Peat and Milson Islands on the Hawkesbury River are poised on the very northern fringe of Sydney, around 50kms north of the CBD. You might recognise Peat Island if you ever travel between Sydney and Newcastle: the island is to the left of the bridge as you cross over the river. Some might have even spent time at Milson Island, which has been a sport and recreation camp since (at least) the early 1980s.

The islands were set aside for institutional use at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were originally intended as asylums for the care and cure of chronic alcoholics, who, in the language of the day, were known as inebriates. It was thought that the islands would be the ideal setting for inebriates asylums because their isolation and inaccessibility meant that inmates would be far from the temptations of the city.

Peat Island in the 1940s

Two islands were selected because it was anticipated that there would be separate institutions for men and women. The smaller of the two islands, which was Peat Island (earlier known as Rabbit Island), was to be for women. In a major engineering work, the island was cleared of vegetation and levelled to bedrock. Two ward buildings, a kitchen and sewing room were erected between 1902 and 1904.

No buildings were erected on Milson Island because it was thought that the male inebriates would build their own accommodation around themselves!

In 1904, work ceased at Peat (Rabbit) Island. After this time, building works stopped and started as political will and enthusiasm wavered for a purpose-built institution dedicated to treating inebriaty as a medical disease. By 1910, the mood had changed for good and the island was given a new purpose: as a hospital for boys and men with an intellectual disability. The island has had the same use for the last 99 years, although there are now women living there.

Milson Island, which was located around 1.5kms upstream, was given over to other uses between 1900 and 1920. It was a bacteriological laboratory; as a temporary quarantine station; and a hospital to treat soldiers from the First World War afflicted with venereal disease. By the early 1920s, as Rabbit (Peat Island) became overcrowded, Milson Island too became a hospital for people with an intellectual disability.

Peat and Milson Islands Mental Hospital was in operation from 1924 through to 1972. For its first forty years, the islands only accommodated male patients and employed male staff. Women were first hired in 1950 to work in the office, and later as domestics. Female nursing staff were first employed in 1964. At its peak in the late 1950s, there were 620 boys and men living on the two islands. 

Milson Island was closed in 1972, and  transferred to the Department of Corrections for use as a low security prison. It later became a sport and recreation camp. Peat Island has maintained its use as a facility for people with an intellectual disability, although today there are men and women living there. The centre is due to close later this year, marking the end of an important site in the history of intellectual disability in NSW.

Our Island Home: a history of Peat Island, published by ADHC, was launched on 3 March 2010.

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