1887 to 1912
When it opened in May 1887 the Kew Idiot Asylum was intended to be 'an Institution for the care and training of feeble-minded children'. Established in an era of optimism about the potential of people with intellectual disability, its founders hoped the institution would train patients for 'lives of usefulness'. Such hopes were, however, only one reason why families decided to commit their children to the Asylum, as requests for admission to the institution reveal.
At the end of 1887 there were 54 patients living in the Asylum. Numbers increased quickly in the years following its opening. By 1897 there were 203 residents in the institution's cottages. The resultant overcrowding saw living conditions deteriorate, particularly during the severe economic depression of the 1890s, and the few hard-pressed staff struggle to care adequately for patients. While some in the community feared people with intellectual disability and agitated for their confinement, others gave their time to brighten the patients' lives.
In 1907, a severe typhoid epidemic swept the Asylum, causing the deaths of both patients and staff. The school rooms were turned into a makeshift isolation ward and lessons suspended. The closure marked the end of the Asylum as a training school for the 'feeble-minded'. By this time, optimism about the potential of people with intellectual disability was being replaced by the fear that they were 'a menace to the future of the Australian people' and should be permanently confined to institutions to protect the community.