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Brief History of the St John's Park Precinct and Orphan Schools 

The King's, and later Queen's, Orphan Asylum was built between 1831 and 1833. The buildings were designed by noted colonial architect John Lee Archer, under instruction from George Arthur, Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land from 1824-36. Arthur, described by his critics as a controversial and authoritarian man saw a need to provide some government assistance for destitute and orphaned children in the colony. There was significant support for this initiative among the people of Hobart. Although not the first building to house orphans in the colony, it was the first built expressly for this purpose.

The Orphan School, built by convict labour, operated from 1833 until its closure in 1879. In 1848, when Charles O'Hara Booth - formerly in charge of the Point Puer boys' prison - was superintendent, there were 463 children at the institution, of whom 411 were the children of convicts and seven were Aboriginal. Reports indicate that conditions within the school were harsh: the buildings were sparsely furnished and cold; food was often in short supply; and many of those responsible for caring for the children treated them harshly. Epidemics of scarlet fever in the 1840s, measles in the 1860s, whooping cough and scarletina in the 1870s exacted a heavy toll among the children in the Orphan School. In the 1850s the rights of the children at the school were championed by Edward Swarbreck Hall, a medical practitioner committed to improving public and institutional healthcare. In 1859 an inquiry was established, largely as a result of his criticisms. Although the management of the school was exonerated from blame, conditions at the school, particularly in terms of dietary requirements, improved. Hall continued to advocate on behalf of the children at the school and further inquiries were held in 1867 and 1871, both of which further undermined the viability of the school, which finally closed its doors in 1879.

From 1879 until the 1920s sections of the original Orphan School operated as the New Town Charitable Institution. Women were accommodated in the Infant Orphan School building constructed in 1862, but which had operated since 1874 as a lying-in hospital and home for "mentally defective" girls as well as providing accommodation for destitute women (Pearce 3). Ironically many of the women who required these various services had once been inmates of the Orphan School, they were re-institutionalised either because they were pregnant and single or they had resisted a life of servitude (Pearce 22). Many of the male inmates of the Charitable Institution were former convicts. Although ostensibly a charitable institution and charged with caring for the aged poor, inmates were expected to work and could not freely come and go, while women suffered abuse. Life was harsh and repressive , and punishment varied from withdrawal of tobacco rations to periods or solitary confinement.

The Orphan School buildings and other nineteenth-century buildings within the precinct provided some form of welfare support well into the twentieth century. For a period early in the century the building operated as the New Town Infirmary and Consumptive Home. In 1920 following the passing of the Mental Deficiency Act which authorised the institutionalisation of "feeble-minded" individuals the Charitable Institution was designated to provide this care. In 1934 male "mental defectives" were rehoused in the former Boys' Training School.

The Boys' Training School had relocated to New Town in 1896 from the Cascades where it had operated since 1869. This school accommodated young criminal offenders between the ages of fourteen and eighteen and idealistically promoted itself as a place for instruction and improvement. However, the school was "to all intents and purposes a prison for young criminal offenders" - most of whom were aged between fourteen and eighteen (Pearce 28). Until 1913, when a dormitory was built, the boys slept in cell-like cubicles and were classified on admission in much the same way as convicts had been earlier in the century. They were expected to work long hours, either in one of the various trade shops associated with the School or at the Government Farm. It was 1918 before a school was established and even then vocational training predominated over more academic endeavours. In 1922 this school was transferred to Deloraine where it is known to this day as the Ashley Boys' Home.

The Twelve Apostles
Twelve small houses were built by Diego Bernacchi on Maria Island to house workers for his vineyards and cement works. The winery was a failure and the cement works failed because of the Great Depression and closed in 1930. The houses were dismantled and sent by boat to Hobart where they were reassembled in Maria St, next to the Sanatorium, and used to house families impoverished by the Great Depression. The area was known locally as Dole Hill.

Also built on the site of the old orphanage farm during the Great Depression by the unemployed, was Ogilvie High School, opened in 1937.

By the mid 1930s the Institution accommodated not only the aged, and those defined as "mental defectives," but also functioned as a secondary hospital for the chronically ill and a temporary home for wards of the state and the destitute. In 1906 the Tasmanian Consumptive Sanatorium was established on the site of the present day John Edis Hospital in Creek Road. The Sanatorium was built to isolate sufferers of tuberculosis, which still accounted for two hundred deaths in Tasmania annually. The hospital - a series of small chalets and a central block for administration, dining and treatment - reflected contemporary thought that fresh air, good food and rest could improve health or even effect a cure.

Despite an association with welfare the Institution continued as a place of virtual incarceration where - as a surviving Punishment Book from the 1930s indicates - the freedom of the inmates was restricted and younger residents in particular were subject to various forms of corporal punishment (Pearce 26). In an attempt to remove the stigma associated with destitution and the need for charity, the name of the New Town Charitable Institution was changed to the New Town Rest Home in the 1930s, but after 1937 was known simply as St John's, the name of the Anglican church, constructed in the early 1830s, and aesthetically placed between the original Orphan School buildings. This church originally intended as a place of worship for the orphans was enlarged to accommodate the parishioners of New Town, many of whom were wealthy and who were tired of making the journey to St David's Church (now Cathedral) in Hobart. The church also designed by John Lee Archer has considerable architectural significance. It has an unusual square design, four interior fireplaces and two galleries - one for convicts and the other for orphans. The parsonage behind the church and the Orphan school overlooked New Town with views to the Derwent River. This building was also designed by John Lee Archer, while the watch-houses at the entrance to St John's Avenue were constructed in 1841 to the design of James Blackburn, another noted colonial architect.

Welfare services and infrastructure within the precinct continued to expand throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1939 Gellibrand House opened as a home for War Veterans and Wingfield House was established to care for children suffering from infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis), who had previously been accommodated in the Women's Division of the Rest Home. Another building - Woodhouse - opened in 1954 as a ward for individuals suffering from senile dementia. This building was named in honour of L. R. Woodhouse, who began work at St John's in 1918 and became its superintendent in 1954. In the 1960s, St John's, as the Rest Home came to be known after 1937, became increasingly involved in geriatric care. In 1961 Karingal was built on the outer perimeter of the precinct to provide separate accommodation, away from aged residents, for young people deemed "mentally defective."

Over the years the development of the precinct has proceeded in an ad-hoc fashion, a number of buildings were added in the 1960s and 1970s as welfare services expanded in the community. Today aged care is provided on-site by Southern Cross Care, in the former Garden Wards of St John's Park Nursing Home, while at Karingal aged rehabilitation services and respite care are offered by the Tasmanian Government. An on-site kitchen, which incorporates part of the early Orphan School kitchen, produces food for the community organisation Meals on Wheels, and the former Bruce Carruthers wing, constructed in 1961 as a women's hospital, now provides the renal dialysis services of the Royal Hobart Hospital. The Playgroup Association of Tasmania has its headquarters here, as does the Alzheimer's Association. The Disability and Mental Health Services of the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services has offices within the precinct while the former John Edis Hospital (now outside the precinct) is owned by the Salvation Army and provides drug and alcohol rehabilitation services.

Site last updated January 2017