Newly opened files at Public Record Office Victoria reveal life in 1940s mental hospitals
Posted January 01, 2019 06:00:00
On January 29, 1942, Ms Jacobson, a patient at Melbourne’s Kew Mental Hospital, bit Nurse Carey on the forearm.
The same day, patient Hart climbed onto the hospital’s roof, broke a window, entered the bell tower and rang the bell.
In the men’s wards, meanwhile, patient O’Donnell punched another patient in the face.
These events are recorded in Kew Mental Hospital’s daily report book which is held at Victoria’s state archives, Public Record Office Victoria (PROV).
The documents had been hidden from public view — until today — due to Section 9 of the state’s Public Records Act, which closes personal records for up to 70 years.
What are Section 9 files?
- Some Victorian Government files are kept hidden under Section 9 of the state’s Public Records Act 1973.
- The section demands “personal or private” government records be withheld from public view for a period of time.
- Examples include police and prison files, medical records and documents concerning children in state care.
- Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds all state government records in climate-controlled conditions.
- Section 9 files relating to adults are generally made public after 75 years and those relating to children after 99 years.
- PROV releases a new batch of Section 9 files each year on January 1.
The files document a period when clinicians were learning more about mental illness, says University of Newcastle’s Professor Catharine Coleborne, who has written extensively on the history of Australian mental health institutions.
“In Victoria there was a very large and active group of psychiatrists who were working together and coming up with ideas and solutions,” she says.
Among the records are the admission warrants for patients being transferred to the Sunbury Mental Hospital north-west of Melbourne.
Selina McNicol, for example, is “certified insane” with a diagnosis of depression.
It’s noted in the warrant that McNicol “moans all the time about being married” and her husband states “she has talked of suicide”.
“By the 1940s, depression was used as a term; that wasn’t so common in the early part of the 20th century,” Professor Coleborne says.
While the notes accompanying McNicol’s committal may raise eyebrows today, Professor Coleborne says those admitting her would have been aware of fears about what was termed as “wrongful confinement”.
“Husbands were often accused of locking away their wives.
“There may have been some truth to the idea that women were inside institutions because they were in unhappy and violent marriages, but it’s also possible when we look at these admission records that the women were experiencing mental health symptoms.”
Other warrants give reasons for admission such as “nerves”, “senility” and “change of life”.
Before psychiatric drugs
While 1940s psychiatrists had a growing understanding of mental illness, major advances in psychiatric medication were still decades away.
“They were trying to move away from using restraints but didn’t have the drugs to do so,” Professor Coleborne says.
Shock therapies were used, as were water-based therapies and “there were practices of art therapy going on at Kew”.
On our day in January, the Kew Mental Hospital report book notes the weather as “fine”.
More than half of the male patients are listed as “usefully employed” around the hospital — working on the farm and gardens or doing jobs such as carpentry, plumbing and shoemaking.
Meanwhile, more than a third of the female patients were employed in the kitchen, laundry or sewing room, doing housework or “other occupations”.
While these activities were considered therapeutic, they were also necessary for the running of the hospital.
“It was … for self-sustainability — farming so they could eat the produce, sewing so they could wear the garments,” Professor Coleborne says.
Last resort for ‘impoverished’ families
Institutions such as those at Kew and Sunbury were for “a very broad spectrum of society”, Professor Coleborne says, but very of the few patients would have been well-to-do.
“There’s a lot of evidence that, in the main part, institutions were used by people who could not afford private practice.”
While some patients came from the middle classes, Professor Coleborne says the institutions were often a last resort for “impoverished” families unable to care for family members.
“Particularly women who may have fallen on hard times because they were single mothers,” she says.
Frances Brown was a 26-year-old single mother of a four-month-old baby when admitted to the Royal Park Receiving House in September 1941. She’s listed as living in Gore Street, Fitzroy — at the time it was considered one of Melbourne’s slums.
Her admission warrant notes:
“She was emotionally unstable and wept for no apparent reason. Said that people here say that herself, her mother and her child are all bastards and that she is nothing.”
She died of pneumonia at Sunbury Mental Hospital in 1946, aged 31.
Thanks to the staff at PROV for their assistance with this article.