Category Archives: Australian history

‘The Maddest Place on Earth’ by Jill Giese

Giese_The-Maddest-Place-on-Earth

2018, 220 p.

In the Epilogue of this book, clinical psychologist and author Jill Giese  writes that she jumped at the rare opportunity of an Open Day at Willsmere, the site of the old Kew Asylum. A little girl asked in that unfettered way that children do, ” If they were all crazy, why did they build them such a nice place to live?” As Giese notes, the most (and increasingly) visible sign of mental illness today is people lying on the streets of Melbourne, wrapped in blankets, begging for small change. Interestingly, it was the urge to give mentally ill people a shelter – an asylum- from the homelessness and penury of living in a blanket, that led to the construction of first the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, and within six years, the construction of Kew Asylum, the first purpose-built asylum in Victoria. Both institutions – though plagued with overcrowding – were not established as the ‘Bedlam’-type places of horror that we might assume them to be.

KEWdraw

English: Engraving of the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew. Buildings of Yarra Bend Asylum are seen in the foreground. c 1880. Source: Wikipedia

Victoria had what was perceived to be the highest level of mental illness in the world, hence the title “The Maddest Place on Earth”. In fact, at one of the numerous Royal Commissions held into asylums in Victoria during the 19th century, it was predicted that by 2050 every inhabitant of Victoria would be mad. A number of reasons were put forward: our meat-rich diet, the climate, the effect of the Gold Rush, excessive masturbation (although why Victorians would be especially prone to this was not explained) and the success of the Salvation Army in turning people’s minds to God.  Perhaps a better explanation was the “imported insanity” that arose from families ‘back home’ shipping their mentally-ill family members off to the colonies to avoid the scandal of madness. The Gold Rush could have both attracted and elicited madness in men who threw in everything to travel to the other side of the world, with failure more likely than success.

Giese tells the story of the Yarra Bend Asylum and the Kew Asylum but this is not your usual institutional history. Instead of taking a top-down approach, she uses  two main characters as the lens through which to view the asylum system in Victoria. Her first character, George Foley, was the son of an eminent artistic family in England. He suffered his first episode of mental illness while in art school, and suddenly “found himself” on a ship headed for Melbourne. He moved in and out of Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums, continuing to draw while incarcerated, and trying to hold together a precarious artistic existence when he was “outside”. The second character was journalist  Julian Thomas who, working under-cover as a ward attendant, wrote a series of columns for the Argus under the pen-name of “The Vagabond”.  He writes vividly and with humour, every bit the equal of a Mark Twain, or a nineteenth-century Louis Theroux.  Julian Thomas is well-known to historians of Australian (and particularly Victorian) history, but I hadn’t read his work before, and obviously Giese herself – a psychologist herself, rather than a historian-  was delighted to discover him for the first time.

Through George Foley, we catch a glimpse of the sharp edges of the itinerant artist’s life, even for a man clutching the slender thread of family reputation. At a time when there was no treatment for mental illness, he would be housed, fed and given meaningful work while in the asylum, only to flounder once he was released to his own resources again. He drew portraits of personnel within the asylum, including ‘The Vagabond’, who used a touched-up version of the portrait when he finally revealed his identity.  Through ‘The Vagabond’ we learn of meal-times with poorly cooked food, the dissonant music of the asylum band at the fortnightly balls held for inmates and staff, and the brutalizing effects of institutional life on the Kew Asylum attendants in particular.

Right from the establishment of Port Phillip, the presence of mentally ill people on the unmade streets of Melbourne was noted. Until the changes in asylum practice encouraged by the Quakers in the early 19th century in England, asylums had been dire places. Based on the new philosophy that asylums for the mentally ill should be built out of town, on hills in the fresh air, Yarra Bend quickly outgrew its construction in 1848 and was soon surrounded by a mosaic of cottages and even tents. The nearby Kew Asylum was opened in 1872 in a much grander E-shaped Italianate building,  Within five years Kew was the subject of a Royal Commission, which found overcrowding, disease and mistreatment. This was largely caused by a change in the criteria by which patients could be admitted to a ‘lunatic asylum’, which swelled the numbers of mentally ill patients with chronic patients with intellectual disabilities or dementia.  Despite the grandness of Kew Asylum, Yarra Bend stayed largely unchanged with its small cottage structure and more domestic, less institutionalized approach.  As Giese points out, Yarra Bend (despite its age and comparative neglect) came to be seen as the better model for dealing with mental illness with features like shelter, home-cooked food and meaningful, routinized work, that our mental health system could well emulate today.

Giese’s decision to use Foley and the Vagabond as her focus – one a patient, the other a staff member- is inspired. It would have been easy to have taken a patchwork approach, with small stories and vignettes stitched together into a fairly conventional institutional history, but for most of the book she avoids this methodology.  While she also traces through the career of Edward Paley, Inspector of Asylums, and recounts the numerous commissions of enquiry that, as too often happens today, masqueraded as action in themselves, she maintains her gaze on two individuals.  As a reader, you become invested in these two men. You read with a sinking heart of Foley’s struggle for mental stability and you see through the eyes of The Vagabond, in lengthy italized extracts from his columns.  Moreover, The Vagabond, too, has his secrets as Giese discovers at the end of the book.

This book won the Victorian Premier’s History Award for this book, and it fully deserves it. It is beautifully written, although perhaps a little fervent at times, and it is a deeply compassionate book. By foregrounding the long-term experience of George as patient, the Vagabond as attendant and journalist, and to a lesser extent Dr Paley as administrator, she gives a human face to mental illness as a lived experience. It’s a wonderful read.

My rating: 10/10.

Source: review copy from Australian Scholarly Publishing

AWW2019 I have included this book in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years 1859-1909’ by D. Macrae Stewart

PresJubilee

1909, 129 p.

This book was written to celebrate the golden anniversary of the creation of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1859, combining the Synod of Victoria, the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Victoria and the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church of Victoria. There was one section of the United Presbyterians who didn’t join until after 1870, but in terms of golden jubilees, 1859 was the date. (Mind you, the earlier book I read about Presbyterianism in Victoria dated the coming together of different strands of Presbyterianism to 1867 instead.)

Written as a celebration publication, the text is laid out quite beautifully, with red margins and decorated inhabited initials to mark the start of each chapter. Stewart has used a planting metaphor to organize his chapters, which are titled ‘Seed’ ‘Stem’ ‘Branching’ ‘Pruning and Grafting’ etc.

As this book goes up to 1909, it covers the Charles Strong controversy of the 1880s, which of course had not occurred with Sutherland published his earlier history of the Presbyterian Church in 1877. Charles Strong, who had been the pastor of Scot’s Church in Melbourne (probably the premier Presbyterian church in Melbourne)became the first minister of  the Australian Church in 1885 after being charged with  promulgating unsound and heretical doctrine and resigning his position from Scots Church.  I think that if I’d been alive at the time, I would have been attracted to the Australian Church.

the australian church.

The Australian Church at the eastern end of Flinders Street (near Spring Street). It seated 1200 and opened in 1887 but the Church shifted to more economical premises in 1922. The Australian Church was finally dissolved in 1957. From the Australasian Sketcher. SLV http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/258170

The book has several plates showing prominent churchmen, mainly of the past but with some contemporary men (in 1909) as well. So many beards!  There are few mentions of women, but there is a section on the Presbyterian Mission Womens Union, famous for its cookbook. I only now realize that I always called it the PMWU rather than PWMU.

The book is curiously silent about the 1890s depression. Perhaps in 1909 it was too soon to discuss such things.

 

Putting a price on dispossession

highcourt

Today the High Court of Australia will begin hearing a case that will consider the question of compensation for the loss of traditional land rights. This article in The Conversation explains it well.  According to the article, it’s an appeal case following two earlier decisions made by the Federal Court on the first compensation claim since the passing of the Native Title Act.  In the first of these decisions (the first Timber Creek decision) Federal Court Justice John Mansfield developed a methodology for working out how much money should be awarded as compensation for loss of native title rights. It had three steps:

  1. The value of land rights in plain economic terms, discounted by 20% because native title often brings constraints on how the land can be used economically
  2. How to compensate for the loss of  non-economic aspects of the land’s value e.g. spiritual and cultural harm (What a question! Where would you start?)
  3. Interest to award the passage of time (in this case back to the 1980s when the Northern Territory government granted land and undertook public works near Timber Creek)

The decision was appealed and the amount of compensation reduced, but the methodology for working out compensation was not challenged. But will the High Court follow the same methodology? It’s an interesting article- well worth a read, with good links.

Friday essay: the ‘great Australian silence’ 50 years on by Anna Clark

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-great-australian-silence-50-years-on-100737

An excellent essay in The Conversation by historian Anna Clark reflecting on WEH Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures where he coined the term ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe the occlusion of indigenous people from narratives of Australian history. Her essay comes fifty years after those essays, but also in the contemporary context of the political response to the Uluru statement and  Lyndall Ryan and others’ work on the massacre map.

I encourage you to read it.

‘Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-Class Generation 1920-1990’ by Janet McCalman

Journeyings

1993, 301p. & notes

This book opens with the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle Street St. Kilda to Cotham Rd Kew on the first day of school, 1934. The tram wends its way “along the spine of Melbourne’s middle-class heartland”, with an ebb and flow of private school students who peel off as they pass the major private schools in Melbourne. Being 1934, these are the children of WWI parents and unless they have scholarships, their parents are paying for their private school education during the Depression.

The No. 69 tram in February 1934 is the opening chapter and linchpin of Janet McCalman’s book,  which explores both the antecedents and consequences of that daily commute.  Starting in the years 1850-1919, her second chapter titled ‘Inheritances’ examines the social and economic origins of what was to become the Melbourne middle class of the 1930s, starting with the ‘Seekers and Saints’ who emigrated between 1850-1870 and embedded themselves as ‘The Greedy and the Good’ between 1879-1890. Chapter 3, ‘The Lessons of Innocence 1920-1939’ explores the inter-war years in which these young school children catch their tram in 1934, oblivious to the second ‘war to end all wars’ that faced them.

McCalman then follows through with this generation, examining their war-time experience in Chapter 4 ‘Coming of Age 1939-1945’ and their post-war family and work lives in ‘The Trials of Experience 1946-1966.’ Her chapter ‘Mid-Life Crisis 1967-1975’ captures the mid-career mindset of her middle-class informants in the midst of the world-wide disruption of 1968 and the political ferment of the ascension and dismissal of the Labor Party in Australia. Her final chapter ‘The Age of Wisdom 1976-1990’ takes her right up to the ‘Journeyings’ survey conducted in 1990 amongst the former students (pre 1950) of four private schools  that were passed by the No 69 tram.

I must declare my own colours here. Even though in 1934 my father lived one block down from Glenferrie Rd, along which the No 69 tram rattled (i.e.the very years that McCalman uses in her opening image), I am proudly the product of a government school, as were my parents. I strongly oppose the social and educational distortions brought about by John Howard’s funding of private schools that no government seems to have the courage to dismantle. So I read this book with a jaundiced eye and certainly no sense of identification.

However , McCalman complicates my easy prejudices through her research. It is largely based on a 1990 survey that she conducted with Mark Peel that yielded 633 responses from pre-1950 school leavers from Scotch and Trinity, (both boys’ schools), Methodist Ladies College and Genazzano convent. There were 1235 surveys distributed, yielding a hefty 42% response rate. McCalman’s methodology combines prosopography,  survey responses, oral history interviews with 80 respondents, the judicious use of fiction and memoir, her own literature review, and statistics.

Although solidly middle-class, the financial and social backgrounds were more varied than I expected for this 1934 cohort, based on statistics drawn from Scotch senior students in 1934 and MLC students born in 1919 and 1920. Going to a private school did not guarantee a high education level:  43% of the Trinity 1919-20 boys cohort left without the Intermediate Certificate (i.e. Yr 10), while 65% of the MLC cohort left without their Intermediate.  In a rather anecdotal experiment, McCalman asked a group of retired senior teachers (who were themselves at secondary school in the 1930s and 1940s) to compare papers set for the external Intermediate, Leaving and Leaving Honours papers for 1935 and the examinations set for the  Higher School Certificate (superseded in 1992). Their consensus was that in 1935 the emphasis was on clean and accurate work, which penalized misspellings, grammatical flaws and arithmetical slips. French and German was much more difficult in the 1930s but “in most of the other humanities, the intellectual demands of the 1930s papers were lower than would be acceptable by the 1960s.” (p. 123).

As McCalman traces through this 1930s cohort, she contextualizes them within Australia’s history. Because these four schools were denominational, there is an emphasis on spirituality. I was well aware of the Split of 1955 and the influence of the Movement within the Catholic church, but completely unaware of progressive Catholic activism (which was featured recently in History Workshop). Long before History of the Emotions became a historical ‘turn’, she focuses on hearts, souls, masculinity and femininity, minds and manners.

I like her discussion of fiction and history in her preface:

…because this is a group biography, a collection of stories of actual lives, it needs to unfold in the way real lives do- which is that none of us knows what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the most important functions of fiction is to permit us to escape that existential plight – it is a rehearsal for life; in writing history, however, we need to feel life’s dreadful unpredictability, its untidiness, its ordinariness, its splendours. Art is under our control; history, like life, is not. And yet history is but our reconstructions, is but an artefact of the mind, conceived of differently by all of us, and differently by all of us at different times in our lives… We are incorrigibly historical beings; our inner histories of ourselves- private history- constitute our ever-evolving sense of identity- we are our own stories. But in constructing histories – whether private or public-  we are torn between what we would like the story to be and what the evidence insists that it really is. The novelist enjoys a licence; the historian a responsibility (p.viii)

Before writing Journeyings, McCalman had received acclaim for Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965 which used a similar methodology in the working-class (although now gentrified) inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.  I have read Struggletown, but did not record my response to it at the time. The two books work well as a pair. Journeyings also complements Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which is cited often.

By the final chapter (1976-1990) her informants were mature retirees, with a remarkably low divorce rate and generally (but not exclusively) politically conservative.  Perhaps it was my government-school-streak coming out here, but I found myself bridling at the smug moral superiority that came through many of their responses, the noblesse oblige and the disavowal of ‘old school tie’ networks when there was clear statistical evidence of its significance in ‘elite’ circles.  What was McCalman going to do with this? Did she feel the same way as I do?

I think she did. Citing Sir Robert Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People’ speech and Judith Brett’s analysis of it, McCalman writes:

Children who are educated apart behind high walls can find it difficult in later life to become at one with those on the other side. Children who are told endlessly by their parents and teachers that they are fortunate, privileged, special, inheritors and examples of excellence, will find it difficult to be good democrats.  Even if they are imbued with a sense of service and care ‘for those less fortunate than themselves’, they can still find it difficult to feel simply as fellow Australians.  (p.301)

This is an excellent book. It’s beautifully written, it is nuanced and yet broad. The No. 69 trope works so well.

And look at this: the Public Education Campaign has just released a video that answers back to that last chapter, too.

Sourced from: my very own bookshelves, where it has sat patiently for decades.

My rating: 9/10

AWW-2018-badge-rose-199x300

I have recorded this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

Website: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

There has been a recent updating of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities’ website Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930

Take the time to read the Introduction to the website. Here the researchers explain that their criteria of a ‘massacre’ arises” from the indiscriminate killing of six or more undefended people”.  Six people, they explain, from a hearth group of twenty leaves those remaining vulnerable to attack, with a diminished ability to hunt, reproduce or carry out ceremonial obligations.

It is still a work in progress, with information from Western Australia and after 1930 yet to be added.

‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard

bollard

2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.