Claremont Hospital for the Insane was established in 1903. In 1933, it became known as the Claremont Mental Hospital. It was a government-run facility that accommodated children and young people with intellectual and other disabilities until the hospital closed in 1972.
Claremont Mental Hospital was Western Australia's main mental health institution from 1903 to 1972. Children with intellectual and other disabilities were sent there, often for a lifetime. Even after the juvenile wing was opened it was not uncommon for children and adolescents to be in the same wards as adults.
Claremont Hospital for the Insane ('Claremont') was established by the Government of Western Australia in 1903 as a hospital principally for adults who in the language of the times were classified as 'insane', 'imbecile' or 'idiots'. Patients were gradually transferred from the Fremantle Asylum until 1909, when Fremantle closed. Children and young people with intellectual and other disabilities were among the patients transferred from Fremantle and continued to be admitted to Claremont until it, too, closed.
Building started at Claremont in 1903 and men from the over-crowded Fremantle Asylum were housed in the new workshops and stores buildings as soon as they were habitable. By 1907 the female block was built and women and girls started being transferred from Fremantle. In 1910, a new 'chronics' block, designed to take 250 people, was added. Many children with intellectual disabilities would have been housed in that block.
Some of the land around Claremont was used as a farm, which provided work for the 'inmates' and plenty of surplus produce. In its design and location, Claremont demonstrated the medical views of its superintendent, Dr Sydney Montgomery. He believed it should be in the Perth metropolitan area, but not 'part of' the city. It should be on a hill, so that the fresh breezes could wash away disease-carrying 'miasma'. There should be sufficient land for a farm colony. Montgomery also believed that Claremont should be large enough to cope with a growing population. There should be separate male and female wings to ensure celibacy and prevent the forming of relationships between inmates.
Claremont was on a hill, surrounded by farm land and fresh air but was designed with large dormitory wards, barred windows, impersonal, communal dining and bathing facilities and its 'inmates' were dressed in government-issue poor quality clothing. The more disturbing the disability, the deeper the person was housed in the institution. Nearest to the administration block was the 'quiet and chronic' ward. Then came the 'recent and acute' patients, followed by the 'sick and infirm'. Next were the 'epileptics' and furtherest away were the 'violent and noisy'. There was a padded single room on each floor.
A Board of Visitors for Claremont was introduced in 1920 for the independent oversight and protection of patients. The Board of Visitors system was established following an amendment to the Lunacy Act 1903, which set up this system for the protection of patients in psychiatric hospitals. The Board was independent of both the Public Health Department and Claremont, and provided an independent avenue for patients who were concerned about their rights or welfare.
Although Claremont was set up with a medical model of treatment for the 'disease' of insanity, the prevalent approach to intellectual disabilities was that they were hereditary and incurable. There were some brief early periods where this belief was challenged. A Montessori school for children was established at Claremont in 1919 but closed in 1921, possibly due to lack of funds. A newspaper report in 1924 described the impact of education programs:
Some time ago [Edith Cowan] visted Claremont and saw young children among older mental cases with nothing being done to alleviate their condition. Two years later she paid another visit and was amazed at the improvement that had been effected through a teacher having been provided for the children. She was sorry that among the economies to be undertaken by the Government the teacher was to be taken from Claremont. The West Australian 26 September 1924, p.10
Young people with Down Syndrome were highly prized at Claremont for their capacity to do menial tasks. Aged around 15 years amd up, they lived and worked at Claremont and were seen to provide a good source of labour in the kitchen, on the farm, in the garden and in the laundry. While this may have kept the young people busy during the 1920s and 1930s, it was not a treatment model or a way for young people to progress through the system to independent living. They were given the work because they were economically useful.
The Royal Commission in Lunacy (1921-1922) found that the No.4 Ward at Claremont was used for 'imbecile and idiot children, together with a certain number of quiet and chronic patients who interest themselves in the younger inmates of the ward.' The Report went on to describe the ward:
…the size of the dormitory is objectionably large and the beds are arranged in four rows, and at the present time there are a few patients more than the accommodation originally provided for (Report, p.4).
It was not until after World War II that the plight of children in Claremont was raised as a serious policy issue. The President of the Women's Service Guild, Bessie Rischbieth, took up the matter. In 1949, there were up to 70 children in Claremont. In 1950 a series of articles in the Sunday Times newspaper led to a Royal Commission to inquire into brutality at Claremont, with specific reference to the cases mentioned in the articles. A journalist, Laurence Turner, had gone 'under cover', obtaining a job as an attendant at the hospital for five weeks from December 1949 to January 1950. His articles were published over two weekends in February. As a male attendant, he worked only with male patients, but he was able to report that age groups were not segregated: 'In one ward a small boy, about 10, was often in the company of a middle-aged man noted for his cunning attempts to escape…surely it was a negative step to place him in the same ward as some of the toughest cases in the institution' (Sunday Times, 19 February 1950, p.5). This case was given some publicity during the Royal Commission, and was mentioned in evidence and the Commissioner's findings:
Questioned by the Judge on the fact that a 10-year-old boy was kept in Ward 2 with other patients, including criminal lunatics, Dr. McWhae [Chairman of the Board of Visitors] said the Board had not made inquiries as to why the boy was there. Commissioner: The only explanation you can give as to why you know nothing about this is that you have been to busy to find out? - [Dr McWhae]: We have so many other duties that it had not come under my notice. (Testimony of the Chairman of the Claremont Mental Hospital Board of Visitors, excerpt, Sunday Times 2 April 1950, p.6).
On the problem of the 10-year-old boy Dr. Prendergast said that there was no alternative - though they were upset about it - but to put the boy in Ward 2. A panel of 5 doctors discussed the case and treatment was suggested. His Honor: Have you made any application to the Board of Visitors or to the Minister about the matter or have you made any suggestion for a special institution for boys of that type? - [Dr Prendergast:] Yes, very definitely. I think the orginal suggestion goes back to 1911 but for the last 3 years they have been made continually every 3 months. (Testimony of Dr Francis Michael Gerald Prendergast, Medical Superintendent Claremont Mental Hospital, excerpt, Sunday Times 9 April 1950, p.3).
Although according to the doctor the boy was really troublesome, bad, and very serious, [Dr Glesinger] admitted that there was no such record in the Day Report Book. Furthermore, no entry appeared on the boy's Case Card from 22/12/49 until 9/3/50. Aithough he stated that he was deeply concerned over the boy being placed in the Ward he had never reported the matter to the Board of Visitors. It is not uninteresting to note that this was the patient whom Dr. Glesinger said was definitely incapable of making a complaint, and yet, in his opinion, the Board had to deal with complaints of patients….Insufficient steps have been taken, e.g., in the case of the boy (of 10), to cure an obvious defect in administration. (Royal Commissioner's finding in relation to Dr Glesinger, excerpt, Sunday Times 25 June 1950, p.8).
The Commissioner's conclusion regarding a defective boy held in an adult ward is unintelligible and his criticism of Dr Glesinger quite unjustified. (Response by the Inspector General of Mental Hospitals, excerpt, Sunday Times 25 June 1950, p.19).
The Royal Commission, although sensational, didn't really change things for children at Claremont. In this era, doctors 'had little to offer' parents whose children had intellectual disabilities 'and most were recommending that your child was put in Claremont Hospital'. It was parents who banded together to drive changes that would eventually deliver more and better alternatives through the Slow Learning Children's Group.
From August 1959, some patients at Claremont were employed under the policy of 'industrial rehabilitation'. Patients undertook paid work for the Public Health Laboratories, making glass pipettes and cleaning and re-assembling bottle tops. Over time, sheltered workshops in Western Australia grew, with the support of trades unions and manufacturers. Many young people with intellectual disabilities who lived in institutions, hostels and group Homes have been engaged in industrial rehabilitation. From the 1980s, the concept of meaningful supported employment has replaced industrial rehabilitation as a policy.
In 1952 a group of children with intellectual disabilities were transferred to the Nathaniel Harper Homes at Guildford. Psychologists from Claremont provided support. However, many children remained at Claremont and when Dr Guy Hamilton was appointed Senior Medical Officer to Claremont a decade later in 1962, he described the astonishing and tragic conditions there:
The care was appalling. In the male children's ward, J Block, there were people who lay in bed with bed sores until they died; there were cot cases for whom little but basic nursing was provided; there was no policy of training and the care of 40 people in a ward by two or three rostered staff was inadequate. At meal times, they were seated at arm's length from each other, so that they couldn't grab each other's food, which I suspect they did simply because they were hungry. Many who were incontinent were often hosed down outside, even in winter in the so-called airing court. There was no individual care, there was no love, there was no care at all and all bad behaviour was coped with in the medical fashion, using what some used to call 'chemical warfare' against them. This was a medical response to abnormal behaviour; there was little psychological treatment or training. It was the only place in the world that I have found children as young as two years being referred to simply by their surnames…They were receiving worse treatment than animals and most certainly were not being treated as children (Dr Guy Hamilton, in Gillgren pp.78-79).
The female children and adolescents were 'receiving better care than the boys, but still living in unpleasant conditions' (Stella, p.95) with older women living with the girls and teenagers in the female juvenile ward.
There was no excuse for this. In 1955, the Commonwealth Government had appointed Allan Stoller (the head of Victoria's Mental Hygiene Department) to report on the provision of mental health services in Australia. This resulted in £10 million being granted to States to upgrade facilities. In 1960, a Planning Committee established by the Minister of Health found that Western Australia's share of this money was largely unspent. The Planning Committee recommended that all children be removed from Claremont, but clearly this did not happen with any sense of urgency.
Hamilton was determined to 'get all the kids out' of Claremont (Stella, p.98). He at first refused any more admissions but at the request of the Slow Learning Children's Group who needed respite care, he developed a transition strategy that saw all the youngest children moved to the new Pyrton Training Centre by 1967, followed by younger adults in 1972.
The Claremont Hospital closed in 1972, as part of a restructure that resulted in a psychiatric section (Graylands Hospital) and a section for people with intellectual disabilities (Swanbourne Hospital).
1857 - 1909 Fremantle Asylum
1903 - 1972 Claremont Mental Hospital
Sources used to compile this entry: Report and appendices of the Royal Commission in lunacy, Royal Commissions Held in Western Australia, Parliament of Western Australia, 21 September 1922, http://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/intranet/libpages.nsf/WebFiles/Royal+Commissions+-+Report+and+appendices+of+the+royal+commission+in+lunacy/$FILE/Report+and+appendices+of+the+royal+commission+in+lunacy.pdf; 'Mentally deficient children', The West Australian, 26 September 1924, p. 10, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article31254920; 'Claremont Mental Hospital Royal Commission Ends', Sunday Times, 9 April 1950, p. 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59514467; 'Royal Commissioner's full report on Claremont Mental Hospital', Sunday Times, 25 June 1950, pp. 7-9, 19, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59518171; 'Said patients could complain to Board [Claremont Mental Hospital]', Sunday Times, 2 April 1950, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59514211; 'AU WA A543 - Claremont Mental Hospital', in State Records Office of Western Australia - Organisations & People, State Records Office of Western Australia, 2015, https://archive.sro.wa.gov.au/index.php/claremont-mental-hospital-au-wa-a543; Ellis, A.S., Eloquent Testimony : the Story of the Mental Health Services in Western Australia, 1830-1975, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, Western Australia, 1984; Gillgren, Christina, 'Once a Defective, always a Defective: Public Sector Residential Care 1900-1965', in Errol Cocks (ed.), Under blue skies : the social construction of intellectual disability in Western Australia, Centre for Disability Research and Development, Faculty of Health and Human Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Perth, 1996, pp. 53-91. pp.53, 56-58, 62-63, 77-79.; Hunt, Heather, Our Children: A History of the Slow Learning Children's Group of WA, Activ Foundation, Perth, 1989. pp.12.; Stella, Leonie, 'Normalisation and Beyond: Public Sector Residential Care 1965-1990', in Errol Cocks (ed.), Under blue skies : the social construction of intellectual disability in Western Australia, Centre for Disability Research and Development, Faculty of Health and Human Sciences, Edith Cowan University, Perth, 1996, pp. 92-136. pp.95, 98-100.; State Records Office Western Australia, 'Unusual Occurrences - Special Reports' Series 3172 Cons 1031 Item 1955/0350 v2.
Prepared by: Debra Rosser
Created: 18 April 2013, Last modified: 7 March 2022