Yasmar – Ashfield, NSW

As you crawl along Parramatta Road, past the Vita Weat building, the Strathfield Burwood Evening College, the Homebush Racecourse, the Midnight Star, the Silk Road, the Brescia showroom and Chevy’s Ribs, you might notice these forbidding gates peeking out from behind a near-impenetrable wall of bushes. On a road full of head-turners and eye-catchers, a true time warp awaits the hand of progress to seize it by the overgrown scruff of its neck and haul it into the 21st century.

It can wait a little longer while we take a look. After all, it’s only existed in its present state for over 150 years.

The unusual name of Yasmar originated in 1856, when Haberfield landowner Alexander Learmonth erected his home on the estate, which he had inherited through marriage to the granddaughter of ubiquitous Sydney property tycoon Simeon Lord. Learmonth named the house Yasmar after his father-in-law, a Dr. David Ramsay. Surrounding Yasmar House was a magnificent garden, designed in the Georgian fashion to gradually reveal and present the house.

Very gradually, clearly.

In 1904, the property was leased by Grace Brother Joseph Grace, and became his Xanadu. Fittingly, Citizen Grace died in the house in 1911. The estate fell into the hands of the NSW Government in 1944, who promptly proceeded to establish a centre for juvenile justice on site.

When it dawned on the powers-that-be that years of horticultural neglect had created the Alcatraz-style escape proof prison seen today, the estate was turned into a juvenile detention centre, which lasted from 1981 to 1994, when the Department for Juvenile Justice relocated, presumably using machetes. From then until 2006, the grounds housed NSW’s only female juvenile justice centre, and since that time, politicians have argued back and forth to have Yasmar made available to the public.

These days, it appears that Yasmar is used as a government training facility. The entrance is around the side in Chandos Street, giving visitors a sense of the sheer scale of the site.

Seeing as the gate was open, I went right in, ignoring the deterrent magpies perched threateningly in nearby trees.

Yasmar’s gardens are huge, but much is now taken up by the training and detention facilities. The open day held in late July allowed visitors a rare look around the grounds and inside the house. What’s that? You didn’t make it? Lucky for you I was there. Read on…

It’s believed that this may have been Australia’s first ever swimming pool, but a more common theory is that it acted as a sunken garden. Either way, it had long since fallen into dereliction by the time I got to have a look.

The view from the inside. There have only been a handful of open days held here since the early 90s, and this year’s was the first since 2007, so this isn’t a view many people get. It’s…great.

Through the thick foliage you can see the various detention and training facilities located around the grounds.

A better view of the house itself. It’s not all that impressive on the outside. I was expecting something grander. Inside, however…

…it’s still just an old house. No, it’s actually fascinating in its own ancient way, and the weight of history here is pretty hefty. Many of those visiting for the open day were former inmates. One hadn’t lost his rebellious nature at all over the years, ducking under the ‘do not cross’ tape to venture deeper into the house before being shouted at by the supervisor. The system doesn’t work.

You wonder just how much they cared about child welfare back then.

Out in the courtyard it’s pretty bleak. Though they did have one great feature I’m consistently a sucker for:

Yes, that’s right. The door to nowhere.

What’s also notable is the nearby Yasmar Avenue, further adding to the sense of entrenchment of the estate within the Ashfield area.

Although neglected and misunderstood like so many of its inmates, Yasmar, Sydney’s Mayerling, exists as a unique example of a 19th century estate virtually unchanged since its establishment. While governments and councils have fooled around for decades over Yasmar’s fate, the estate itself has become an integral part of the Parramatta Road experience. In its current state, it is to Parramatta Road what that ancient expired carton of milk is to your fridge – an indicator of just how bad a housekeeper you are.

For more on the illustrious history of Yasmar, check out Sue Jackson-Stepowski’s excellent write-up here.

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19 responses

  1. thanks for the witty write-up! There will be an open day at Yasmar on the 28th July and your piece has made me decide to go check it out.

  2. fascinating to see Yasmar again after all these years – yes I was an inmate about 1951-2. one of the comments made here was “You wonder just how much they cared about child welfare back then”. they didn’t very much – I suppose in those times they really didn’t know how to care. there were beatings, with canes an fist’ and open hands mainly from the guards, but other fights broke out among inmates also. The discipline was `Rigid’ and in may cases broke the spirits of the young boys incarcerated there through not much fault of their own.
    To be sure, those conditions would not prevail in todays society, those conditions and treatments simply would not be tolerated.

    1. Fascinating to hear about your experience, thank you for sharing! Have you ever been back there yourself?

      1. Yes but only in transit from Mittagong when my mother came to take me back home. I was quite young then but still have vivid memories of that awful place, the dreadful misconceived ways of how children should be treated, when they are `only children’.

        My mother was a war widow – my father was killed in Singapore February 15th 1942 at the invasion by the Japanese Imperial Forces.

        Mother was three months pregnant with me at that time I was born August 15 1942 – poor mother just couldn’t cope – things just happened in those hard times and we, my brothers and me were taken away from her by Judge Murphy and place into that institution even though through no fault of our own.

        Some kids make it through, some stumble further on through life with scars, and many just give up completely with suicide through the scars that early life dealt them.

        I suppose I have been fortunate to have gotten through okay, although not unscathed having had social problems with alcohol which I attribute to those awful unjust times.

        I really don’t know why I all of a sudden looked up Yasmar on the net, maybe it was an inspiration from a higher power or my guardian angel, whichever, and although it brought back memories i had not thought of since then, then perhaps it was meant to be a release.

        Thank you for writing back.
        Best
        Boots.

  3. When my father left my mother in 1965 (something for which I never blamed him) we had to rely on our mother for care. She apparently had other ideas and ran off to chase men and have “fun” whilst her children; Michael 11, Paul (me) 9, Geoff 5 and Brett 6 months were left to fend for ourselves. We fed ourselves by pushing an old cane pram around to collect beer bottles from garbage bins and sold the to a bottle yard. Eventually we were discovered to be abandoned and one morning Police and Child Welfare gained access to our home and we were taken, processed and Michael and myself were taken to Yasmar.
    My clearest memories of my time there are being knocked almost senseless by an officer for saying something to my brother whilst standing at attention after a session of marching. Having to ask for permission to go to the bathroom and a permanent feeling of intimidation thanks to the sick staff who were put in charge of our care.
    I was lucky in that I scored well in the IQ and psychological testing at Yasmar and was sent to Castle Hill House when I was old enough for High School. That changed my life and gave me the opportunity to gain a good education. My brothers did not fare so well; Michael had several stints in gaol after time in Mittagong; Geoff, I believe is in gaol for murder and Brett is a lost soul with drug issues.
    A normal family, hardly. The blame for this damage belongs at the door of the persons in a position of authority who did not care enough to protect me and my siblings and countless thousands of other children unfortunate enough to require their care and protecting.
    I wish that others who were inmates at Yasmar now have found some peace and happiness in their lives and that they were able to re-connect with their families.
    Regards,
    Paul

  4. Hello Paul, yes i can relate to your story; Yasmar was an awful place; an awful place `made’ possible through the people who controlled it. looking back on those days, it could be likened to the early penal days that our fore-fathers suffered when convicts at the hands of those then cruel men and women who acted as guards, but in reality were nothing short of criminals themselves.
    As I said in my testimony, and I would like to think it – society sure wouldn’t stand for that type of treatment for children in today’s society.
    My bothers also have had a rough ride through life, they are still roughing life with many scars, and no doubt the scars in those early years had an enormous effect on them; but as we all know, nothing last’s forever, and that includes `life itself’ so I just hope that next time around we get dealt better cards.
    It’s good to hear `you’ are doing okay but sorry to hear your brothers have had a rough ride through life, i hope in the end they get through in an okay way.
    Best regards,
    Boots.

    1. Hi Boots,
      I just found your message when visiting this site again. Thank you for your well wishes and as I stated earlier my life has been a stark contrast to my childhood experiences. I am still searching for my eldest brother with little success and my next youngest brother has joined some sect and changed his name and hopefully found some peace. My youngest brother’s address is known to me but I have not made the move to contact him and re-enter his left life. These decisions might sound simple and basic to others but to me they are huge steps as not only do I have to consider the impact my sudden appearance might have on them. I must also weigh up the risk of taking the step on my own life and family.
      I applied and received my institution records from Family & Community Services and I would encourage others to do likewise. It gave me an insight into the type of child I was through adult eyes and I recognised the damage my childhood spent in institutions had imparted on me. Thankfully I got over them and developed into a confident man whose career in management was long (40 years) and productive. Education in tandem with the right environment can make a dramatic difference to a youth and I believe that my experience is proof of this fact. Every disadvantaged child should be scooped up and placed on a path to success with education, environment and guidance forming the foundation.
      I also wish you well and trust that every year delivers health and happiness to share with those close to you.
      Regards,
      Paul

  5. My mum came here and when I try to talk to her about it she will ignore me or say shut up why was it that bad or is it the suffering she had spent in there cause she almost killed someone I’m with her right now but she is asleep she

  6. Long time since I’ve heard back from anyone that had that Yasmar experience

  7. A long time now since I have heard from anyone with the Yasmar experience – more than likely everyone is trying to get on with what is left of life, that or have passed over into the dimension of Peace! – Peace, and Caring with out creator Almighty God, who I recognise as Jesus Christ.
    Best regards,
    Boots.

    1. I have posted my story here previously. Ais is stated earlier, I have managed to get on with my life and lived a productive one with steady employment, plenty of travel and raised a family of three children with my wife of forty one years. I consider myself fortunate to have dealt with the demons of my childhood and somehow managed to shrug off the negative affects. The saddest part for me has that I have lost my siblings and because we grew up apart we have remained that way with no prospect of repairing that broken connection. The other thing that I am thankful for is that I did not perpetuate the cycle of abuse from my childhood. I disciplined my children by speaking calmly and explaining the behaviour we expected from them and respecting them enough to listen to what they had to say. They never had a smack or had r a son to question that they were anything but loved and cherished. They have repaid us as parents by growing to be strong, courteous and respectful of others.
      None of us who were unfortunate enough to be sent to Yasmar had any control over the time we were there; but from the time we grew into adults, married and had children we have full control.

      I wish everyone who had the misfortune to spend time in Yasmar a life full of renewal containing health and happiness.

      Regards,
      Pau

  8. jeffery carpenter | Reply

    I too survived that shit hole. Was there 1971-72.

    1. Hi Jeffery, Yes it was a shit hole, and it certainly didn’t give an example of good citizenship. Although, and not to be excused, back in those days society was still in a mode of acceptance, of accepting values as they should have been, most probably not knowing – not realising the ‘needs’ of society; they instead used their unconsciousness / ignorance status quo methods.
      You were there 20 years after me, and you still called it a “shit hole”, so in that time there was no progression to compassionate human needs.
      Thankfully in this day and age there has been some progress in addressing children’s needs, although after the Northern Territory Youth Centre debacle that can be argued against.
      Those, my childhood days, later resulted in me becoming an alcoholic, I found refuge in the stuff, however I am so glad to have recovered from that hideous disease with the help of Almighty God and the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
      For the past 23 years I have not had / do not have any need for using alcohol in any shape of form, again I thank God that gave me the strength to stop and get on with a more useful productive life.
      Anyhow these days, since then, I hope life has been kinder for you.
      Best
      Regards,
      Boots.

  9. I would love to visit Yasmar if they have another open day. I am n a place now where I have the time to reflect on the time spent in Yasmar. It was not enjoyable or pleasant but I made it through and somehow managed to escape long term damage which others have shared. I guess that if one can pile enough positive things in their life the negative ones fade from your memory. I wish that others who have scars from Yasmar find some measure of solitude and peace in their remaining life. They certainly deserve to find that happy space …… I wish them every happiness.

  10. I still dont know how i got here, aint sure how i ended up in Yasmar either in the late 60’s & early 70’s, i was still alive but in ‘Hell’ with many other lost souls, i remember the bashings,my arm being snapped like a twig, the sexual assults on me & others that i witnessed, crying myself to sleep at night, walking through the ‘Green door in the wall’ to go to court, well lets just say my memories of this place are pure evil, im in my 60’s now, somehow still alive? Ive been drinking top shelf for 50 or so years, never used any other drug(god only knows why as it would of been justified) i know some kids i grew up with in there are now dead, lucky buggers, they finally found peace, me, well im still here in my last act of defiance, still giving the finger to the gumbyment & silver spoon society,! These days i ride my Harley- Davidson & fight for our rights as Australians to be free!! Just dont anyone get me started on ‘Bong Bong Road, Mittagong 😦

  11. Hi Mark, I’m 74- 5 in 3 months, I saw a lot of what you have described, yes Yasmar 1952, it was hell.
    I also ended up drinking heavily into alcoholism for 38years, finally I hit a rock bottom in the gutter, and that doesn’t mean a road gutter but a society spiritual gutter.
    I drank 5 houses, two wives, numerous engagements, and over all made a complete mess of my life with alcohol.

    I joined Alcoholics Anonymous 27th July 1994, had 2 wee small breaks but now am 22 years+ sober completely without ‘any’ alcohol whatsoever, cooking the taste is still there, cough mixture mouth wash, vanilla essence 35%, I am so very careful with my sobriety, for without it I would fall in that heap again, all of which I attribute to those childhood early days of cruelty, which I tried to drown with alcohol.

    I wouldn’t swap my worst day now for the best days I had when on the booze, and there were lots of great times. Today I am free from the bondage of all alcohol and it’s a great life, it really is. When my time comes, I want to die without any trace of alcohol in my body
    Yes I remember Bong Bong Road Mittagong. I was in number 6 home Mr Turner was the house master, with number 7 right next door which was the ‘so-called hospital home’.

    I remember having to walk to the school right at the end of Bong Bong Road turn right up a hill with the school on left. We had to carry the lunch box one either side, taken in turns, and too bad if you had chilblain’s on your hands or feet even if they were festering.
    I feel for you, only because I have experienced much the same, but with the fellowship of AA and The Grace of Almighty God I have been able to rise above all the crap.

    I now live a quiet life on the Gold Coast, I have regained my home, own my care and don’t owe anyone a penny, AA and God gave me all the opportunity I needed to get back on my feet. All of the opportunities are available to everyone and its all free, ‘No Cost’.
    I wish you all the very best
    Laurie…. aka Boots

  12. I was there 1960 aged 14 now 71 / remember the clothes with no pockets / the wall / cane never received / being in court / showers / food we ate l went there yesterday after 57 years didn’t see much mainly the old house / may l say GOD BLESS aĺĺ those who spent time there / regards John

    1. God Bless you also John. Indeed it WAS His blessings that helped/got me through. Mr. Fury was the Superintendent at Mittagong when I was there, he’d chase all the run always in his black FJ Holden. Hope life is better for you these days, where about are you living ?

      1. Hi boots / currently living sydney / didn’t know about mittagong / the FJ brings back memories reminds me traveling in an FC hoĺden with two detectives on the way to yasmar “1960” / after leaving yasmar l was placed on a good behavior bond for 12 months regards John

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