Clara’s Story

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.

By Unknown author – National Gallery of Victoria NGV, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4662322

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.  

Grandma with her parents Thomas and Clara

8 Comments

  1. What a sad story. Fortunately she survived incarceration and went on to live a long life. The only thing I would have added early in the story is that Kew and Timor were in Victoria.
    Well done Pauline.

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      1. Interesting story of Clara’s time in Kew Asylum. You have portrayed some of the horrifying experiences likely to have occurred and backed that up with factual evidence from research records. The articles in the old Argus Newspaper must have been most revealing. Clara may well have had some mental health issues that could have been properly diagnosed and more humanely treated by modern specialists. Thank goodness she survived her ordeal. And thank goodness we have better treatments today.

        How wonderful to have those photographs.

        I note the additional information about Timor’s location, that helped clarify exactly you were referencing.

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  2. I wonder if she was bipolar – in today’s terminology. Mania is often focussed on religion or on sex! Or maybe her step-mother had more to do with it? Whatever the cause, it is tragic to think she was subjected too the ignominies she underwent. I must say, she was LUCKY to be released! As you know, it was exceedingly difficult to be discharged from such institutions – particularly compared with how easy it was to have someone committed.

    I love reading your installments! Please, keep them coming!

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      1. I love Trove and Ryerson Index, and country newspapers tell you everything about a person. We can find out so much about people. Like a huge puzzle, and we’re detectives. Keep writing 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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