Locked Away

Morriset Hospital’s Historic Keys

Morriset Hospital was designed to feel more like a hospital and less like a jail for its patients and staff. With its lovely bushland setting and manicured gardens bounded by an expansive lake, most patients were free to roam the grounds in their leisure time, communing with nature. And despite the lack of guarded fences, very few patients attempted to escape.

Even with the introduction of a separate ward for the ‘criminally insane’ the conditions were a contrast from overcrowded, bug-infested wards that many patients had experienced at other institutions. Dr Alf Edwards recalls how the patients, ‘guarded each other, as after the close incarceration in the gloom of Parramatta [Mental Hospital], they feared that escape attempts by any would lead to the loss of all of their relative freedom.’

Yet security measures were necessary for the safety of both patients and staff, so keys like these were an essential part of a nursing uniform. The handbook for nursing staff reinforced the importance of looking after one’s keys. ‘Keys must be worn attached to the waist or waist-belt by a strong cord or leather thong and the loss of a key will render the nurse liable to a fine.’

Before 1965, when there were separate male and female wards, staff carried a key for each ward alongside a square key for medicine cabinets and window shutters.While these historic keys are no longer in use, they are a reminder that, even with the openness of nature around them, and changes in community attitudes and medical treatments, patients were still locked away from society.