festival of the Flowers, held annually from 1962, provided the public with an opportunity to see the hospital in action and was evidence of the results it was achieving. Local residents and some patients enjoyed the foreshore and festival activities. Staff worked hard and often in their own time to create things to sell at the festival's stalls. The money raised was administered by a volunteer committee and used to buy equipment, such as a swimming pool for patients.
Sundays saw local families and tourists picnicking along the hospital foreshore and feeding the kangaroos. The hospital grounds were open to the public until 2018. What people often didn't see was the day to day reality of a working hospital. Patients suffered emotionally, physically and psychologically from the effects of their conditions and those of other patients. Living conditions included communal showering, dormitories and a general lack of privacy. Patients often wore mass manufactured, uncomfortable, identical clothing. Patients found treatments like ECT frightening. The side effects of treatments included sedation and difficulties with speech and self-expression. Facilities, clothing and linen were not always clean. Patients experienced boredom and disengagement in restricted lives confined to a hospital. Laurie Ackers recalled the many difficult events involved in his work in a matter of fact way. Managing the transition of patients from Peat and Milson Islands to Morisset, and training patients to use the toilet was evidently distressing. He recounted some instances of alcoholism among staff. Psychiatric nurse Chris Gavenlock remembers developing a 'sixth sense' for when a patient was going to 'go off'. Constant vigilance was exhausting. The tension between the 'nice' and 'not nice' aspects of Morisset Hospital's history can't be reconciled. Both parts of the history are true. Both are part of an accurate account of Morisset's past.

"Is it nice there?" Con Pappas understands that it has to be nice. All the wards are nice. This is a nice institution. "Is nice" he tells her. Maybe he really thinks so.
The Cure Peter Kocan 1983

After breakfast on the Sunday of the fete [Festival of the Flowers] you stand at the bottom fence and watch the first cars nosing into the grounds. Banners have been strung and on the trees are signs with arrows pointing to where the different attractions are to be, like speedboat races on the lake, or the hoop-las and merry-go-rounds, or the cake and drink stalls in the main hall…
OT [Occupational Therapy] has a banner across the front: BASKETS + BAGS + WOODWORK FOR SALE… they’ve put another sign by the door, inviting the Public to Inspect this Facility and learn about Rehabilitation and Remotivation… You don’t bother reading it properly. Its just for the Public…
When the crowds get thicker you leave the fence and stay on the verandah near your cell. You can see the people from here without them seeing you. You don’t mind them having the speedboats and hoop-las and cake stalls, but you don’t intend to let them have the other thing they’ve come for – the freak show.
The Cure Peter Kocan 1983

Rebecca: Do you think people who were at the hospital the patients, were happy their situation?
Rob: Well, yes. I mean, I don't know about happy. Just sort of thinking about what words you use for it. I think they were very contented a lot of them. And I suppose to that extent they were happy.
I mean in a sense to me happy is a relative word. Of course, I had no idea as a child about what sort of circumstances they may have come from before they were there. I have a very strong sense that most of the patients that I came into contact with at the time were very contented, and in that sense seemed happy enough. Certainly, they had clean bedding, good bathrooms and three meals a day. They were clothed and fed. You could imagine that some of those people had come from worse backgrounds and can be contented enough maybe to be there. As I said, my recollection is the staff working there treated the hospital patients, as kind of - maybe not as friends - but certainly they were respectful of the people they were looking after.
Oral history Robert Henderson 2021

But the main thing you see is the view spread out in the distance. There is a big lake going right away for maybe two or three miles to a green haze of shore on the far side and green bush al around that comes right up to the high wall all around this place. The ground slopes downward from the verandah, right down to the water, so that you look clean over the top of the wall from here. It’s beautiful. Especially since you didn’t expect anything like that. It’s the sort of view that rich people have from their patio, except for the wire mesh. Outside the mesh is a yard about twenty feet wide. It’s bounded at the edge by a mesh fence with barbed wire on top. Beyond that, and still sloping down, are vegetable gardens and then the main wall. To one side of the vegetable gardens is a lovely looking tiled swimming pool, shining all white and blue and cool. The water is shimmering in the sunlight.
You stand gazing out over everything, partly because it’s so beautiful and partly because you don’t know what else to do.
The Treatment Peter Kocan 1980

Later in the same year when Ward 22 was no longer being used for mentally ill offenders but was used to house young heroin dependent males as an alternative to a prison situation the staff of Ward 21 and Ward 22 arranged a poolside barbecue at lunchtime with swimming and plenty of soft drinks and cakes. The staff gave up their own lunch breaks and joined in the barbecue to ensure that security was sufficient. There was a very good spirit of camaraderie and the patients again had a very pleasant, relaxed enjoyable time. Other good-hearted actions on the part of staff towards patients were common. Staff might buy certain books or magazines which a patient might want. Others would write letters for patients who were either depressed or unable to express themselves very well. Many other acts of kindness would be shown and all of these contributed to the usually low tension level in the ward.
The Care of the Mentally Ill Offender in New South Wales Dr Les Darcy 1983

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