Archive of 150,000 historical documents reveals life in a Victorian lunatic asylum – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

The history of our families is an allure that is becoming increasingly accessible as mountains of historical documents are digitized and made public.
But while uncovering the secrets of your family heritage may surprise and even impress, there are some dark corners our great-grandparents may have preferred to have kept hidden.


In a time before brain scans and cognitive therapy, the mentally ill were often labelled as lunatics and consigned to the concrete floors of 19th century asylums.

A century later and almost 150,000 historical records including patient registers, newspaper clippings, photos and even suicide notes, have been collected and digitized by the genealogy website Ancestry.


An insight into forgotten family histories.


Black and white photo of large 19th century mental asylum


Content Acquisition Manager for Ancestry Jason Reeve said his team worked with the Public Records Office of Victoria to access and digitize almost 50,000 records and 97,000 images from 15 institutions.

“This means 50,000 individuals,” Mr Reeve said.

“The record sets that do come to light and what you find in them that you’re not expecting to find, makes every bit of information so precious.”

Mr Reeve said while the records taken from 1853 to 1940 were generally “not cheerful”, they offered critical information that would be otherwise left unnoticed.

“When you’re looking at family history, it’s not just about the good things, the good stories, the fun stories, there’s also the challenges that families had,” he said.

“When you look back a couple of generations you start to find that people didn’t talk about family history generally, let alone challenges in their family history.

Old black and white photo of Mont Park Asylum dining room with three nurses


“So something like asylum records can bring to light challenges families had or where relatives were at a particular time that might not have been discussed.”

Mr Reeve said the records shed light on how far common understandings of mental health have progressed.

“There are some records that pertain to people being in those institutions which in the modern world, they wouldn’t be there.

“It also helps us appreciate where we are today.”

Records were collected from Victoria’s institutions in Ararat, Ballarat, Belmont, Cloverdale, Kew, Lara, Merton, Mont Park, Mt Ida, Northcote, St Helens, Yarra Bend and ‘the Tofts’ in Frankston.  Read on . . .

Source: Archive of 150,000 historical documents reveals life in a Victorian lunatic asylum – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)