The sad saga of Seacliff: Built on shifting sands

The largest and grandest structure in all of New Zealand in the late nineteenth century was none other than a home for the mentally ill.  It was a fearsome looking building with truly the looks of a haunted house, and very likely may have been later, considering the terrible events of 1942.

This is the story of Seacliff, 20 miles (32 km) north of Dunedin on the east coast of South Island and established in 1877.

Fortunately the infamous asylum is no longer standing and the area where it stood so menacingly is now a nature reserve.

The building was designed by Robert Arthur Lawson in an extravagant Scottish baronial style.

The entire project was ill-conceived from the word go.  The forested hillside on which it was built was subject to subsidence and the developers were aware of this; in other words it would be a “house” built on shifting sand.  The Director of the Geological Survey declared the proposed site unsafe.  His report was ignored.


Structural faults began to show before the building was even completed.  A landslide in 1887 caused one of the temporary buildings to collapse.  This led to an enquiry in 1889 in which, among others, Lawson was found to have been “negligent and incompetent.”

This extravagant building, looking more like a grand hotel, exclusive school or city hall, contained four and a half million bricks made from local clay.  There was a central observation tower 50 metres in height.  The building was constructed to accommodate 500 patients and 50 members of staff.

Each of the 1 273 doors in the building had its own individual key.

Floor plan of the main building

The third Medical Superintendent was Truby King, appointed in 1889.  Being way ahead of his time he made a number of changes for the better.   He prescribed fresh air, exercise, balanced meals and occasional work in the gardens or laundry as the basis of treatment and therapy.  He also had a number of dormitories constructed in annexes outside the main building and eventually a total of 700 inmates could be accommodated.

Initially it seems as if every possible facility for the comfort of inmates was provided for.  Situated among a beautiful forest with sea views, the building and grounds were well equipped.  According to a detailed New Zealand Cyclopedia volume published in 1905, there was a billiard room for male patients and a sewing room for female patients, as well as a large reception room where visitors could meet with patients.  The Seacliff entry enthusiastically describes the dining halls, a music hall which served as a chapel, a concert hall and ballroom with a gallery.  The building was equipped with fire escapes and fire alarms. The grounds contained among other facilities a cricket field and tarred walkways.  Assorted trades were housed in a nearby building on the estate and included a fire brigade, carpenters, upholsterers, plumbers, painters and many more.  A farm manager oversaw a large variety of farm activities such as egg raising, dairy cows, pigs, horses, tomatoes and other vegetable growing, as well as extensive orchards of fruit such as 250 walnut trees.

Link here:

Seacliff Lunatic Asylum

The grounds of the medical superintendent’s home contained a rustic summer house designed and built by one of the inmates.

So on the surface it was quite a paradise of various activities set among the idyllically scenic South Island coast.

A tranquil view of Seacliff and its wooded  grounds

It seems that King’s benign attitude did not extend to some of the staff who would follow later, and Seacliff became notorious for callous indifference to inmates.  Patients were frequently misdiagnosed with conditions they didn’t have, and “treatment” seems to have been replaced by “punishment” procedures such as lobotomies as well as electro-convulsive “therapy” for non co-operational behaviour.  Female patients were often subjected to “unsexing” operations in which their Fallopian tubes and other female parts were removed.

The dignity of patients was further undermined by the use of open door toilets.

The superintendents couldn’t be everywhere at once and as so often happens, staff abused their positions of power and took their frustrations out on their unfortunate patients.

A female inmate of bygone days

Seacliff became a byword for everything that was wrong with the mental health system in those unenlightened days. Death may have been preferable for many inmates, and a terrible one awaited 37 female inmates when a tragic fire broke out in one of the annexes to the building in 1942.

At around 9:45 p m on 9 December a male attendant spotted a fire in Ward 5,  a double storey wooden building in the grounds and one of the annexes built in the time of Dr Truby King.  It housed 39 female patients, and the doors and windows were locked to prevent escaping as it was the middle of World War II and there was a shortage of nurses. Only two of the patients, whose windows were not shuttered, were dragged to safety but the fire was too fierce to be contained by the asylum’s on-site fire brigade, which consisted of male inmates.  However they did manage to prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings and were praised for their heroic efforts.  The Commission found that their quick actions saved many lives.

The subsequent enquiry found the following:

  • There was only a manual fire alarm in a locked cabinet and because there were no nurses it could not be used;
  • Too few nurses on duty led to the dormitory being locked;
  • There was no sprinkler system in place;
  • The unfortunate patients had no chance as the windows were shuttered from the outside;
  • The ward design was inadequate and dangerous.

Although the commissioners never determined the cause of the fire they suspected a short circuit caused by the shifting foundations.

It is clear that the patients would have had adequate chance to escape if basic fire prevention and escape mechanisms had been in place.  This was the darkest and saddest chapter in the chequered history of Seacliff.

In terms of casualties the fire was the worst in New Zealand’s history until the Ballantyne’s fire in Christchurch in 1947.

As time went by the ground conditions continued to deteriorate and staff and patients were gradually resettled to nearby Cherry Farm.

Seacliff D266-522b-7
The end of Seacliff: Demolition

The Seacliff site was finally abandoned in 1973 and the last buildings were demolished in 1992.  It now forms part of the Truby King Recreation Reserve, named after the most forward thinking and well remembered of the hospital’s superintendents.

It should never have been built there and it is a form of karmic justice that the place on which it once stood has reverted to the reign of nature.

Published by: envirozentinel63

Diagnosed with asperger syndrome. Keen runner and writer who wants to share the ups and downs of all my many experiences and maybe reach out to someone who needs encouragement.

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