To provide in-patient treatment and rehabilitation of mentally ill and mentally handicapped persons, including treatment of alcoholics.
Lunatics were sent to the Asylum in Sydney until the separation of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land in 1824. Thereafter they were housed in the Colonial Hospitals.
An Invalid Depot, with a small hospital to treat periods of acute illness and serve the local community, was established at New Norfolk. The first invalids were admitted on 2 June 1827. A Lunatics Ward was added two years later and the first admissions were on 8 April 1829. Initially the inmates were all male. The first female admission, to the lunatic ward, was on 14 January 1831. In 1832 Lt-Governor Arthur decided to concentrate all lunatics at New Norfolk. The new buildings, finished in 1834, could house 110 male and 20 female invalids and 40 lunatics of each sex.
As a result of overcrowding the invalids were transferred to other invalid stations attached to convict depots in 1837 and thereafter the establishment at New Norfolk was used predominantly for the treatment of mental diseases.
Changes in the name of the Institution since that date have reflected changes in community and/or government attitude towards mental illness.The principal name changes, dated as accurately as possible, are as follows: Lunatic Asylum, New Norfolk 1829-1859, Hospital for the Insane, New Norfolk 1859-1915, Mental Diseases Hospital, New Norfolk 1915-1937, Lachlan Park Hospital 1937-1968, Royal Derwent Hospital 1968 - 2001. Developments within the Asylum/Hospital also reflected changing community attitudes.
In the early years, however, the most notable influence on the Asylum was the cyclical nature of the Colonial economy. Pressure on the Asylum's resources was only resolved by further discharges of invalids. All female invalids were transferred to Hobart Colonial Hospital in 1846 and the remaining male invalids in 1848. That year general hospital treatment for the local community also ceased. Henceforth New Norfolk was exclusively a mental institution.
Both free settlers and convicts were treated at New Norfolk, although violent convicts were transferred to the Asylum established at Port Arthur. On 1 October 1855 the Asylum was transferred from the Imperial to the Colonial establishment. Overcrowding was again relieved by transfers, all remaining convict inmates being moved to Port Arthur. From then on overcrowding could only be relieved by new buildings or extensions to existing ones, a constant source of tension between the Colonial Government and the Board of Commissioners appointed to supervise the operation of the Asylum. Indeed, as late as 1880 the Commissioners felt compelled to point out, in their annual report, that the need for a Hospital for the Insane would not pass with the passing of the generation of ex-convicts.
The Insane Persons Hospital Act, 1858 (22 Vict. No. 23) reconstituted the Commissioners and established a legislative framework for the Hospital. By 1864 the Commissioners were able to report that separate cottages had been erected for men, women and boys of the "better class", that many of the walls had been removed and that recreations had been introduced. These changes were not permanent, however, as economic pressures constantly forced changes.
Tensions with Government came to a head in 1883 with the establishment of a Royal Commission. Its recommendations were ignored, most probably because it criticised the Government for its neglect and poor funding. The following year a Specialists Committee was established and its report repeated the critisisms of the Royal Commission. The Government's response was to legislate in 1885 (49 Vict. No. 35) to abolish the Commissioners. Much of their executive power devolved upon the Medical Superintendent and Official Visitors were appointed. The duties of the latter were largely limited to reporting on periodic inspections.
During the 1890's the surviving convict insane, who had been housed at the Cascades since the closure of Port Arthur, were transferred to New Norfolk. The majority came in 1890. Those classified as criminally insane were initially transferred to a Hospital for the Insane established within the Campbell Street Gaol.This was closed in December 1893 and its 27 patients were transferred to New Norfolk. Once again New Norfolk was the only Hospital for the Insane in Tasmania.
After World War I a complementary institution was developed on land belonging to the Millbrook Estate which had been suggested for addition to New Norfolk on several occasions. The Millbrook Rise Psychopathic Hospital opened in 1934 and for the first ten years its medical staff were provided by what had become Lachlan Park Hospital. The relationship continued to be a close one, with patients moving between the two hospitals according to their condition and needs. Lachlan Park became the Royal Derwent Hospital on 27 March 1968 and absorbed Millbrook Rise on 1 July that year.
Even in the 20th century there were periodic Royal Commissions and Committees of Enquiry and progress was slow and halting. Specialist training for the staff was commenced in 1919 but abandoned two years later. Although "activities" had been provided since the 1860s occupational therapy was not formalised until 1936 and occupational therapists were not appointed until 1946. The first social worker followed in 1949. The most recent enquiries into the Royal Derwent were in 1972 and 1979.
Possibly the most dramatic change was the establishment, by the Mental Health Services Act 1967, of a Board of Management for the Royal Derwent. The Board, which came into being on 1 July 1968, brought the Royal Derwent into line with the other hospitals in the State.
Changing attitudes led to the separation of facilities for the intellectually disabled from those for the treatment of mental illness and responsibility for the former was transferred to the Department of Community Services in 1990 as the Willow Court program.
During the 1990s attitudes to the long-term treatment of mental illness changed and the wards at the Royal Derwent were progressively closed as treatment and support were made available through health facilities located in the wider community and wards were opened in the Royal Hobart and Launceston General Hospitals to treat acute psychiatric cases. The institution was effectively shut down in November 2000.