Willsmere Estate – A grand building with a chequered past

“Willsmere – a fully gated residential complex. It’s tranquil, serene and friendly living at its best.”

A transformation indeed, from Melbourne’s most well known Lunatic Asylum – the Kew Lunatic Asylum, the estate now offers “luxury living with swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling, gym, BBQ areas/rotundas and function room”.

Its history is somewhat less salubrious. The magnificent Italianate style buildings were commissioned by the then Victorian Government in 1854. It became operational in 1871, situated on a prime site 100 feet above the level of the Yarra River on 400 acres. It was built to replace the overcrowded and inadequate Yarra Bend Asylum and the Carlton lunatic Asylum.

It reflected a change of attitude in Victorian times whereby such establishments were considered a place where the mentally challenged could best deal with their affliction with the comfort of a healthy location, light, airy, with good drainage in “fertile and agreeable country”.

“The site chosen is of primary importance. On it must depend the comfort, happiness and health of the inmates” said the then New South Wales Inspector of Asylums, Frederick Norton Manning in a report commissioned by the new Victorian Government of the Colony.

Designed by Architects GW Vivian and Frederick Kawerau of the Victorian Public Works Department, it was expected to be ‘elegant, beautiful yet substantial’, yet viewed as a ‘magnificent asylum for the insane’. It was believed entirely necessary to house and contain the ever expanding numbers of ‘idiots’, ‘lunatics’ and ‘inebriates’ troubling those in the new colony of Victoria.

With the use of ‘Haha’ walls and sumptuous, well planned and extensive landscaped grounds, it was intended that inmates and the public would sense the enlightened thinking of the colony’s forward thinking officialdom, recognising the benevolence and civilisation of its capital, Melbourne, and its generous kind people.


However this was somewhat juxtaposed on many fronts by the rather simple and somewhat sad perceptions of the times. Kew Cottages, originally attached to the Asylum, were opened in 1887. They were actually known as ‘The Idiot Ward’ then and later became a separate institution known as ‘Kew Idiot Asylum’ – it only admitted children. Children suffering developmental delay (mental retardation), Down’s syndrome and other mental health afflictions.

It wasn’t that hard to find yourself admitted in the first fifty years. According to the wisdom of the day you could gain entry if you were diagnosed as suffering from:

  • Delusional Insanity
  • Dementia (this covered Schizophrenia, Catatonia and severe depression)
  • Epilepsy
  • General Paralysis / paresis of the insane (whoa! what’s that?)
  • Idiocy (ditto)
  • Inebriation (No drinks for me!)
  • Melancholia
  • Puerperal Mania (Now known as postnatal depression)

This would occur on the request of a ‘friend, relative and acquaintance and confirmation by two medical practitioners in writing’ (Easy peasy).

A person wandering at large (being considered of unsound mind – a lunatic) upon the order of two justices could be removed to an asylum. Prisoners considered lunatics could be sent to an asylum upon the order of the Chief Secretary and then you could be a voluntary boarder from 1915 onwards.

The Asylum operated for over 120 years. Changing its name a number of times, from 1903 onwards ‘Asylums’ became known as ‘Hospitals for the Insane’.

Originally reduced to 340 acres with the sectioning off of Kew Cottages, the establishment was intended to be self sufficient. But over time with treatment methods changing and large land parcels being sectioned off for Kew Cottages, the straightening and widening of Princess St in 1939-40 (which also saw the gatehouses demolished) and the earlier Boulevard Construction in the 1930s seeing the Asylums river frontage being assumed by the Roads Department the original holding was greatly diminished.

58 acres were sectioned off in 1958 to establish Talbot Colony, now known as Royal Talbot, a rehabilitation facility for seriously injured patients of the Austin Hospital. The Guide Dog Association of Victoria was granted further Asylum land in 1962 and the creation of the Eastern Freeway cut a swathe through the remaining land in the 1970s.

The buildings housed barrack style accommodation and used the Colney Hatch Asylum in England as its template. It was still perceived to resemble a stockade or a gaol with Sunbury Mental Asylum considered a more humane advance in accommodation of the mentally ill. Oversize clay bricks were made on site from quarried local clay, then rendered with cement. A central Administration Block is three stories high topped with mansard roof and cupola. There are two two-storey wings to each side, one for each sex. Each had a four storied mansard roofed tower containing water tanks. The wards were surrounded by courtyards and verandahs. The dormitories had 4.3m ceilings, purpose built timber flooring and brightly coloured walls. Entry was via a grand carriageway, tree lined with an elliptical front driveway at the main entrance.

Architecturally the Mansard roofs and prominent towers make the building one of Melbourne’s most prominent, rivalling Government House five miles distant to the South.

The tree plantings were supervised by Baron Von Mueller, the original curator of the Botanical Gardens, and were meant to mimic an English country park. In 1913 Hugh Linaker again took responsibility (he was also charged with developing the Sunbury Asylum grounds as well as the grounds of other Lunatic Asylums in the state).

The Central Equity Corporation developed what became known as Kew Gardens project, a residential estate in 1995. The Walker Corporation have redeveloped Kew Cottages, however historic buildings have been set aside and maintained.


And although it may well now be gentrified with wonderful amenities, just stroll across the bridge at the Kew Boathouse to Fairfield’s Thomas Embling Hospital located on Yarra Bend Rd. There practically opposite the site of the old original Yarra Bend Asylum is situated today’s most secure psychiatric facility for the criminally insane. Rest easy up there at Willsmere – history remains bound to the area one way or another, even if it now only 8.4 hectares. Sleep well fair denizens of Kew. The past is never far away.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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