Lake Macquarie History

Light on Morisset: Can we be together?

photo: photo: light on morisset

Nineteenth century mental health treatment in Australia began in prison or prison-like settings. Illness was usually managed by confining patients in asylums. Morisset Hospital was originally planned and built on this model. The hospital was deliberately located in an isolated rural area of Lake Macquarie with few residents. Over Morisset's 20th century history, there were usually three levels of ward security. Most wards were 'open'. Patients could come and go freely during the day but were locked in at night. Fenced 'refractory' wards housed patients exhibiting more challenging behaviours in a low or medium security setting. 'Refractory' patients were assessed by staff and allowed to leave for specific activities. A walled compound enclosed fenced maximum security wards. Patients did not leave the compound except for medical emergencies or when discharged. These wards were 'closed'.

Hospital architecture allowed for both isolation and togetherness. Buildings were placed at a distance from each other. Most patients slept in dormitories but there were also single rooms. Meals were eaten in common dining areas. There were shared verandas and outdoor areas surrounding most wards. Some patients lived in open residential wards. Many had been there for the majority of their lives. For these patients, Morisset Hospital was home. The staff and other patients were community and family. Staff also called Morisset Hospital home. The general manager, senior doctors, other staff and their families lived on site. The hospital was staffed by the tight knit and mutually supportive local community. Many staff were related by blood or marriage. Three generations of the Pursehouse and Shipley families have worked at Morisset Hospital. Family and friends were able to visit patients at specific times, including those in the maximum security unit. People living with mental illness often feel isolated. Patients at Morisset often felt isolated within their illnesses. They lived apart from their families. They shared spaces with other ill people in a geographically isolated institution. Covid lockdown has made us experience isolation. Staying at home with limited contact with others has tested everyone's mental health. Perhaps we can all now identify with the experiences of patients at Morisset Hospital.

The ward is quiet. Fifty illnesses Have been put to bed, have been withdrawn into The other place where fantasies pursue The implications of their own oddness.
Ward quiet The Other Side of the Fence Peter Kocan 1975

Mike Willesee: What happened to you that started it all?
Peggy: Well I don't know. I woke up one morning and I couldn't go to work. 38 years ago. I was a married woman. I had a daughter eight years old, very happy had a lovely home and everything. I was a manageress of a chemist's shop in the beauty section. I had been there in that section for five years. I just couldn't go to work so I stayed home. Crying. I couldn't cook my dinner. It just went on and on and on. I let it go on like [that] for nine months and tried to take my life.
Interview with Peggy, a patient at Morisset Hospital, Wing with bipolar disorder Inside Morisset, Mike Willesee, aired October 20 1983

There was an old chap in Morisset who had an old black hearse. It was an old black thing with black windows like you'd see in an old English film. He used to come and take the bodies into Morisset - he had the contract. And as I've said before there weren't many relatives involved. I don't think they ever notified any relatives. A lot of the relatives completely forgot about them when they brought them in, because socially it used to be a disgrace to have someone in the family go mad and be put in the madhouse as they used to call it. They were buried in the Morisset cemetery, which was where it is now. I didn't see them buried, but they had a gravedigger who used to dig the hole with a shovel. The body was just put in and covered up, and there was no recognition of who it was in the grave, and when you walk into the cemetery today you wouldn't know whether you were walking over the old graves or not because there are no headstones, just grass.
Working in Modsset Hospital in the Bad Old Days Laurie Akers As told by Bill Bottomley July 2020

... in 1971 many of the patients in both Wards 21 and 22 had spent a great many years in security conditions. One man had spent over 33 years first at Parramatta Mental Hospital, then later at Callan Park Hospital.., then at Morisset Hospital... From 1971 onwards there was a great deal more emphasis placed on assessing and treating patients in an effort to move them out of the security section... back into the community.
The Care of the Mentally III Offender in New South Wales Dr Les Darcy, 1983

I think that my parents were very happy here and very, you know committed, attached to the local community which is why they decided to retire here and anyway, it's such a beautiful place who wouldn't want to retire here?
I used to go back to the hospital quite frequently. I mean, we used to have kangaroos come onto our front lawn when I was a kid, so I was always used to the kangaroos around. I used to go back there quite a lot. I think I might have even taken my son to driving lesson over there when he had his L plates. Around the hospital grounds. I told him about all the things that I've done there when I was a child.
And you know, I think it's actually a pity that the grounds are closed off the way they are. In my view that is actually a wonderful community space and it's very unfortunate that the authorities have chosen to close it off. It makes it feel more like an asylum and more like a lockup rather than a place sitting in its community and part of the community.

Oral history Robert Henderson 2021

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