Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum

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As the population of Melbourne grew from a handful of people in 1835 to thousands in the 1840s, a significant problem emerged in the young colony.   The Government had taken no steps to ensure the care of mentally disturbed persons and they were either left to roam the streets, or if they caused a disturbance, to be incarcerated in the Collins Street gaol.  

The Superintendent of Port Phillip was authorised by the New South Wales Governor to build additional cells at the rear of the gaol to house lunatics, whilst at the same time maintaining that their care was not the responsibility of the government.  These measures proved inadequate and overcrowding soon lead to the mixing of prisoners and lunatics. 

By 1843 Governor Gipps had a change of mind regarding the care of the mentally disturbed and introduced legislation accepting care for the “lunatics and idiots.”  Surveyor Robert Hoddle selected a site on the Yarra Bend above Dights Fall and 620 acres was put aside for the asylum.   A sum of £3,000 was allocated for the construction work and tenders were issued.

All of the tenders exceeded the budget and the plans were revised, reducing the building to a single wing, made in bluestone, of 4,350 square feet.   It had seven cells and two wards for men and three cells and one ward for women.  Separate outbuildings were to be constructed for the superintendent and keeper.   The successful builder was James Webb with a tender of £2,789. 

Building work commenced in October 1846 and by 1848 the first ten patients moved into the asylum.  The first superintendent was George Watson with an annual salary of £100 plus keep.   His wife was matron, and he was supported by three male keepers, one female keeper, a cook and a laundress.

Towards the end of 1849 the inmates had grown to 43 and the asylum was beginning to become overcrowded.  In the next year the government committed a further £2,000 for the construction of a new wing, Brown and Ramsden winning the tender. 

The early 1850s proved turbulent for the institution.   A newly appointed doctor, Thomas Embling was appointed and soon began to clash with the asylum administration.   The situation soon became so bad that a Parliamentary enquiry was held in 1852.    Its findings included:

· Evidence of physical and sexual abuse;
· Corruption;
· Poor treatment of prisoners, including forcing 28 people to share the same bath water,
· Illegal use of asylum resources, including using resources supposedly earmarked for patients being funnelled into a private poultry farm run by the superintendent;
· Patients being frequently drunk.

As a result of the enquiry both the Superintendent and the doctor were replaced with a new medical superintendent, Robert Bowie, taking over the running of the asylum on 13 October 1852.

Meanwhile the number of patients continued to increase, reaching 251 in 1855 and 451 by 1858.   Staffing shortages caused by poor pay and the lure of the rich Victorian goldfields exacerbated the situation.   As qualified staff left the government found it increasingly hard to replace them with suitable people.   As a result the quality of the staff was severely diminished.  

Construction work seemed to be a continuing feature of the asylum during this period.  New wooden wards were added for female inmates in 1858, a male ward in 1859 and an infirmary added in 1862.   Various outbuildings, mainly of timber were also added around the area.  By now the asylum was facing calls for its closure.

By 1865 the chronic overcrowding became so bad that the Victorian government commenced work on Kew Cottages across the Yarra River.  It was intended to replace the Yarra Bend Asylum but when it opened in 1871 in became, instead, a ward of the existing asylum. 

By 1887 Kew Cottages had become a separate organization to separate the child inmates from the adult inmates of Kew Asylum. The Yarra Bend Asylum continued to operate. 

Overcrowding in the states mental institutions continued to be an issue and even the opening of several new asylums, including Ballarat and Ararat did little to ease the situation. The large influx of people during the gold rush swamped existing services. Another factor was the increasing number of people diagnosed as having psychological problems from the 1850s to 1880s. In the 1850s 0.95% of the population were labelled as “lunatic.” By 1880 that number had swelled to 3.4%. It was little wonder that the Yarra Bend Asylum continued to operate long after it had been considered obsolete.

It was not until 1925 that admissions ceased at the asylum. In the following year patients were relocated to Mont Park and the asylum closed. Although many buildings were demolished, some became part of the Fairlea Women’s Prison, which operated between 1925 and 1993.

Staff and inmates

La Trobe appointed the first superintendent of the Yarra Bend Asylum, George Watson, in 1848. Dr. Cussen would travel from Melbourne to provide medical support. After Cussen’s death in 1849 the role was briefly taken over by Dr. Arthur O’Mullane before Dr. John Sullivan arrived from England.

In 1852 Dr. Thomas Embling became the first resident medical officer. He almost immediately clashed with Watson and Sullivan, mainly due to Embling’s more modern view of the treatment of mental patients. A Parliamentary enquiry in 1852 saw all three lose their jobs.
Later that year Dr. Robert Bowie became the first Medical Superintendent. Others to follow included J. T. Harcourt in 1862, Dr. Edward Paley in 1863, Dr. Thomas Thompson Dick in 1883 and Dr. William Watkins in 1888.

The first ten patients admitted to the Yarra Bend Asylum were:

James Oliver (aged 23). Ex-convict. His medical condition was described as “idiotic”. He died at the asylum in 1870.

Eliza Richardson (aged 25). Described as having “ordinary insanity” she was released later that year.

Sarah Smiley (aged 22). Suffering from “melancholia” she died at the asylum in 1902.

Samuel Smiley (aged 26). Brother of the above, Samuel suffered from “chronic mania and dementia”. He was transferred to Kew Cottages in 1871.

Emily Passmore (aged 26) Her condition was described as “raving madness:. She was also transferred to Kew Cottages in 1871.

Jessie Miller (aged 32). Described as having “dissolute habits” she escaped from the asylum.

Bridget Robinson (aged 28). Suffering “chronic incoherence”, Bridget moved from institution to institution before dying in 1891.

Mary Purcell. Described as suffering from “acute mania caused by childbirth”, probably postnatal depression. She was released into her husbands care.

Mary Jones (aged 35). Mary was known as “intemperant”, (ie. alcoholic). She died 1860.

John Burns (aged 34). A convict, John suffered from “acute mania”. He died in 1858.

Bonwick, Richard. (1995) The history of Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, Melbourne. Melbourne : University of Melbourne.

Cannon, Michael. (1991)  Old Melbourne: before the gold rush. Victoria : Loch Haven Books.

Marsh, Tracy. (1988) The birth of institutional care for the insane in Victoria. Melbourne : Monash University