Friday, November 15, 2013

The Lost Cemetery

Sprawling both sides of the Yarra, and the Eastern Freeway, Yarra Bend Park is one of Melbourne's biggest open green spaces. The seemingly endless parkland encompasses grassy plains, gravel hills, a sheltered river valley, native bushland, two public boathouses, a public golf course, a giant flying fox colony colony, a fish ladder, sports ovals and kilometres of walking and cycling tracks.

It was also once home to Melbourne's first insane asylum and is still home to an unknown number of lost graves...

Yarra Bend Park today.

As Melbourne began to expand from it's modest beginnings in the 1830's and 40's, the local authorities faced enormous challenges in delivering services to its population. One area that soon needed to be addressed was mental health. People suffering form mental illness were initially incarcerated in the city jail, but when this proved inadequate the Government began to take steps towards a more permanent solution.

In 1843, Governor Gipps sanctioned a mental hospital for the city and surveyor general Robert Hoddle selected an area north of the city, up the Yarra near Dight's Falls.

Approximate location of the Asylum.

A substantial 620 acres was set aside for the asylum and grounds, but 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 late in 1848. Initially, there was some confusion as to how new patients were to be referred:

From the 'Melbourne Argus', 10 October 1848.

But the asylum was shortly in full operation and the number of inmates increased quickly. After 12 months, and with 43 people interred, the Government was forced to commission the expansion of the site into a second wing. Additional supplementary buildings and staff were also added.

A landscape by George Washington Wilson, probably from the 1850's,
showing Yarra Bend Asylum with Melbourne city in the background.

The Asylum's imposing entry gate and guardhouse.

In 1852, reports of abnormal care and patient abuse surfaced at the asylum. A Parliamentary enquiry was held and shocking stories of conditions inside the hospital were aired. Among the charges; physical and sexual abuse of patients, dirty and unhygienic facilities, misappropriation of funds, corruption and patients frequently reported as intoxicated. Head of the asylum, retired military Captain George Watson, was described in the enquiry's report as 'grossly negligent and extremely culpable.' After the report's tabling, Captain Watson was replaced by the asylum's first chief administrator with medical experience, Superintendent Dr Robert Bowie.

Meanwhile, demand for the asylum's services continued to grow rapidly. As Melbourne's population exploded on the back of the gold rush, the number of inmates increased dramatically; there were 251 by 1855 and 450 by 1858. In order to accommodate these numbers, additional wards were added (now constructed more cheaply out of wood) and the grounds were redeveloped to allow extensive 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 produce markets to generate much needed revenue.

By the 1860's, Yarra Bend Asylum had become an elaborate, diverse, crowded compound.

A depiction of the Asylum and grounds from 1862.

Among the challenges for the asylum's administrators as numbers swelled, was what to do with inmates who passed away.  From early in the asylum's history, many of these unfortunates were buried  in a dedicated cemetery on asylum grounds, a short distance from the main buildings on the riverbank. Missing, or poorly kept, records mean that the exact number of burials in this cemetery are unknown, but some estimates put the figure as high as 1 200.

A map of asylum grounds from the late 1800's,
showing the location of the cemetery (centre).

By 1870, Yarra Bend had ballooned to more than a 1000 inmates.

Again facing chronic overcrowding and reports of inhumane conditions, the State Government began to examine moves to close and replace the asylum. 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 revisited and the Kew Asylum opened in 1871, initially operating as a ward of Yarra Bend. Around this time, new institutions were also opened at Royal Park and, in rural areas, Ararat and Beechworth. All were significantly smaller than Yarra Bend however, and so served to ease the strain on the main asylum more than replacing it outright.

Another public commission in the years 1884 - 1886 (The Zox Commission) formally recommended the closure of Yarra Bend and subsequent sale of the - now very valuable - land it sat on. 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. But the authorities still balked at closing the hospital altogether.

Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, with public scrutiny of Yarra Bend mounting, 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.

Patients quarters, Mont Park hospital.

Despite this, Yarra Bend would continue to operate for another 15 years. Lack of Government funds to facilitate the closure were to blame. It was not until 1924 that Yarra Bend stopped accepting new patients and the asylum was finally closed the following year, the remaining patients transferred to Mont Park. Inspector General for the Insane, Dr Ernest Jones, provides a grim epitaph for the place he helped to close down:

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 choosing at their own expense. Where this was not an option, bodies were exhumed and buried in common graves at Melbourne General Cemetery. It is not known precisely 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 above and below 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.

Of Yarra Bend Asylum, once the state's largest, almost no physical traces remain at all. An original gate post stands to the side of the park road near the Eastern Freeway, a solitary reminder of the many thousands who lived and died on the site.

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