Beyond the Internet: Week 18 Benevolent Asylums


This is Week 18 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topic is Benevolent Asylums. I’m going to talk primarily about the situation in Queensland as this is where my research has taken me. If you have used these records in other locations, please do share your story with a link to this page. In the case of Queensland the benevolent asylum was situated on Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay (off Brisbane), in some ways an idyllic location.

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum c1890s State Library Qld Image picqld-2003-01-28-16-43 Copyright expired.

So what was the benevolent asylum? To quote from Queensland State Archives (QSA), “the function of Dunwich Benevolent Asylum as defined by the “Benevolent Asylum Wards Act of 1861” was to provide for poor people who because of age, accident, infirmity or otherwise, were unable to care for themselves”.[i] This particular asylum was open from 1865 to 1946 when the inmates were transferred to Eventide at Sandgate.

While this definition applies to Queensland’s benevolent asylum, circumstances were probably similar in other states. On the face of it, this makes the asylum sound very much like a UK workhouse. My own feeling is that it was less oppressive than the British equivalent with a more tolerant approach to its inmates. Perhaps there was an acceptance that having come half way round the world, the elderly and infirm may not have had anyone to fall back on for support. Nevertheless the bureaucratic process generated lots of information as they decided whether someone was truly eligible or was perhaps malingering, or more pertinently, if they had any family member who could take them in. For this reason it’s not surprising to find that family members may be “forgotten” when it came time to apply for admission. If you visit QSA, you will have the opportunity to check the card indexes and review admission books, letters, registers of discharges or deaths: in short lots of biographical information to round out your family history.

Trove once again enlightens us with photos, and other sources, regarding Dunwich Benevolent Asylum. I was also pleased to find a thesis on the asylum which is available online here.

My experience with the records have been limited as none of my direct family entered the asylum. However I have followed up another Gavin family which had several members admitted over the years. What I’ve found is that the information contained in the admission papers can be incredibly useful in rounding out what I know about the person, confirming hunches, and revealing marital and family separations. I’ll give you some examples of what I’ve learned from the records.

  1. Stephen Gavin #1, with his wife Honora, applied to be admitted to Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on 2 February 1889 when he became too frail to work and Honora was suffering from blindness. They had been living in western Queensland with a daughter and son-in-law who were no longer able to look after them. The couple died on Dunwich and were buried in an unmarked grave. Some 100 years laters a descendant and friend of mine, Carmel, erected gravestones in their memory. Stephen and Honora had survived the Great Potato Famine in Ireland and the drowning of their son early in their Queensland life.
  2. Carmel had also found that Honora had regular absences from Dunwich, presumably to visit with family.
  3. The Dunwich records helped me to confirm that an illegitimate child, registered as Stephen Telford, was indeed the son of Stephen Gavin junior (#2 and son of Mark Gavin) . The admission record also confirmed the children of Stephen Gavin and his wife/de facto Johanna even though their marriage is not registered in the civil indexes and provided information on their residences. This had been a “brick wall” ambiguity.
  4. It helped to confirm that Stephen’s (#2) father, Mark, was known as both Mark and Matthew -presumably to disguise Mark’s convict past. This too had been a “brick wall” ambiguity.

Stephen and Honora Gavin are the only migrants who I’ve found returning to Ireland then re-emigrating. For all that they were in an asylum, I’m pleased that their environment was so pleasant and they were well cared for. They would have been amazed by the successes of their descendants.

If your research interests are in other states, can I suggest that you google the relevant state and the term “benevolent asylum”. Meanwhile Cora Web provides a convenient gateway to asylums and hospitals here.

4 thoughts on “Beyond the Internet: Week 18 Benevolent Asylums

  1. This is an interesting focus of research. When my 2x great grandparents left Scotland in 1842, one of the focal points of the Charttist movement was the anti-poor law group. Most of those who were against the Poor laws were trades people who had seen the support and sanctuary of the church and the laird fall away. This activist concern of old JP was brought to America, and with in a decade he was the Supervisor of the Poor Farm in Springdale. His diary relates taking people of the community into the Poor Farm, providing foodstuffs, and supervising the Poor Farm. I just wish he had written more.

    But back to your posts, I had never thought of checking the records of the Poor Farm — going to put that on my list.

    • How interesting to learn more about the Chartists. I’ve known little about them other than from your posts and in very general terms. It sounds as if his Poor farm was closer in spirit to our benevolent asylums than to the UK workhouses. I do hope some records survive. I’m very impressed with JP…he was a mover and shaker, wasn’t he.

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Internet: Week 28 Places and Petitions | Family history across the seas

  3. Pingback: Finding Irish ancestors: Part 1 – In the new land | Family history across the seas

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