1 June 2005

The Women's Jail Project

About a year ago I came across a book in a Kyneton second hand bookshop called “The Women’s Jail Project: A History” by Karen Martin. It is self-published, and was designed to accompany a theatre performance which was held in the now-abandoned Women’s Refectory Ward of the Sunbury Lunatic Asylum, which for most of its life was also known as “Caloola.”

I had known that the buildings now occupied by Victoria University were once an asylum, but I had no idea it was only decommissioned in 1992.

It turns out that the asylum started life in 1864, as an “Industrial School for Destitute Children” and it was the full Dickensian nightmare. 11 per cent of the children died in its first year of operation, earning it the nickname the “Sunbury Slaughterhouse”. I have no idea how many deaths that might have been, but it is difficult to imagine how 11 per cent of any group of children might have died in a year while under the care of the colonial administration. What could they have died of; neglect, overwork, starvation?

After public outcry, it was taken over by a government agency with the felicitous name of the “State Lunacy Department”, after 1879. A new ward was constructed in 1894 and housed “misbehaving” women and those found by a court to be insane. Following the recommendations of a Royal Commission, the new buildings were constructed along more progressive lines than was common for this sort of institution, though I can’t imagine it was a pleasant experience to be incarcerated there.

The longest and most fascinating part of the book is dedicated to case files of inmates who lived there in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with many photographs. The book is sad and fascinating at the same time. I say sad, as these things happened so long ago and were the products of the attitudes of a different time. Not to say that deprivation and exploitation of the mentally ill doesn’t go on today – obviously it does – but it is impossible to say that our attitudes to the mentally ill have not improved in understanding and diagnostic precision.

It’s common to come across the reason for admission as melancholia following the birth of a child, or drunkenness, or “religious mania”, or being “excitable”, or just something called “dirty habits”. I get the impression, though it’s not stated, that the doctors who attended these unfortunate people had not the faintest idea what they were dealing with. It seems they had little or no diagnostic tools to treat their patients other than simply containing them and managing their symptoms until the patient either cured themselves or died.

I gather that there was a distinctly moralistic atmosphere about the place, at least in its earlier days - these Victorian women thought, in some way, to be responsible for their conditions by leaving the habits of civil society behind. In one picture, an inmate wears large circular mitts made of leather. The text informs us that they were to prevent masturbation.

This brings me to me to my question: Is there anyone is Sunbury or surrounding areas who saw either of the productions of “The Women’s Jail Project”? I gather the performances were held in the original buildings. I would be fascinated to hear what it was like.

Also, does anyone have personal or family connections to Caloola? Connections either to former patients or workers at the facility?

If anyone can provide information, I ask that they contact me through my email address and I will follow up.

In the meantime, anyone interested should have a look at the old website attached to the project at http://www.womensjailproject.c2o.org, or pop in to the George Evans Museum at the Library to see the small display of objects from the former asylum. I’m sure they have their stories to tell, too.

2 comments:

Crystal said...

Actually 'caring' about children is a recent sociological trend, possibly really kicking in during the early 1960's when the reliability of oral contraception became widespread.
Prior to that, a kid popped out every year. Tyke tossing was a sport in the 17th century.

Crritic! said...

Competitive tyke tossing... Now there's a sport I'd like to see.

I almost said "dyke tossing." I'd watch that, too.