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1887 to 1912 - Outside World

Entertainment kew cottages.jpg

‘Kindly interest and general help’

Thanks are due to the ladies and gentlemen who have kindly helped to provide the music for the children on Sunday afternoons, and it is pleasing to note that some of the latter are able to join in some of the simple tunes.

Report of the Inspector of Asylums 1888, 

Victoria Papers Presented to Parliament, 1889, Vol. IV, page 49.


Oh, it was like walking out of this most intelligent and intellectual, not to say exceedingly knowing, world into some strange, uncanny Land, all deep rivers, and weird wooden bridges and silent ferries, lit by dim lamps, and shadowy wooded places, where a lot of climbing had to be done if you wanted to arrive anywhere. Of course, the fact that it was getting dark, and that we had never walked from the Johnston street bridge to the Kew Asylum before, was responsible for the feeling that we were entering a country from which something was missing for ever, and over which hung a cloud, even through all the long summer day. And the feeling was enhanced by the knowledge that in this strange land, there were children who had queer, unchildlike faces, lack-lustre eyes, and hard, vibrationless voices that didn't echo round the walls and in your heart (save very sadly), long after the children had gone. What a strange land it is! What a lightless world yours and mine would be if its children looked like those of the Strange Land, if their voices and laughter had no ring, if we could never pick up original ideas from their quaint comments on the people and things around them, if the care, no matter how kindly, of strangers were the only fostering love they knew from earth, at least. Poor little mites!

In a breezy, healthy dip of the high land upon which Kew Asylum stands, there is a comfortable cottage with a wide verandah and garden about it. It is some hundreds of yards from the big building and looks quiet and solitary, certainly shut off and far away from rollicking childhood and happy homes and holidays and all the busy mystifying world. Here, for 3 years and a half now, the idiot children of the colony have been housed together and cared for and trained. "Trained!" "Train up a child in the way he should," we have all read; but read it to mean training a child who could learn much of his own observation, and required only just some guiding here, some pruning there, of the budding ideas. In this cottage, it must be all training from the very beginning, or else a blank, and no children, but gibbering, helpless, perhaps violent, human figures.

But, thank goodness, they are children, in spite of it all, who live in the cottage. And so it is that even there the missionaries of good Santa Claus came last night with all the toys and good things that delight the other children in the big city just being lit up down below. And the Christmas tree was put up at the end of the biggest room, and kind-hearted ladies revelled in almost hiding its sombre green with the bright colors of their many gifts. Then the tables were laden with cakes and lollies and fruit and milk. The rafters were hung with flowers and greenery and numbers of little flags, and all was ready. Tell the children to come in! And they came. There were sixty boys and thirty-one girls. The very little ones were barely four years old, and the biggest were not more than eighteen at the most. All were well and cleanly dressed. All were in a high state of pleasurable anticipation of their yearly treat. They filed into their places on the forms that filled the room, and they chattered and laughed just like the other children. Listening to them from the hall, where you could not see the faces, it might have been the merry juvenile "Tree" of a happy home without a cloud. And we stood in the hall a while, willing to revel in the delusion a little longer. Presently the distribution began, and, so generous had the good missionaries been, that there were actually three times as many gifts as there were recipients, which gave the missionaries infinite pleasure.

What's going to happen now? They're all standing up, and someone has gone to the piano. The idiot children are singing, and they are to sing again at intervals, until at half-past eight they all rise for the National Anthem. The idiot children of Victoria are singing lustily "God Save the Queen". But we haven't yet heard their full vocal powers. Before they break up and get to bed they give three grateful cheers for the missionaries who have brought them and send them the tree and its fruit. Well, those cheers cannot be said to have no ring in them. 

Just before they broke up, Dr McCreery, the medical superintendent of the big asylum, led us into the room, and we looked on from beside their Christmas tree. Then the taint was too obvious. The foreheads, the eyes, the mouths, were all wrong. They were not the faces at all of the other children. There was scarcely two alike, and there were 91 of them. The number reminded us of the New Year, and that made us think of those children's new years. So we got talking as quickly as possible to the kindly doctor about his charges, and Mr Eastham, the head teacher of the cottage, joined in, and a new children's book was opened to us in their account of child life in The Strange Land. But that cottage mustn't remain unknown to us down here any longer. Kindly interest and general help are not unknown there now by any means, but much more can be done by us who are, at least, not proclaimed idiots, and whose children are growing up without any need of a trip to the uncanny country. Just let's make a note of it, and help to make it a little less uncanny.

We learnt that those children's lives are made lives of usefulness. They are taught first to do the little acts of self-help that other children do naturally, such as clothing themselves, putting things in order, and so on. While the fun was at its height last night we went through the dormitories and saw the working clothes neatly folded on the chairs beside the little beds. In the daytime, the girls are trained in house and laundry work and the boys in garden work. In the majority of cases the idiocy has been transmitted from the parents, while in a few it is the result of sunstroke, or convulsions soon after birth. 

Said the doctor, "This mental disease is a growing study. It must be so in our big towns, where competition is so keen, and where there is so much high education. Mental strain of such various kinds must tell on nervous organsiations."

In time it is hoped that a trade in basket making, or something will be opened up for these children, and meanwhile every care is taken to train them night and day, both bodily and mentally, to the highest standard possible. But livelier public interest in the work is badly needed. It is not pretended that the children are turned out quite capable of taking care of themselves, but they are so far cured as to be useful members of the community. Beside the cottage in which the gathering was held, there are three others, also in the Asylum grounds. There are thus two homes for the boys and two for the girls. The Institution is the first of its kind in Australia, and is certainly a vast improvement upon the old system of boarding the children with the adults, from whom they learnt bad language and worse habits. Here they are watched by attendants night and day, and are free from all contaminating influences.

It's very clear that if mental disease is a growing study, the Idiot Children's Asylum will have to be enlarged, and this can only be done by increased Government assistance and by help form the people of the big towns, who provide its inmates. For the Strange Land, alas! is a permanency.

‘In the Strange Land of the Idiot Children: The Saddest Call of Santa Claus’, The Herald, 1890, page 2.

Courtesy of The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd.


The poor children confined in the Idiot Asylum at Kew are to participate in some part in the entertainments of this festive season. A Christmas Tree is being prepared for them, and will blossom with "good things" on next Tuesday.

No title, The Herald, 31 December 1892, page 4.
Courtesy of The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd.

"During the winter demonstrations were given, to teachers and others interested, of the results of training, proof being supplied of the efficiency of the work done."

Official Visitors Report, 30 November 1900, PROV, VPRS 3992/P, Unit 821, 1900/L12139.

© State of Victoria Reproduced with the permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office Victoria, Australia.

Entertainment kew cottages.jpg

‘Two hours entertainment given by the patients before many leading men of Melbourne' Nicholas Caire, c.1900, Wellcome Library, London

Argus, 11 January 1923.jpg

Henry Berry

Though he never took a prominent part in the public affairs of the State or Commonwealth, Mr. Berry, however, evinced a keen interest in any movement promoted for the benefit of his fellow-men, and subscribed liberally to such efforts. A loyal Methodist, Mr Berry took an active part in all matters pertaining to the Church and gave generously to support its activities. He was of a most kind-hearted disposition, and this may be illustrated by the fact that for nearly twenty years he gave up his Sunday mornings to teach the mentally afflicted children in Kew Asylum, and, with one or two persons to assist him, held a service of song and story for their benefit. He was also their Santa Claus when Christmas came, and each summer, with the assistance of his friends, he gave the children and their attendants a day's outing to the seaside.

[Obituary], The Argus, 11 January 1923, page 8.
Newspaper Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Amusements - The children have had their annual outings at the seaside, and, as on former occasions, we are largely indebted to the generosity of Mr. Henry Berry for adding so substantially to the success of these picnics.

Report of the Inspector-General of the Insane 1909, 
Victoria Papers Presented to Parliament, Vol. II, 1910, page 25.

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Disgraceful Scenes


Between 4 and 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon, an occurrence of the most disgraceful and heartless character took place in Fitzroy Gardens, in the presence of a large number of persons, none of whom, so far as we can learn, took any means to put a stop to proceedings which, according to reliable information, afforded great enjoyment to many, besides those taking an active part in it ... 




We state the facts in the words of our informant, merely adding that they are fully to be depended on:- "About half past 4 o'clock, whilst walking in the gardens, I heard a yelling and trampling of feet, as of persons rushing along in a state of much excitement, and immediately after, round a bend in one of the walks, a young man, apparently about twenty years of age, came dashing past, followed by between twenty and thirty boys, of whom the poor fellow - an idiot, I am sorry to say - appeared to be in dread; and no wonder, for their yelling, hooting and general behaviour was sufficient to startle a person possessed of full faculties. After running some distance, the unfortunate young man turned and dashed through his tormentors, waving his arms and wearing on his fact that pitiable troubled look incident to those of weak intellect. Turning down another of the avenues, he was closely followed by the howling, jeering mob of young rascality, and when the race ended, I know not, but I do know that a man who was standing close to me, seeing what I saw, observed: 'He (meaning the young man) is imbecile now, but he will soon be mad if they hunt him like that.'

The sight of such persecution was sad enough, but far worse was it to see numbers of persons, amongst whom were some youths, apparently regarding the affair from a facetious point of view, judging by the senseless grin on the features. A scene as this in a Christian country is one I hope, I, or any one else, may never witness again.

'Disgraceful Scene in Fitzroy Gardens', The Herald, 18 March 1872, page 2.

Courtesy of The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd.

The Chief Secretary desires inquiries to be made into the case of William C. of ... Clunes, an idiot with a view to his being placed in the Asylum for Idiots Kew.

William C. is above 25 years of age cannot speak and his appearance is most repulsive; he wanders about Clunes and by his appearance frightens women and children and will follow persons about and is difficult to get rid of.

His father's name is James C.

He Mr C. was recently brought before the Bench and the justices agreed that William C. was a proper case for the Asylum, but, on the father promising the Police to lock the son up, nothing further was done - the lad still however wanders about pretty frequently.

Under Secretary to Inspector of Asylums, PROV, VPRS 3992/P, Unit 652, 97/E1977, 15 February 1897.
© State of Victoria Reproduced with the permission of the Keeper of Public Records, 
Public Record Office Victoria, Australia.

Under secretary letter 1897 kew cottages.jpg
Notes from inspector and chief commissioner of police kew cottages.jpg

I would suggest that the officer in charge of the Police at Clunes be asked to obtain a warrant and send this young man to the Kew Asylum.

J McCreery 
Inspector 17.2.97

This man was sent to the Kew Asylum on the 26 inst 
Chief Commissioner of Police 2.3.97


Note from Inspector, 17 February 1897, PROV, VPRS 3992/P, Unit 652, 97/E1977 and Note from Chief Commissioner of Police, 2 March 1897, PROV, VPRS 3992/P, Unit 652, 97/E1977.
© State of Victoria Reproduced with the permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office Victoria, Australia.

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