Why are there so many buildings on the James Fletcher Hospital site that are not being used? The former military barracks is a case in point, as well as the Thwaites building (a former in-patient unit) constructed after the 1989 earthquake, it also sits idle. The Thwaites building could be adaptively reused instead of constructing the new in-patient facility that is currently underway at the old parsonage site just a few metres away. With the former Shortland Clinic in the process of being demolished this week, the community needs to be asking what the site is being prepared for, has it been earmarked for development just as the Royal Newcastle Hospital site was? This historic area must continue to remain in public ownership.
The hospital site was first known as the “Newcastle Asylum for Imbeciles & Idiots” and was the only hospital of its type in NSW, established to alleviate overcrowded asylums in Sydney. Although treatments have changed since 1871, what have remained are the beautiful grounds, open space and colonial architecture of the hospital. The ‘oval’, formerly a military parade ground is an historic feature and this with the built heritage have served patients and staff well;- the institution was one of the oldest of its type in continuous use in Australia (until June 2009).
During the 1870s a program to beautify the grounds was undertaken by the hospital superintendant, Mr Frederick Cane, reflecting the philosophy of moral therapy or open air treatment to restore mental health through work, exercise and recreation. There was community pride in the hospital grounds. Later, with the increase of drugs to treat mental illness, the use of the outdoors changed and therapy moved indoors.
The area has been in continuous governmental ownership since 1804 and is an exemplar of the Macquarie period and the convict system, older than the better known sites such as Hyde Park Barracks, Great North Road and Port Arthur. Government House was located on upper Watt Street where the Commandant could oversee the settlement. During Governor Macquarie’s administration two coal shafts were sunk (1814-16), worked by convicts, located on the hospital grounds. One shaft was named after Commandant Wallis; however these were later renamed the ‘Asylum’ Shafts and are the first vertical, working coal mines in Australia and possibly the Southern Hemisphere. The hillside was levelled for the military barracks to be erected, with quarrying completed using convict prisoner labour in the 1830s, changing the landform and providing a wonderful secluded place from the activity of the city.
Relics of the parsonage have recently been uncovered, making this the oldest visible built heritage in Newcastle (corner Church & Newcomen Streets). This was a great example of adaptive reuse (1819-2008) and demonstrates the continuous recycling of buildings from one use to another. Similarly, the past and present use of the military barracks and military hospital circa 1843, represent the exceptionally long life of some of the buildings on the site. Because the Health Department has provided consistent management and maintenance many of the early colonial buildings have successfully outlived modern buildings, such as the nearby former Shortland Clinic built in 1964.
Most of the old parsonage (circa 1819) on the hospital site was demolished in June 2009. Although an archaeological investigation was undertaken, there is a need for meaningful interpretation of the relics that remain. Unfortunately the parsonage (also known as Reception House) was not on the State Heritage Register. The former Minister for Planning gave consent for demolition in 2007 using Part 3 of the EP&A Act, after Newcastle Council had refused consent.
It is essential that the heritage significance of this convict, mining and military site be fully acknowledged, and for this reason the Hunter Regional Committee of the National Trust has submitted a nomination to have the area placed on the State Heritage Register. The area has also been nominated to the National Trust Heritage at Risk Program.
We can learn from the past how to reuse and adapt existing built assets. The James Fletcher Hospital, with its exceptional significance as a government site since 1804, was the site of the Newcastle Military Barracks and for 138 years an evolving psychiatric hospital, representing significant change and adaptability. We should not lose sight of our history, or of the ‘stories’ written in the landscape and in the buildings that continue to exist. History, heritage, transition and change must go hand in hand in a considered and caring way.
(Published Newcastle Herald 15 Oct, 2009. Author Ann Hardy)