Beechworth’s Children:
Living in the grounds

From its earliest days, senior staff at Mayday Hills lived in official houses within the grounds, together with their wives and children. These children had the unusual opportunity to mingle with staff and patients as they moved around the grounds. For most of the children, this was an enjoyable experience and one that introduced them to people with mental illness in its different forms. We spoke to a few adults who had lived in the grounds as children to see what was memorable for them.

The asylum site originally extended over 200 acres (80 hectares) and included a working farm. This provided plenty of space for children to explore. Children would spend evenings running around the grounds, riding their bikes or playing on swings and slides. There was great excitement when an in-ground trampoline was installed. Friends from the town were invited up to play on it because it was a good one and not many families had one of their own. In summer, older children played tennis on the asylum’s courts, and one of the boys recalled playing pool or billiards with patients in the recreation room.

Superintendent’s home on the grounds of the Beechworth Mental Hospital (circa 1915-22)

There were special treats, too. Ronald* lived on site in the 1960s:

I remember going up the hospital dairy and places like that, just as a young kid, and you’d get fresh milk out of the churns, it was just great. 

At Christmas, there was a huge picnic in the grounds for staff and their families:

It was massive because you can imagine, with 1200 patients, how many staff, how many kids.

Children had more contact with patients than simply seeing them around. Trusted patients worked in or around staff homes and children got to know them well. They saw mental illness at first hand, and parents had to explain it to children. Ronald’s family had a man who did odd jobs around the house, often telling Ronald off or trying to boss him around. Ronald soon realised why:

Oh, he just struggled, he had a young mind and never moved on from probably 15, 16 years of age.

Nick’s family had an elderly patient called Sid who looked after the garden and did occasional babysitting for the large family, joining them for Christmas and birthday celebrations. Years later, Nick was working in the hospital and looked up Sid’s file, discovering that he had murdered three people early in his life. Nick commented that he didn’t have the heart to tell his mother that the babysitter had been a murderer.

Ralph, a medical officer in the 1970s, also used patients as babysitters. One day his children pressed him about the patients, wanting to know their diagnosis and questioning their ability to care for them. Ralph explained to them how the patients were not really ill and always knew how to contact him if necessary. He told us that he never had any problems with the babysitters, never ever.

Of course, there were incidents from time to time but by-and-large, the children took them in their stride. Sharon, who had enjoyed the trampoline so much, remembered a patient who used to hide behind a tree and expose his genitals to the kids as they played. Sharon told her parents and then realised this might have been a mistake, because they banned her from playing on the trampoline.

A more serious incident occurred later, when Sharon was about 14. She was used to patients coming into the house to do odd jobs or simply to talk to her father, but on this day she was home alone and in the shower when she heard noises. She confronted a woman patient carrying items from the bedroom. When challenged, the woman swore at Sharon who remained calm and rang the switchboard to ask for help, but then managed to lead the patient out the back door. ‘I wasn’t scared-scared’ said Sharon ‘but I was a little bit cautious.’

The people we spoke to who had lived in the grounds as children all moved on to careers in mental health services. Far from scaring them off, it seems that their childhood exposure to patients gave them insight and understanding, and a determination to provide the best possible care for them.

by Eileen Clark

*All names are pseudonyms

See Part 2: Beechworth’s Children – Living in Town

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