Kew Asylum was the largest mental hospital built in Victoria and one of the grandest buildings constructed in Melbourne during the 19th century. Situated in a picturesque section of the Yarra River valley, its distinctive architecture and imposing position made it one of Melbourne's most recognisable landmarks. Although a proposal to build an asylum at Kew was put forward in 1856, long delays in construction and the surrounding political controversy meant that the building was not ready for occupation until the end of 1871. It was officially gazetted as an institution in 1872.
The Kew Asylum was thought to be capable of comfortably accommodating 600 inmates. However, this capacity had been exceeded by the end of 1873, and overcrowding proved an ongoing problem throughout much of the institution's life. Kew was originally built to replace the Yarra Bend Asylum a few miles distant but probably because of overcrowding within a short space of time, the two asylums in fact operated quite independently. Often there were more than 1000 patients within Kew's walls. In 1876 an inquiry revealed inadequate water supply and a shortage of basic amenities. Further revelations about the gloomy nature of the wards and the brutality of attendants meant that the institution became as notorious for its internal horrors as it was renowned for its magnificent façade.
In 1887 the first three of a series of detached cottages were added to the complex. Originally called Cottages for Idiots they became known as Kew Cottages and were to house young adults and children with intellectual disabilities. Apart from these additions, little else was spent on the upkeep of the hospital. As it fell into disrepair, successive governments were accused of its neglect well into the 20th century.
In its 116 years as an institution, Kew Asylum had a number of name changes. In 1903 it was called the Hospital for the Insane and during the 1930s it was known as the Mental Hospital. In 1960 it became the Willsmere Psychiatric Hospital, which was finally decommissioned and closed in 1988. Redevelopment of the site for housing included retention of the envelope of the original construction, classified by the National Trust, though the long-range vista has been altered irrevocably.