Engineering Earth pp 1425-1439 | Cite as

Land Marks in the Cure of Madness: The Shaping of 19th Century Asylum Sites in Melbourne, Australia

  • Anne Bourke


Lunatic asylum sites in the nineteenth century developed a recognisable form that was distinguished by rural location, expansive grounds, farm areas, ornamental gardens, airing yards and an emphasis on a ‘picturesque’ aesthetic. It could be found in England, across Europe, America and Australia. Its dominance was influenced by firmly held medical beliefs of the period, in the power of ‘nature’ and immersion in rural life as a cure for mental illness. The asylum site was engineered according to these ideas which were discussed in government reports, medical journals and architectural texts. It was the importance of the medical opinion however, that drove the construction of these sites and accounts for the uniformity of the asylum model across the world. As such, these sites can be interpreted as land that was highly engineered according to medical and scientific ideas of the period. This paper examines two sites in Melbourne, Australia in order to examine the ways the land! was formed and interpreted to represent an English pastoral idyll as a way of curing madness.


Mental Illness Gated Community Medical Opinion Select Committee Medical Belief 
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80.1 Introduction

The incomparable beauty and seclusion of the Yarra Bend appeared to recommend it as an isolated and picturesque spot for the erection of a lunatic hospital. (Horne, 1853: 12)

This statement, which was made in 1853 in the Melbourne paper, The Argus, in relation to the Melbourne asylum of Yarra Bend, encapsulates an attitude to ‘nature’ and ‘landscape’ that can be reasonably described as one of ‘salvation’ or ‘transcendence’ (Fig. 80.1). It reflects expert medical opinion of the 19th century centered on the idea that ’beauty,’ ‘seclusion’ and the ‘picturesque’ have the power to influence the mind, to replace disorder with order and ‘bad’ thoughts with ‘good’. ‘Madness’ it was theorized was caused by disordered thoughts which to some extent were the result of the ‘disordered’ environment in which the individual was living (Porter, 1987: 191–192). For this reason, the rapid urban expansion of the 19th century was held partly responsible for the perceived increase in madness and the obvious antidote was removal from the congested chaotic city to the quiet and peaceful scenery of the country (Philo, 1987: 404).
Fig. 80.1

Yarra Bend Asylum from Studley Park. (Photo by N.J. Caire; State Library of Victoria)

This paper looks at two asylum sites in order to explore ideas of ‘madness’ and ‘landscape’ in colonial Melbourne, particularly in regard to ambivalent ideas about the power of ‘landscape’ to both induce and cure madness. This is framed within a colonial context and examines the influence of essentially European ideas of land use and ‘garden’ in forming Australian sites. Of particular interest is the perception that the land itself, that is the experience of ‘Australia,’ produced its own form of madness. In this sense, the land can be conceived of as an ambivalent agent in the asylum experience, as representing both menace and salvation.

Finally, the persistence of the belief in a particular ‘landscape’ as appropriate for the treatment of mental illness is briefly explored.

Specifically, the archival material used as the basis of this study includes the asylum sites themselves, as artifacts that are revelatory of 19th century attitudes to land and the cure of mental illness. As such, it is in keeping with the work of medical geographers such as Chris Philo (1987, 1995, 2004) and Hester Parr (2007); Parr, Philo, and Burns (2003) who examine the geographical and physical characteristics of asylum sites in order to explore the history and experience of mental illness.

80.2 The ‘Land’ and Madness in Australia

The Zox Commission in 1884, one of a number of Royal Commissions inquiring into the treatment of the mentally ill in Victoria in the 19th century, proclaimed Melbourne, Victoria’as being the maddest place in the world’ (Royal Commission on Asylums for the Insane and Inebriate, 1886: 303). Zox made this assertion on the basis of the higher proportion of the population admitted to Victorian asylums as compared to those in England. Although, there may have been a number of reasons for this, not the least being the practice of shipping out mentally ill relatives from ‘the old world’ (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 9–10). There was also a firmly held belief that the experience of ‘Australia’ contributed to a higher incidence of mental illness.

La Trobe, the first governor of the colony suggested as much in 1845 in talking about the requirements for the new asylum at Yarra Bend:

I am greatly appreciative that for a variety of causes mental diseases will be found of very frequent occurrence in this particular colony and confined to no particular group. (La Trobe, 1845: 45/1299)

The ‘warm climate’ was considered a factor, which not only encouraged heavy drinking but produced a ‘peculiar condition of the blood’ which induced deliriums tremens (Black, 1856), one of the major reasons for admissions to Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums (Brothers, 1957: 341–347). Loneliness, despair, isolation were all counted as contributing factors and were listed in official reports. The 1858 Select Committee inquiring into a new site for instance, raises ‘peculiar climate,’ ‘northerly winds’ and ‘disappointment’ as possible explanations (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 26, 28, 34, 37, 40). This last suggestion of ‘disappointment’ was particularly associated with young women who had been only a short time in the colony and who found the reality of their new home so at variance with their idealized hopes, that they took to drink and became ‘mad’ (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 10).

The underlying premise was that these conditions had as their root cause, the unfamiliar and disconcerting experience of a land in which nature was out of kilter, where ‘trees shed their bark, swans were black, rather than white, and the seasons reversed’ (Turcotte, 1998: 11). More than this was the presence of the alien vegetation of the landscape – the bush. This excerpt from Henry Lawson‘s, The Drover’s Wife expresses some of the feelings of hopelessness and despair that were associated with ’the bush:’

Bush all round—bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few sheoaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. (Lawson, 1935: 107)

Elsewhere in the story the bush is ‘maddening’ because of its stunted trees. Immersion in the unnatural bush, as Sue Rowley in her discussion on ‘bush-induced’ madness points out, could send you mad (Rowley, 1996: 138–143).

In the light of these perceptions of the land as inducing ‘madness,’ it is interesting to consider how the asylum landscape was thought and written about in the context of curing ‘madness,’ and not least of all, what the asylum site itself revealed about these attitudes.

80.3 Asylum Land and Madness

80.3.1 Location

The first two purpose built asylum sites in Melbourne were situated on opposite banks of the Yarra River, that is Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums (Fig. 80.2). The Yarra Bend Asylum was built in 1848, while the Kew Asylum was started in 1862, but for a number of reasons having to do with bureaucratic bungling was not finished until 1871. The building styles of the two asylums developed very differently. Yarra Bend evolved into a series of scattered and low rise buildings whilst, Kew which was based on Hanwell Asylum, is an example of the ‘barracks style’ prevalent in England at the time. Both expansive sites included ornamental gardens, vegetable gardens, farms and recreational grounds such as cricket ovals and bowling greens.
Fig. 80.2

Yarra Bend and Kew Asylums (right), 1900–1910. (W.T. Pater Postcards Collection, State Library of Victoria)

Both these Melbourne sites can be seen as typical of other Asylum sites in the 19th century that could be found in England, across Europe, America and other parts of Australia (Coleborne & MacKinnon, 2003, Taylor, 1991; Yanni, 2007). The typical asylum site found was distinguished by rural location, expansive grounds, farm areas, ornamental gardens, airing yards and an emphasis on a ‘picturesque’ aesthetic. Its dominance was influenced by firmly held medical beliefs of the period, in the power of ‘nature’ and immersion in rural life as a cure for mental illness. The asylum site was formed and shaped according to these ideas which were discussed in government reports, medical journals and architectural texts. It was the importance of the medical opinion, however, that drove the construction of these sites and accounts for the uniformity of the asylum model across the world. As such, these sites can be interpreted as land that was highly engineered according to medical and scientific ideas of the period.

Figure 80.3 shows a map of Melbourne from 1865 with the two asylums shown as colored areas while the circles represent the public hospitals of the period. A number of things are immediately apparent from this map about ‘the land’ that was considered suitable for the treatment of mental illness. Firstly, is the location of the asylums on the urban fringe as compared with the general hospitals within the city. In contrast to England which had a number of urban asylums, Victoria did not produce a city-based asylum until 1909. The lack of an urban asylum could indicate the predominantly, pastoral character of the new colony but can also indicate other influences. Primarily, the location reflects the tone of recommendations in the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy Report (1844) in England which favored a ‘rural geography’ as Chris Philo has expressed it (Philo, 2004: 568–575). It could also be argued that it indicates the importance attached to seclusion which is emphasized by the way in which the waterways enclose the land, particularly at Yarra Bend Asylum. The road network also developed in such a way that that discouraged interaction with the general public.
Fig. 80.3

Map of Melbourne showing geographical location and size of Yarra Bend and Kew Asylum sites (shaded areas at upper right) in relation to general hospital sites (circles). (Adapted from George Slater’s ‘Plan of Melbourne and its suburbs, 1857,’ State Library of Victoria)

The 1855 plan of Yarra Bend (Fig. 80.4), drafted before the building of Kew Asylum illustrates all these points. The buildings are at the far end of the site, clustered near the river and distant from Heidelberg Road. This building site was later to be criticized for being hemmed in by the topography which restricted views yet could be overlooked by people on the high side of the river and blocked healthful breezes. (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 1, 12, 25, 40, 77). The site of the buildings had been chosen by La Trobe as a result of practical concerns to do with water supply (La Trobe, C. J.: 1846, No. 46/347). The proximity of the river however, was seen as problematic for its encouragement of thoughts and provision of opportunities for suicide (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 2). The official sanction of the 19th century idea of the capacity of geographical features to influence thoughts and hence behavior is apparent in this discussion.
Fig. 80.4

Map of Yarra Bend Asylum, 1855 showing the location of original buildings in relation to river and public roads. (Adapted from Lands and Survey Map, State Library of Victoria)

The aboriginal school and farm in the confluence of the Merri Creek and Yarra River (1841–1851) originally shared the Yarra Bend site and is interesting for the insight it provides into the ideas around ‘rural arcadias’ in Australia (Heydon, 2004). The aboriginal farm was conceived as a way of civilizing indigenous males through the rigor and discipline acquired through agricultural work and the accompanying attachment to a circumscribed place that is a defining feature of farm work. As such, it was an attempt to remove aboriginal people from the city which was seen as a corrupting influence and to furnish them with an occupation which it was hoped, would allow them to integrate into European society. In this sense, it fulfilled a very similar role to that of the farmland of the asylum which was important in not only supplying food for the institution but in providing useful employment that was considered therapeutic. In both cases, ‘the farm’ is presented as the antithesis to the congested industrial city and it is interesting that these two institutions shared a site. The requirement for a rural idiom has a resonance with a Foucault analysis of the ‘ordered’ landscape of the farm and the experience of ‘working with the land,’ as countering ‘social constraints’ of the city (Philo, 2004: 586–597). For both the indigenous male and the ‘mad’ person, the city is a destructive force, whose influence could be counteracted by simple rural activities.

The accompanying interpretation of the location of these sites is that although apart from the urban city, they are not in isolated country far from the nearest signs of civilisation. This is not ‘Henry Lawson’ country where people are driven mad by isolation. The city was at a distance but within reasonable proximity so that it could be visited by doctors and officials or as the Australian Medical Journal expressed it, ‘provide facility of access for purposes of supervision’ (Willson, 1859).

80.3.2 Size of Site

The expansive size of asylum sites is the second observation to be made in relation to the geography of asylum land. Yarra Bend was reported as being 640 acres (259 ha) by the Argus newspaper (The Argus, 1846: 2) while Kew was gazetted at 398 acres (161 ha) (Victorian Government Gazette, 1871: 2113). This contrasts with the much smaller size of land allotted to general hospitals. The Melbourne Hospital for instance, occupied 4.75 acres (1.92 ha) and the Alfred, the largest of the general hospital sites, occupied just over 14 acres (5.7 ha) (Charitable Institutions, 1890: Table IV). It would seem from this marked difference between the size of land for the treatment of ‘mind’ as compared to that for the treatment of ‘body,’ that ‘madness’ required large amounts of land in a way that the hospital for physical conditions did not.

80.3.3 Topography

The topography of the site was also considered with great seriousness and emphasis was placed on the requirements for views and variety of scenery. This is perhaps best illustrated in the 1858 Select Committee Report, which not only discusses the deficiencies of the existing Yarra Bend Asylum site, but articulates the desirable characteristics for the new site. In terms that now seem almost comical in their naivety, medical experts talk about the relative benefits of a distant rather than a confined view, the need for variation in scenery, concerns regarding the thoughts of escape that may arise by the view of the city, or as already mentioned, the merit of the river as a scenic element rather than an initiator of suicidal thoughts. Statements such as those made by the Government architect Vivian in which he testifies that he has ‘medical authority, for stating that an extensive view was not needful, but rather a pleasant prospect,’ is a typical example of the tone of the debate (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 69). The most telling factor of course, is that questions about views and scenery were raised by the commissioners at all, and then at such length. It is interesting to note that the views could not be of a nature to excite patients, which was another emphasis in the reports. In fact, it was the practice to keep ‘manic’ patient indoors for this reason (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 12). As one account records the desirable scenery needed to be ‘romantic without wildness’ (Humanitas, 1856: 6).

The adoption of the English landscape discourse in relation to Australia is indicative of course, of the close association of the colonial ties between Australia and England. More than this however, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of the ‘English’ view in not only defining problems in Australia, but in framing the aesthetic landform in which the solutions are found, despite the difference in land, climate and vegetation.

80.3.4 Picturesque

Related to this idea of the ‘Englishness’ of Melbourne asylums, is that the identification of desirable topography was again, not the flat, monotonous country of Henry Lawson stories but rather that of the English ‘picturesque.’ As with Australian landscape paintings of the period, the asylum landscape in providing a connection to ‘home’ was counteracting the disturbing influence of the ‘unfamiliar’ land (Willis, 1993). Medical Officer, Dr. Thomas Embling for instance, writing in The Argus newspaper in 1853, employs the language of the picturesque in describing the Yarra Bend site:

At the very commencement of the grounds the view is the most beautiful one; the river, breaking upon the sight suddenly and in one of its multitudinous serpentine turnings as suddenly disappearing, has all the effect of a very charming little lake. (Embling, 1853: 5)

Similarly with Kew Asylum, the description of views from the airing yards use painterly terms such as ‘lights and shades’ to place the asylum site within a picturesque landscape:

…a magnificent view over Heidelberg and the Yarra valley, far away to the Dandenong Ranges. In fair weather or in foul, this is a magnificent prospect, rich in trees and greenery, brightened or subdued by varying lights and shades. (Vagabond, 1856: 4)

Similarly, the views and experience of nature are presented in romantic language of the picturesque in this description by the same attendant of his walk with patients in the Kew Asylum grounds:

And when we arrived at a knoll from whence there were views of the river, the pleasant verdure of the bottom lands, the houses peeping through the trees around Heidelberg, and in the distance the Dandenongs, and beyond them, through the gap, higher and more distant mountains soaring into sunny cloudland we sat down with our backs turned to the hated asylum walls, and the grateful prospect, for a time, soothed the minds of all…. The walk having done us a thousand times more good than the church service. (Vagabond, 1876: 4. 4)

The picturesque perception of the asylum grounds was reproduced in images of the period which presented a framed scenic view of the asylum that was a feature of such colonial artists such as Conrad Martens (Willis, 1993: 68–70) and is demonstrated in Fig. 80.5.
Fig. 80.5

Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, 1864 (‘Scene on the Yarra’ image in Australian News, State Library of Victoria)

In an aligned treatment, Kew in the following woodcut is represented as a country estate where the inhabitants stroll around the grounds enjoying the laid out garden beneath a typically expansive sky (Fig. 80.6).
Fig. 80.6

Metropolitan hospital for the Insane, 1869 (Australian News image, State Library of Victoria)

This idealized woodcut may have differed from the reality but the reference to a country estate is unmistakeable. In fact, as can be seen in a photograph taken from almost the same perspective in 1869 (Fig. 80.7), it is obvious that the ‘asylum’ aspects of the site have been glossed over, particularly the fencing, to heighten the sense of the asylum as country house.
Fig. 80.7

Kew Asylum, 1889. (Photo by Charles Rudd, State Library of Victoria)

80.3.5 Domesticated Landscape

What is clear is the importance a familiar and ordered landscape is regarded in restoring sanity. In the 1858 report, the questioning of witnesses revolves around the necessity for providing ‘familiar’ and ‘domestic’ surroundings (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 23, 54, 127) and naturally and quite unselfconsciously, the ‘familiar’ and ‘domestic’ are grounded in memories of ‘home’, that is, of England.

So, at Yarra Bend, a visitor familiar with St Luke’s in England describes the grounds as follows:

…others were amusing themselves with talking to themselves, walking to and fro, sitting up in corners, reclining in the sun, or gathering on benches beneath a wooden shed or verandah, such as we see in England attached to village inns opposite the skittle ground or bowling green. (Horne, 1853: 6)

There is emphasis placed on the ‘cottage’ gardens that are tended by the inmates with pleasant weeping plants and arbors, while elsewhere:

The well metalled road winds along past grassy and shady lawns, the trees having been wisely left standing. Shrubs and flowers have since been planted; seats are placed under the trees, on which patients were sitting, and the whole aspect was soothing and home-like. (Vagabond, 1876: 4)

As can be seen in an 1861 image of the cottage section of the Yarra Bend asylum (Fig. 80.8), an almost idealized urban form is adopted with picket fences, paved footpath, gutters and front ornamental gardens of exotic European plants. The indigenous eucalypt is retained in the background, but is treated as a gardenesque ‘feature’ tree, without the context of the Australian scrub. The bush has been ‘tidied up.’ The ‘cottage’ idiom is presented as an alternative to the isolation of the bush or the congestion of the city and was referred to as ‘a little settlement’ in 1876 (Vagabond, 1876: 4).
Fig. 80.8

Yarra Bend cottages, 1861 (Photo by Jean-Baptiste Charlier, State Library of Victoria)

At Kew however, references to the garden describe a much grander ornamental treatment in keeping with the grandeur of the building. So, there are descriptions of oak avenues, extensive borders, rose plantings, turf, terraces and stands of exotic trees (Leader, 1881: 9, 1885: 14). Again, the grounds are that of the country villa.

80.3.6 Rural Arcadia

The other feature of the asylum grounds that is emphasized in visual representations, is the ‘rurality’ of the sites, both in terms of location and function. In fact, one of the interesting observations to note from representations of Yarra Bend and Kew is that the proximity to the city or suburbs is never referenced, despite the fact that eye witness accounts indicate that the nearby city and suburbs could be clearly seen in 1858 (Report from the Select Committee upon the Lunatic Asylum, 1858: 12). Further, representations of the asylum as a rural retreat, persisted well into the 20th century, even when the sites were abutted by suburbs. An example of this is the 1920 postcard of the road through Yarra Bend that crossed the Yarra River to Kew, ‘Track to the Asylum’ which retains the device of the picturesque and rural in both visual and verbal language (Fig. 80.9).
Fig. 80.9

Track to Asylum, Kew, 1920 (Shirley Jones Collection of Victorian postcards, State Library of Victoria)

The ambiance of a rural property is also evident in a series of 31 photographs taken by a government official within the grounds of the newly closed Yarra Bend Asylum in 1927 (Fig. 80.10) which give no indication of the crowded suburbs on the other side of the river (Fig. 80.11).
Fig. 80.11

Collingwood from the town hall tower. (F. Oswald Barnett Collection, State Library of Victoria)

Fig. 80.10

Looking toward Zig Zag Bridge and Kew Asylum from site of stables, 1927 (Photo by E. Luly, Yarra Bend Park and Lunatic Asylum Collection, State Library of Victoria)

These images which could be interpreted as a populist idea of the importance of a ‘rural’ setting for treating madness, would have been at odds with the ‘medical’ or expert opinion of the time, which was increasingly engaged with pharmacology and technology as providing a cure for mental illness. Ideas surrounding the importance of landscape in the cure madness had become largely redundant in medical circles by the beginning of the 20th century.

80.4 Conclusion

Ideas about ‘landscape’ and scenery as active elements in the treatment of mental illness have been revealed in this analysis of 19th century ‘sites’ of Melbourne asylums. Location, topography, ideas of ‘rural arcadia’ and the ‘picturesque’ within the context of the Australian land as ‘maddening’ were carefully considered by medical experts as key elements in the choice of asylum site. Particularly, the asylum site demonstrated the importance of the ‘English picturesque’ as an antidote to increasing urbanization and the depressing influence of the unfamiliar Australian ‘bush,’ both considered causes of madness in colonial Melbourne. Australian landscape needed to be ‘Europeanized,’ in order to be non-threatening and as such is in keeping with other views of Australian land such as is represented in landscape painting of the period. All of these ideas produced a specific asylum site type based on officially sanctioned beliefs in the importance of land in the treatment of mental illness that was current throughout the western world in the nineteenth century.

The impact of these nineteenth century ideas can still be seen in the geography of Melbourne today. A contemporary map of Melbourne shows a large green park and golf course that had been the Yarra Bend site until 1925. It is unlikely that such a large area of land close to the city would have been available for such a use if it had not been set aside for a lunatic asylum in 1848. The Kew site which did not surrender its institutional status until the early 21st century, is now a medium density housing estate. The former Kew asylum building site is part of a gated community in the late 20th century, an irony that is not lost upon any historians of Melbourne or of mental illness. It remains as a land mark of madness on the Melbourne skyline overlooking the city and the suburbs it succeeded in keeping at bay for nearly one hundred and fifty years. The expansive grounds are now engulfed by uniform all-white housing, strangely reminiscent of the institutional site it replaces. It remains as a powerful reminder of the power of the 19th century idea that a particular landform, aspect and land use are important in the treatment of mental illness.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Architecture, Building and PlanningUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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