Embling’s protest 1853

Argus, Thursday 14 July 1853


TO the Editor of the Argus,

Sir,I beg to forward to you the accompanying documents relative to tho Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, the Insertion of which In your valuable paper will oblige,

Sir, your most obediently,


11th July 1853


Sir,-I am advised and (Judging from your prolonged silence, that our correspondence has terminated) I must readily accede to, and agree in the opinion, that a summary of the scenes enacted at the Lunatic Asylum, accompanied by the correspondence, should at length be laid by me. In my independent capacity, before my fellow citizens of the colony, through the medium of the public press. I deem it but an act of gentlemanly courtesy due to myself, to apprise your Excellency of my


I have the honor to be, Sir,

Your most obedient Servant,

THOMAS EMBLING. Gore Street, Collingwood,

9th July, 1853.

THE YARRA BEND LUNATIC ASYLUM; a Statement addressed to the Colony of Victoria by the late Medical Officer attached to the same, Thomas Embling, Gore Street, Collingwood.

The extraordinary disclosures affecting the discipline and general management of the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum have obtained for that Institution a publicity, a notoriety, which is most painful, from the belief which prevails that great mismanagement, and the absence of all discipline, have made the Lunatic Asylum, of Victoria to have been an arena in which profligacy, cruelty, and dishonesty have held undisputed possession. Such is the prevalent opinion now existing In Victoria. The vigorous stages by which its enormous evils harve been brought to the light have been steadily converging to a point, from which a more complete narrative should be prepared for the information of the people of this colony, and for the publicity of the efforts which were necessary to the dragging to the eye of the world the terrible chaos which prevailed at the Yarra Bend. That point has now been reached.

As an officer attached to the Lunatic Asylum, when the public were yet impressed with the thought that it was a properly conducted public Institution for the most helpless class of human beings and as the officer who has had thrust upon him a prominence of action in the whole of the late distressing investigation into the state of the Lunatic Hospital by tho Select Committee of the Legislature-I am advised that I should be criminal to this colony, and unjust to myself, if I do not now supply to the people of Victoria a calm and dispassionate statement of some of the leading features connected with it, and calling for the interference of the Legislative body. The report of the Select Committee has been made public. It tells its own awful, silent and melancholy truths. A document thus ushered into existence by the highest court of adjudication in a British province had, as I imagined, decided all question; dispelled all doubt ; and would command alike the profound respect of the executive, and the acquiescence of the people. The latter has followed, and in Great Britain the former is a necessary sequel. The representative voice being heard; sovereignty is cheer fully accorded to it. The Crown bends to it-It is the expression of the people, the only legitimate source of power: for at home the government of Great Britain is absolutely and perfectly representative. The Lieutenant-Govcrnor of Victoria, however, has, in reference to the Select Committee of the House upon the Lunatic Asylum, adopted a singular, novel, and original course- original among Englishmen. Every witness who detailed crime, and proved delinquency at the Yarra Bend, was got rid of as soon as possible. The parties incriminated, shockingly and seriously indeed, by the Report of the Committee, have been retained in office, and promoted to honor; and in April, 1853, three months after the Report has been published, in the entire loss of every important link of evidence, as obtainable from tho domestics examined by the Committee, a private board of four Government officers has been appointed to examined into, and report anew upon, the Yarra Bend Asylum, in the very teeth of the elaborate and startling Report of the committee, which occupied six months in their careful and thorough public inquiry. Their report, however, has given apparent dissatisfaction to tho Government-it has disconcerted it; therefore another, a private Government Inquiry, has been attempted, with the view, apparently, either to supersede or to evade the Legislative Report. My course, however, is clear ; the decision of the Colonial Parliament is, with me, supreme-I bow to it. It is supreme in this colony, and I will not by any act of mine, so far as I can effect it, permit or sanction by my presence any measure which would even appear to invalidate the supreme authority of our own Council-for we, as well as the mother State, are and ever will be a representative people.

Having ceased all connection with the Government, and being engaged in the pursuit of my professional duties, in private practice far more profitably to myself than any medical apointment the colony holds could yield to me, I might have been excused, perhaps, if a mere feeling of selfish indisposition to trouble my self about matters of which hereafter I could only allow myself to remain a common spectator, had led me to forget the whole tansaction as far as possible. But I have no been able to shake off the conviction that my lndependent testimony to the case of the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum was called for, to ensure for that institution the due care and amelioration its late dreadful condition demands at the hands of the Colonial Legislature.


The Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum was founded some four years since, the rapid growth of Port Phillip ren dering it neccessary that institutions to meet its increasing wants should be supplied within itself, and particularly that the custom of sending its lunatics to Sydney, beyond the reach of its own supervision, should be discontinued. The incomparable beauty and seclusion of the Yarra Bend appeared to recommend it as an isolated and picturesque spot for the erection of a lunatic hospital; and, without sufficient consideration upon its very limited extent, there the hospital was built. No reason existing at that time to cause expec tation or the discovery of gold in Australia Felix, arrangements were not made at all proportionate to the tremendous rush of the colony in progress, which has characterised the last eighteen months of its career, and it was thought that its first plan would be ample for many years to come. Hence its present utter maladaptation to the wants of the time. Dr. Cussens first had the oversight or the asylum ; then, for a very brief space, Dr. O’Mullane ; and Dr. Sullivan has had charge for three years past. In consequence of the late rapid advance of the colony, its medical staff was thought insufficient in number, and the Lunatic Asylum particularly was thought by the Legislature to require a medical officer, who should be permanently resident, and have the sole medical care of the hospital, by which the Colonial Surgeon should be relieved from all active duty there ; and in December, 1851, a vote passed the house constituting this appointment, which I received. The Colonial Surgeon directed me to keep the “medical records,” but no other instructions of any kind were communicated to me by any party whatever, and I could not get any. For residence, I was told that there was no room for me, but that I could shake down in the corner of a room which was the general store of the Asylum, the retiring room of the superintendent, the surgery, &c ; and in the corner of that room, without the opportunity of a moment’s privacy, I remained with my bed for two months.. The superintendent and matron were very desirous, and repeatedly urged it upon me, to take a house on the Merri Creek, where my family could reside, as my duties at the Asylum were only for one hour in the day, and I could spend the rest of my time with my family, and could often sleep away from the Asylum, as they could manage the place very well by themselves. The Colonial Surgeon assured me ” the place might do very well for the summer months, but that it would he impossible for me to spend the winter in the miserable accommodation I had, and he was sure the Government would not provide more for me.” This was my introduction to the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum. My first impressions of the institution were those of great astonishment, not unmixed with pain. I could only glance round as the superintendent ran through the wards, but I saw much which was incomprehensible, much disreputable.

Perhaps if I say I was petrified with what I found existing, without the least apparent interposition to pre vent such proceedings on the part of those in authority, I shall best convey the idea which arrested my attention as I followed, day by day, the Superintendent around the establishment. Desiring to be at work, and both to ascertain the real state of the Asylum, and then to correct its most extarordinary condition of disorder, I requested the Colonial Surgeon to favour me with my full instructions-for I could not act without them. The Superintendent distinctly and coolly assured me ” he should not relinquish an atom of his authority until he had orders to do so; and that, in fact, he had no right to receive me within the walls without official orders; that he could not and should not recognise me in any capacity until he some instructions and some correspondence ensued thereupon between the Colonial Secretary and the Superintendent, which secured me the right to live at the Asylum and to my rations- nothing more.Thus powerless, I urged The Colonial Surgeon repeatedly to give me full instructions; for the Govenor had tolde me I could only act through my superior officer. My pertinacity in seeking for instruct ions led the Colonial Surgeon from evasion to insult- gross, unmanly and unprofessional. Question 2125 refers to one instance, although the Colonial Surgeon lies under an error to the exact language used. It was-” You are a worm, a crawler, a shuffler; you are one too many for me; you know how to get out of a hole better than I do.” I still, however, begged and entreated that my instructions should be supplied; for even the washerwoman had printed rules, and every servant had keys of ingress and egress to and from the wards. But I, upon whom all the graver responsibility of the Asylum was supposed (by the public) to have devolved- I could obtain neither instruction, status, or a key, and I was in truth a “nullity.”

The wards were sealed tablets to me. I have, day by day, kicked with might and main at the ward doors, and could not gain admission; although I have been seen the whole time by every member of the superindendant’s and matron’s family, and by the servants in the opposite wing of the Asylum. At the same time I knew, often, that the attendants were within a few feet of the doorway, carousing or idling their time away, and the patients, especially on the female side, utterly left to themselves, were left like sheep, turned into their yards alone for hours, and this in the middle of a pitiless winter’s rain, where their exposure without restraint naturally tempted these poor people to acts of violence–to stripping themselves of all clothing, rolling in the mud, fighting and tearing each other,–such scenes being of constant recurrence; and at their meals, especially on the female side, the patients took their food as they pleased and where they pleased, and did with it what they pleased,–the poultry and pigs at the Asylum being far more attended to than these hapless people. But I had no keys and no authority; when I caught a glance at these atrocities I could not interpose; I could only hope that I might, even yet ameliorate them. their shrieks of murder have been heard, and universal uproar has been occurring–heads being laid open, and patients picked up insensible in the yards or wards, and the patients in an agony of fright; for lunacy greatly depreciates the faculty of moral courage. I have kicked and hammered lustily, in vain, until by some accident, the door was opened. While I was delayed thus, not knowing but that actual murder had taken place, as was feared had, and vert nearly did ensue, or on more than one occasion, of which I was able to be cognizant, These facts are not omitted from the medical record; they have been written, and were left thus by me. Such incidents are events which may be looked for in a lunatic hospital, but in the Yarra Bend the risk is cruelly increased by the thoughtless admixture of the lunatics, in cells of seven and eight beds each, and by the mixing of civil and criminal lunatics in one band, blending in one body,–a course in respect to lunatics which has lately received the careful scrutiny and deep reprehension of the Imperial Legislature. But here, the man whose mania results from the profligacy of a bestialised and filthy career, and the man whose escape from condemnation for more than one ruthless murder was effected on a plea of insanity,–criminals of every shade are, at the Yarra Bend Asylum, classed within the same walls and within the same cell with the man whose mind, being of a sensitive and refined character, has sunk before the excitements of the world, and has passed away into the absorption of the perverted, but beautiful and affecting phase of ceaseless adoration of the Deity. the woman whose profligacy, crime, and murder in Europe, has here attained the climax of its lessons in evil, and whose faculty of thought–I can scarcely call it a mind–so vitiated before deranged in function altogether, still retains, in her insanity all the erring and debasing propensities of the past, only exalted in their intensity by the concentration of her unreasoning brain within so narrow but wayward a circle,–this woman is the intimate associate bt night and by day with the delicate maiden, whose youthful intellect has faded in the developing of its life, and whose mind has never been before tainted with a thought which could be deemed the shadow of unchaste, far less impure; and the matronly woman, the faithful and loving wife, the pious and tender mother, upon whom, in the mystery of Providence, the sad blight of insanity has fallen. Such are the companionships of the Victoria Lunatic Asylum–such the woes men heap in thoughtless cruelty upon those whose only crime with the wandering of a mind diseased. What but evil can result from such a strange admixture? And this is one of the sad evils I had hoped to have removed, unless it is intended to add to the greatest of humanity’s woes a terrible amount of mental agony which shall seriously confirm in madness the inhabitants of the Yarra Bend Asylum. By the same powerlessness, I was made to be an imposition on the colony in the case of Donovan. The excesses of this singular and inexplicable compound of patient and lunatic’s attendant in one person, called for the most decided measures. Gifted with a fair share of shrewdness on some points, he quickly perceived that I had no power to interrupt his pleasures: and in order that I might estimate duly his calculation of my position, he called upon me one evening to “ask the loan of some tumblers, as he and some others were spending a jolly evening together” in the mad room. Now this man, who was pronounced unable to be trusted with the charge of his own person; who in law, was a dangerous madman, and was so, in fact; who could neither hold nor claim property, and who was, in law, utterly an irresponsible being, do he what he might, was allowed and hired by the Government to have sole charge of a lunatic ward, containing sixteen men, mad, like himself; to shave them, and if he pleased, (which he did,) allow other patients to possess themselves of dangerous weapons, and even to shave themselves; when the fit took them, to throw the doors wide open, that the inmates might escape; and when any tumult broke out, he was the frst to fly, and at times to ply the other patients with liquor, he being constantly drunk himself; one case of his giving spirits being the melancholy instance of one Brodie. A record of this I left at the Asylum; and this man had his key of the wards, went in and out as he pleased, often staying out all night. Yet, bad and dangerous as this unhappy man was known to be, I was assured by the Colonial Surgeon superintendant and matron that they had the Governor’s authority for Donovan’s position; and I was compelled to be, in this cruel and unjust case, a “nullity” in the institution.ble. The law simply pays for a legal instrument by which a human being can be incar

So, again, in the case of Sarah Hastings. The Colonial Surgeon states question 2196. He was not aware at the time that Dr. Howitt had attended this unfortunate woman. Had the Colonial Surgeon been possessed of this information, would the treatment of Sarah Hastings have been different? But she had been a patient of Dr. Howitt’s, and no lunacy existed at that time. No lunacy existed; not a shadow of insanity could I discover when she was brought to the Asylum, and that was only a few days after Dr. Howitt had attended her. But in the agony of death this poor woman was removed from the gaol to the madhouse, on a bleak autumn day, half dressed, in an open dray, with a boisterous madman sitting upon her naked legs, the dreary miseries of her death-throes being dismally broken in upon with his bold and uproarious shouts, as he sung his incoherent songs along the road.

It may be said that this was a purely legal transaction–be it so; but this is the saddest feature of such a case. Two doctors must sign a document to prove a party mad in law; but the evil is that no doctor will get a fee unless he certify the insanity; if he states they are sane, he gets no fee, whatever may have been his troucerated as mad–for nothing more or less. Now an officer of the Government stated to me that he, being constantly engaged in such cases, known members of the medical profession who are willing to sign at once for the guinea, and that he has more than once checked this glib penmanship. And horrible as is the inference it was intended I should draw, I myself think there is truth in this startling revelation, and that certificates have been signed for the guinea. To return to Sarah Hastings’s distressing case. Exactly forty-eight hours after reaching the madhouse, death released her from her cruel sufferings. It is fully recorded as the Asylum by me, but being thoroughly dissatisfied with the aspect of the case, I had intended to have walked over to Mr. Dight respecting an inquest. On the morning of the day of her death, however, the superintendant (vide the evidence) sent Hiley on horseback to the Colonial Surgeon with the intelligence of the condition of Sarah Hastings, and of my intention of applying for an inquest. This was quite unknown to me. But in consequence the Colonial Surgeon came down immediately, and an inquest was distinctly prohibited, and Sarah Hastings was buried in the paddock.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s