Care of the mentally ill

These two individuals, from very different backgrounds, occupations and positions in society, were united in suffering the devastating impact of severe mental illness. Once they entered the system, their lives were documented in the extensive official records in painful, sometimes excruciating detail.

By the 1890s, large-scale institutional care of the mentally ill was well established, with a number of substantial hospitals around Sydney and in major regional centres.
The systems for creating and maintaining patient records were also well developed and generally standardised across the various institutions. A great amount of detail was recorded about each patient in series such as admission and case files, and admission and discharge registers.
In terms of patient care and treatment, one of the most important records was the Medical case book, which recorded a summary of the patient’s condition on admission, to which were added regular updates on their treatment and progress whilst in the hospital. From time to time some of the patients would write letters to family, friends or government officials. It appears that (at least in some instances) these letters were not sent, but originally kept with the patient’s entry in the Medical Case book as an indication of their mental state at the time of writing.

James Ryan

…I am haunted to death with a demon…

James Ryan was admitted to Gladesville on 3 August 1891. He was a 50 year old labourer from Glen Innes (originally from Ireland), single, 5’11” tall with brown hair, grey eyes and a ‘reddish’ beard – a ‘weather beaten gaunt specimen’ as the examining doctor noted. The description goes on to record that ‘mentally he is very depressed, with acute delusions of affliction by some mysterious poisoning of the whole body’.

On 31 December 1891, the Case book entry notes that he is ‘always asking to be put to death, but when taken to the salt water baths he swims lustily.’ The surviving letter from James Ryan was written around this time. It is a poignant and eloquent illustration of the debilitating effects of severe depression in an era before the availability of alleviating medication or other treatments. James Ryan remained at Gladesville for 11 years, his condition largely unchanged, until he died on 30 August 1902.

Source: NRS 5035 Gladesville Hospital: Letters from patients, 1864-1924 Letter from James Ryan, c. 24 December 1891. [4/8201, no. 137]


December 24th
Rev Father Murriel
I would
like you to pray for me as it
is Christmas as I am haunted
to death with a demon he is
haunting the dead and the
living. And I would like to
see you as I am dead this
Eighteen Months with a
poisoned hand that I got
at Inverell. I am no more
than a walking ghost about
the yard. The bells I thought
were tolling contary to eelyar (earlier?)
Their is only the bones of Jim
Ryan left
James Ryan

Edward J Hardy-Booth

Although I have several Night Gowns I have to wear a shabby short Cotton thing that barely covers my knees

Edward Hardy-Booth, a medical practitioner, was admitted to Callan Park from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital on 6 October 1893. He was 48 years old, married, from England (but recently of Balmain). He was described as ‘well built but much reduced in physique’, with a fair complexion, light brown hair and brown eyes. He stated that he had come to Sydney several months previously to claim some property worth three-quarters of a million pounds, left to him by a grateful patient. He was described as ‘restless and delusional’, and the examining doctor noted that ‘he cannot hold five minutes conversation with me without talking most senseless rubbish.’

He remained in much the same state for several years, but in a letter to the Superintendent on 3 June 1896 (kept with his Admission file) he complained of ‘indignities and brutalities’ and asked to be moved to Gladesville. His request was agreed to, and he was transferred on 19 June. In the Gladesville Case book, the cause of his insanity was given as ‘Drink’. He remained at Gladesville for about 8 months, being ‘cantankerous and full of complaints’. He was discharged on 24 February 1897, and appears to have returned to England, as there is a notice from The Lancet pasted into the Case book, recording his death at Wandsworth on 31 May 1901.

Source: NRS 5001 Callan Park Mental Hospital: Letters from patients, 1881-1919. Letter from (Dr) Edward J Hardy-Booth, 4 June 1896. [3/4922, no. 77]


Callan Park Asylum
Sydney NSW
June 4th 1896
Dear Sir
Since I have been located
here, my wife & many other friends
in England have been in the habit
of sending me out wearing ap
parel & valuable presents.
Now numerous things included
in the above have not reached my
hands although some were
Registered & Duty paid on them.
Someone has received the Notice
from the Transport Office,
and then appropriated the
Now I respectfully demand
a most searching Enquiry.
Although White Shirts have been
sent out on 3 or 4 occasions I
cannot get one, even for Sundays,
‘Objet de vertie’ I know positively
to have arrived (Birthday Presents).
Now I am sleeping in Dormitory
& have done so 7 months al-
though you ordered my removal
a year since last Jany
Again I have spent many
months above a year in No 4
Ward although a paying patient.
Thus taking those times into
consideration, there must
now be in the Masters hands
enough money to pay my
fare to England – over & over
Further to my letters legimately
written & others coming here
have been continuously inter-
I have written to both the late Sir R W
Duff, Lord Hampden & others
as a brother Past Master & every
letter has been stopped.
I ask you for a positive answer
if this has been done with
your approval, and shall
anxiously await your reply
There is a clipper ship leaving Port speedily
name ‘Peterborough’, if you wish it I will
go by that.
I am grieved to have to lay matters so
plainly before you.
I have the honour to remain
your deeply ill-used confrere
Edward J Hardy-Booth
To Dr Manning
Inspector Genl – of the Insane
N.B. Although I have several Night Gowns
I have to wear a shabby short Cotton
thing that barely covers my knees

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