Government Apologizes for Abuse of Disabled

Icelandic Government Apologise BY VALA HAFSTAÐ

Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson

The Icelandic government has issued an apology to those who suffered abuse at Kópavogshæli, an institution for the disabled, which was operated 1952-1993, reports.

A report published this week revealed deplorable conditions at the institution, where children suffered physical and psychological abuse, along with severe neglect, causing them permanent damage.

The report criticized authorities for a lack of a clear legal policy regarding what sort of institution Kópavogshæli was meant to be. Health authorities were blamed for failing to live up to their duty to monitor the operation of the facility.

The report was discussed at a government meeting today.

The statement, signed by Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, reads, “It’s hard, but necessary, to face how difficult the conditions of disabled individuals, children and adults, were at Kópavogshæli.”

The statement continues:

“Today I address all those who as children were placed at Kópavogshæli and their families:

On behalf of the government, I apologize for the inhumane treatment and various neglect suffered by children at Kópavogshæli. Likewise, I apologize to all disabled people, children and adults, who have been placed at institutions in this country and suffered abuse or ill treatment.

Painful experience can never be fully compensated for, but on the basis of laws regarding compensation, we will now work to compensate those who suffered abuse or ill treatment for the damage it has caused, to the extent of our ability. Government ministers are reviewing suggestions made in the report and evaluating what measures will be taken in order to protect the human rights of disabled people in Icelandic society.”

Related Story: Report Reveals Abuse of Disabled at Institution


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The Florence Nightingale connection

Sharon Hutchison (Matron)

For those that attended the successful plays at the last Open Day at Willow Court (11-12 February) you could be forgiven for thinking that Sharon Hutchison (The Matron) was the only person who had a connection with the most famous Nurse in our history, Florence Nightingale. But only a week before the open day, I received an inquiry that started a new chapter in research and this involved the famous Nurse Educator herself. I can say that she is not known to have visited or worked at the hospital but her influence reached around the world. We have discovered that there are a number of connections so far, the first is Selina Alexander. 

Selina Alexander, a qualified nurse, later to become the Matron of the Hospital, with a reference from Florence Nightingale. She was responsible for raising the pay and conditions of her staff. In 1890, aged 35, Selina married, as his second wife, Robert Shoobridge of hop-producing Valleyfield who was a government visitor of the asylum. They were to become parents of Nancy Hope Shoobridge.

Florence Nightingale

We also know that once married, women weren’t allowed to hold employment in the hospital. But further there was sad news, the connection is that the young girl, Nancy Hope Shoobridge wasn’t to survive the passage back to England to visit her Grandparents. 

In the east of the Sanctuary of St Matthews Church, New Norfolk is a stained-glass window of the manger scene. The child holding a Bible behind the angel at the crib is Nancy Hope Shoobridge (1890–98), who died at sea aged eight on her way to England to see her grandparents. In 1910, her parents donated a cottage hospital to the town in her memory and continued to contribute much to the social welfare of the community.

Donated Cottage Hospital

This all came to light after an email arrived. The sender was looking for more news and connections because she has the reference note that was Selina Shoobridge (nee Alexander) and it is forming part of a presentation at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.

The Official Visitors wrote about Miss S Alexander (Matron) in the book, Troubled Asylum on page 106:

“Staff Changes;
The ranks of the Official Visitors were not the only ones unsettled in
the year (1890). Dr MacFarlane in his report list two important resignations and two subsequent promotions: – There have been several changes in the staff during the year. Miss Alexander resigned her position as Matron, and was succeeded by Miss J R Ayres, the Sub Matron Miss Alexander, now Mrs R W G Shoobridge, had been Matron since December 1883. She performed her duties in a most highly satisfactory manner.”

It is a great day to celebrate International Women’s Day by researching and writing about two wonderful Women that are connected to the Hospital and it’s long history.

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Susan Piddock new links and articles

 The Dr Susan Piddock page has been updated with the latest links and articles. Susan has a strong interest in Asylums and has created some well researched, evidence based material and has offered it for you to read. Click the image below to go to the page.

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Dr Lynley Wallis

Willow Court Lunatic Asylum was Australia’s first, and longest lasting, asylum. Established in 1826 under various names and management it closed in 2000. Only now are archaeological digs beginning on the site, in the Derwent Valley in Tasmania, to discover the daily lives and experiences of patients and staff over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. On the project is a Broome based archaeologist. Dr Lynley Wallis is with the Nulungu Institute at the Notre Dame campus in Broome.


We also have more coverage of this a past Open Days in the Gallery open days tab.

Open Days

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Open Day Sunday 10 am – 4 pm

Don’t forget the Open Day this Sunday at Willow Court, there are still places available on the Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning and afternoon performances from the Derwent Valley Players. For $25 you get to see two historic short plays and enjoy a high tea with the cast.

Two tour guides will walk around the buildings for a historic tour on Sunday which is free.

Information sessions for the Archaeology dig that is currently underway will also be held. Come see what finds they have and hear the stories from behind the scenes. Free.

It’s a great day to be in the Valley! 

Willow Court event February 2017

The Derwent Valley Council have stipulated that appropriate foot wear be worn while on the site.

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Christmas in Purgatory

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Burton Blatt

CHRISTMAS IN PURGATORY A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation

This rare publication is available free for download on the internet through a U.S. Government website. This is now considered a rare (first edition August, 1966) publication and gives a photographic insight into the lives of people in three institutions in the United States around Christmas 1965. Burton Blatt from Syracuse University and Fred Kaplan entered the institutions with a spy camera attached to a belt and covered by their coat, they proceeded to photograph the back Wards and the people who were warehoused there. The first 1000 copies of the book were sent to Legislators and Administrators. No-one would publish the photos at first and Doctor Blatt self published this now, well know book.

“The purpose of this book is to present our findings in the hope that they will inspire constructive action among those in responsible positions. For those not in positions to legislate or reform, we hope to strike a chord of awareness, to shatter the shell of complacency born of ignorance that surrounds the problem. From this element of society, we hope for support. The first section of this essay represents conditions existing in too many institutions for the retarded. The second section of the book is devoted to the heartening conditions we found at The Seaside. Our optimism for the betterment of state institutions is based on the evidence of the forward strides that have been made there. To us, The Seaside represents what can be done with funds, intelligent administration and an adequate, sensitive and well-trained staff.”

This publication turned the course of Human Warehousing in America and ultimately started the de-institutionalisation process. It is still used today in the academic education system to understand the history of disability.

Images may be considered graphic and disturbing to some people.

Click here or the image above to load the book.


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Trespassers Welcome

The Derwent Valley Players will be performing two plays written and performed by Sharon Hutchison (the Matron) based on stories from Willow Court’s history. The plays will be either side of a wonderful High Tea served in The Barracks, the Avenue, New Norfolk.

“Meet the Matron”

High Tea

“Tea & Charity”

All tickets $25.00 cash only at the door. Saturday and Sunday, 11th and 12th. February, 11.30 am and 2 pm. Bookings advised 0411 744 248.

Tickets for the 11.30 am show on Saturday have nearly sold out! 

There is still space left in the Saturday afternoon show 2 pm and both Sunday’s shows 11.30 & 2 pm have spaces spare.

Three events for this cost is great value and a wonderful way to see and hear the site’s history!

Presented as part of Willow Court’s Unearthed Weekend. 

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Acknowledging and learning from past mental health practices

Quietly in 2016 The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) release a Position Statement which for most people went unnoticed, yet it was created to open a public dialogue on the history of treatment within the institutional settings in Australia and New Zealand.

The position statement can’t be underestimated. It is a clear statement that;

 acknowledges that psychiatrists have a critical role to play in acknowledging historical harmful practices”  and

” people have been affected by harmful practices in the past”…

“Practices now known to be harmful had a range of causes. They included both systemic approaches to care and individual practices. Some historical treatments may have been well-intentioned but were without an evidence base, ineffective, and distressing to experience.

Treatments also may have been used inappropriately (for example, past administration of electroconvulsive therapy without anaesthetic, or even as a punishment rather than a therapy). 

An entire model of care – the asylum system, which dominated mental health care for the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century – often disregarded the dignity of those it was intended to care for and protect. Until the development of antipsychotic medications in the mid-twentieth century, there was certainly an argument for such facilities which could provide genuine care and a place of ‘asylum’ for the residents. At the same time, they institutionalised inhumane practices which would have been 
unacceptable beyond their walls.

In time they became feared by the public, with reputations for overcrowding, brutality, separation of children from parents, and permanent exclusion from society (Miller, 2012). A whole series of Royal Commissions in Australia and New Zealand confirmed that, for some, these fears were well-founded.

An entire model of care – the asylum system, which dominated mental health care for the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century – often disregarded the dignity of those it was intended to care for and protect”

As a result of past practices the Position Statement goes on to link past practices to the current stigma around mental health and the service provision.

“Public attitudes are significantly influenced by entertainment and news media which can give a sensationalised, highly misleading impression of psychiatry and mental health services”

Willow Court staff and Tasmania’s leading Mental Health Administrators have been prominent leaders in The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists starting with; 

Charles Brothers

President 1949 

Dr Charles Brothers was a foundation member of the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists (AAP) and was elected President in 1949, a fitting tribute for the doctor and Director of Mental Hygiene who had made an exceptional contribution to Australian psychiatry at the time.

In 1927, Dr Brothers took up his residency in at the Royal Melbourne Hospital where he remained until 1936. He then crossed back to his much-loved state of Tasmania taking up the position of Medical Superintendent to Lachlan Park Mental Hospital. Dr Brothers became the Director of Mental Hygiene in Tasmania in 1946 and was also Honorary Psychiatrist to the Royal Hobart and Launceston General Hospitals. During this time he studied and became an expert on Huntington’s Chorea, particularly in the state of Tasmania.

Followed by:

Eric Cunningham Dax AO

President 1964 

Dr Eric Cunningham Dax graduated from London University in 1932 with honours in Medicine. He studied psychiatry at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School, and gained clinical and research experience in a number of private and public psychiatric clinics and hospitals in Britain.

Dr Eric Cunningham Dax came to Tasmania and prepared a report for the Tasmanian Government to regionalise Mental Health Services. Report HERE. He stayed in Tasmanian in a leading roll and saw the regionalise process through the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

In 1985 Dr Eric Dax was awarded an AO for services to psychiatry and was appointed a Senior Associate in Medical History at the University of Melbourne, as well as being admitted to the degree of Doctor of Medicine honoris causa.

Initially a clinical tool, his collection of artwork done by patients became a means to teach people about the experience of mental illness. The collection also performs an historical function, reflecting the changes in mental health policies and treatment since 1946. The Cunningham Dax Collection holds 15,000 works and is one of the largest of its type in the world. Open to visitors it is now located within the Melbourne Brain Centre, located on the University of Melbourne Parkville campus.

Dr Cunningham Dax AO was followed by the Dr Isobel Williams who, according to Lawrence Edward Cullen in his book, Royal Derwent Hospital: past to present, 1936 – 1978, Dr Isobel Williams was the first Doctor to administer electric convulsive therapy (ECT) in B Ward (Bronte) in the late 1930’s.

Isobel Williams

President 1967

Dr Constance Isabel Arundel (CIA) Williams graduated from Medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1932 and subsequently joined the staff of the Launceston Public Hospital in Tasmania. In 1938 she was appointed to Lachlan Park Hospital (later Royal Derwent Hospital) in New Norfolk where she worked under the supervision of Dr Charles Brothers (an early President of Australasian Association of Psychiatrists (AAP)) and qualified to join the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1944.

By 1952 Dr Williams had moved from Lachlan Park to Millbrook Rise Psychopathic Hospital as Deputy Superintendent. Millbrook Rise was originally built using Tasmania’s share of the surplus Red Cross funds raised during the First World War, and was intended for the treatment of ‘shell-shocked’ veterans.  As this demand declined it specialised in the voluntary treatment of neurosis and depression both in a residential hospital and outpatient setting. In 1968 Dr Williams retired from the position of Head of Millbrook Rise to go into private practice.

Dr Isobel Williams (as she was known) was an inaugural member of the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists (AAP) in 1946 where she was one of three women out of 67 members, and presented at the 1949 Congress in Hobart. She was also a Foundation Fellow of the College in 1963 and the inaugural President of the Tasmanian Branch of the College in 1958. For many years Dr Williams was the only woman to reach a position of authority in either AAP or the College.

The full “Position Statement” can be found HERE


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Millbrook Rise

Today we have released for public viewing a new website tab dedicated to the history of Millbrook Rise Psychopathic Hospital.

The site is a current mental health provider and is off limits to site visitors. I also acknowledge that the images and historical recording may disturb some people who have had history at this site.

We will continue to add information and stories to this tab as we discover them.

If you have any stories please contact me at to discuss options and methods of recording and possible usage. 

Millbrook Rise was a Ward of the Royal Derwent Hospital from 1968 but existed under it’s own Act. of Parliament from 1933 til 1968 but shared Administration Management with the Mental Diseases and Lachlan Park Hospital. 

Click the image below to see a collection of images and information from Derwent House.

(c) Copyright 2017. All images and writing remains the copyright property of “Willow Court Tasmania History Group”.

My thanks for access to the site can not be acknowledged publicly, however I remain grateful to have seen the buildings and hear about the history.

I also acknowledge our own Historian Consultant, Tony Nicholson for his input and review of the information presented. 

Mark Krause


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Event at Willow Court February 11-12th.

The latest events at Willow Court will be held in February. The 11-12th should be great days with tours “supervised walks” plays from the Derwent Players and tours of the Archaeology Sites. Don’t miss this one!

Students and Associate Professor Heather Burke from the Archaeology dig will tell visitors about their work while local historian and ex-employee, Tony Nicholson will instruct guides and lead the guided walks around the buildings. Both Carlton and Alonnah Wards will remain locked as per the Derwent Valley Council’s decision at the last meeting due to no risk assessment being done for these wards. Tony is a local published and respected historian who started working at the site in the 1970’s. Archaeology and history walks are only on the Sunday.

The Derwent Valley Players will present two of their plays and serve high tea to booked guests aĺl for $25 with the choice of two performance times on Saturday and two on Sunday.

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