Dunwich Benevolent Asylum
Benevolent asylums were established in all the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century. In NSW and Victoria they were established as religious charities. In Queensland, however, the state took responsibility and the Queensland Benevolent Asylum Act of 1861 funded hospitals to have ‘asylum wards’. In 1865 the Colonial Government proposed that an asylum ward for the sick and poor be established at the new general hospital site at Herston. Under ‘public pressure’ the colony government decided in 1866 to relocate the asylum on a ‘temporary’ basis to the Dunwich Quarantine Station. It started with 80–90 inmates, confused funding and a drunk as Director.
The Asylum operated at Dunwich from 1865–1946 and served the whole of Queensland as a public institution for the poor and destitute. The indigent of Queensland were despatched and confined there. Dunwich also became a lazaret for “white” patients and place of commitment under the Inebriates Institutions Act 1896. These two functions moved to Peel Island, also in Moreton Bay, in 1907 and 1910 respectively.
The asylum admitted 21, 000 people over its eighty years. From the 1890s to 1946 there were around 1,000 inmates present at any one time with 1,600 in its peak year of 1903. The Asylum had over twenty wards — including a distinct women’s section and a separate ward for ‘Asiatics’. By 1930s, it included a police station and lock up, visitor centre, public hall, bakery, kitchen, laundry and ancillary service buildings, ward buildings, tent accommodation and recreational facilities. It was only electrified in 1926 with its own power station using oil generators. It had a dairy herd and piggery.
Inmates were predominately though not exclusively old. People could be assigned to the asylum by a hospital, by police order or by their families. It seems that many of the inebriate men were confined by their spouses. Inmates came from across Queensland with a very detailed process of getting them by boat and/or rail from the north and the west to the Yungaba immigration depot at Kangaroo Point and then by boat to Dunwich.
Six times as many men as women were inmates. The backgrounds were mainly rural and urban workers with, in the nineteenth century, a considerable number of people who had been transported to the Australian colonies as convicts. There was, though, a sprinkling of middle class people fallen on hard times or drink. One was John Filhelly, Deputy Leader of the ALP under Theodore and one of the founders of the Queensland Rugby League who is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.1. Another was Johnny Cassim, who was of Indian origin and transported as a convict from Mauritius to become an hotelier and respected citizen of Cleveland.
The Asylum was always inadequately staffed and funded. In current (2013) values Queensland Government funding was $1,900 per person/per year in 1900 and $2,900 in 1932. In the twentieth century, inmates who received a Commonwealth old age pension paid part of this to the Asylum. The operating principle was that able-bodied inmates were meant to perform work and staff the asylum. Unfortunately, apart from some of the inebriates, age prevented most inmates doing a full day’s labour. In addition as the Brisbane Courier of 1874 reported These old gentlemen at Dunwich do not as a rule approve of being asked to work. They meet every request to do so categorically: “Why should I work ! if so be I could work, why be I sent here ?”
From the 1880s to 1920s there were rarely more than 20 official staff to 900 to 1,000 inmates. The Asylum needed cheap and permanent labour. It got it from the Quandamooka Aboriginal people of the Island who lived at One Mile outside Dunwich, and who did what Goodall says was “heavy and unpleasant work” from the 1870s.2 By the 1920s up to 30 Aboriginal men were in the ‘outside gang’ which included the dairy and piggery. Some Aboriginal men were in trade, skilled and semiskilled jobs including carpentry and operating the power station. Around 15 Aboriginal women were employed as cooks, nursing assistants and domestics including in the houses of the senior staff of the Asylum. The Aboriginal workers formed a substantial part of the total work force for the asylum, at times over half, right up to its closure in 1946. 11 Aboriginal workers were paid in rations but from the 1920s onwards took action to be paid wages. This was successful in 1925.The actions included petitions to the Medical Superintendent and the Home Secretary, representation to the Arbitration Court by the Australian Workers Union and industrial action.
However, there were continuing battles about the level of wages and even attempts to put them back on rations. Knowledge of the successful actions by Aboriginal workers at Dunwich is as little known as the Asylum itself.
(Text originally published in an article called “Dunwich Asylum Mess Hall is 100”, in The Queensland Journal of Labour History, No. 18 March 2014, from the Brisbane Labour History Association, by Elisabeth Gondwe, Howard Guille and Lisa Jackson.)
The Museum holds copies of many of the Admission records of inmates, and also the Asylum Death Register, which records the cause of death and burial information. Over 8000 Asylum inmates were buried in the Dunwich Cemetery.
The Museum also has a substantial collection of artifacts, photographs, documents and maps relating to the Asylum. This collection is of national significance and unique in Australia.
Please visit or email the Museum if you are searching for information about an inmate, and we will try to help. A small research fee applies.
We welcome family histories, photographs or geneological research about Asylum inmates to add to the Museum collection.
For more detailed information about the Asylum, you can read this thesis by Joseph B. Goodall, Whom Nobody Owns, or Raymond Evans' thesis, Charitable Institutions of the Queensland Government to 1919. You can also check out an informative powerpoint presentation given by Howard Guille to the centenary celebrations of the Dunwich Hall in October 2013.