Reader’s letter – Willow Court

Willow Court – A jewel within a jewel
ONE expresses a northern dweller’s view of New Norfolk as a many faceted sparkling gemstone set in our island state. It is redolent with the charm of our history. Sadly the institutional bodies responsible for the preservation of our historic built heritage have never taken it seriously enough to preserve or promote it as a major tourist attraction. Still less have they fought for the funding necessary to save its iconic jewels for our nation.  

The National Trust of Tasmania once visited New Norfolk, nodded appreciatively and as usual did nothing to assist the local community whatsoever. The Heritage Council made a point of stirring up clouds of artificial dust objecting to red awnings in Hobart but has virtually ignored one of our most “significant” architectural treasures. Yes, one points to “Willow Court” – a glorious Georgian building that actually pre-dates Port Arthur – now sadly enclosed in a wired-up inaccessible compound, its sad neglected state bringing a lump to one’s throat.

One observes that it is easier to stir up clouds of pointless dust about the restoration of a city building from the comfort of an office a few yards down the road, giving the impression that something is being done, rather than actually doing something important to preserve our heritage. When you collect piles of dust on outdated policy manuals a puff of wind will cloud every issue, extend publicity, and satisfy the community at large than someone is looking after the important issues.

Both of these curious and certainly outdated institutions offer nothing but smoke and mirrors. They will fight tooth and nail to save a ruined cottage or a rat-infested half-wrecked warehouse as city eyesores, or to save a redundant and superfluous chimney stack, whilst ignoring the really important issues. To say that they have lost the plot is a graphic understatement.

Perhaps a future State Government will see the cost-saving advantages of amalgamating our island’s National Trust and our Heritage Council and the virtue of making them answerable to a government and public committee. As things stand their absurd posturing discourages offshore investment, makes virtually no contribution to our educational system and even less to our struggling tourist industry.

Both enjoy the status of “independence” and flaunt their heritage-paralysing pontifications without shame or justification. As a public expense the time for a serious revue of their value to our society is long overdue – particularly when schools are facing closure in places threatening the economic viability of rural communities, our overworked police forces are being undermanned and our medical services are in crisis.

Willow Court is a major building when it comes to classification under the heading of “significant” and the neglect that it is now suffering at the hands of State and Federal governments amounts to deliberate irresponsible institutional criminal vandalism. 
Willow Court started out as an invalid barracks for military personnel and for convicts with mental problems. In an age when people believed that the moon had an influence over our cerebral dispositions it was known as a Lunatic Asylum. Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, one our most unjustifiably maligned but enlightened governors, expanded its facilities in the 1830s so that it could accommodate about 130 patients. In the 1850s it grew into a major institution as the penal settlements were closed down and the need for an institution capable of handling invalids and the mentally disturbed became obvious.

The entire complex was sold – some say irresponsibly as a vote-getting exercise by the State Labor Government – to the local council but as is so often the case the undertakings and commitments given at the point of sale were not met. Political promises were as empty as the state’s Treasury. Few expressed any genuine surprise.

What should happen now? The State Government should honour its obligations to the people of New Norfolk. A bright star on the horizon of possibilities is the election of Dr Dianne Snowden to the chair of our Heritage Council, bringing a new practical outlook to a body that has for years along with the Tasmanian National Trust, festered in inactivity and meaningless mumbo-jumbo.

The only thing The Tasmanian National Trust has done for Willow Court is to list it on a “Heritage at Risk” document in 2009. The Heritage Council has previously regretted the fact that is too far from Hobart to invite serious attention. One supposes that Port Arthur is much closer?  

Perhaps the best idea is to retain a sample of the buildings that grew up about the Georgian invalid barracks as the Royal Derwent Hospital for immediate restoration as a “very significant” heritage site and major tourist attraction and to sell off the remaining buildings for demolition and contemporary residential development.

Di Snowden has intimated that she wants to seek public input and she will find many voices to support this proposal knowing that something has to be done to protect this site from continued political and social vandalism. The people of New Norfolk deserve prompt action. I have offered to assist the Heritage Council in any way possible and await their response.


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