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Remembering Lemnos Hospital

A short distance from the Shenton Park railway station, on the other side of a large oval, stands a motley collection of largely disused buildings. Originally established in the 1920s, they were added to over the following decades to form a disparate collection of structures formally known as Lemnos hospital.

At the front of this complex is an impressive two-storey administration building in federation style. The upstairs contain a number of rooms and harks back to the days when nurses lived on the premises while the ground floor comprises various rooms formerly used as offices for medical, nursing and admin staff. The two floors are linked by an impressive jarrah staircase beneath which is a compartment that once housed the day books in which the charge-nurse on duty recorded the days incidents.

The complex owes its name to a Greek island close to the Gallipoli peninsula which was the site of the army field hospital nearest to this campaign. The soldiers who survived the first world war returned with a range of medical conditions, both physical and psychological. Among the latter category was a blanket turn referred to as ‘shell shock’ which today would be classed as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was with these afflicted soldiers in mind that the federal government set up a medical facility for their recuperation; Lemnos hospital opened in 1926 in Shenton Park  which was then an outer suburb of Perth.

Nurses arrive on the island of Lemnos in 1915. AWM: A04118

With time, wards were added and named after significant battles of the two world wars;  Gallipoli Ward was joined by Flanders, Alamein and Borneo wards. For some of these veterans who could not be rehabilitated, it became their permanent home. As the 20th century progressed the number of surviving World War veterans diminished, As a result, the focus of care changed in the 1980s when it became a rehabilitation centre for the elderly with behavioural problems. The hospital was transferred from federal to state responsibility coming under the jurisdiction of Western Australian Psychiatric Services.

The main administration building is a fine example of federation architecture and is heritage listed, together with two of the four original wards while the other two have since been demolished. The two remaining wards are used by the nearby Shenton College complex. However, the main admin building sits empty and is gradually deteriorating from the ravages of neglect over many years. Despite being heritage listed, there is no compulsion for the government to maintain it. Tiles are cracking, paint is fading and wood work is rotting. It is slowly falling into disrepair through neglect.

Lemnos Admin Building 1988. Andrew Douglas

Shenton College use the two remaining wards of Lemnos Hospital.

When such a medical facility closes not only is the building lost but also the many stories associated with it, primarily the numerous case histories about its various patients some of whom became its permanent residents. For example, there would be many instances of human misery and lives wasted including cases of suicide or death by misadventure…

From my experience of working there over thirty years ago, at least two examples come to mind. One resident once explained to me that he had been raised by nuns in an Irish orphanage and had ‘never seen his mother’s face’. More than likely he was the child of an unmarried mother in the days when such children were abandoned on the steps of institutions. He emigrated to Australia living an itinerant lifestyle and surviving through various unskilled jobs. Never having known his biological family made it difficult for him to form any long-term relationships apart from those associated with alcohol. His chronic alcohol abuse eventually damaged his brain to the point that he could no longer function independently. Homeless, penniless and with no family supports, Lemnos became his home. Fortunately, he had served in the military during World War II which entitled him to specific veterans’ benefits. This, in turn smoothed his bureaucratic path into Lemnos Hospital. 

Depending where and for how long he served, he would likely have experienced some trauma which could have also adversely affected his coping skills. However, at the time, the psychological consequences of war trauma were seldom acknowledged or even understood. Returned soldiers were expected to get on with their lives as if a major global conflict was a mere hiccup in their experience.

An Australian soldier displaying signs of shell-shock (bottom left) Wikimedia Commons via The Conversation

Sadly, this this war veteran was not the most unfortunate of cases who resided at Lemnos. That distinction perhaps belonged to another long-term resident who like Mr Irish Immigrant had no family in this country but whose life was significantly more tragic. His welfare file detailed the events leading up to his contact with the state’s psychiatric services. He arrived by ship from England sometime in the 1920s; virtually from the moment he got off the boat, he was declared mentally disturbed under the Mental Health Act. It seemed that he had been ‘exported’ to the other side of the world by a system or group who wanted to get rid of him. Nothing was known of his family of origin. He was put into an institution where he spent the bulk of his adult life until being transferred to an aged care facility. One night, for no apparent reason, he killed his roommate. As a result of his mental state he never went to trial being declared unfit to plead or even understand the court process. Thus, he was detained at Lemnos Hospital where he spent the rest of his days.

Like many other Lemnos patients, these two unfortunate individuals, were the casualties of a society from an earlier period, This society could not adequately address the long-term effects of issues such as severe mental illness, substance abuse or even basic child welfare.

Like these unfortunate individuals who were neglected and forgotten, this former hospital has been effectively discarded. Its fate has gone the way of various other institutions that once housed the elderly and the mentally ill. (Sunset Hospital in Nedlands, Whitby Falls Hostel in Mundjong) The only hint of this hospital’s previous history is a small metal plaque on one of the brick columns of the admin building. This is the only sign that it was once a hospital for World War I veterans and a psychiatric facility.

The closure of Lemnos Hospital was not merely the loss of a specific health facility, it was also the loss of a small therapeutic community – one which provided care and often a permanent home for the more unfortunate members of our society. Its own unique history, of suffering and dedicated care over many decades has effectively been lost to posterity. The closure and subsequent neglect of this facility reflects the destiny of many of its more unfortunate residents. Perhaps it is inevitable that an institution which cared for so many undervalued individuals should suffer a similar fate.