The pattern of development of asylums in colonial Australia

Kenneth C. KIRKBY

Psychiatry, University of Tasmania, GPO Box 252-27 Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia
Tel. 03-62264885, Fax. 03-62264777


European settlement of Australia, commencing with the first fleet in 1788, was initiated to service a penal institutional system. The initial orientation was thus towards punishment and incarceration, and suffering was commonplace. The insane were adequately confined where necessary in the gaols. The desirability of separating the insane and according humane treatment was recognized and led to Governor Macquarie, in 1811, ordering the conversion of a barracks at Castle Hill to house the insane. The Sydney Gazette eulogized that every provision that humanity could suggest has been made for their accommodation and comfort. In 1838, the first purpose-built asylum was established at Tarban Creek, now Gladesville Hospital, on the shores of Sydney Harbour. At that time the colony of New South Wales covered a vast area, including what is now Tasmania from where a transfer to the asylum could take several weeks by sea. The initial lay administrator of Tarban Creek, Mr Joseph Digby, was recruited from England and had been exposed to Quaker methods of minimal restraint. Asylum building closely followed the changing demography of Australia with asylums opened or declared in 1846 in Adelaide and in 1848 at New Norfolk in Tasmania and Yarra Bend in Victoria. The peak of asylum construction was afforded by the wealth accumulated in the gold rushes in the 1850s with edifices opened in Victoria at Ararat and Beechworth in 1867. These projects were initiated immediately after the gold rushes had ended when there was concern in the community about the number of insane persons, sometimes attributed to the fevered atmosphere of the gold diggings. There was also money in the State coffers, and what were at the time large population centres in the centres of gold mining which had lost their economic base. Illustrative excerpts from contemporary observers of asylum conditions amplify this charting of the rise of asylums to house the insane.


Panel 6C   (Biopolitics)
Thursday, 16 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999