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The Enchanted Forest

Seacliffe Lunatic Asylum ward destroyed by  fire killing 37 in 1942
Herstory that should not be forgotten - the haunting tragedy of the Seacliffe Lunatic Asylum fire.

Strange where randomly surfing the internet can take you.

Last Friday morning saw me lying in bed with my phone and a cup of coffee checking my emails, bank balance, messages from FaceBook and Newshub as per usual. Without knowing how or why I came upon a story that happened here in NZ and it has haunted me.

It is the tragedy of 37 women who were contained in Ward 5 in Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (later called Seacliff Mental Hospital) 28 kms north of Dunedin. The asylum was built in 1884 to accommodate people affected by the Otago Gold Rush.

Little if anything remains today of the massive Gothic building that was built to contain 500 patients and 50 staff. The dense forest around where the building was situated is called the Enchanted Forest. Seacliff was built in what was called a Gothic-themed fantasy castle design but it wasn't for the 37 women who perished one night on 8 December 1942.

The building was built mainly of stone although Ward 5, which housed the most “difficult” women patients was a two story wing added on and built of wood.

1942 was war time and because many nurses were elsewhere helping with the war effort; the shuttered and locked ward was only checked once every hour. By the time a male attendant noticed smoke coming from the ward, the fire had taken hold and within an hour it was reduced to ashes. So were 37 of the 39 women inside. The two who survived were not in rooms with locked shutters and were pulled free.

It was said in the Otago Daily Times that they died of suffocation from smoke inhalation. Mercifully they were dead before they perished.

I remember my mother telling me when I was a young girl that she had been sent to work in Porirua psychiatric hospital during the war under the Man-Power laws. Man-Power regulated where people worked. Mum was 18. She nursed and struck up a friendship with one of the patients who was a young women the same age. She told me this young woman was in there because she was having her father's baby.

The women in this institution were sometimes forced to submit to barbaric procedures such as the un-sexing operation (removal of the fallopian tubes, ovaries and clitoris). It was at the time considered a “successful” treatment. Electro-convulsive therapy was also widely used.

There were no automatic fire alarms in Ward 5, unlike in other newer parts of the hospital. Alarms in the building had to be raised by unlocking a cabinet and pushing a button to start the fire alarm.

The remains of these women were buried in unmarked graves. At the time, very few people spoke of the incident or publicly remembered the names of the women who died because of the stigma surrounding mental health and the fact that a member of their family had been committed to the


On 11 December 2017 a memorial plaque was unveiled in memory of these women.

I read their names and felt a great sadness. They were grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts aged between 23 and 71.

I came across another link and listened to the video of a beautiful song called: “I'm not sick I swear;” and it reduced me to tears. It was written and sung for the Seacliff women.

I decided to write this because I had to. I don't think many people in NZ would be aware that this happened and it ranks as one of NZ's deadliest fires.

Thankfully we have a much greater understanding of women's holistic health and many ways to treat them naturally; herbs to calm and support, incorporating foods which support the brain and homeopathics that help too. Workshops where women can get together and talk with other women are really helpful. We need to be able to talk in safe places with others who know the pressures that women endure while learning the old crafts the wise women taught and practiced. That's one of my visions for the workshops.

For too long we have not been allowed to be women unless we conform to a patriarchal model of what is acceptable. That is changing and the feminine divine is rising.

A woman called to me through the internet ether and made me aware of this heart-breaking story; 37 women just like us. Maybe it was one of them that called to me. This story should never be lost in the annuls of history. It is herstory and their memory deserves to be kept alive.

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