There is a deep dark history that haunts the corridors of some of our old Unitec buildings. Where we now drag our feet to class or slump our way to Long Black Café for a morning coffee, Auckland’s top mental patients once loomed. The building was designed and then built in 1865. It was funded with a loan from the Provincial Council in an effort to erect more public buildings in Auckland. There were a growing amount of mental patients in the city who needed more space, hence the construction of Carrington Psychiatric Asylum. From 1867 onward to 1992 the building was the home to scandal, mystery and controversy.

Nurses at Carrington Psychiatric Asylum

Left: Group of Female Assistants, Auckland Mental Hospital        Right: Female Assistant, Auckland Mental Hospital

The Unitec that we know and love today has undergone a remarkable change since it’s heyday as Auckland’s scandalous insane asylum. The campus, specifically Building 1, 6 and 76, was the quarters for “lunatics” and nursing staff. The Asylum existed during a time where mental illnesses were conditions taken more lightly. Sorts of behaviour that deviated from ‘the norm’ risked time sent away to the “loonie bin”.

The Asylum underwent many changes, upgrades, renovations and renames when it was active. Over its near 120 years of service it was known as, “The Auckland Mental Hospital”, “Oakley Hospital” “Whau Lunatic Hospital” “Avondale Asylum” and more familiarly as “Carrington Psychiatric Asylum”. The Asylum saw its final days at the start of the 90s when the building was sold, and the patients were moved out.


Over its years, Carrington Psychiatric Asylum saw its fair share of scandal. Within the first couple of decades, the hospital admitted far too many patients for the capacity of the facility. At one point, it is remembered that crowds of patients were sent to sleep in the Chapel to free up space. There were constant discussions surrounding the overcrowding at the asylum within the House of Representatives.

There were also many conversations in the media and political spectrum regarding the amount of available staff. The staff nurses and guards often complained about working conditions, hours and expectations. There were not nearly enough people employed at the hospital to keep up with the stressful demand of the job.

Whether the patient to staff ratio played into the next set of scandals or not, we can not be sure. There are many accounts of escaped or “cured and released” patients who claim that the treatment of “lunatics” within the hospital was totally unethical and at times unwarranted. Often, patients who were brought to the hospital were admitted under unconfirmed circumstances of insanity. Here, we find an example of a man who was admitted for being “found wandering aimlessly around Epsom”. Surely, there are quite a few of us who are guilty of much more speculative behaviour than some aimless wandering.

Nurses and caretakers at Carrington Psychiatric Asylum


There were multiple accounts of the wrong patients being withheld at the hospital as well as those being released into public again. The lack of a “half-house system” at the time caused a major stir throughout the discussion of asylums all across the span of New Zealand.

On the night over 20 September 1877, the hospital saw its first tragic fire. This fire left the entire first floor of the east wing in ruins. A man by the name of Philip Herapath was brought in to redesign the wing of the hospital. He drew up plans for the extension of the hospital soon thereafter. By 1880, the extension of the hospital was completed in order to properly house and accommodate for the growing amount of patients. Unfortunately, the extension only exacerbated the overcrowding issue as more and more patients were admitted to the hospital due to its increased space.

At the tail end of 1879, the Crown purchased the farm land behind the Hospital. The farm introduced a new set of ‘leisure activities’ for the patients that focused their attention on physical activities outdoors. Patients worked to maintain and cultivate the property.

Alternative medicines, treatments and activities were experimented with over the next hundred years for treating patients at Carrington Psychiatric Asylum. It is rumoured that the electric shock therapy room was located directly under where Long Black Cafe now stands. During the early 20th century, there were also many stories leaked to the media about patients being mistreated and even abused at times.

Throughout the remaining years of the Asylum’s existence there were countless deaths on account of murder, suicide and “accident”. These deaths included those of both patients and staff members. It has been speculated that on certain nights, the ghosts of these tortured souls still visit the corridors of Building One.

Left: Group of Male Assistants, Auckland Mental HospitaL     Right:Female Assistant Leaning Against Tree, Auckland Mental HospitalHospitaL
All of the black and white photographs in this feature were taken by Margaret Matilda White (1868-1910). She is speculated to have been part of the nursing staff at Carringtons Psychiatric Asylum in the 1890s. These photos are part of a series she took during that time period that reflects on the conditions of the hospital staff themselves at that time. Thank you to the Auckland Museum and Gordon Maitland for providing these timeless images.