Mania caused by Religious Excitement. That was the diagnosis when Clara Chambers was brought to the Kew Asylum in Melbourne Victoria by police on the 15th of March 1894. What had caused her to become so disturbed? There had been no previous episodes of mania according to her admission records.
Clara lived in the small country town of Timor in central Victoria where her father was a miner. She was part of a large, blended family with six older siblings. Her mother had died when she was just five years old. Her father remarried 4 years after the death of her mother and had another 6 children with his new wife. Could this disruption to her early life have been part of the reason for her mental state as grew into a young woman?
The Kew Asylum was built in 1872. It was an imposing and elegant building designed with a view to providing a magnificent institution for the insane, demonstrating the benevolence of Melbourne society. It had beautifully landscaped gardens with another feature being the Haha walls. From the outside it appeared that the gardens were surrounded by low walls so as not to give the impression of a prison. But the deep trench that sloped down to the wall on the inside could not be seen from the outside. It presented a high wall to the inmates.
Within 5 years of opening the Asylum was overcrowded housing at least 1000 inmates. It received a lot of criticism from the medical and social service professions for the poor treatment of the inmates. After 10 years it had become so dilapidated that it was said to be a disgrace. A journalist who used the pen name of The Vagabond, obtained a position in the Asylum as an attendant and wrote a series of articles in the Argus newspaper about the month he spent there. These articles revealed a lot about the mistreatment that occurred. There were many reports of inmates being restrained and given “stupefying doses” probably of morphia or laudanum.
Clara was 19 years old when she was admitted to the asylum in 1894. We can only imagine that the conditions in the institution would not have improved as the population continued to increase and the depression of the 1890’s bit hard in Melbourne.
Although Clara was not considered to be dangerous when she was admitted, she was however gesticulating violently and was restless and noisy. She was delusional stating that “she had been brought here by a good spirit.” Religious Excitement was common terminology at the time. Sufferers were reported to believe they had been directed by God to behave in certain ways.
A few days later her report stated that she needed to be fed and had become violent. She had to be moved to the refractory ward as she was threatening violence to the other patients.
At the time there was very little treatment provided to patients who were considered insane. Once she became violent, she was likely to have been restrained, perhaps tied to her bed. She may have been placed in seclusion in a single padded room for periods of time. Perhaps she was sedated because within a few months it appears that her spirit had been broken. It was reported that she had become “dull and stupid, in a mild stuporous condition.”
She spent a total of 7 months in Kew Asylum. It must have been a terribly traumatic time for her but fortunately she recovered well enough to marry Thomas in 1898 and my grandmother was born two years later in 1900. One can only imagine what the long-term effects of her incarceration may have been. But at least she was able to move on with her life and become a wife and mother to seven children. She lived to ripe old age of 79. A testament to her strength.