Remembering the Past Australia

A Visit to the Cascades Lunatic Asylum in 1882

General Birdwood Takes the Salute

Published in the 'Ovens and Murray Advertiser' (Victoria), 20 April 1882


Under the heading of “Tasmania Chips,” “Silverpen” (the nom-de-plume assumed by Mr J. H. Glenny, J.P., who at one time occupied the position of editor of this journal) supplies the following interesting facts in connection with a recent visit to a Tasmanian lunatic asylum to the “Ballarat Star” —

The Cascade Factory, as it is called, is within a few hundred yards of the Cascade Brewery — now owned by Messrs Syme and Co., a Melbourne firm. From the rise of the steep hills you see the long tiers of white-washed buildings, putting one in mind of a soldiers’ barracks. As we drove up to the entrance we were met by Mr Muir, the governor, who courteously acted as our guide, and most patiently answered our queries, giving us special information about almost all the inmates. “There,” said he, pointing to short, wiry-looking fellow, “is a Frenchman. He has not spoken audibly, one word for mine, years. Daily he walks up and down as you see him now, looks askance occasionally at a visitor, but maintains the same silent demeanour from morning to night. There, sitting on that bench, is a celebrated London prig, or thief — we call him Sir George. He declares he has only been 12 months a free man since the age of 12 years. Sir George advances and seems anxious to examine the jewellery of one of the ladies present, but she declines the honor of his acquaintance, and rushes fearfully behind the gentlemen for protection. This amuses the “lunatic thief,” he smiles all over his face, informing the lady she need fear nothing, as he is quite harmless, and winds up with a somewhat mixed up peroration anent the evil of pride, fear and jealousy.

We are then introduced to the Bishop, an old Irish convict incarcerated since 1823. His lordship gives us his blessing in orthodox style, and we are suddenly pounced upon by a spare tall Irishman. We are informed he was sent from India in 1833 for 14 years; his offence, striking his officer. Many lashes and hard usage, however, have done their work, and now he assured the governor he would soon start for Ireland, and all he would require was “a couple of loaves of bread for the journey.” This poor fellow is a clever born artificer; he soon after made his appearance with crotchet-hooks, bodkins, and other fancy articles filed out of mutton hones — very pretty indeed, and before we left his capital had increased by several shillings, and his stock of “curios” decreased in proportion.

On a long form right in the centre of the exercise yard lay full stretch, Quigly, the once celebrated bushranger. This scoundrel is conspicuous from the other lunatics, inasmuch as the authorities, as a peace offering, allow him to wear his beard and whiskers. The governor informed me that Quigly killed, when a bushranger, 21 persons, and yet this bloody murderer is allowed to live, and seemingly grow fat, at the expense of the State.

We next visit the cell of Blind Mooney, whose name as a desperate Port Arthur convict has often been heard of in all the colonies. The governor informed us that Mr Price (murdered at Williamstown) had said, “Mooney was the only b—— convict I could not tame. ” This poor wretch has had 150 lashes on the back before breakfast for insolence to the officers. Now he lies on his couch, waiting for death, his feet rotting off, and his features perfectly devoid of the ferocity once attributed to him. In the adjoining cell is a poor Irishman, more like a brute beast than a human creature. There he sits like a monkey grinning through the bars. He has to be kept locked up during the day to keep him from quarrelling with the other lunatics. The poor wretch has been insane since 1872; but need I to give more of the horrors of this charnel house.

The Reformatory, Cascades, Hobart (1926)

The Reformatory, Cascades, Hobart (1926)

State Library of Victoria

At the other end of the buildings there is the (at one time) female prison, where 1300 women were formerly kept during the Price regimé. We are asked to notice the double iron doors, and note the space between, about 10 inches. Now, said our guide, when this was the female prison the sentence meted out to refractory prisoners was to be shut, in a standing position, between the two doors for from 12 to 48 hours. This seemed too horrible and devilish a punishment to be meted out to women, but such was the case. The awful misery and agony endured by these unfortunates who can tell. It need not be wondered at that many of them were found at the end of their sentence, when the outer doors were opened, standing up stiff corpses.

Six and seven a week was the death rate, and no wonder.

We were shown as a favour the old, silent, dark cells for women. God only knows how anyone could live in such a quagmire of dark despair — darkness to be felt, but little expresses the horrors of the place, for no sooner do you enter the narrow passage before being shut in, then you feel a frightful choking sensation, as if you were being strangled.

We are told these cells have long since been abandoned, and certainly not before it was time. There is a sick hospital for females attached to the asylum, but the conduct of the wretched women confined there is of such a shocking and degrading character, and exhibited such an Eve-like dress, that it is best to let the curtain down on the feast of horrors we have here depicted.

That devilish cruelty was inflicted upon the prisoners, male and female, during the reign of ” King Price” even the old attendants do not deny. Only fancy, said one to us, 1800 men, marching past every morning at Port Arthur to work in the quarries, heavily ironed, from 14 lb. to 75 lb. weight on the legs. Those with the heavy weight could but crawl along, and yet these men were flogged brutally for the slightest offence, and wore their irons for years night and day. Here in this lunatic community there are 68 men and 25 women, whom it is acknowledged were driven to madness through the torture inflicted for supposed or imaginary wrongs. Hell (says one we conversed with) is nothing to what old Port Arthur was. A prisoner would be too glad to get the chance in those days to do some desperate bloody crime in order to escape by death the awful horrors, and here we have the result of the brutal barbarity practised — 68 old tortured convicts driven mad and now maintained at the expense of the State for life until they die out, for no fresh arrivals are admitted. Truly a “living death” it must have been, and now when I have seen with my own eyes and heard the terrible tales of bloody cruelty inflicted at Port Arthur, I am not surprised nor astonished that the late Marcus Clarke in “His Natural Life” should have so vividly depicted the scenes of damnable hellish cruelty inflicted upon the unfortunate convicts who were sent to that “prison pandemonium” to expiate their crimes.

We were informed when looking into the condemned cells that women were far more troublesome when condemned to death than men, and often made the place echo and re-echo with horrible imprecations and curses upon the heads of those who would not, in answer to their cries, open their prison doors. The last night or two before execution (says the governor) was one continual blasphemous shrieking, and volley after volley of obscenity.

We noticed scratched on the walls of a condemned cell, the following poetry, and were informed it was written on the 27th January, 1839, by a prisoner the evening before his execution: —

“Underneath this dismal cell
Lies the body of poor old Bell, 
Hard he lived, and hard he died,
And at his funeral nobody cried.
Where he went, or how he fares,
Nobody knows and nobody cares.”

On another part of the wall is scratched the likeness of a dog being hung by the neck from a gibbet, and underneath the murderer wrote, “Hanged like a dog-Haley,” and, as if counting his last days, “Tuesday, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.” He was hung on the 7th.

I was told a strange circumstance in connection with the gallows in the Hobart gaol. A blacksmith named Flowers undertook to do the job. He made the chains and all the iron work, and, strange as it may appear, he (Flowers, the maker) was the first man hanged by the neck till dead in the gaol, on the scaffold erected by himself.

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