Around 75 years ago, thousands of asylum patients were reported to have been exhumed from a cemetery on the grounds of the Brisbane Mental Hospital (also previously known as Wolston Park or Goodna Asylum) and moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery.
Now impacted by road development, the site of this cemetery was this year recognised as a “significant element of the State heritage place 600340 Wolston Park Mental Hospital“. This is great news. I first explored evidence of the third cemetery site in a blog I wrote four years ago. The blog has received 40,000 views which shows the high level of public interest in the hospital, especially as more people research their family histories and hit a brick wall when trying to find the graves of ancestors who were patients at the hospital. It’s wonderful to see the cemetery site and its story preserved.
The exhumations and the unknown location of the remains
The remains of patients were moved from the hospital’s third cemetery because new wards to be built for returning soldiers would have been overlooking the cemetery – not an ideal view for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.
It’s thought thousands of bodies buried in this third cemetery were exhumed between 1945 and 1948. Newspaper reports in 1946 say 2,800 bodies were removed, while another article in 1947 claims 4,000 were exhumed. Records have only accounted for around 200 of those who were moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery. A hospital tradesman at the time, Mr. Ferg Brindley, believes patient remains were buried in trenches at the cemetery. In my discussions with 90yo Ferg, he said not all patients in the third cemetery were able to be exhumed.
Ferg told me, “They didn’t dig the whole coffin up. They dug down, smashed the top open and took the remains out and put them in a box.
“As far as I know all the coffins are still there. But I imagine there are still some whole corpses there. I doubt if they removed the whole lot. They couldn’t dig up anything under 10 years old. That’s what I was told,“ he said.
The Heritage acknowledgment
One of the few great things to come out of 2021 was that the Heritage Register entry for Wolston Park was reviewed and substantially updated. The entry now includes the third cemetery and the second cemetery.
The second cemetery site (1895-1912)
“The site of the second cemetery associated with the hospital is located on the western side of the Male Patients Area and is an area of archaeological potential. Historically located north of the main hospital buildings and west of the cricket ground, the cemetery was operational between 1895 and 1912, when it was closed to allow construction of the two-storey male wards and burials were reportedly reinterred to the third cemetery to the north by 1913. The area was subsequently developed for residences (1910s-c1958), and kitchens and workshops (1970s), which were later relocated or demolished.”
Queensland Heritage Register, Wolston Park Hospital Complex
The remains that were in the second cemetery were said to have been exhumed and moved to the third cemetery. In 1913, hospital superintendent Henry Byam Ellerton reported that the ‘disinterment of remains from the old cemetery and re-interment in new cemetery – to make room for new wards’ had been completed. (Annual Report of Inspector of Hospitals for the Insane, 1913, p. 34.)
The Heritage Register reads that “between 1895 and 1912 when Cemetery no 2 was operational, more than 1500 patients died at Goodna and were presumably buried in Cemetery no 2 and possibly some in cemetery no 3. In addition, the remains of staff members and their families who were also interred in the cemetery”.
Third Cemetery Site (c1913-1945)
“The site of the third cemetery associated with the hospital is located immediately northeast of the Wacol Repatriation Pavilion Complex. The area operated as a cemetery for the hospital from c1913 to 1945, when burials were reinterred to the Goonda Cemetery. Historically cleared of vegetation, the site comprises regrowth bushland bounded to the northwest by Wolston Park Road and a carpark and southeast by Orford Drive. The surfaces of both roads are built up above the ground level of the cemetery site.”
Queensland Heritage Register, Wolston Park Hospital Complex
Digging up the past
The register also acknowledges that there is potential for archaeological digs which could uncover evidence of “burials and reinterments, stone and metal grave markers, and other artefacts and features associated with burial practices”.
Archaeological investigations have the potential to “yield information about the treatment of deceased patients and burial practices at the hospital; spatial distribution and arrangement of graves; and the extent and methods of reinterments“.
Wow. That statement in the Register is so exciting. I really don’t see any type of government-funded archeological dig happening anytime soon, if at all, but if it did the findings would be fascinating and important.
In recent months I’ve been in touch with archaeologists to determine if a privately-funded project to explore the site of the third cemetery using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) could reveal any data and information about the exhumations and undisturbed graves. Unfortunately, the tree cover and vegetation would be problematic and prevent a comprehensive survey, so using GPR is not a feasible option.
[An archeological dig would be far more costly and time-consuming. If you’re a philanthropist and would like to fund a dig, please get in touch. (If you don’t ask, you don’t know, right?!)]
If you have anything to add about Wolston Park Mental Hospital pre 1950 and its cemeteries, I’d love to hear from you via Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au
In the meantime, congratulations to the Heritage team at the Queensland Department of Environment and Science for its work to review and significantly update the Wolston Park Hospital Complex entry on the Heritage Register on 26 March 2021. It is important that the people who died at the hospital and have no known graves are not forgotten.
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 quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in paperback in Australia for $29.95 and in eBook format for $12.99 on Apple Books, Kobo, Google Books and Booktopia. Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.