The Past, Present and Future of Willow Court Mental Asylum: Georgia Coy In Conversation with Nick Jarvis

The below article is the final result of a UTAS Media student's final assessment for the semester. The task involved writing a 1,700-word feature article on a subject of our choosing.

Now a bit of background on the article.

Georgia wrote the article in a way that encompassed Nick's history, intertwined with that of the asylum whilst trying to include the issues surrounding the Asylum in a subtle way in an attempt to make the article more similar to a narrative, rather than a hard-hitting expose of such. I wanted to write about something that is either a mystery or taboo to most people in the area; to enlighten people and open the door to a discussion that has every right to begin.

I was pretty happy with the article and more than happy that I was able to assist Georgia in completing an assessment for UTAS.

The Past, Present and Future of Willow Court Mental Asylum:
In Conversation with Nick Jarvis

Willow Court Mental Asylum in New Norfolk, Southern Tasmania has been known by many names, all surrounded by stigma and shame. Initially opening its doors as New Norfolk Insane Asylum in 1827 as an invalid convict barracks and home for the mentally ill by Lieutenant George Arthur, the asylum was a place for those who had been transported to Van Dieman’s Land and unable to work and live under the conditions of a normal, convict lifestyle. By 1830, the Asylum had expanded to house one-hundred and thirty “invalids and lunatics” and the numbers kept on growing. In the 1850’s the colonial government of Van Dieman’s Land took over ownership of the institution, seeing numbers housed there grow rapidly as penal institutions closed down and their remaining inmates and patients sent to reside in the asylum. It wasn’t until 1968 that the grounds of the New Norfolk Insane Asylum absorbed the nearby grounds of Millbrook Rise and became The Royal Derwent Hospital.
The Asylum’s nearly two hundred year history has always been shrouded in mystery and questions with tales of overcrowding, patient mistreatment, and neglect with seemingly only accounts of pain and misery coming from inside its walls until its eventual deinstitutionalisation and closure in 2001. But there are two sides to every story, according to Nick Jarvis, head of the Willow Court Project and member of the Australian Paranormal Investigation Unit (APIU), who grew up in and around Willow Court Asylum and its patients as well as becoming a key instigator in displaying its remains to future generations as an important part of Tasmanian history. Since the Asylum’s closure, the site has sat dormant, under attack from decay, vandalism, and arson; a part of New Norfolk that the community seems so desperate to forget. “I’ve been doing this since about 2007,” Jarvis said. “And in between that time, it’s been a real taboo. No one wants to talk about it and no one wanted to do anything about it.” Two arson attacks from both 2008 and 2010 saw the once enormous facility decimated. Burned beyond salvation, as is the reputation of Willow Court and its inhabitants.
Nick Jarvis believes there is no real reason for the name, as well as the site, not to be restored and is keen to see the slowly-changing opinions of the public and the nation form into something more positive. On the negative stigma and accounts surrounding the facility during its operation, Jarvis explains, “I think a lot of staff did the best that they could with the resources they had, given some of the challenges that they faced. They didn’t have some of the medications, some of the practices and some of the policies and procedures that we do now. I think they did the best that they could with what they had at the time. Yes, there were some bad staff, but there were bad people in every sector. I think there’d be patients out there who’d probably say the same thing. To tarnish it all as the bad- or all being good- is not really fair for them.”
This negative stigma surrounding the site and its past has been somewhat irksome for Nick throughout his life and always stood out as something he has wanted to see change. Growing up in New Norfolk, Nick had a number of interactions with The Royal Derwent Hospital and its inhabitants through both his Mother and Grandmother who worked in the kiosk there as well as using the site’s facilities, such as the pool or assembly hall, as a student of the nearby primary school. During school holidays, Nick fondly remembers his time in the facility’s walls as more interesting and informative than terrifying, getting to speak to a number of the patients and always itching to explore the grounds. “I wasn’t really supposed to,” Nick pauses. “But that’s the way things were back then. And I really loved it. I guess I was given a little leeway to explore- maybe twenty metres away from the kiosk, because it is still a site with patients who could be unpredictable so for a kid, it’s not safe.” His connection with the place often baffled others, “I think it was just being around the site, having people who work there and I used to get along with some of the patients as a kid. I can still remember some of their names. I think that really solidified the work that I did for people with disabilities.”
But, it wasn’t until Nick moved away from New Norfolk that the now abandoned asylum with its ‘No Trespassing’ signs began to call to him, following his dog into the wards one day in 2007 and disregarding the consequences. And that is when his career as a Willow Court Mental Asylum paranormal investigator, spokesperson and, eventually, tour guide, began. “I got hooked from that point on,” said Nick who soon went on to find a woman who was journaling her experiences of the asylum. “I actually ended up finding that and it just got me hooked. The stuff that she was uncovering, the things that she found were amazing and from that point, I was going over there all the time- exploring and documenting.” Nick and his team explored the asylum while Nick posted the site’s history to his website, The Willow Court Project. The team’s first ‘big act’ was to film a documentary, which is yet to be released. Despite the fact that Nick was originally technically trespassing on the site in the beginning of his time on the grounds, all of his formal investigations and the filming of his documentary have all been council approved which, to him is a relief.
Throughout his early investigation, Nick faced a number of people who opposed his exploration of the site, although he believed that what he was doing was well worth the risk. Much of this backlash had come from the other half of the initial ‘Willow Court Working Barracks Group,” formed around 2010 and originally formed to send the money and provisions from the New Norfolk council in the right direction. The group saw little success as its members held vastly differing opinions that prevented big decisions- or any decisions- from being made. Soon after its formation, the group disbanded, leaving hostility in its wake. Over the years, a number of groups, including half of the old committee, have come to oppose Nick, through jealousy, disbelief or skewed understanding, they have claimed that Nick’s historical and paranormal research is disrespectful to the memory of the patients and their families despite Nick’s attempts to sway their negative opinions. “They don’t want to listen,” said Nick. “They don’t want to work with us. I work in the disability industry too, so I’ve got an understanding of how people feel about it and sensitivity and we do it out of respect. But they just don’t want to listen.” This claim of insensitivity has troubled Nick throughout his time working with the Asylum, with personal and professional attacks launched against him. He sees his work as documenting an important part of history and is incredibly hopeful that people will come to see that as time goes on. “We’ve done nothing wrong, everything we’ve done has been approved and supported… you’ve just got to forge ahead and keep doing what makes you happy and if you’re making a positive contribution, then just keep doing it,” encourages Nick. This opening up of Willow Court, through MONA’s Dark Mofo event in June of 2016 as well as Nick’s work and recent opening of the Asylum to the public through tours, has sparked an old debate amongst historians, previous patients and their family members as to whether the Australian Government should provide and apology and commemoration day for the ‘victims’ of Willow Court and other similar institutions although, according to the ABC’s 2015 article on the subject, there will not be a formal Government apology “anytime soon”. Nick’s opinion on the matter is rather matter-of-fact, “There’re two opposing groups and I sit here in the middle and think that there must be a way that fits for the patients and the people who supported the patients- some who did do a really good job.”
The Willow Court Project’s future career goals are oriented around continuing tour work as well as documenting and sharing Willow Court’s shrouded history. Currently, all profits from tours of the Asylum are going toward the Willow Court Restoration Fund which is hoped to eventually turn the old Asylum into a historic site. This change, however, is a hard one to initiate for Nick. “I had a great time when it was actually abandoned.” He explains. “I had the run of the mill with the place for a long time, it was great.” Professionally, expanding his current tours and opening the site through the week, rather than one night every few months creates further questions and challenges, “There are certain Tasmanian tour operators at the moment who have got a short-term contract to do Willow Court tours, which I feel is really inappropriate.” But preventing corporate involvement and their fears of commercialisation means Nick and his team will need to step up themselves. “When money’s involved, it becomes more of a process and not so much about the values or what might be more respectful or what might be a better fit. But at the end of the day, we’re not doing it for the money, we’re just trying to give back.”
Nick hope’s for the future of his research are that more patients and family of patients come forward with more positive stories of their time at Willow Court in order to create a balance within the Asylum’s history saying, “People don’t seem to think that their story is a positive one or a good one. They think it’s just a normal, everyday story. They don’t realise that this is actually positive or influenced someone’s life in a positive way or might slant the balance of these opinions.” The Willow Court Project’s next tour is scheduled for October this year with all profits going toward the continuation, commemoration, and conservation of the Willow Court Mental Asylum, with more tours planned for the future in varying formats.