To anyone who grew up in NSW in at least my generation, that is an ominous word. Morriset is where the criminally insane went. And like all mental hospitals, one associates its name with tales of terrible brutality and suffering, even if such tales are only part of the story. I am sure also that, like people of an older era shuddering and crossing themselves at the mention of various unspeakable horrors, I shy away from insanity (or do we say “mental illness” now?) basically in fear. Not particularly fear for myself, but fear of the unknown and incomprehensible and a kind of existential squeamishness.
Today I went to Morriset for the funeral of my friend Dx’s father, Gx. The service was held at the hospital chapel, built at least in part by the patients. The chapel was built in the 1950s. It is inevitably a war memorial chapel, because this was about the only way then to secure tax deductible charitable status. On reflection that may not have been so inappropriate, since it is almost inevitable that some of the patients had war-related psychiatric conditions.
The hospital is on very sizeable grounds on Lake Macquarie (“the largest saltwater lake in Australia”). At its peak, it had about 1500 residents; now it has considerably fewer. There is still a secure “forensic” unit which I have guessed is the structure in the pseudo-square which I have scribbled on this scrap from google earth. The chapel is circled.
Some years ago a sizeable portion of the hospital’s land was transferred to the Koompahtoo Local Aboriginal Land Council. KLALC entered into a joint venture with a company called Sanpine to develop some of this land. A sorry saga has ensued. There were suggestions that the deal unduly favoured Sanpine and certain individuals involved in its implementation and that various corrupt commissions were paid. KLALC incurred considerable liabilities. There has been an ICAC investigation. This recommended that charges be considered against 6 people, although no charges have yet been brought. An administrator was appointed who decided to terminate the joint venture agreement with Sanpine. This went all the way to the High Court (termination by KLALC was upheld by Justice Campbell at first instance, overturned by a majority in the NSW Court of Appeal and again upheld by the High Court) and is now likely to become a leading case on “intermediate terms” and termination for breach of contract.
One of the surprising things to a non-lawyer would probably be that the judgments at all three levels proceed without mentioning at all the ICAC investigation, save for some passing reference to the fact (in correspondence between the parties which went into evidence) that documents were at some stage in ICAC’s possession.
The development has not yet gone ahead.
In the meantime, the hospital is attractively sylvan. The situation was presumably chosen with an eye to the recuperative properties of seclusion and the preventative effects of isolation. The entrance road has a pleasing though not imposing double avenue. Even though it was daytime, about 15 kangaroos were hanging around just behind the chapel. “Watch where you walk,” I heard one fellow-mourner say to her husband as they crossed the grass after the service. “We don’t want to have that in the car.”
I last saw Gx late last year when I ran into him at my place of work. He had just been to see a colleague of mine about the appeal (by the respondent) against a substantial award in his favour by the NSW Dust Diseases Tribunal. It was a bit embarrassing because when I first spotted him I didn’t recognize him because he had lost so much weight. At that stage Gx had had a lung removed in an effort to arrest the progress of cancer caught from youthful exposure to asbestos when working at Cockatoo Island Dockyard. We had lunch together. He affected optimism, though it appeared that sailing, which was a lifelong enthusiasm and one of the reasons he and his wife had moved from Sydney to Lake Macquarie, was no longer possible. He didn’t seem to have much of an appetite.
Around March, Gx learnt the cancer had spread to his stomach. After that his condition deteriorated rapidly. He was 62.