With nothing but a few records and documents to go on I often use my imagination and speculate as to what may have happened at a certain point in my ancestors’ lives. Until such (if any) evidence arises, these ‘what ifs’, forever remain theories in the back of my mind. This occurred with Matilda Maria Hurst. Her son disappeared into the bush and from that fact it was only natural for me to assume that his disappearance may have caused some sort of mental illness and Matilda’s subsequent admittance into the Claremont Hospital for Insane. As it turns out, I had romanticised the issue and then eventually discovered a deep, dark family secret.
1894, in many respects, turned out to be a pivotal year for Matilda. One child was born and one child went missing and on 25 November 1894 (about two months after Thomas Jnr’s disappearance) she was admitted to Fremantle Asylum with delusions. She was only 28 years of age.
Fremantle Lunatic Asylum in the 1870s/1880s
Interestingly enough, and what shocked me the most, was that at the time she was admitted, it was stated that her current attack had lasted about six months and the illness itself had been slowly coming on over the last twelve months. Whether this time period is true or is simply hearsay remains to be seen. My theory however was wrong. This was something that actually predated Thomas Jnr’s disappearance and thus his disappearance could not have been the cause of her illness. In fact, as it was pointed out to me, Matilda’s illness could’ve been what contributed to Thomas wandering off.
If Matilda was already suffering from her illness, it is also probable that Thomas Jnr’s disappearance exacerbated it. Unable to care for her and perhaps embarrassed by his wife’s actions, Matilda was first sent to her parent’s house and later, Thomas Snr paid to have her privately admitted to Fremantle Asylum. A Doctor in Bunbury, Thomas Lovegrove, provided a handwritten medical certificate which stated the facts pertaining to Matilda:
I the undersigned Thomas Henry Lovegrove of Bunbury Western Australia a Medical Practitioner of the said Colony and now in actual practice hereby Certify that I on the 19th day of November at Bunbury in the said Colony separately from any other Medical Practitioner personally examined Matilda M Crampton of Collie and that the said Matilda M Crampton is a Lunatic and a proper person to be taken charge of and detained under care and treatment and that I have formed this opinion on the following grounds
Facts indicating insanity observed by myself –
General demeanour – would not reply to many questions I put to her but turned away & laughed – said she very likely did expose herself in her shift at the Brunswick & went about naked before men as she sometimes did strange things.
Other facts indicating insanity communicated to me by others – that she exposed herself in the daytime at the Brunswick before several men & went on in a very bad way.
Dated this 20th day of November 1894
Although the original admittance documents list the supposed cause as “don’t know” The Fremantle Asylum’s Register for Patients and Admissions book however lists the cause as heredity. This was further backed up by the Fremantle Asylum Case Book which states “her sister Miss Hurst was an inmate 12 months ago”.
This last statement turned out to be correct. Matilda’s sister, Mary Isobel Hurst (known to everyone as Bella) was indeed committed to Fremantle Asylum on 14 August 1893 suffering from religious mania. An article printed in the Bunbury Herald provides further clarification:
What would be described as an illness in those days probably wouldn’t cause people to bat an eyelid today. Mary’s “illness” however seemed only to be brought on by the excitement associated with the Salvation Army which (for a girl who was brought up in a very remote area) is completely understandable. Three months later she had fully recovered and was released on 21 November 1893 under the care of her father.
Matilda was not as lucky and her records in the Fremantle Asylum Female Case Book (Initial Admission) reflect a very unhappy mind and without a doubt, the world in which she now lived squashed any possible chance of her getting better.
When the institution is approached from the town, the sombre stonewall surrounding it, the worn steps leading to the heavy iron-grated door, the miserable poky porch and dilapidated bell-rope impress the visitor at once that he is at the exit from the world, and at the entrance to Tartarus, where lost souls dwell in utter and hopeless darkness.
Despite initially being recorded as “quiet” five days after she was admitted, her manner soon changed and on 8 December she was very violent and struck Miss Shepherd (possibly a nurse) on the head.
To break up the monotony, regular concerts were put on by volunteers to entertain the inmates and on 11 December one such concert was given by Miss Clare Robinson and her pupils. Several songs were sung and were greatly appreciated but whether Matilda was a part of the audience remains to be seen. Given her violent behaviour three days earlier it wouldn’t surprise me if she wasn’t.
Matilda’s violence towards Miss Shepherd continued and in February of 1895 she again attacked her but this time, she kicked her.
Perhaps hoping for good news or a sign that she was getting better, Thomas Snr visited his wife on 2 March 1895. She recognised him but the records state that she was “stupid and quite unfit for discharge”. Please note that stupid does not mean dumb but actually means ‘in a state of stupor’. In other words, she was unresponsive.
Her sister also visited her on 11 March 1895 but no further information as to which sister was provided. By 15 July she may have been showing some improvement as it was stated “she writes a more sensible letter” but at the same time, she was still described as stupid in manners.
Throughout the rest of 1895 and the first half of 1896 the records alternated between descriptions such as “quiet” or “silly” or “no change”. Her eyes were recorded as being weak on 11 March and on 18 July it was noted that she “wrote to her sister Mrs C McGrane London Terrace Bunbury”. Matilda had no sister who married a McGrane and after some investigation, it’s likely that Mrs C McGrane was actually Nellie Clifton Hurst (Matilda’s niece) who was in a relationship with Charles McGrane. Why she referred to Nellie (Mrs McGrane) as her sister and what she said in the letter, will forever remain a mystery.
On 23 September 1896 it was recorded that Thomas Snr had written about her. This could be taken in the literal sense to mean that he actually did write to the asylum about her or it could mean that Matilda (in her deluded state of mind) was stating that Thomas was writing about her. Overall however, there was no improvement.
The final entry on 23 October 1896 simply says “as before”. After nearly two years of being in the asylum Matilda had still not shown any sign of improvement and continued to live in terrible conditions:
The report, amongst other things, referred to the filthy state of the sleeping apartments. The walls and floors of these were infested with the most disgusting vermin. The fireplaces were used as receptacles for dirt and rubbish – old rags, bits of rusty iron, a brush and comb, and other matters that are usually carried away at night to be buried or burnt. The fireplaces in the sleeping rooms were used also as larders wherein to store food, old bagging being hung down in front.
Unfortunately, the next book containing her records is unavailable and may have in fact been destroyed. Four years are missing from her life. We then see Matilda in the Fremantle Asylum Chronic Female Case Book beginning on 4 December 1901 with the words “faulty in her habits, very noisy”.
In 1902 she was incoherent, restless, idle, untidy, deluded, destructive and showing no change. 1903 she was faulty in her habits and unchanged. On 12 March 1904 she was described as lazy, demented, deluded and very untidy. Throughout 1905 and 1906 she seemed to calm down a little and was often referred to as being quiet. It was also noted several times that she had not had a violent attack. In early 1907 she was fairly quiet but in the second half of the year she returned to her old ways and often became violent without the slightest warning.
Her time at Fremantle Asylum soon came to an end and on 2 June 1908 she was transferred to new quarters at the Claremont Hospital for Insane.
Claremont Hospital for Insane – Administration Building
A new home didn’t seem to change Matilda and in the early years it appeared to make her worse. The Case Book for the Claremont Hospital for Insane starts in 1908 and ends in 1918. It was noted throughout 1908, 1909, 1910 and 1911 that she was very destructive at times, untidy, violent, troublesome, dirty in habits and often tore at her clothing.
1912, 1913, 1914 and 1915 were also very similar to the aforementioned years. She was violent, she did no work, she was noisy and troublesome, she was very dull and stupid, she was incoherent, she was quarrelsome and showed no change.
On 18 September 1916 Matilda was 49 years of age and it seems the many years she had spent being idle in the asylum were catching up to her. As her metabolism slowed, her weight gained. This was noted rather bluntly in the records.
Getting much fatter, violent and noisy at times, health good.
The entry for 1917 also noted that she was getting fat but otherwise she was in good health and was clean. In 1918, despite initially being noisy and troublesome, she showed no change to her mental state of mind, was in good physical health and was only occasionally violent.
It is here that the records come to an end and I (as usual) am filled with a great deal of questions. Matilda continued to remain an inmate at the Claremont Hospital for Insane for the next 16 years until her death on 17 August 1934. All up, she was institutionalised for 40 years.
The secret had remained hidden for many, many years until I came along and dug it all up again. I assume that it was something that was obviously very embarrassing to the family but from what I can see, they didn’t really go to great lengths in order for it to remain hidden. It seems that they still referred to Matilda but they just didn’t mention where she was or what was wrong with her. Her illness however was something widely known by the Bunbury community and is evidenced by an article printed in the Bunbury Herald concerning the disappearance of Thomas Jnr.
What especially puzzles me however are the moments when Matilda is actually referred to by her family members. Kitty in particular refers to her mother in her letter to Vic:
I did not see you on the boat. I looked and looked. Mum and Dad saw you. I was very glad they did. Wasn’t we lucky to see you at the train, I was never so pleased in my life and when we told Mum I had seen you, she said well that’s as good as 20 pound to me. She knew you would be so glad.
She writes as if Matilda had spoken to her. Was Matilda really there? Was Kitty making it all up? Was the Mum she mentions someone else? Did Vic know that Kitty’s mother was in a mental institution? Did Kitty herself know her mother was in a mental institution? In spite of all these questions and even the words in the letter, my instincts say that Matilda wasn’t there. When Vic left Western Australia on 9 November 1916, she was still in the Claremont Hospital for Insane and it was at this point that she was recorded as getting fatter. So why did Kitty mention her? Read the full letter here.
Note: I have since changed my theory as to who Kitty was referring to when she wrote ‘Mum and Dad’ in her letter. I believe at this point in time she may have been engaged to Vic and the parents she was referring to were his. The letter further illustrates this as later on she refers to her Dad as ‘Father’.
Then there’s the questions about Kitty’s upbringing. Did Kitty even know her mother? Was she close to her father? Did she ever ask him where Matilda was? Where did she live and who raised her? Judging by what is written in another letter it seems that with regards to the last question she travelled an awful lot between her Aunts and Uncles. If this is the case, it also explains her closeness to them and why I have so many photos from them affectionately addressed to ‘Kate’ or ‘Kitty’.
Matilda’s illness in itself also provokes thought. Was it really hereditary? Could it have been a result of living in a remote place with limited company? Was she unhappy in her marriage or life? Considering Kitty was born in the same year Matilda was admitted to Fremantle Asylum, could it be possible that Matilda’s illness was some form of postnatal psychiatric disorder that spiralled out of control?
The questions really are endless. I may not have the answers but amidst the pondering I am often amazed at how much of Matilda’s story I’ve discovered all because of one death certificate. What started out as speculation suddenly exploded into so much more and though I have all the answers I was originally seeking it also now means that there are many more finer details which are likely to remain missing.
I have no idea what life for Matilda was actually like. Nor do I have any idea as to what it would’ve been like for my Great Grandmother Kitty growing up without her mother. Through no fault of her own, Matilda became ill and in the process many lives were completely altered. In spite of this Kitty seems to have turned out okay. I never knew her and neither did my Dad but my Great Aunty Betty knew her a little and in her words, “she was a very lovely lady.”
I would not have made the progress that I’ve made with regards to Matilda’s mental health records without the help of Dr Philippa Martyr from the Graylands History Project. Thank you for all your help with listing the records to look up, occasionally interpreting the records and offering advice as to what certain words meant. I truly appreciate it.
- Fremantle Asylum Initial Admission Documents (courtesy of Dr Philippa Martyr of the Graylands History Project).
- Fremantle Asylum Register of Patients and Admissions Book (courtesy of Tom Reynolds of the State Records Office of Western Australia) [Consignment: 1120].
- Fremantle Asylum Case Book (Female) [Consignment: 2724].
- Fremantle Asylum Chronic Female Case Book [Consignment: 3103].
- Claremont Mental Hospital Case Book (Female Patients) [Consignment: 3107].
- Photo of Fremantle Mental Asylum courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.
- 1894 ‘Topics of the Week.’, Bunbury Herald (WA : 1892 – 1919), 26 September, p. 2, viewed 14 September, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article87102138
- 1894 ‘NEWS AND NOTES.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 12 December, p. 4, viewed 17 August, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3070174
- 1901 ‘THE BEDLAM OF GROPERLAND.’, West Australian Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1897 – 1902), 21 April, p. 8, viewed 17 August, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32718838
- 1900 ‘FREMANTLE LUNATIC ASYLUM.’, Kalgoorlie Western Argus (WA : 1896 – 1916), 25 December, p. 24, viewed 8 August, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32597625
- 1912 ‘HOW THE STATE CARES FOR THE AFFLICTED IN MIND—THE HOSPITAL FOR THE INSANE AT CLAREMONT.’, Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), 24 August, p. 6 Section: ILLUSTRATED SECTION, viewed 14 September, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37423853