Edith Harrington

Edith Agnes HARRINGTON was a patient in Mayday Hills from about 1950 until her death in December 1980. She is remembered by staff because of the exquisite and unusual embroidery she loved to do, examples of which are on display in the Dax Centre Art Gallery, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Vic. This is her story.

Edith Agnes SCOTT was born in Clifton Hill, Melbourne in 1899 to Robert Lenthall SCOTT and Edith Leonora May PALMER. She was one of seven children, and her father was a confectioner. Electoral rolls for 1921 and 1924 show that Edith was living with her parents and her occupation was ‘home duties’, suggesting that her family had sufficient income to support her and she did not work outside the home. She gave birth to a son, Roy, in 1919, with no father named on the birth record. In that era, illegitimate births were considered most shameful for a family, and it is likely that the child was removed at birth and adopted.

In 1929, Edith married Richard Henry Muntz (later Munce) HARRINGTON. He worked in various jobs as a draftsman, engineer or traveller, and the couple lived in Kew, an eastern suburb of Melbourne. They had no children. Electoral records show that after 1946, Edith was no longer living at the family home, and it is believed that she was admitted to Beechworth around this time. Records remain confidential so it is not known what led to her admission or what her diagnosis was.

Psychiatrist Eric Cunningham Dax, chairman of the Victorian Mental Hygiene Authority (1952–1969), also noticed Edith Harrington’s work. He set out to reform treatment of mental illness in Victoria and as part of this, he collected examples of patients’ art works, believing these could be used to make inferences about patients’ mental conditions. He described the embroidery on Edith Harrington’s clothes as a form of armour, giving her protection from imaginary attacks and providing examples of disordered thinking similar to what he had seen in other art works.

Former Beechworth staff we spoke to in our research remembered Edith Harrington. One nurse, Dorothy, said that Edith always referred to herself as ‘Doctor’ Harrington. She often spoke about her son and how he could not be traced.

Pink twill coat courtesy of the DAX Centre, Melbourne

Dorothy explained that patients in those days (1950s) did not wear their own clothes but were issued with standardised government clothes, including a shift-style dress for women. Each morning, after helping staff make the beds in the ward, Edith would take her little sewing case and settle down to adorn her clothes with fancy work.

Another nurse, Carmel, described how Edith would also make her own clothes from whatever pieces of fabric she could get. She would embroider them with layers of colours and designs until the underlying fabric was barely visible. Carmel called the tops ‘weird’ but said they would sell very well these days.

Dax’s interpretations were not universally accepted. Belinda Robson, a historian, has provided two other explanations, believing the design and placement of the embroidery transformed the garments into intimate and personal items that enhanced her physical features. Robson also quotes a former nurse at Beechworth, who believed Harrington’s work was a matter of necessity as she sought to repair tattered clothing that she was ashamed to wear.

Several nurses we spoke to described how craft work like sewing, knitting and crochet was an acceptable occupation for women patients, just as it was for women in their homes, and nurses facilitated such activities among patients. As she worked at her embroidery, Edith Harrington was conforming to the accepted role for middle-class women of her time, remembering perhaps as she did so, the son she never knew.

References

Robson, Belinda. 1999. “A History of the Cunningham Dax Collection of ‘Psychiatric Art’: From Art Therapy to Public Education.” Health and History 1 (4): 330–346.

Robson, Belinda. 2003. “Preserving Psychiatry through Art: Historical Perspectives on the Cunningham Dax Collection of Psychiatric Art.” In Madness in Australia: Histories, Heritage and the Asylums, edited by Catharine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon, 195–207. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Written by Dr Eileen Clark, Adjunct Research Fellow at Charles Sturt University.
See Eileen’s full bio here

NOTE:
* Three items of Edith Harrington’s embroidered clothing featured in the Collections from the Asylum: Past Lives, Present Tense exhibition at the Albury Library Museum from 5 September – 29 November, 2020.
* Explore the Collections Exhibition Online – hosted by the Albury Library Museum.
* See also ABC News story: Albury Library Museum features history of former Mayday Hills asylum in exhibition

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