The Untold Story of Ward 21
There’s not much left anymore. The scattered burnt-out cars and graffiti-covered walls provide little information about the lives this ground once held. Morisset’s Ward 21, also known as The Crim, is a place often talked about, but of which little is known.
Built in 1933, Ward 21 was constructed to provide a maximum-security facility for those judged to be criminally insane in New South Wales. The few remaining structures showcase a pool now so full of algae and mould the water has turned black like tar, as well as rooms that once housed the likes of William MacDonald, Bogdan Mazurski and Derek Ernest Percy. What the rubble and the made-up ghost tales don’t show, however, is the true history of what life was like inside Ward 21.
Paul Muncaster began working at Ward 21 in February of 1963 as an 18-year-old attracted by the higher wages, the stability of a permanent job, and the ability to work four days on, three days off. He soon discovered another perk of working at Ward 21 was the lifelong friendships that he made.
‘It became the way you worked with people like Jim Parker and Russell Dwyer. It was having these gentlemen alongside me that, for me, made Ward 21; there was always people there that you knew you could rely on. We had one of our charge nurses from Ward 21 who passed away the other day, and we were all at his funeral. If you’d seen the guys who turned up there and the comradeship and the trust with everybody, you’d understand. These guys became your friends; you might not see them for ages, you might only catch up at the funerals, but you still know that you’ve got these people.’
The importance of having someone to watch your back was no dramatic detail; Ward 21 could quickly become a dangerous place for any staff members who ostracised themselves and put too much trust in patients.
‘There was a charge nurse stabbed to death. He was the boss of Ward 21 and he used to always hand out this pair of secateurs to patients,’ remembered Russell Dwyer, another previous employee at The Crim. ‘One day the patient must have been hearing bad voices or something, and he took the things and stabbed him straight through the head.
‘I started at Peat Island and spent about seven months there,’ continues Russell. ‘Then I came up to Morisset in about 1964 and I plugged along there. I loved it. It was a lot better than the hard, physical work I’d done all my life on sawmills and things like that. Suddenly you get in with people where you can build up a rapport, even though some of them you probably wouldn’t want to know on the outside. You did have to have your wits about you at all times, though. We had some rough characters there.’
The third member of the trio, Jim Parker, a previous Assistant Director of Nursing who began working at the Ward in 1958, also remembers the secateurs incident.
‘He was a person who ostracised himself. He thought he knew more, thought he was going to change the ways, and started taking the word of patients over staff. That’s why you didn’t make an island of yourself; you had all your friends and you knew you had to back them up and you knew damn well they’d back you up.
‘I worked there for 30-odd years, came up through the ranks as a Junior Nurse, Senior Nurse, Junior Charge and then Senior Charge. Then in the last three years I worked as a supervisor or Assistant Director of Nursing. I only went to work there for a little while to wait for another one of the power stations to start, and then I discovered that working four days and having three off was pretty good, and I started to enjoy working there, so I decided I’d like to stay.’
The Infamous Patients of Ward 21
Some notorious names of the criminal world lived inside the walls of Ward 21 during its operation.
William MacDonald, also known as the (Sydney) Mutilator, was considered Australia’s first real serial killer. Between 1961 and 1962, MacDonald committed a string of gruesome murders, before he was apprehended in 1963. He would target male victims and lure them away before stabbing them multiple times and then severing their genitals. MacDonald was convicted by reason of insanity, found to have schizophrenia, and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences to become the longest continuous-serving inmate in New South Wales.
Derek Percy was incarcerated in 1970 for an indefinite period after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for the murder of 12-year-old Yvonne Tuohy in 1969. It was later uncovered in 2014 that Percy was responsible for the death of seven-year-old Linda Stilwell in 1968. It was also suspected Percy was linked to the Wanda Beach murders – the unsolved deaths of two teenage girls, Marianne Schmidt and Christine Sharrock, in 1965 – though right up until his death in 2013 he never admitted to any further crimes.
Another infamous patient was Bogdan Mazurski. On September 9, 1959, Mazurski was arrested after killing one person and injuring at least ten others with a tomahawk in a Sydney film theatre. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to Ward 21, where he later committed suicide in 1972.
The Closure of Ward 21
After 60 years of operation, Ward 21 was permanently closed in 1990, with patients moved to a newly built facility called Kestrel Unit. Like a lot of things in the world today, it seems the change was prompted by money, as well as the development of more appropriate facilities within jails.
‘We had to have a certain number of staff on at all times, and as always, they thought they could do it cheaper. So they decided to build the Kestrel Unit, which would have all the cameras and everything else, and then they would need less staff to maintain it,’ said Paul. ‘I moved and worked in Kestrel. There were a lot of issues initially because of this new idea with the cameras, and one of the things they didn’t realise is that a lot of psychiatric patients hear voices coming from cameras and TVs and radios that tell them to do things. So now the patients can see the cameras following them, and so therefore it sometimes makes it worse. They also didn’t have doors locked, which then meant a patient could come out and attack someone else in the room, sexually assault them and all sorts of things. I think there’s been more staff assaulted in Kestrel than we probably ever had in Ward 21, but it’s grown up now.’
‘I think another thing that led to the closure of Ward 21 was when they opened up the new psych wing up at Long Bay [Correctional Centre], and they started to cater for them there, rather than having about 90% of the patients coming from the jail to us,’ said Jim. ‘Without having this influx of people, it meant the numbers dropped, but despite the numbers dropping, we couldn’t drop staff because of the way we had to man the ward.’
This change to a more technological state of supervision meant the trust that developed between patient and staff during Ward 21’s operation began to waive.
‘When we were working, they would come to you and say, “I’m hearing voices” or “Something is happening,”’ said Paul. ‘They felt they could trust the staff, and that trust between patients and nurses was one of the things that helped the ward run like it was – which, unfortunately, with the cameras and things we’ve got happening today, doesn’t quite work the same. I’ve had letters written to me from patients thanking me for looking after them and they did feel that, even though it was called an asylum, that they felt safe.’