Kew Asylum


  • Auspice: Hospitals for the Insane Branch 1867–1905; Lunacy Department, located in Chief Secretary's Department 1905–34; Department of Mental Hygiene, located in Chief Secretary's Department 1937–44; Department of Health I 1944–52; Mental Hygiene Authority [statutory authority] 1952–62; Mental Health Authority [statutory authority] 1962–78; Health Commission of Victoria 1978–85; Department of Health II 1985–92 (mental health)/ Community Services Victoria 1985–92 (intellectual disability)
  • Name: Kew Lunatic Asylum (1872–1956); Kew Mental Hospital (1956–c.60s); Willsmere Mental Hospital (c.1960s–82); Willsmere Unit (1982–89)

Kew Asylum history in brief

In 1856, construction of the Kew Asylum commenced, based on the newly-built Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in London. Some architects and medical personnel rejected this institutional arrangement as inappropriate, and proposed an alternative system of cottages arranged around a common centre.

Work was abandoned for a decade, but in 1872 the Kew Asylum was completed and 214 patients were already in residence when it opened, partly due to Yarra Bend Asylum being over-capacity. Within five years, the asylum housed 1000 men, women and children.

Kew Asylum was continually criticised by the medical and social services professions. Within a decade of its opening, the institution had become so dilapidated that it was described by the Victorian Branch of the British Medical Association as ‘a disgrace to the community’.

In the 1880s, it was proposed to close both the Kew and Yarra Bend asylums and replace them with four new facilities. Action was delayed by the onset of the 1890s depression.

During the ensuing years, enquiries, governments and mental health authorities attempted to close and demolish the building. In 1939 Larundel opened, but plans for it to replace the Kew Asylum were delayed by World War II.

The Children’s Cottages at Kew had been established in 1887. In 1956, the Children's Cottages were officially separated from the Kew Mental Hospital which was called Willsmere Mental Hospital in the 1960s and had shifted its role to care of psychogeriatric patients from throughout Victoria.

In 1982, Willsmere became the Willsmere Unit.

Willsmere Unit provided long term back-up psychogeriatric services to catchment areas of Footscray, Royal Park and Dandenong Hospitals and shared responsibility for Southern Region (Region 8) with Larundel Hospital. It also administered the Camberwell Community Mental Health Clinic.

The services provided to psychogeriatric patients included acute assessment (including day-care programs), rehabilitation, family relief care, long-term care, community services and medical services. Most beds, however, were usually occupied by long-term patients, limiting provision of some other services. In 1985, psychogeriatric patients accounted for 93 per cent of 471 beds at Willsmere.

Before its closure, Willsmere Unit also provided acute adult psychiatric services on a regional basis, comprising Hawthorn, Camberwell, Kew, Box Hill and Doncaster–Templestowe.

The hospital also provided for a 22-bed surgical unit and a 28-bed medical unit.

In 1989, Willsmere Unit was decommissioned.

Warning about distressing information

This guide contains information that some people may find distressing. If you experienced abuse as a child or young person in an institution mentioned in this guide, it may be a difficult reading experience. Guides may also contain references to previous views, policies and practices that are regrettable and do not reflect the current views, policies or practices of the department or the State of Victoria. If you find this content distressing, please consult with a support person either from the Department of Health and Human Services or another agency.


Please note that the content of this administrative history is provided for general information only and does not purport to be comprehensive. The department does not guarantee the accuracy of this administrative history. For more information on the history of child welfare in Australia, see Find & ConnectExternal Link .


  • Victoria Government gazettes.
  • Public Record Office Victoria online catalogue.
  • Wikipedia.

Patient information

PLEASE NOTE: Patients could be admitted to a Receiving House for short-term treatment and care, but were not permitted to remain longer than two months.
Patients still needing treatment after two months could be sent to a Psychiatric Hospital, in the same institution/complex or another. Hence, there could be more than one set of records for any one person. Please check each location for former patient records.

Reviewed 16 May 2019