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Heathcote Hospital After Dark

It was an impressive hospital site which boasted a few novelties such as its own clock tower and even a swimming pool for patients.

Given that it had been added to over a period of several decades, there was no overall symmetry in the design with a clear disparity in the architectural styles of the original buildings and various later additions. This seemingly random arrangement of the physical structures contrasted with a less tangible yet more pervasive order of uniforms, formal procedures and official documentation. Here professional etiquette and formal bureaucracy combined and took on a life of their own – a life which set the terms for all who lived and worked within its walls – patients and staff. The official regulations varied significantly for these two groups: the primary difference was that the lives of the former were rigorously documented whereas those of the latter remained largely unrecorded. The medical histories and significant events of every single patient were recorded in case-notes medical charts, day books and ward diaries. Even the most transient of patients would be found in any if not all of these sources – a trend that would continue for several decades.

Clock Tower at Heathcote Hospital. Image from heathcotewa.com

Conversely, the nursing staff would come and go at the start and end of every working shift, (sometimes regularly for decades) and little would be documented of their existence. Their pens recorded the progress (or otherwise) of their charges but they would never appear as significant in these particular cycles of illness, recovery and frequent relapse. Only as asides would they be mentioned whenever a notable incident occurred. Ward diaries were full of such examples: RN (Registered Nurse) Smith sprained his ankle when he slipped on the stairs while rushing to an incident in the courtyard; EN (Enrolled Nurse) Barker suffered mild bruising when forced to restrain an aggressive patient. Incident from completed and filed. 

Official records divulged very little about their individual lives and certainly nothing of a more personal nature. No doubt each staff member had a personnel file which only secretaries and clerks had regular access to. Generally, these files had the barest of details: name address, date of birth, etc. What concerned the hospital most was their current pay rate, how much leave they had taken and when and how much remained. Otherwise, the only clues of individual identity were their handwriting which together with their surname, initials and professional designation covered most official documents.

"All became venues for easily concealed chance encounters which became intended meetings with swift embraces and the occasional meeting of lips."

Compared to their patients, these men (2) in their clean uniforms remained largely anonymous, the guardians of order and conformity. Their professional persona concealed any individual traits which might be alluded to only in whispers or vague rumours, none of which would ever be documented in a personnel file, case-notes or ward diary.

As in any other major hospital, there was no set beginning or end to the working day; merely a constant rotation of three distinct eight-hour shifts. Despite this continuity, there were regular periods of increased and decreased staffing, of high and low activity. The eight hours of night shift were nearly always the most uneventful, the quietest of any working day. As the sun began to set and darkness enveloped the grounds, the atmosphere tended to alter imperceptibly.

At approximately 11.00 pm every day the night shift, succeeded the afternoon shift and the staffing level dropped significantly. The regimented order of professional discipline tended to dissipate when there were significantly fewer people in the vicinity to observe and to record. As a result, the established convention could be relaxed or even transgressed slightly.

The wards were generally quiet with only a few staff in the nurse’s station. Well before midnight, nearly all patients were asleep. Many areas of the complex were largely deserted. Hardly anyone wandered the spacious grounds at this hour. Darkness enhanced the desolation: the deserted ends of corridors became obscure, empty treatment rooms were now secluded. All became venues for easily concealed chance encounters which became intended meetings with swift embraces and the occasional meeting of lips.

Heathcote Hospital Grounds. Image from heathcotewa.com

Outside in the spacious grounds, there were tracks and obscure pathways which led to a concealed bench, an indistinct clearing, a hidden space among trees and bushes. Here, young students and new graduates could meet unobserved on their meal breaks or on the pretext of a cigarette which more often than not remained unlit. Here they could speak unheard, exchange contact details, arrange meetings on their days off or after night duty – if they still had the energy to socialise. Such clandestine encounters had been occurring ever since the hospital had opened but only in the last few decades did they sense that the need for secrecy was now more the result of habit rather than actual necessity. After all, what would have happened if the night supervisor or security guard with his flashlight had chanced upon them? The worst any of them had to fear was the informal rebuke of staff room gossip; formal rebukes had ceased long ago. Any embarrassment would have been greater for the discoverer than for the participants, assuming they felt anything beyond annoyance at the interruption.

But old habits die hard, especially in regimented and hierarchical institutions.

Above all, men had to conform to certain conventions. Therefore, whenever they were unconventional, it was better to be silent and invisible. Thus the collective male psyche was appeased and not confronted with embarrassing questions and uncomfortable doubts. It was good for morale overall. Whatever friendships occurred among male staff could be considered just that – friendships – a delightfully nebulous and conveniently broad term encompassing all manner of positive interaction among members of the human race. The veneer of order and respectability remained largely intact as long as any indiscretions remained concealed.

Ariel view of Heathcote.

Therefore, for the duration of this hospital’s existence the student, the new graduate, the recent staff arrival, the career nurse and all others would come and go. Their paths would cross and sometimes, if only fleetingly, collide. Other times, the collision would be less transient, sometimes surprisingly so. For the most part, it remained concealed to appease both professional discipline and social conventions dating from the period when the facility was founded. This was the trend until the last few decades of the twentieth century.

However, another trend in institutional care would ensure this facility’s demise. As the century drew to a close, large institutions were becoming ‘unfashionable’, especially ones that occupied prime real estate with riverside views. Its prime location ensured that its days were numbered as a facility for psychiatric patients. Besides what was the point of a hospital that supplied even a swimming pool for its patients? Surely, public money could be better spent.

This facility would not survive beyond end of the twentieth century, With the government’s usual bureaucratic efficiency, over six decades of inpatient care was terminated in a few weeks. Medication trolleys no longer rattled down corridors, the clink of cutlery was no longer heard in ward dining rooms and staff rooms remained empty, devoid of any salacious gossip. Nothing further would be recorded in medical files or on official forms, all of which had now been stored in a distant archive for posterity – a posterity that would have no further use for them. 

The small storerooms, obscure benches and secluded clearings would remain empty throughout the night. This unofficial history of the site would remain forever unrecorded and thus permanently erased.


1. Heathcote Hospital was a large psychiatric hospital whose catchment area was the suburbs south of the river. It operated from 1929 until its closure in 1994 after which it was redeveloped as as community centre.

2. Unlike general nursing psychiatric nursing was originally an exclusively male occupation until the advent of effective medication around the 1950s. In the absence of effective medications, physical restraint was a common intervention.