The Hospital that was Sunnyside.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

An unusual experience for a young lad.

One of my mates used to play rugby against me for his club, Sunnyside Spreydon, which made us laugh, because any mention of Sunnyside was to us a referral to the mental hospital there. Whenever we drove past it Dad would tell me what went on in there, but the only times I heard my parents talk about it was when Dad told my Mum about a customer who routinely admitted his wife into Sunnyside because she listened to a radio! It was against his religious beliefs, but my parents couldn’t understand why the hospital admitted her for such a trivial reason. They speculated it should him that was admitted!

Sunnyside Mental hospital was some fifteen minutes bike-ride from our house but as kids we never referred to it as a mental hospital, rather we used all the slang terms that are well known, for such institutions. There were plenty of jokes about the place, some irreverent and some weakly humorous, but kids laugh easily. Originally called the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, the hospital opened in 1863 and had a distinct gothic look about it.

My parents employed a man to do some interior painting in our house and chatterbox me, spent after-school time watching him work and asked him questions. Somebody different to talk to I guess. I managed to wheedle out of him that he wore another hat, that of a film projectionist, he showed movies on Friday and Saturday nights at a flea-pit theatre in Sumner. On Tuesday nights he also showed movies at the Sunnyside Mental Hospital. How it came about, and why my parents allowed me to go, I can’t be sure, but for two years, every Tuesday night, I accompanied him to the hospital to watch some great old movies.

I was wide-eyed and nervous the first time I went there, for a ten year old, that huge, grotesque building seemed foreboding. Grey is the overwhelming impression I have of the exterior, and years later watching Colditz on a black and white television was a stark reminder of the hospital. Mr. Wellbourne must have been vetted for entry into the place, he seemed to have free reign! I remember no process that gave me permission to be there, but it seemed he was trusted, and hospital staff hardly noticed me.

One of the inmates, a stocky fellow who I only knew as ‘Shorty’, would be waiting for us when Mr. Wellbourne used this huge medieval key to gain entry to the cream-painted foyer. Shorty would be standing beside the tin case of film reels and when we were ready to climb the stairs to the projection room, he hefted them onto his shoulder. Every door we came to was locked and there were five to pass through. Locking each door there as an ominous clunk and I was grateful I was on the same side as the man with the key! Everywhere inside the building was the same cream paint, and the roof beams were varnished.

The projector room was high above the dining room. Below us the inmates had finished their evening meal and sat waiting for the movie to start. I was able to lean over a balcony to watch the activity below and never saw anything remotely insane. In all the time I was there, the inmates sat quietly, chatting to each other. One time when a newsreel showed some floodgates slowly closing, someone took an epileptic fit, that’s all.

The films were full feature length and the projector was one of those that burnt carbon rods. Mr. Wellbourne was careful to keep the rods just the right distance apart for maximum flare. There was just the one projector, and I learned that the flash at the top right hand of the picture was a warning the reel was nearly finished and the next flash was the signal for projectionists who had two projectors, to switch projectors for continuous viewing. But with the one, there was a delay for the used reel to be replaced with the new one, and Mr. Wellbourne was quick at doing it. There was never impatience or foot stomping on the part of the audience. I supposed the orderlies were watching!

Shorty and would talk to me about the movie but he took his role seriously, so at reel change time he would quit the conversation, because his job was to take the used reel and put it into the metal case. To this day don’t know why Shorty was in there but I was told there were murders and some really bad people incarcerated in the place. I have no idea if only the less dangerous patients were allowed to watch the movies. It was rumored that Parker and Hulme of Heavenly Creatures fame, were held at Sunnyside, but certainly doctors from Sunnyside interviewed them extensively before the court case.

In a way, it was like a proper movie theatre because there was a record player and at intermission or when the film broke I played one for four seventy eight records. After the movie, Mr. Wellbourne always played The Invercargill March, performed by the Dunedin City Brass Band (stirring stuff!) as the audience filed out in an orderly fashion. Shorty lugged those heavy reels back down to the foyer, and then we would take him through those big, banging, lock-clunking doors to his dormitory. All patients in the dorm were already in their beds, and they would crane their necks to catch sight of us.

On rare occasions, along those dim corridors, we met inmates who were ‘wandering’. One of those was a man with considerable physical disability. He shuffled along, knees together and bent over, unable to speak, and always holding his hand out.

‘That’s Shaky.’ I was told, ‘He just wants to shake your hand.’

And he did.

The lighting in the hospital was dim, and for some reason we were required to go to a kitchen area where we sat at a wooden table waiting for an inmate to bring Mr. Wellbourne a cup of tea and two wine biscuits. Maybe I wasn’t offered one or maybe I refused – I don’t recall but I didn’t get one! I do recall watching, high above me balancing on those large varnished beams that held the steep roof in place, as a mischief of rats scurried to and fro, dancing The Light Fantastic, waiting for Mr. Wellbourne to drop a few crumbs!

I suspect there are not too many fond memories of that place and maybe it’s better that it has been closed down, but still there’s a void, the treatment of people with mental disorders still isn’t anywhere near adequate.



Submitted: April 12, 2018

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Add Your Comments:



What an interesting read, Moa... For some odd reason, I enjoy reading about notorious asylums and what really goes on in there. I love the lore, I suppose. Well done :)

Thu, April 12th, 2018 2:42pm


Thank you Jay, I'm pleased you enjoyed it. I have since heard stories about the place. Maybe I'll make something out of them. Usianguke

Thu, April 12th, 2018 1:05pm


This was a great memoir piece, Moa. There is a building just like that in the city near here -- amazing how they made them look so daunting.

Fri, April 13th, 2018 8:40pm


Thank you Mama Hullabaloo. Yes austere and unwelcoming. I guess I wasn't so daunted because I saw it often beforehand. Usianguke

Fri, April 13th, 2018 2:44pm

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