At the top of the hill in Beechworth is a big complex of buildings set in spacious grounds which houses a hotel, some council offices, a day spa, the local ghost tour operators, the local arts society and possibly some others I’ve forgotten.
Of course it hasn’t always been a mixture of local business and societies, it was once the Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum, one of the four big government mental health hospitals in Victoria.
Beechworth was chosen basically for the same reason that there was also once a major prison in the town – it was a long way from Melbourne, and yet in a reasonably populated area of the state.
Possibly also, being in the heart of the gold country, it also attracted more than its fair share of wandering inadequates, vagrants, and madmen who existed on the fringes of nineteenth century society.
Ever since I moved to Beechworth I’ve always been vaguely interested in the history of the lunatic asylum, perhaps because I have a degree in psychology – something that surprises some people who assume that I must have a qualification in computer science or informatics, or possibly zoology or physiology.
But no, my degree was in psychology, and even though I specialised in animal behaviour and neurobiology, and forty years ago at St Andrews it was a requirement that you had to do enough of the quasi medical side of things to allow you to go onto to a post graduate qualification in clinical or related areas of psychology.
It was of course the seventies, when everyone was very aware of the abuse of psychology in the old Soviet Union – ‘Comrade you’re criticising our socialist utopia, let us help you by locking you up in a mental hospital until you learn new ways of thinking …’
But it is true that some of the abuses of psychology in the old Soviet Union had uncomfortable parallels with the abuse of mental health in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, where wayward daughters and discarded wives were locked up in asylums – just look at some of Wilkie Collins’ novels for this and of course his mate Dickens wanted to lock up his wife in an asylum.
And of course, the history of psychology has more than its fair share of charlatans, sociopaths and oddities, making for a lot of amusing stories – all of which tickled my picaresque sense of humour and left me with a vague interest in the history of psychology.
Moving to Beechworth, I of course was interested in the history of the old lunatic asylum, but there’s a lack of information – the information’s there, it’s just not that accessible or organised.
There are some people looking into the history of the asylum, but the night they did a presentation on the project was of course the night I was on the phone to clown central about our broken internet cable.
So I didn’t learn that much about the project.
But recently I came across a book, The maddest place on earth by Jill Geise, which discusses the origins and development of the Victorian Lunatic Asylum system in the nineteenth century.
It’s an interesting and entertaining read, and one that relies heavily on the work of Julian Thomas, a journalist who went under cover to work as an attendant in the Yarra Bend and Kew asylums in the nineteenth century, and whose articles were published in the Argus, the paper of record in Melbourne at the time. (collections of his articles were published as the Vagabond papers – various digitised editions of the Papers are available via the internet archive, such as this edition of the first and second series of reports from the New York Public Library.
Unfortunately it doesn’t cover Beechworth directly, nor, because Thomas only (understandably) worked on male wards does it describe the treatment or abuse of female inmates, but judging by his reports of the treatment of male inmates, in which most of the abuses reported are drearily familar, I suspect the treatment and mis treatment of female inmates was much as you would expect.
However, there’s probably some interesting and human stories there.
Just as I uncovered the Catherine Morton case by searching Trove, my next steps will be to search Trove for stories around the treatment of lunatics, and reports relating specifically to Beechworth …
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