Yarra Bend Asylum was Melbourne’s first, and biggest, mental hospital. The grounds are now a public park, but traces still remain.
Melbourne’s European settlement was founded in 1835.
It was agricultural in its initial conception, and the city steadily expanded as more settlers arrived. The discovery of gold at Clunes in 1851 triggered the local gold rush, and a more dramatic expansion after that.
The local authorities faced enormous challenges delivering services to this increasing population. One initially neglected area was mental health; people suffering from mental illness were originally incarcerated in the city jail. But while this was always inadequate, the growing population also made it impractical. Crime was relatively high in fledgling Melbourne, and the jail facilities overcrowded.
In 1843, Governor Gipps sanctioned a mental hospital for the city. Surveyor General Robert Hoddle selected an area north of the city; an expanse of unused land further up the Yarra River, near Dight’s Falls.
620 acres were set aside for the asylum and grounds. The original buildings were modest; a single wing was built out of bluestone, with 7 cells and 2 wards for men, and 3 cells and 1 ward for women.
Costing around 3000 pounds, Yarra Bend Asylum was opened in 1848.
Admission was initially at the Governor’s discretion; prospective inmates had to be certified as mentally unsound by a medical professional, and then have their transfer to the hospital approved by the Governor himself. But once the asylum was in full operation, and the number of inmates began to grow, this was abandoned.
After 12 months, and with 43 people interred, the Government approved a second wing. Additional supplementary buildings and staff were also added.
In 1852, reports of abnormal care and patient abuse surfaced at the asylum.
A Parliamentary enquiry was held, and shocking testimony supplied. Among the charges; physical and sexual abuse of patients, dirty and unhygienic facilities, misappropriation of funds, and corruption. Head of the asylum, retired military Captain George Watson, was described in the enquiry’s report as ‘grossly negligent and extremely culpable.’ At the end of the enquiry, Captain Watson was replaced by the asylum’s first chief administrator with medical experience, Dr Robert Bowie.
Demand for the asylum’s services continued to grow rapidly.
There were 251 inmates by 1855, and 450 by 1858. Additional wards were added, now constructed more cheaply out of wood, and the grounds were redeveloped to allow gardening and farming. The inmates were put to work growing vegetables and crops as part of their treatment; supplying a good proportion of their own food and allowing any surplus to be sold to local markets.
By 1860, Yarra Bend Asylum had become an elaborate and crowded compound.
Among the challenges for the asylum’s administrators was what to do with inmates who passed away. Many of these were poor, or had no family.
The asylum established its own cemetery, on the banks of the Yarra, to inter bodies that would be otherwise unclaimed. Missing, or poorly kept, records meant that the exact number of burials in this cemetery are unknown, but some estimates put the figure as high as 1 200.
By 1870, the asylum had ballooned to more than a 1000 inmates.
Again facing chronic overcrowding and reports of inhumane conditions, the State Government began to examine a replacement. A new mental hospital at Kew had been proposed as far back as 1856, but plans for its construction had stalled in Parliament.
They were now revived, and the Kew Asylum opened in 1871. Around this time, new institutions were also opened at Royal Park and, in rural Victoria, Ararat and Beechworth. All were significantly smaller than Yarra Bend, and so served to ease the strain on the main institution, rather than replace it outright.
Another public commission in the years 1884 – 1886 (The Zox Commission) formally recommended the closure of Yarra Bend. The land it sat on had, by this time, become very valuable, and the same report recommended its sale to private interests.
Successive State Government’s used this report as justification to reduce or withhold funding from the facility, with the result that its already antiquated buildings fell further into disrepair. Perversely, the same authorities still balked at closing the hospital altogether.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Victorian Government finally set about funding a proper replacement. Mont Park Psychiatric Hospital was built on 185 acres near present day Bundoora, and accepted its first patients in 1910.
Although this was meant to supplant Yarra Bend, the older facility would continue to operate for another 15 years. Additional funds were required to close the hospital – transfer of patients, demolition of buildings – and these were not available.
It was not until 1924 that Yarra Bend stopped accepting new patients, and the asylum was finally closed the following year. The remaining patients were transferred to Mont Park.
Inspector General for the Insane, Dr Ernest Jones, provided a grim epitaph for the place he helped to close down:
The airing courts were very small and damnable, with high bluestone walls preventing all view of the surrounding countryside. There was also a row of outside cells, with earth closets, two dark padded cells, and an all pervading smell of poor, mad, humanity.
– Dr Ernest Jones
Some efforts were also made to relocate the cemetery.
Where next of kin were identifiable, and had the means, they were offered the option of having the body moved to a cemetery of their. Where this was not an option, most cases, bodies were exhumed and buried in common graves at Melbourne General Cemetery.
It is not known how many bodies were moved and, as accurate records had not been kept, how many therefore remained.
Even the precise location of the cemetery has been lost to history (the images in this article provide an approximation only, based on historical data). But it is assumed that an unknown number of corpses remain on the site, below the present day location of a practice fairway of the Studley Park golf course.
Luckily for present day Melbournians, the land was not sold.
After the closure of the asylum, the buildings and property were taken over by Mission of St James and St John. The used it as a venereal disease clinic, known as ‘Fairview’. This closed in 1951.
The property was then converted into an all female prison, the state’s first.
Women had previously been incarcerated in the same prisons as men, in dedicated wings. Now the government built a separate facility at the old asylum site, called HM Prison Fairlea. This operated for forty years, only closing in 1996.
The Kennett Government, recognising the unique significance of having such a large expanse of open space in the inner city, then converted the site into a public parkland. It is a wonderful place to visit; there are countless walking trails, scenic lookouts, the Yarra, a flying fox colony. You can still visit the striking looking Kew Asylum building, nowadays fancy apartments, which stands on a hill and can be seen for miles round.
It is interesting to think about the rich history of the location, while you wander around.
Of Yarra Bend Asylum, once the state’s largest hospital, a sprawling compound covering hundreds of acres, almost no physical trace remains at all.
An original gate post stands to the side of a road near the Eastern Freeway, a solitary reminder of the many thousands who lived and died on the site.