No. 640 - New Norfolk - St Luke's - The Royal Derwent Hospital Interdenominational Chapel (and its predecessors) - 1829-2001

On entering New Norfolk on the road from Hobart an expansive wasteland of rubble from demolished buildings confront a visitor to this historic town. The scene has the appearance of an abandoned industrial site. However a scattering of surviving buildings and the outline of a modern church in the distance suggests otherwise. The site is the remains of the Royal Derwent Hospital complex, Australia’s oldest and largest ‘mental hospital’ which once sprawled over 60 acres. Its closure in November 2001 led the way in the deinstitutionalisation of the treatment of mental illness in Australia. In time the site will be transformed by new development. Its historical heart, known as Willow Court, will be be preserved as a reminder of an often disturbing era in the history of ‘treating’ mental illness in Tasmania.

The chapel on Royal Derwent Hospital site is one of a few buildings that survived demolition. Some of the abandoned and derelict buildings have been subjected to arson attacks and the church itself has been badly vandalised. Built in the late1960s, the church is the last of at least three places of worship which have existed on the hospital site. These parallel the historical development of the Royal Derwent Hospital from its origins as the New Norfolk Lunatic Asylum which dates back to 1829.

It is not my intention to delve into the complex and confronting history of New Norfolk’s ‘mental institutions’ but a brief outline is necessary for some context with regard to its places of worship. There are several distinct phases in the history of the institution:

The New Norfolk Lunatic Asylum (1829-1859)
The New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane (1859-1915)
The New Norfolk Mental Diseases Hospital (1915-1937)
Lachlan Park Hospital (1937-1968)
Royal Derwent Hospital (1968-2001)

The changes in the institution's name reflect shifting attitudes and approaches to ‘dealing' with mental illness. From a contemporary perspective, the history of the hospital and historical attitudes towards mental illness, including the terminology used, can be confronting.

Until the 20th century religion and worship had an insignificant place in the New Norfolk institutions. However, it is interesting that the plans for the original asylum included a chapel. (see illustration below). The reason for this is that the original intention was that the asylum was to house the colonies invalid convicts and as well as convicts classed as ‘lunatics’. The provision of a chapel was in keeping with the belief that religion was a critical part of process of the moral improvement of convicts. However, as the convict ‘invalid hospital’ morphed into a ‘lunatic asylum’ this objective became redundant. Thus the planned chapel was probably never built.

During the era of the ‘Hospital for the Insane’ (1859-1915) religious services of some sort took place. By this time the hospital accommodated ‘paying patients’ who were housed in seperate facilities. A dining hall served as a concert room and chapel. This in mentioned in a fascinating account of a visit to the hospital in 1885 by the Hobart Mercury’s ‘traveling correspondent’ - which can be read <HERE>.

By the 1880’s the finances and administration of the hospital had become a significant political issue. Following the establishment of a Royal Commission in 1883, public interest in the hospital and the treatment of the patients heightened. In 1888 another correspondent for the Mercury visited the hospital and again commented on the provision of religious services:

Another very prominent defect in a different direction is the absence of any suitable room or building for divine service. Services are held by the Church of England and Roman Catholic chaplains (Revs. W. W. F. Murray, M.A., and B. J. Murphy) in the dining hall of the female division, which is provided with a very good piano and an excellent cabinet organ. This room is also used for dances, concerts, etc, but while very suitable for these latter purposes is eminently unsuitable for Divine service”. 

Seemingly, officials at the hospital regarded religious services as ‘unnecessary and ineffectual’ for the patients. The Mercury’s reporter was critical of the fact that “no effort ha[d] been made to erect a suitable chapel or church” and suggested that:

“…The question is worthy of consideration….if, instead of being held in a room which is associated in the minds of patients with their daily lives and amusement, and in the appearance of which, there is nothing whatever to give rise to devotional feelings, services were conducted in a building specially constructed for the purpose, and hallowed by its special dedication to the worship of God. The influence of surroundings is a powerful factor in arousing religious sentiment among some persons, but with the insane, whose weakened intellect renders them less capable of appreciating the spiritual and ideal, this influence, by externals, becomes of the very highest importance as a means of emphasising the effect sought to be attained. Seeing that insane persons are so much more readily influenced by the sight of surrounding objects than by verbal exhortation or explanation, there can be little doubt that religious services conducted in a chapel properly fitted up for the due observation of the forms and ceremonies ordained by the ritual of the church would be much more likely to impress the listeners than they can possibly be under existing circumstances…”. [The full article can be read <HERE>]

Around the time of the turn of the 20th century a purpose built wooden chapel was constructed although it seems that this was not used for long and was converted for use as a school room for young patients and was later used as an occupational therapy building. The wooden chapel now houses the “Patchwork Cafe” in the historical Willow’s Court complex.

In the era of the Lachlan Park Hospital (1937-1968) the provision of facilities for religious services was given some consideration. In 1940 a new administration block included an entertainment hall and chapel. The set-up is described in a report in the Mercury on the occasion of the building's official opening in April of that year:

“The amusement hall, which is on the west side, will seat from 500 to 600 persons. A stage has been provided and the chapel is on the north end of the hall. The hall is most attractive with an excellent dance floor and spacious dressing rooms. The seating has been arranged with reversible backs, which will permit the use for hall or chapel without moving seats....”. [see photo of the chapel and auditorium below]

Finally, during the era Royal Derwent Hospital, a dedicated interdenominational chapel was built in the late 1960s. This building still stands and although vandalised, it has been repaired in the last few years.

During its brief history the chapel seems to have been poorly attended and patients who wanted to worship were taken to Sunday services available in the town’s many churches. The chapel was also used by staff at the hospital. New Norfolk’s St Peter’s Catholic church used the chapel for a Christmas Mass up until the early 2000’s and students from St Brigid’s Catholic Primary School would perform a Christmas play. For a time the Derwent Valley Concert Band used the Chapel for rehearsals.

Proposals have been made to develop the chapel as an entertainment venue but this has not progressed. I believe that the chapel is currently used as a residence. A video clip showing the vandalised interior of the building before it was renovated is embedded below the photographs accompanying this article.

In conclusion, information about churches associated with institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons, etc) are difficult to research as records are not readily available and the use of these private spaces were never readily accessible to the general public. I welcome any further information about the places of worship covered in this article and I hope to update this as more details become available.  

Update: St Luke's was badly damaged in a deliberately lit fire in January 2024.

The Royal Derwent Hospital Chapel in 2019 - Photograph: Duncan Grant

The Royal Derwent Hospital Chapel in 2019 - Photograph: Duncan Grant

The Royal Derwent Hospital Chapel in 2019 - Photograph: Duncan Grant

The Royal Derwent Hospital Chapel in 2019 - Photograph: Duncan Grant

The Chapel in the 1970s - source: Libraries Tasmania AA193-1-255

The Chapel in the 1970s - source: Libraries Tasmania AA193-1-279

The interior of the chapel vandalised - screen shot from

The interior of the chapel vandalised - screen shot from
The multipurpose auditorium and chapel built in 1940 - source: Libraries Tasmania AA193-1-286P2

The location of the chapel - much of the hospital site has been demolished

The general area once covered by the Royal Derwent Hospital

The old wooden chapel - source LINC Tasmania - (courtesy of Historical Information Centre, New Norfolk)

The chapel is now the Patchwork Cafe 

The Chapel at its original site. Source: Libraries Tasmania PH30-1-5093

Libraries Tasmania PH30-1-5093

Part of a plan of the chapel proposed in 1829 but never built.  Source: Libraries Tasmania - PWD266-1-1432-2

                          Youtube clip of the chapel - acknowlegment in sources below



Colonial Times, Tuesday 29 April 1845, page 3
Mercury, Wednesday 27 May 1885, page 3
Mercury, Thursday 2 February 1888, page 4
Mercury, Monday 22 April 1940, page 6
Huon and Derwent Times, Thursday 25 April 1940, page 6


Other sources:

Royal Derwent Hospital TA465 [Records]. Libraries Tasmania, 1827.

Piddock, Susan A space of their own : the archaeology of nineteenth century lunatic asylums in Britain, South Australia and Tasmania. Springer, New York ; London, 2007.


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