Was an ancestor of yours admitted to an asylum? Or perhaps a paper trail has gone cold and you’re not sure where else to look? Ancestry’s latest dataset could help.
When James Watson walked into the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, Ballarat, in November 1897, there was nothing about his behaviour to cause alarm or remark. The Scottish ‘doctor’ said he was en tour for the London Daily News, writing reports for clients back in the Old Country. The 40-year-old was a quiet guest at the hotel, only coming to the landlord Mr. Sayle’s attention when he asked to borrow money from him. When met with a rebuff, James stated that he found the Edinburgh too quiet and would move to another hotel, coming back to fix up his bill with Mr. Sayle within a few days.
But by that time the good doctor (he also described himself as a scientist and lecturer, a mining expert and a vet) had been arrested for escaping the Yarra Bend lunatic Asylum and returned to institutional care. He must have been successful in convincing someone to lend him money, as he was found with six pence and nine shillings in his pocket. He also made a lot of friends in town while he was at liberty, amassed clothes, surgical equipment and a pair of stirrup irons, and advised a horse owner in his capacity as a ‘vet’ that a sick horse would be well enough in a week or so (the animal died the next day). When asked how he escaped from the asylum, James said he “merely walked away from the grounds and no one stopped him.”
James Watson and his escapade from Yarra Bend Asylum is part of the collection of asylum records now available on Ancestry. The collection contains more than 49,000 records from the Public Record Office Victoria’s archives on asylums, a rich source of information for family historians.
The huge digitisation project took three months to complete. Jody Taylor from Ancestry oversaw the work, and while the records are generally in good condition, the most difficult part of the digitisation was ensuring that all pages of the volume were captured to a high quality.
“Ensuring the pages stay level, as much as possible, so that all content on the page is in focus and readable is important,” Jody explains. “This is achieved using book supports and also ensuring the correct settings are used during capture.”
The story of James Watson came to Jody’s attention because the fraudulent business card that James was touting around town is attached to his registry entry at Yarra Bend. It’s these extra riches, as well as the sobering nature of the entries, that make the collection so valuable to genealogists.
Tara Oldfield, from the Public Record Office Victoria, says that the collection spans from 1862 to 1936, although each asylum registers across different dates. There are records in the collection on Ancestry from 15 asylums across Victoria, including:
- Ararat Asylum
- Ballarat Asylum
- Belmont / Glen Holme / Landcox Licensed Houses
- Cloverdale Licensed House
- Collingwood Asylum
- Kew Asylum
- Kew Cottages
- Lara Inebriate Retreat
- Merton Licensed House
- Mont Park Hospital for the Insane
- Mt Ida Licensed House
- Northcote Inebriate Asylum
- St Helens / Pleasant View Licensed House
- The Tofts Licensed House
- Yarra Bend Asylum
The records cover details such as name, age, relationship status, next of kin, length of stay, general health, and whether the patient is considered dangerous or suicidal. Tara says that or the best search results, it’s good to narrow down the search terms as much as you can. “It’s helpful to first know the name of the asylum where the person was a patient, the year and rough date of admission.”
However, family historians who are trying to find an ancestor who has disappeared from other records may find these datasets just as valuable. Paper trails can often lead to the most unexpected of places, and reveal fascinating stories, like that of James Watson.
The Victoria, Australia, Asylum Records, 1853-1940 are available now on Ancestry.
Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.