The History of Health Care in Porirua

"History is a mighty dramos, enacted upon the theatre of times, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background."

- Thomas Carlyle.

Image of Porirua Mental Hospital, c1920.
Porirua Mental Hospital, c.1920.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.7.34.

The Mental Health Museum

Porirua Mental Hospital
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref CD 21 Film 85 85_1.

The history of mental health care in New Zealand

The Porirua Hospital Museum is housed in the last remnant of the original Porirua Lunatic Asylum, once the largest hospital in New Zealand. Formal provision for mental health care in the Wellington area began in 1844 with the erection of a temporary wooden building for the insane, attached to the Wellington gaol. Under the Constitution of 1852, provincial councils were required to provide health services.

The first asylum in Wellington was established in Karori in 1854. Following a parliamentary inquiry into the Colony’s mental asylums in the colony in 1871, accusations of cruelty and ill-treatment of patients at the Karori Lunatic Asylum led to the building of a new facility. This asylum, opened in 1873, was situated on what is now the site of the Governor General’s residence near the Basin Reserve, and was known as the Mount View Asylum. However as the population of the city increased so did the pressure on the facility.

The Porirua Mental Asylum opened in 1887

Image of Porirua Mental Hospital grounds, c1912.
Porirua Mental Hospital grounds, c.1912.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.7.18.

With the abolition of the Provincial Councils in 1876, mental health care became the responsibility of central government. In 1884 work began on a new asylum at Porirua, which opened three years later. In 1891 worked commenced on a new two-storeyed brick hospital building at Porirua and this was completed in 1905. Porirua was at the time a rural asylum, located in the midst of a large tract of working farmland. The Porirua Mental Asylum was also the largest employer in the Porirua area and contributed greatly to the growth of Porirua City.

Under the Mental Defectives Act 1911, the Porirua Mental Asylum became the Porirua Mental Hospital, and management of the hospital was undertaken by a Medical, as distinct from lay Superintendents. Although activities such as farming had been part of the therapy of patients at Porirua from its opening, the act formally introduced the concept of occupational health. This led to the adoption of the villa system whereby patients could live in accommodation located away from the main building and where they could enjoy time outdoors within a secure facility.

F Ward - where the Hospital Museum is now based - opened in 1910

Image of View of F Ward.
View of F Ward.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref CD 21 Film 92 92_23.

The building known as F Ward was completed in 1910 as part of the new initiatives. The building, a simple rectangle in plan, was originally divided into separate rooms for refractory (disturbed) female psychiatric patients. A grassed courtyard and a sun shelter, enclosed by a security wire netting fence, were provided adjacent to the building. A key advocate for this system was Dr. Theodore Grant Gray, who was appointed to Porirua Hospital in 1911 as a Junior Assistant Medical Officer to the Medical Officer to the Medical Superintendent, Dr. Gray Hassell (Superintendent from 1890 to 1920). By the time F ward was completed, the hospital consisted of the main brick building, several timber ward buildings and carpenters’ and engineers’ workshops.

In 1912, a new water supply was constructed for the hospital by damming one of the streams running down from Colonial Knob. This was later expanded with a second dam and much effort was expended over the following years in keeping the supply clear of contamination. For more information about the water reservoirs, see the link at the bottom of this page.

Earthquakes in 1942 destroyed the hospital building

From the 1940s new treatments were offered in New Zealand, including Porirua. This, combined with new attitudes to mental health, led to the decline in the need for large institutions. In 1942 two large earthquakes in the Wellington region severely damaged the main hospital building, and in the following year it was demolished, leaving only F Ward as the last surviving ward. While new facilities were being built, the patients shifted to the government run Chateau, Tongariro. The ward continued to provide accommodation for female patients until the 1970s when it was closed.

F Ward opened as a Museum of Mental Health

Image of Inside the Porirua Hospital Museum.
Inside the Porirua Hospital Museum.
Susan Druitt (right), the Secretary for the Friends of Porirua Museum Trust,
showing Sam Price (left), formerly of Porirua City Council, how to use the X-ray machine.
Photo Porirua City Council ref 526630 COP/02/01/01-v1

It reopened as a museum of mental health soon after. Although some modification has taken place to accommodate new office space and museum displays, the original patients' rooms, nurse’s office, and dental surgery have been left as they were. Today polytechnic students, medical professionals and members of the public visit the museum for educational purposes.
With 2000 staff and patients by the turn of the century the hospital had a major effect on the development of the area.

In 1998 the Friends of the Porirua Hospital Museum was formed to ensure the continued survival of the Porirua Hospital Museum. The Friends aim to: promote the understanding of mental health and services for those with mental illness and disability; collect, preserve and present materials relevant to the history of the hospital; and preserve the Porirua Hospital Museum buildings and the site on which they stand.

The Porirua Hospital Museum has been a recipient of a Council grant of $15,000. For more information about this see Key site: Porirua Hospital Museum.

The Former Maternity Hospital

The Maternity Hospital was opened in 1957

This temporary maternity hospital was opened in 1957 in Elsdon to cope with the growing demand for maternity services in Porirua that followed the development of major blocks of state housing in the area. Prior to its opening, patients had to travel to Wellington or Paraparaumu for birthing deliveries and specialist maternity care.

The hospital was built around a nucleus of three standard state house units, linked with covered passages. An external block containing an incinerator, changing rooms and two toilets was added outside the delivery block in late 1957. The intention was that once the new Kenepuru Hospital was opened, the buildings would be converted back to housing units.

There was great demand for maternity services in the area

Dr Allan Smith was the first doctor to provide specialist maternity care in the area. He recalls the hospital as a comfortable and homely place but not always equal to demand - on occasions beds were rolled out into the corridors (pers. comm. 2007). Demand was such that there were three deliveries on the day before the hospital officially opened.

In 1960 the Hospital ceased being used for deliveries

The building’s use as a maternity hospital was superseded in the mid 1960s by the 47-bed Kenepuru Maternity Hospital. The building remained in hospital use in various guises, including a mental hospital from 1966 onwards. Alterations were made by the Wellington Hospital Board to Hart House, as it was then known, in 1987, including a new recreation room and lounge attached to the former kitchen block.

History of Kenepuru Hospital

The Maternity Hospital opened in 1965 and the main Hospital opened in 1979

When Kenepuru Maternity Hospital opened in 1965 it was always intended that a general hospital would one day join it on the site. The original intention was for a three-stage hospital with more than 600 beds. The plan finally took shape in June 1979, as the Wellington Hospital Board’s annual report noted. “Kenepuru Hospital is in the process of developing literally "out of the paddocks" and it is this sense that the spirit of pioneering adds excitement to main objective of providing an efficient hospital service within a rapidly developing community.”

Lack of government funding meant it was three years before the first patients could be admitted

With the first stage built the hospital opened offering limited out patient services available. It was another three years and a 6000 signature petition before the hospital was finally able to admit its first patient in November 1980. The hold-up had been lack of Government funding needed to staff and commission the hospital’s 165 beds and when the money did come in August 1980 it was only enough for 129 beds. An upgrade allowed the hospital to open two wards for orthopaedic and general patients. A medical ward followed later. A children’s ward opened in March 1982. In 2002, a $2 million 13-bed in-patient unit for teenagers with serious mental illness was opened at Kenepuru Hospital.

Public demand has kept the hospital running

There was some public criticism of the limited accident and emergency services available during weekdays only and in 1986 a petition demanding a 24 hour, seven day a week service was signed by 12,000 people. It appears that Kenepuru Hospital’s future has always been under review. There was a heated campaign, which in 2001 forced a halt to Wellington Hospital Board plans to cut all but six overnight beds. There has also been a strong campaign over the years to have Kenepuru Hospital become the site of Wellington's new regional hospital, but the Newtown, Wellington Hospital site was eventually chosen.


Links to external sites:

More photos of Porirua Lunatic Asylum

Photo of Porirua Hospital, early 1900s.
Porirua Hospital, early 1900s, looking south.
Photo of Porirua Hospital.
Porirua Hospital.
Photo of Porirua Hospital.
Porirua Hospital with old Porirua township in centre of photo,
21 March 1956.


Continue to Todd Motors or return to Porirua City Centre, Elsdon and Takapuwahia.