Asylum break: unlocking stories to our dark, quirky past

Ararat's Aradale is the largest abandoned mental institution in Australia. Picture: Peter Pickering
Ararat's Aradale is the largest abandoned mental institution in Australia. Picture: Peter Pickering

ASYLUM escapee James Watson made a convincing living in Ballarat posing as a doctor, scientist and lecturer.

Watson amassed clothes, surgical equipment and stirrup irons for his new roles. Once, as a vet, Watson advised a horse owner their sick animal would be well enough in a week or so. The horse died the next day.

Greater access to Victoria’s mental asylum patient records is helping to unlock stories often not spoken about in families or communities. From the quirky to the dark, they are ready for exploring.

Watson’s tale was not unusual. When Watson’s charade was finally blown and he was questioned how he had escaped from Yarra Bend Asylum to Ballarat, Watson said he merely walked away from the grounds and no-one stopped him.

Historians speculate Yarra Bend had higher security levels – it was where frequent escapee Peter Gibbons, was sent after repeat breaks from Ballarat and Sunbury asylums. Gibbons had been classified with “insanity: chronic mania”.

Genealogy hub Ancestry, working with the Public Records Office of Victoria, has uploaded more than 49,000 records and 97,000 images from Victoria’s mental asylums from 1853-1940.

Ancestry records expert Jason Reeve said such records were not cheerful, but important to understand the people and places that have come before us. 

Mr Reeve said mental health standards were far different through a period when alcoholics, the homeless and hysterics could be sent to lunatic asylums in a bid to keep patients and their outside world safe.

“At the end of the day, they’re all people,” Mr Reeve said. “People need to keep an open mind when researching family history...It’s not uncommon to find a relative in an asylum contradicts a family story, like an aunt going off to be a dancer.

“Even if people don’t have a relative in an asylum, the contents of the records show what living in the area was like at the time. Asylums were part of the community in those days.”

Mr Reeve said younger generations seemed to be more open to learning about asylum or criminal records in their families. These helped create a complete picture in the modern appetite to be more connected and knowledgeable about one’s heritage and ethnicity.

Details could only be as accurate as records uncovered, but Mr Reeve said Ancestry was collating and adding new records all the time.