Remembering the Past Australia

A Visit to Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum


As published in The Argus (Melbourne), 14 March 1853.

By R. H. Horne.


Several articles containing the severest animadversions on the managers of the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum and the condition of its unfortunate inmates, have lately appeared in the Argus, and have excited a deeply painful and excited interest. In the Argus of the 9th instant [March 1853] there appeared a letter from a “Daily Reader” alluding with indignations and grief to the same subject, and taking it for granted that every evil that had been complained of, was still in full operation. The writer speaks with generous anger of’ “oppression, cruelty, and devilish woes” supposed to be now experienced by the wretched patients. The spirit of truth and fair dealing demands — and I cannot doubt but that the Argus will at once accede to it — that the present state of affairs in this lonely Asylum under its new medical superintendent, Dr Bowie, should be made known.

A few days ago in company with a son of Captain Chisholm, I walked over to the Lunatic Asylum and was immediately conducted through all the wards; in fact I went over the whole establishment including the offices and adjacent grounds. Allow me to promise that the subject of lunacy, and the management of insane patients are by no means new studies to me. Intimate for years with Dr Pattesall, superintendent of the Hereford Asylum, — with Dr Tooke, the proprietor of the Manor House Asylum at Chiswick, — with Mr Procter (better known in English Literature as “Barry Cornwall”), one of the Chief Commissioners of Lunacy, many opportunities of visiting asylums as well as public mad houses have occurred to me. I should also mention the great Hammersmith Asylum, belonging to my friend Dr. Forbes Winslow, (in whose Journal of Psychological Science I wrote the article entitled “Madness, as treated by Shakespeare”), and I have been conversant, long since, with the works of Dr. Haslam, Dr. Conolly, and others. The recent exposure in London of the misdoings at Bethlehem Hospital — and I could add some things of my own knowledge regarding patients in St. Lukes — all tend to show that in the oldest establishments of this kind, many of the worst abuses are as likely to occur, as in the youngest. They all require the strictest scrutiny and most constant inspection and when any of them cannot endure this, there is something inherently wrong or bad in the management, which should instantly be changed.

The situation of the Asylum at the Yarra Bend is the perfection of selection for such a place, (as much so as that of the Botanical Gardens) combining features of nature, beautiful in themselves, and admirably open to the improvements of art. It is at once airy and sheltered; equally picturesque and commodious, well wooded, well watered, and removed from the turmoil and distraction of everyday life, and its complex avocations.

The first thing that struck me in the general appearance of the interior of the asylum, was its perfect cleanliness, quietude, and order. A system was manifestly at work in the arrangement. The wards for patients in the last stage of improvement and restoration, as of those who were quite harmless, resembled the almshouses of the best kind in England, for the reception of poor widows of subaltern officers, or other reduced persons who once filled respectable positions in life. The wards on the opposite side, for those who were still in a violent state, or otherwise unfit on their own, or on account of others, to have so much liberty, resembled a hospital, with so many windows and apertures (of necessity, as may be understood) guarded by bars of iron, and having good strong doors, not easy to be kicked to pieces by the patient who believes himself to be Samson, with locks not easily picked or torn off, even by so famous a “cracksman” as one of the patients has really been.

We first entered one of the dining rooms.  The table was partly laid, as it was nearly dinner-time. Floor, walls, table, benches, all perfectly clean; a large piece of bread placed by the side of each plate, and small tin pannikins of water at intervals all down the middle of the table. Shortly afterwards a large tray, with handles, was brought in by two of the patients, containing hot roast beef, with, I think, some sort of hash or stew, and the dinner arrangements proceeded in the most orderly manner. Another door, being opened, let us into a ward where some twenty or thirty patients were seated, or strolling about; and this again led to a commodious yard, like a school play-ground, were others were amusing themselves with talking to themselves, walking to and fro, sitting up in corners, reclining in the sun, or gathering on benches beneath a wooden shed or verandah, such as we see in England attached to village inns opposite the skittle-ground or bowling green. All of them were very clean, and attired for the most part in white duck trousers and frocks. In the women’s wards the same cleanliness and good order prevailed, the systematic arrangement, and temperate conduct of the patients being the same. The patients in their general appearance and behaviour, were grave or gay, happy or depressed, excitable or insensible, talkative or taciturn according to the nature  and degree of their several afflictions. All had been done, that could be done, for their personal comfort and peace of mind.

The last correspondent on this subject in the Argus, signing himself “A Daily Reader,” alluding to the patients in the Asylum, says, “they are confined to a hopeless prison,” and this “sad position is utterly unrelieved by a single gleam of sunshine.” If this were true some time since, of which I have no knowledge, it is at any rate by no means the case now. The Asylum is not “a prison” any more than a hospital is a prison, because the medical superintendent considers it necessary to order certain patients to keep their rooms, others to keep the house and some to keep their beds, who are all very desirous not to do so. As to “hopelessness,” most of the patients are full of hope, as usual; and not a few of them are most extravagant hopes. With regard to their being unrelieved by a single gleam of sunshine; this is the converse of the fact, whether taken figuratively or literally. Internally they have their own wild visions of sunlight, their own lurid ecstasies or bright phantasmagoria; while externally, the only fault I should find with Dr. Bowie’s arrangements in the yards, or playgrounds, is the want of more means of getting air and exercise without exposure to the sun. The wooden verandah was not large enough, and besides it was very hot. Several patients were sitting or lying in the sun without hat or cap, and this I thought injurious. 

Scene of the Upper Yarra - Original

Scene on the Upper Yarra. – The Lunatic Asylum, Yarra Bend – Robert Stewart; Melbourne; 24 March, 1864. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

It may be interesting to particularise three or four of the patients:

A woman with a merry expression of face, a rosy cheek and tinted nose, and a glistening eye, was continually occupied with a statement, almost incoherent yet savoring very strangely of convivial gossip over a noggin of “mountain dew” or Geneva, and suggesting that her loss of reason was attributable to habits of intoxication. There was a very striking figure among the men — very large-limbed, pale, serious, and of a rather imposing deportment. He had a head completely bald; not a single hair was  visible upon it, even when it shone in the sun. He was dressed all in white, with his shirt open down the breast, and displaying a wooden cross, which he had carved himself. He informed me that he was the prophet Elijah. He was very urgent with me to get him an organ. I asked him what for? He said “to play upon and convert people, by Heavenly music.” Being told that organs were scarce here, and it was very difficult to get a good one, he said, in this case he would be content with a harp. I asked him if he had learned to play the harp? To this he replied, “if he had one, he had no doubt but he could play upon it, as he should be inspired. He finished by one of those extraordinary touches of subtlety, peculiar to madmen, by which they bend all things to their wishes, and exhibit such artfulness in the tact by which they try to gain you over to their views. Taking me aside, he said in a half-whisper — “If I had a harp, I could go and convert all nations. Our Lord says that we shall sing praises to the harp — and as you are our lord, of course you can order me one.” The reader will pardon the irreverent mixture of ideas, and remember that it was only a poor lunatic who thus indulged his fancy, and his hope, and sought to gain a friend.

All the time, let me add, that poor Elijah was saying this, another patient was sidling along on the other side of me, and touching my elbow, as he earnestly whispered “A fiddle, sir! — a fiddle for me! — a fiddle’s the thing!” — And he made an attitude of playing one. These people are not unhappy in themselves. No one can think so who sees them. They are melancholy instances of a self-enjoying loss of reason. They find a compensation in the inward realisation of their egregious fancies. It was the same with the “nuggeter” here, who found a large lump of gold, and instantly set to work in another way, and drank himself mad with the money. All his thoughts are on nuggets. He is always a successful digger.

Of course it must be obvious that many lunatics are most miserable — by no means, because they are lunatic, but according to the diseased bent of their minds. Equally obvious must it be, that those unfortunates who are violent must be prevented from doing grievous injury to others as well as themselves, and therefore they must, for a time, be kept in close confinement. I looked through the little loop-hole in the door, upon several of these. The cells were clean, and well ventilated. The least dirt or stain being made upon a wall, it is whitewashed the next morning. Some cells are whitewashed two or three times a-week, and often by the patients themselves, who are encouraged to do all the useful work they can, and very proud indeed they are to be so trusted, and it materially assists their cure. Hence, the housekeeper’s assistant maids, the laundresses, and the cook’s assistants are insane patients, yet they rarely break or destroy things beyond other servants elsewhere, who are supposed to know better. The out-door laborers on the improvements of the grounds are insane, as are all the under-gardeners, yet they seldom do any damage. The man in charge of the cow, is insane, yet not the less careful, and proud too of his charge. This poor fellow’s “difficulty” is, that he has got a golden head.  His head is one pure lump of solid gold. He in consequently top heavy, and fears he shall roll over upon the cow as he walks beside her. For this reason he is careful to follow her only. He knows very well that if he could swallow enough gold to ballast his body he should be all right; and the want of this, and the unaccountable delay of Dr. Bowie in supplying so obvious a remedy, is the only thing that disturbs the patient’s contentment and happiness.

The patients are all trusted with work, or employment of some kind or other, to the full extent their respective conditions will allow;  and if they now and then make a blunder, or spoil something, Dr Bowie smiles, and says inwardly, never mind, it is not lost — it is a part of the medicine, and the means of cure. I need not say after all this that the new method adopted of late years by the best practitioners, viz., the “soothing system” is the principle now in operation in this asylum. No such outrage to the system as a patient being beaten, or cuffed or chained like a wild beast to a ring in the wall; no such thing as ill usage of any kind is for a moment countenanced under the present management.

The two deepest impressions produced on my mind by individual patients were the following: — I was conversing with a young woman on the subject of her convalescence, and agreeing with her that in a very short time she would be quite well enough to leave the asylum though not perhaps the same afternoon as she diffidently suggested — when Dr. Bowie interrupted the subject abruptly with a remark of a totally irrelevant nature. Understanding this, of course, as a hint that I was upon “dangerous ground” with this case, I moved onward directly, and passed out at the door. My young friend, however, had not observed that the “tide was rising” and followed quite leisurely. Just as he was in the doorway, he found himself suddenly clasped in the arms of the poor young woman who with a cry and a gesticulation of passionate fondness and supplication, declared that she would never again be parted from her dear husband. (He had recently been to see her.) She held my companion so fast, and clung on devotedly to his very garments, that Dr. Bowie and three nurses were unable to affect the desired separation, till the innocent cause and object of this ebullition contrived to get out of his coat, and leave it behind him. The coat was then recovered by degrees (I do not mean piece-meal) but with no harsh violence, and she was borne of by the three nurses, her eyes swimming with tears, her voice choked with sobbing cries, and her whole face and gesticulations expressive of the most intense anguish at the bereavement. The position of a young man thus suddenly claimed and captured, will cause a smile with many — but nobody smiled at it who witnessed it; or only afterwards. It was a serious matter to all concerned.

The other patient, specially alluded to, was a young man who had received a sun stroke. He had been a shepherd. He was alone in one of the small locked-up cells. The only reason for locking him up, was simply that he should not be disturbed. I looked into his cell through the little aperture in the door. It was larger than usual — commodious, and whitewashed throughout, like the rest. There was a low iron bedstead with clean clothes upon it, some folded blankets — exquisitely white and flossy that I scarcely ever saw any washing to compare with it — for the night covering, were piled up at one end. In the centre sat the figure of a young man, evidently just as he had been placed, with his foot upon the floor, attired only in a white duck frock and trousers, and bare feet. He had no other covering as the day was hot. The cell was cool, and a pleasant, air passed into it from a window above. He had an interesting head and face, and a certain natural refinement so that he might have been anybody — a gentleman’s son of education, not a shepherd born for better things though now presenting this picture of unspeakable sadness. But he himself was not conscious of sorrow.  He was perfectly abstracted—nearly lost to all external things — and having no apparent inward occupation of thought, or the want of it. Oblivion of the past, and a placid incapacity of the present (and therefore of the future) characterized his whole appearance. Solitary confinement was nothing to him. A fly came and settled on his left hand. I suppose it must have stung him, as he slowly turned his head, and looked at it. He continued to do so, till it was evident he had forgotten it, or no longer saw it. He did not sigh; but his whole appearance was one long-drawn sigh, if I may so translate the emotion I experienced in contemplating him. I left him as I found him — a human being, lost to all the relations of humanity, yet cared for by the noble philanthropy of man — the pathetic image of a life, dazed, blinded, and suspended in its activity by too fierce an external light, but not yet burnt out — of a soul withdrawn from its fellow creatures, from itself, and even from the consciousness of its God, yet not forgotten by Him. It was a picture, and memory for me to the end of my days. 

Nobody understands what madness is. Practiced students — special physicians and philosophers — know it by its symptoms and effects, can foresee them, manage them, and often restore their patients to reason; but they do not understated the condition of mind called madness, or loss of reason. The fact is, mad people are continually reasoning — they are often mad from this very cause (in its false foundation, or misdirection) and the more they reason, the madder they become. They get hold of one fact, or fallacy (it matters not which) — they mistake this part for the whole of a series — they bend all nature to fit it. They take up a shadow, consider it a substance, and reason rightly upon it — they will fight, and die for this rightness and this reasoning — and therefore they are mad. But all this “talk” and accounting for, and explaining how, does not in the least help us to understand the wonderful phenomena of madness. Hazlitt says “the inability to get rid of the distinction between right and wrong, is very likely to drive a man mad.” It is a profound remark. Certain men and women brood incessantly over a real, or imaginary injury, till at last they can see nothing else in the whole world but their particular injury, in which all the rest of their fellow creatures conspire against them, — and they are consequently mad. They may be right as to the injury, and all the reasoning in the first instance right too — but in the outrageous melancholy and, they become lunatics. Great creative writers have comprehended this. It was so with King Lear. It was so with a perfectly different idiosyncrasy — Don Quixote; for it was not his own injuries, but those of all the world which he sought to redress. All his feelings were right, and all his actions wrong; and this is why he equally appeals to our affections and respect, as to our sense of the grotesque and absurd. Great discoverers, and inventors, and men who have been the first in new and important efforts; who have reasoned rightly at first, but have suffered neglect and scoffs of ridicule, till their minds broke up, have gone mad on this principle. These however, are only a few of the most interesting instances, because they were fine minds and noble feelings driven to wreck and ruin; but the forms and degrees of madness are almost infinite. Madness is reasoning and ridiculous; wise and foolish; calm and sensible on all points but one — and then furious; satirical and stupid; grave and serious; devout and blasphemous; cunning to a degree, and innocent to imbecility; tragic and comic; everything by turns, or nothing particular. Still, we are only where we were; for this tingling catalogue does not in the least help us to understand what madness is. We cannot know it, except by its external demonstrations; and to know, and to help, to soothe, and often to cure these, and restore the patient, to himself and to society, is all that is permitted. 

The limits of a newspaper forbid me to proceed further with this subject. Enough however, has been said to show that under the present management at the Yarra Bend, the kindest feelings and the best systems are in active operation. It is an unmistakable instance of a very important institution under the management of precisely the right man. Let this be the comfort of all those who have relatives or friends within its seclusion; and let it be the satisfaction also of philanthropists and other disinterested public-spirited persons, when they consider the increasing numbers whom the bitter disappointment of gold-seeking, or the too sudden acquisition of wealth, may send to seek a retreat for their throbbing heads within the peaceful walls of this benevolent, though melancholy institution. 

It is simply due to Dr. Bowie to say that although we have worked together in England on similar Government commissions, I had no other knowledge of him, and never met him till I came to Melbourne; and that I went to the Asylum with no premeditated idea of inspection, or anything of the kind. It was my first and only visit. I took no notes whatever, having no sort of intention, at the time, of writing about the Asylum: and my visit was quite unexpected. I therefore, respectfully apologise to Dr. Bowie for any important errors of omission. But I will answer for the substantial truth of all that is here set down about the patients and the general management; and I am persuaded that anybody of ordinary habits of observation may go, at any time, and see just as much. R.H.H.

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