Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients.

In 1947 a patient of the Brisbane Mental Hospital claimed he’d been forced to dig up the bodies of around 4,000 patients buried in the hospital’s cemetery. What happened to those exhumed remains isn’t clear. This is the story of Wolston Park’s missing bodies.

The Asylum and its cemeteries

The hospital at Wacol has had several name changes over the years including the Goodna Asylum for the Insane, the Brisbane Special Hospital and Wolston Park Hospital.

Its first incarnation was as the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum’s first inmates (as they were called back then) were taken by boat to the 450-hectare bushland site, west of Brisbane, in 1865.

The Asylum’s first cemetery was in the very flood-prone south west corner of the site (now the Wolston Park Golf Club). Its location on the banks of the Brisbane River was ridiculed by an anonymous contributor to the Queensland Times (25 Feb 1869) who could foresee problems ahead:

“The graveyard is on the bank of the river, and the first flood will take all the dead lunatics down to Brisbane.”

A 1869 Queensland Times article mentions the flooding potential of the Woogaroo Cemetery.
An anonymous contributor to the Queensland Times writes: “Speaking of burials at Woogaroo. The graveyard is on the bank of the river, and the first flood with take all the dead lunatics down to Brisbane. (The Qld Times, 25 Feb 1869, p3)

The writer wasn’t too far wrong and a second cemetery for patients was soon built on much higher ground. But making room for more hospital building development, according to Vicki Mynott of the Richlands, Inala and Suburbs History Group, less than a decade later in 1910, another cemetery was established. This third and final cemetery sat on the northern outskirts of the hospital site, at the end of what’s now known as Wilga St in Wacol.¹

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery
The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery at Wacol which was closed in 1945 to improve the outlook from the new Repatriation Pavilion which was opened on 26 Jan 1948. The remains of thousands of patients were removed from this cemetery over a four-year period by several patients who officials say “volunteered” to do the work.

It’s thought thousands of bodies buried in this third cemetery were exhumed between 1945 and 1948. Newspaper reports say 2,800 bodies were removed, though cemetery records have only accounted for around 200 of those which were moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery.

Qld Times article 29/11/46 - Mass Exhumation of Bodies
A 1946 newspaper article mentions the exhumation of 2800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to “improve the site of a new block being erected for servicemen suffering war effects”.

The remains were moved because the hospital cemetery was considered too close to the proposed Repatriation Pavilion which included three new wards for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.

How many people died at the Asylum?

LOTS. About 50,000 people were patients at the hospital in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s². The hospital was always overcrowded and there are regular mentions of an “acute shortage of female nurses” in the annual reports.

In 1941/42, for example, 2,466 people were patients. Of those, 214 died during the year. 23 of those deaths were within one month of arrival.

The table below shows that in the ten-year period between 1937/38 and 1946/47 there were 1,828 patient deaths.

YEAR TOTAL DEATHS MALE FEMALE % OF DEATHS PER AVERAGE NO OF RESIDENTS
1937/38

192

110

82

11.31

1838/39 174 109 65

9.86

1939/40 180
1940/41

159

95 64 8.57

1941/42

214

115 99

11.62

1942/43

160

88

72

1943/44

167

104

63

1944/45

178 96

82

1945/46

208

104 104

10.79

1946/47

196

112

84

10.17

SOURCE: Queensland State Archives Series ID 201, Mental Hygiene Annual Reports.

With the hospital files locked up tight thanks to the Queensland Government’s Right to Information Laws, there’s no way of finding out more information about these deaths or how many of these patients were buried on hospital grounds. Patients with family who had the financial means were likely buried closer to Brisbane in Toowong Cemetery. Those without family were likely given ‘pauper funerals’ and buried on site until 1945 when the cemetery was closed. Burials were subsequently carried out in the nearby township cemetery, now known as Goodna General Cemetery. And it’s at the Goodna Cemetery where this tale unfolds and it becomes apparent the dead were lost and forgotten in death as they were in life.

The exhumations

There are no available government records that indicate how many patients were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery to improve the site of a new facility for returned servicemen. However, a newspaper article suggests 2,800 bodies were moved.

  • Exhumations took place over four years: 1945 to 1948 to “improve the immediate surroundings of the new Repatriation Pavilion”. (Hon. T A Foley: Hansard, 11 Dec 1946)
  • While licences costing £1 were required to exhume a body from public cemeteries, there was no such licence requirements to move a body from elsewhere. As such there are no official records. (Queensland State Archives Series ID 20957 – Exhumation Permit receipt Books – Correspondence )
  • In the 1944/45 annual report it was reported the “cemetery has been abolished and burials are now done in the township cemetery”.
  • In Parliament on 25 Oct 1945, Secretary for Health and Home Affairs T A Foley reported that two additional grave diggers were hired in the 45/46 financial year.
  • On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Parliament the “work of exhumation is being performed by an employee of the hospital , assisted by four border-line patients who volunteered to assist to do the work”. When asked if he considered it a “suitable activity for the mentally sick”, he responded, “The Director of Mental Hygiene has satisfied himself that the work has no detrimental effect on these patients”.
  • In the 19 June 1947 edition of The Courier Mail, an article disputes claims the patients volunteered. The newspaper says one patient “had to dis-inter and rebury 4,000 bodies from a cemetery “as part of “hard manual labour in the name of occupational therapy”.
  • A front-page article in The Queensland Times (29 Nov 1946) reports, “the mass exhumation of 2,800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to the Goodna Public Cemetery is half completed”. A similar story in The Courier Mail had added, “After removal, a hearse is used to convey the bodies to the Goodna Cemetery, where they are reburied and allotted public grave numbers.”
  • BUT the Goodna Cemetery Trust says the remains of only two-hundred or so patients were re-interred at Goodna and that no records were kept in relation to the positioning of these graves on any of the maps held by the Trust.

The Goodna Memorial

A memorial plaque at Goodna Cemetery
A memorial plaque at Goodna General Cemetery commemorates all those who died at Brisbane Mental Hospital and whose final resting place is unknown. There is no such memorial or acknowledgement on the hospital grounds.
A memorial to those who died at Brisbane Mental Hospital sits in Goodna Cemetery.
More than 55 years after the remains of at least 207 hospital patients were re-interred at Goodna, the original cement grave markers from the Brisbane Mental Hospital cemetery were used to establish a memorial to all those who died at the hospital.
Cement grave markers from Brisbane Mental Hospital are part of a memorial at Goodna Cemetery.
Numbers are etched into each of the markers which originally stood over graves in the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery, less than six kilometres away. The highest number on the grave markers is 2,300.
The Brisbane Mental Hospital memorial sits at the back of the Goodna Cemetery.
The Brisbane Mental Hospital memorial, made up hundreds of small grave markers, is nestled at the back of the Goodna Cemetery. While there are around 200 hospital patients confirmed buried in the cemetery, the whereabouts of those graves is unknown. According to a 1946 newspaper article, there are as many as 2,800 unmarked graves on the cemetery grounds.

“It doesn’t ring true”: Goodna Cemetery disputes reported grave figures.

The Goodna Cemetery Trust does not believe there are thousands of asylum patients buried in unmarked graves within its boundary.

Cemetery treasurer and trustee Helen Gilmour questions the 1946 newspaper article which claims the exhumation of 2,800 patients and their re-interment at Goodna was half completed.

“Maybe the journo made a mistake. Maybe they accidentally added an extra zero and it’s just 280 graves?” she said.

“Given the records we hold, it’s just not feasible.

“The 200-or-so burials are documented in the Cemetery’s register. Why would they not document them all if there were more?”, she asks.

Having trawled through the Parliamentary records of the time, I’ve found no official mention of the number of exhumations.

Ms Gilmour also queried whether it was physically possible for 2,800 exhumations and re-interments to be carried out in four years. Grave digging by hand is hard work and time consuming. It would have required opening 2 or 3 graves per day.

Another question to be asked is simply “why?”.

It is common for cemeteries and graves in Australia to simply be abandoned, with markers or headstones removed, leaving no hint of what lies beneath. I’ve lost count of the cemeteries I have visited where councils in previous decades have had a misguided “clean up” and removed grave markers.

Why were the bodies supposedly exhumed from the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery instead of being left there and the grave markers simply removed? (I’m assuming that’s exactly what happened to the hospital’s first two cemeteries.)

Does it matter?

Does it matter that patients of a mental institution had their graves disturbed and that their final resting place is unknown? After all, these people died between 75 and about 120 years ago. I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.

The Goodna Cemetery trust’s Helen Gilmour said she is often contacted by people who are trying to find where their descendants are laid to rest.

“I get about two calls a week from people looking for family members who were at the hospital. It’s become more prevalent over recent years with the increasing popularity of family trees,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I have to tell them that I don’t know.”

The Woogaroo Asylum's female wards, built in 1866.
The Asylum’s female wards, built in 1866, are still on site. People were admitted to the institution for a range of psychiatric illnesses and, sadly, for a range of conditions that we know now didn’t warrant being locked up. These include epilepsy, post natal depression, anxiety, alcoholism, dementia, senility, stammering (stuttering), cleft palate, syphilis, obsessive compulsive, and simply because they were old and their family was unable to care for them.

If you have any information that may be able to shed light on the hospital’s cemeteries and the location of the remains of patients you’re welcome to contact me via Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au or leave a comment on this blog.
¹ Wacol, Wolston, Woogaroo 1823-2014 (Volume 1). Mynott, Vicki (2014).
² Wolston Park Hospital, 1865-2001: A Retrospect. Mark Finnane (2008).
ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.

13 thoughts on “Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients.

  1. Hi Lisa,
    My question has nothing to do with the cemetery or deaths at the hospital, but I’m wondering if you could point me in the direction of where I can find info on the workers at the hospital and in particular the ‘hairdressers’ employed between 1943 and 1953.
    Kind Regards,
    Simone Hohenhaus

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    • Hi Simone. The state archives is your best bet. They have a fantastic computer search system but it takes a bit of getting used to. The staff at the Runcorn facility can help you. Unfortunately Wolston Park records are locked up tight these days (they never used to be) thanks to Right to Information Laws come into play a decade ago. Even if you found record files you may not be allowed to access them, though there is a process you can go through to apply for access. https://www.qld.gov.au/dsiti/qsa

      Like

    • Hi Simone. The state archives is your best bet. They have a fantastic computer search system but it takes a bit of getting used to. The staff at the Runcorn facility can help you. Unfortunately Wolston Park records are locked up tight these days (they never used to be) thanks to Right to Information Laws come into play a decade ago. Even if you found record files you may not be allowed to access them, though there is a process you can go through to apply for access. https://www.qld.gov.au/dsiti/qsa

      Like

  2. My grandma and my dad worked at wolston park for many years and some of the story’s they told I feel sad for all those poor people who didn’t have families and I always felt eerie when I went there for fetes and other events I hated it as a kid

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    • Wow. They must have been hard to hear. Have you ever thought of writing those stories down, Evon? It’s a part of a terrible history that shouldn’t be forgotten, especially the poor souls involved.

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  3. I can tell you the golf club has had numerous sonar session through the place to make sure there is no remains left along the bank and indeed most of the course, the course and it’s surroundings have been checked off by the historical society as well, although in recent times like the 2011 floods (and even the 74 floods) when the clubhouse itself went 6 foot under, it’s sad to think what could of been displaced from the site

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  4. Hi Lisa, I have a copy of records of the wife of a 2x greatuncle who was admitted in May 1904 and died there in Oct 1828. I was very upset to find most of the file related to trying to find someone to pay for her time there and includes a letter written by her elder daughter saying she does not have any in in income, has been living with an aunt since she was 5 years old and she does not know of any assets. There is also a note signed by medical supt saying she did not want her wedding ring sold but the public curator sold it anyway as that was all she had. There is nothing to say why she was admitted but I did note the elder girl was 5 when her younger sister was born so presume it was either post natal depression not treated or some other medical issue to do with the birth that had been going on for a long time approx 16 years before she was eventually admitted to Wolston Park.

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