4 December 2016

Lunatics and Artists

Fremantle Arts Centre is housed in an historic, attractive limestone building dating back to 1861. It started life as a Lunatic Asylum, those two words are grim and I don't think I can even imagine how ghastly life must have been for the wretched souls incarcerated in those institutions. 

In the 1850's Fremantle and Perth was a growing colony. Mentally ill convicts were housed in temporary depots and overcrowding created the need for a more permanent solution. The asylum took four years of convict labour to build and contained sleeping wards, dining rooms, exercise yards, a wash house, kitchens, 2.7 x 2.3m cells, padded cells were added later, and staff quarters. A 1.8m high wall divided the male and female wards. Overlooking the ocean the asylum was thought to be a scenic and healthy environment for the patients and far enough away from ordinary colonial life.

Insanity in those days differed greatly from today's understanding of mental health. It was common for any form of social deviancy - criminality, poverty, depression, alcoholism, mental illness or sexual activities to be labelled "lunacy". Tragically the asylum also housed women who had been abandoned by their husbands or families for behaviour that would not be considered as a mental illness today. Patients suffering from epilepsy were admitted, prostitutes left by their owners after contracting venereal disease, all were labelled insane and locked up. There is even a record of a 9 year old boy being admitted. Patients were referred to as prisoners and with no active therapy very few patients improved and many stayed for 20 to 40 years or until they died.

Daily life in the asylum consisted of work and recreation. Men baked, cut firewood and pumped water. Women ran the wash house, laundering garments for the asylum and nearby prison. Card games, chess and reading provided entertainment, and regular performances were given by local musical societies. There was also a cricket team and two religious services a week. I hope they experienced some happy times, or at the very least were happy in their own world.

One famous inmate was Moondyne Joe. Born Joseph Bolitho the the son of a Cornish blacksmith, he was shipped to Perth in 1853 aged 22, as a convict for stealing bread and bacon.  Granted a conditional release, Joseph was soon involved in a horse theft, escaping with the magistrate's bridle and saddle, causing much embarrassment to the authorities. This began a lifelong string of arrests, imprisonments and bold escapes. By the age of 72 Joseph's strange behaviour led to his arrest as a loiterer and his subsequent committal to the asylum in 1900. He passed away later that year and was buried in a pauper's grave, number 580A, at Fremantle Cementary.

That  same year a special committee condemned the asylum as unsuitable for purpose due to overcrowding, insufficient staff and the inability to separate docile from dangerous patients. By 1908 all patients were relocated to a newly built facility. 

After 1909 the building became a women's home, including children. The elderly, destitute, abandoned wives, unmarried mothers, prostitutes, all were regarded as being of low social standing. Once the women arrived matrons would decide their freedoms, rewards and routines. In 1910 in response to a high mortality rate a midwifery training school and maternity ward was created. 

By the end of the 1920's insufficient funding, rat, termite and cockroach infestations, rising damp, structural collapse and poor sanitation meant the building was falling into serious disrepair and it was in a far worse state than the women's prison. Before World War II the women were moved to Woodbridge, a former boy's school where conditions were no better.

By 1959 the old asylum had seen 3 eras of history and the structure was crumbling and vandalised, the gardens were littered and overgrown and its haggered appearance inspired ghost stories. Developers proposed demolition which was met with despair by locals and authorities who saw the old asylum as an important part of Fremantle history. Meetings and a year of negotiations followed. In 1963 the Chairman of the the National Trust of Great Britain weighed in, writing "Don't you let them demolish this building, it's the most marvellous example of colonial gothic architecture in Australia". Finally in 1967 state funding was secured to establish a museum and community arts centre in the building.  

Today it is a thriving multi-arts organsiation offering programs of exhibitions, art courses and music.

 It has a shop selling lovely gifts, jewellery, homewares designed by local artists.

And when you've had a look around the exhibitions, bought a trinket or two in the shop you can relax in the courtyard cafe. 

At the time of my visit there was an exhibition of the life and work of Frank Norton, a significant figure in the WA art scene. He was the first Official War Artist for the Royal Australian Navy and went on to become the Director of the Art Gallery of WA for 18 years (1958-1976). Known as a painter of ships, Norton was a practical administrator not afraid of controversy. He worked tirelessly establishing a collection of Aboriginal art and a new gallery as the centrepiece of the Perth Cultural Centre.


  1. It's an amazing building Polly. Did you know it's supposed to be the most haunted building in WA? I must admit I didn't pick up any 'vibrations' the last time I was there, but then again I didn't go looking :)

    1. Hello Grace, I didn't know but I'm not surprised. I didn't feel anything either, it's such a bright inviting tranquil building now :-)

  2. What an incredible history the building has, wonderful that it now has a lovely purpose.

    1. Hello mama, it's history is what saved it. The people of Freo felt such an attachment to it and it is such a lovely place now.

  3. How interesting to learn the history of the place, Polly, and to see it thriving today.

    1. Hello Amalia, it is good to see how many people visit and how many exhibitions and concerts they put on. It's a very popular venue xx


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