The place no-one ever saw

This week we return to Sunbury. In the 19th Century mental illness was treated with fear and in many cases terrible measures were applied to relatively helpless patients. To be committed to an Asylum required the signatures and agreements of two Doctors ratified by a Magistrate. The person was then deemed to be a ‘Lunatic’ and was generally admitted to an Asylum, and in most cases – never released. Caloola was one of these places and considered by the medical profession of the times to be a fine example of such a facility and representing the very best in care. Or did it?

Commencing as an ‘Industrial School’ in 1864, the property was re-commissioned as an Asylum in 1879. To use the proper term, a Lunatic Asylum. It was substantially developed between 1891 and 1914. The original Industrial School consisted of ten basalt buildings of which 9 remain. Between 1865-66, the public Works Department of Victoria under the direction of General William Wardell, designed these buildings and added four workrooms, a kitchen, hospital, basalt farm buildings, stone walls and roads. The facilities were used to train neglected children in the 1860s. Boys worked on the farms and in the workshops, in tailoring and shoemaking whilst girls were trained as domestics. Basalt is what we now call Bluestone. It is a cold hard stone, an igneous rock formed by volcanic activity.

Of the 12 Industrial schools constructed during this period, only one other survives at the Northwest Hospital, Parkville (only one building) it being constructed in 1875-76.

The major development of the facility that came to be known as the Sunbury Lunatic Asylum occurred between 1892 and 1912. It was supervised by the then Chief Architect of the Public Works Department, George Watson. A site plan had been prepared by the gifted Architect Henry Bastow in 1888.

The buildings conformed to international Asylum standards, brick with terracotta tiled roofing. It was a major departure from the large monolithic buildings constructed as Asylums in Kew and Beechworth, where lock-up was considered more desirable than care.

The wards featured electric lighting from 1905-6. Food was delivered from the kitchen to the wards via an internal tramway constructed in 1908. Telephone and fire alarms were fitted to all wards by 1911.

The gardens and grounds were designed by Hugh Linaker and were planted out between the two 20th century wars. Mature trees now, they include Oaks, Elms and Pines as well as Cypress, all surrounded by a drystone perimeter wall and later, a brick ha-ha wall.

The entire facility is of great architectural significance to the State of Victoria. The original school provided harsh, unforgiving conditions for those unfortunate enough to merit such training as children.

It was typical of such facilities to present with large ‘airing’ courtyards and as was the practice, it was constructed far from the normal population centres of the times.


Essentially, it was a throwback to feudal villages, but constructed on a grand scale. Once you found yourself an inmate you rarely if ever were allowed to leave. The inmates became free indentured labour, working on farms, in laundries and kitchens – until they died.

The place had many delights – padded cells, ripple iron cells and simple dormitory accommodation – zero privacy. Male and female wards. The Female ward was the former male ward dedicated to the criminally insane.

It is typical of Pubic Works construction of the 1860s to the 1880s with classically inspired detailing. Initially austere in bluestone, solid and singularly detached, the newer developments up until 1912 saw warmer brick and tile with links to all buildings. Patients went from being ‘hidden’ to being managed. The place remained a psychiatric facility until 1968 after which it became a training centre for the intellectually disabled (1962-1992). The site was partially occupied by Victoria University until 2011 with the remainder being used by the Department of Education up until the present.

It is a fine example of cohesive planning with a unity of materials and very distinctive and unusual detailing such as the Buttressing and pitch of the roofing. It demonstrates the attitude of the times to Mental Health and stands as a memorial to the never ending cavalcade of sad, unfortunate and desperate souls who passed through its gates over many years.

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