In the very early years of the colony settlement mentally ill patients in Western Australia were originally cared for in temporary accomodation. One of the first locations to house those with mental illness in Western Australia was a shipwreck called the Marquis of Anglesey. The ship was carrying settlers mainly from Cornwall and was the sixth ship to arrive in the colony. On September 7th 1829, the ship which had arrived on August 23rd with 130 settlers on board and had anchored in what is now Gages Road, close to the mouth of the Swan River, was driven onshore by gale winds. Stranded, the Marquis of Angelsey filled with water. All hands and cargo that had not yet been unloaded, survived the grounding of the ship. Damaged and beyond repair the hull of the wreck was sold to local merchant, George Leak for £170. Leak then leased the stranded wreck to the government who used it as a ready made building. Firstly it served as the Governer’s Residence, then the Harbour Master’s office and then a post office. The wreck was eventually used as the colonial goal and then mentally ill patients were housed in it. The first mentally ill patient in the colony was Nicholas Langley, a surgeon, who had become violent. He was said to have recovered and was accepted into the community as a surgeon again, practicing till he died at 35 years old.
The convict built prison, the Roundhouse was also used to house the mentally ill in the early days of the settlement. With the influx of convicts there was a dramatic rise in the amount of mentally ill people in the colony. The new colony mental asylum was built using convict labour between the years of 1861 and 1868. The building was named the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum. The building takes up over 2.4 hectares and after the Fremantle Goal was the biggest public building built using convict labour. Designed in Australian Colonial Gothic Architecture it was a style inspired by developing architectural styles in England. The building was built by Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Edmund Henderson, the then Comptroller-General of Convicts in Western Australia. The initial building was designed to house 50 patients and construction was supervised by James Manning, Clerk of Works to the convict labour. The convicts were assisted in the construction by the Twentieth Conpany of Engineers. Taking over four years to complete the first patients admitted to the asylum arrived in 1865.
In 1886, responsibility for public works came under the responsibility of the newly formed Public Works Department, headed by George Temple-Poole. Between 1886 and 1894, Poole organised the construction of the north-east wing of the building and the southern wing.
After the goldrush of the 1890s the asylum was overpopulated. The facility was reorganised and a farm called Whitby Falls was purchased in 1897 to help house the ever growing population of patients. The asylum continued to operate into the early 1900s becoming known as the Asylum for the Criminally Insane. All patients were forced to live under prison rules. The patients were referred to as inmates, had their heads shaven and were forced to wear prison uniforms. As time passed the asylum became a place to house people with all manner of social problems from alcoholism to prostitution. During the Goldrush people were sent to the asylum when suffering ailments such as sunstroke. Even the elderly were sent to the asylum just because they were old. In 1900 a woman named Mrs Clifford was in the asylum. At this time there were 219 patients with 17-20 people in each room. Mrs Clifford was killed by another patient. Following the suspicious death of Mrs Clifford and a second patient an inquiry was held and a medical superintendent and trained mental health nurse were appointed to the facility.
The facility was declared a Poor House in 1909, becoming known as the Women’s Home. During its time as a Poor House, the building housed poor women and elderly women. There were problems with young women escaping and men quarrying holes in the limestone of the building to get to the young women. The building also served during this time as an early Maternity Training Hospital, the actual maternity hospital facility relocating to the newly built King Edward Hospital in 1916. The Women’s Home was closed in 1941 when it was discovered that the facility was keeping young women with venereal disease in cells.
In March 1942 a dozen American Naval servicemen, fleeing the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, arrived in Fremantle. They were housed in the building during the course of World War II. Twenty two buildings were added to the asylum grounds and 139 enlisted men and 102 civilians were employed in activities in the building.
After the war the building was used to house the Fremantle Technical School. In 1953 students from Princess May Girls School and Fremantle Boys School attended classes in the building awaiting the opening of John Curtin Highschool in 1955. In 1957 The State Education Department decided the building should be demolished. There was a public outcry and the then Mayor of Fremantle, Sir Frederick Samson, halted the demolition. After many years of lobbying the building was restored in the early 1970s. In 1972 the building housed the Fremantle Maritime Museum and the Fremantle Arts Centre. In 1976 Fremantle Arts Press was started. In 2001 a conservation plan for the building was adopted. The gable finials on the west facade were restored to their former glory in 2007. On July 20th 2009, the short lived Immigration Museum was closed in the building.
One of the most famous inmates of the Asylum was Moondyne Joe or Joseph Bolitho. Joe, who had been sent to Australia as a convict at 22 for stealing bred and bacon, spent his life in the colony in and out of jail. In 1900 his strange behaviour led to him being arrested again and sent to the Asylum where he passed away.
At least ten spirits are said to haunt the asylum. There are many records of paranormal phenomena and the building has been described as the most haunted in the Southern Hemisphere. There is apparently a women who jumped from a window that haunts the building. She was paced in the asylum following the disappearance of her child and it is believed she jumped from one of the windows of the building. An inmate that hung himself in one of the stairwells has been sighted. People report crying and laughing in the empty building. There are cold spots, faces seen in windows when the building is empty and some people feel a kiss on their cheek.
I was always a little afraid of the building as a child and as we drove past it often I would close my eyes as I was sure I had seen faces in the windows as we passed the building in the dark. When I was a a teen my cousin and I were at the museum and we went into the “cell”, one of the rooms inmates were locked in. It’s one of the scariest things I have experienced. It got really cold and just felt wrong. Then we felt someone or thing behind us in the dark. My cousin and I screamed till we were let out. The place has a feeling of sadness that seems to imbues it’s very bricks. You can only imagine the suffering that occurred there. I hope that now it’s an Art Centre and a place where there are outdoor concerts and exhibitions it has some happy vibes.