Beechworth’s Children:
Living In Town

Children who lived in Beechworth learned at first hand what mental illness was all about. The grounds of Mayday Hills provided ample opportunities for play, and trusted patients were allowed to walk down the hill into the town to go shopping or just wander around. At times, children might see or her things that puzzled or frightened them, but their parents were able to explain how patients’ illnesses affected their behaviour and put it into context for the children.

Many children had parents, siblings, grandparents and other relatives who worked at the hospital. The 12-hour shifts with two days on, two days off, meant that both parents could work there on opposite shifts while still caring for the family, especially if another relative was in charge of the shift roster. Staff from outside the town were not so lucky. One recalled how he had been rostered to work on Christmas Day in five consecutive years, to the dismay of his own family.

Having relatives working at the hospital was valuable for young people looking for work, especially when hiring practices were less formal than today. There was often someone who knew when a vacancy was coming up or who could put in a good word for a young applicant. Sharon, whose father was a senior manager, had walked the town trying to find work when she left school. Her father believed he should not intervene because of his position, until one day his wife took him aside and pointed out, ‘You’ve given everyone else’s kids in town a job. You can give your own child a job’. The town’s children were valuable potential employees because they knew what the place and the patients were like, unlike outsiders who had stereotyped views of asylums and mental illness.

Special events were held in the grounds for the town’s children. Joan, who lived in Beechworth as a child in the 1930s, recalled the excitement of the annual patients’ picnic:

Only the better patients went, but all the kids in the town… we had raspberry cordial and sandwiches and biscuits…maypole dancing and races.

As in many country towns, sport was important in Beechworth and the hospital’s oval was much used:

As a kid, we were always up there. There was a junior cricket league in Beechworth, so we used the Mayday oval every Saturday, and for training during the week.

The children of Beechworth were not always paragons of virtue, of course, and we heard stories of teasing and low-level bullying involving patients. Olive remembered walking along under the ha-ha wall with her brother, tossing stones over and listening for screams when they hit a patient. Steve recalled walking through the grounds with his mates, yelling out ‘Who’s that mad bastard’ whenever they passed a patient. On another occasion, he insulted a patient in the street and the patient responded with a quick punch. But from what we could gather, such stories were comparatively rare.

The children would turn on each other, of course, too. Fred described a European immigrant who arrived at school in the late 1940s, dressed in traditional knee-length leather trousers and long socks with little bows on them, carrying a huge sandwich and speaking not a word of English. Kids at the state school taunted those at the Catholic school with the chant ‘Catholic dog sitting on a log, eating maggots out of frogs’.

It was not until the later years of their schooling that some Beechworth’s children learned about the stigma attached to mental illness and, in turn, to Beechworth and themselves. Some children were sent to secondary schools in Wodonga or Wangaratta to finish their education, travelling the 40 km each day on school buses with children from neighbouring towns. They would hear the taunt ‘You’ve got Mayday. You’re all lunatics from up there. You’re all mad’. They would reply ‘We’re busy looking after everyone else from Wang(aratta) and Wodonga.’ Despite Mayday Hills closing in the 1990s, we were told the taunting continues to this day.

by Eileen Clark

*All names are pseudonyms

See Part 1: Beechworth’s Children – Living in the Grounds

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap