Whom nobody owns : the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, an institutional biography 1866 - 1946

Goodall, Joseph B. (1992). Whom nobody owns : the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, an institutional biography 1866 - 1946 PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Goodall, Joseph B.
Thesis Title Whom nobody owns : the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, an institutional biography 1866 - 1946
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1992
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Supervisor -
Total pages 465
Language eng
Subjects 210303 Australian History (excl. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History)
920209 Mental Health Services
Formatted abstract
The Dunwich benevolent asylum constituted a significant slice of Queensland's social background for eighty years from 1866 to 1946, yet it has been subject to little investigation and almost nothing is known of its function or history. This dissertation aims to fill the gap by using a research model and interdisciplinary approach for what may be termed an institutional biography.

By these means it can be seen that the benevolent asylum was isolated, but that the physical isolation was only a symptom of social abandonment. In housing the unwanted members of society who were embarrassments and liabilities, Dunwich served a social system driven by motives of economic progress. The asylum's function was not to help the weak and crippled but to hide them, the outcasts "whom nobody owned".

Unwanted by both the Brisbane hospital and the colonial government, the institution was sent to Dunwich because of the availability of vacant buildings. For the next eighty years, without regard for the inmates or the staff who worked there, almost every type of person who was unable to fit in with society was admitted. The blind, crippled, mentally deficient, terminally ill, cancerous, tuberculosis and leprosy patients, inebriates and others were shipped indiscriminately to the island. Most were old. All but a handful accepted their fate uncomplainingly, not because they were happy but because they became "institutionally dependent".

Debates on the purpose and effectiveness of the benevolent asylum appeared in the newspapers and parliament, but avoided the point that the benevolent asylum was a dumping ground for unwanted burdens on society. Even the reasons for closing were caught up in politics and societal prejudices rather than the question of what was best for the inmates.

The situation was almost as bad for the staff. The superintendents were given too many responsibilities with too little support to carry them out. They were even expected to be the government presence on Stradbroke Island without the authority to do so. This led the benevolent asylum into an unwinnable conflict with other users of the island. Other staff lived in sub-standard accommodation, suffered poor employment conditions and experienced limited contact with the outside world. It is little wonder that they developed a strong benevolent asylum culture.

Further to purely documentary and historical sources, the dissertation uses interdisciplinary methods to provide insights into Dunwich's operation.

The actions, beliefs and values of the institution's staff and the public service are interpreted in the light of Charles Handy's organic model of "organisational culture" to study component groups within an organisation.

Erving Goffman's work on "total institutions" is used to understand the position of the inmate. This is supported by the theories of Pauline Morris on the commonweal organisation and research by several psychologists on institutionalisation. The benevolent asylum fitted the pattern they described, of an institution set up for the benefit of the public rather than its residents, who were conditioned to obedience.

Statistics are used where appropriate, principally to make sense of the large amount of data on the thousands of inmates who were at the benevolent asylum.

Mark Billinge has argued that a community can be understood by studying its component institutions. Application of the basic elements of his theory shows that the undesirable aspects at Dunwich were a reflection of societal beliefs rather than an individual aberration.

As an institutional biography, the dissertation shows the development of the benevolent asylum, examining the forces which formed it and the interactions within the institution and with its environment. The historical and interdisciplinary sources are represented by a structural research model comprising three elements the sponsoring body (government), the institution (benevolent asylum) and the clients (inmates). The influences on the elements are grouped under two headings: environmental (social, political, economic and local) and cultural (the organisational cultures of the public service and benevolent asylum).

It is through tracing these interrelationships that the conclusion is reached: nobody was willing to take responsibility for the benevolent asylum, which was left to manage as best it could in physical and social exile.
Keyword Dunwich Benevolent Asylum -- History.
Asylums -- Queensland -- History.
Public institutions -- Queensland -- History.
Additional Notes The author has given permission for this thesis to be made open access.

Document type: Thesis
Collections: Queensland Past Online (QPO)
UQ Theses (RHD) - Open Access
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Created: Tue, 15 Dec 2009, 09:37:27 EST by Ms Natalie Hull on behalf of Social Sciences and Humanities Library Service