Notes to accompany Psychiatry 1: early years

Notes on poem 1: mental health creature (prologue)

My entire family has, in one guise or another, been employed for a longer or shorter period of their working lives by the Mental Asylum (known as up top)in our township. I swore and meant never to work there. I would be different. And, for a time, I succeeded.

Life conspires, and fate intervenes.

I now believe that there was an inevitability to my being drawn into the clutches of the all-embracing institution. My hope is that, in the great professional development review that is yet to come, it may be seen that I gave as good as I got.

Notes on poem 2: a ha ha above town

The old institution – May Day Hills Hospital – was built back in the late 1850’s on the back of gold-rush wealth.

Something in excess of 3 million bricks were made on the site and used to construct the buildings. Typically, the Asylums were built for a set number of patients – say four hundred, but in nearly all cases they were soon accommodating twice the number they were built for, and generally as high as a thousand resident people.

All the old Lunatic Asylums, as they were then known, covered many acres of land and were essentially self-contained and self sufficient. Market gardens, dairy herds, piggeries, tailor shops and seamstresses, hairdressers. The lot.

Supporting townships (like Beechworth) and suburbs sent generation after generation of their young to work in the Government run, and therefore ‘permanent employment’ of these institutions.

All of this community was enclosed by a wall – the Ha Ha. These were days of no effective treatment for mental illness, and the rule of law allowed for persons found to be vagrant to be incarcerated in the institution, behind the walls.

By the early 1970’s, changes to treatment and social movements in society led to the institutions being opened up. Much of the Mayday Hills Ha Ha was dismantled. I’m led to believe that a portion of the slope in one part of the grounds was excavated and the used bricks buried there. New Psycho-geriatric wards (which were to become the bane of my student nurse life) were built on top, or in immediate proximity.

I’m delighted enough was left for my pictures to go with the poem.

Notes on poem 3: taxi shuttle

Back in the early 1960’s when my mother began working at Mayday Hills, the nursing staff were primarily women, although by and large, they were not nurses, but were titled ‘Ward Assistants‘ who belonged the nursing side of a very rigid staffing hierarchy.

Most women in the town (and more generally, I think) did not drive a vehicle. Therefore, the hospital provided transport in the form of the local taxi service. The Taxi would pick up either one or two cars full of staff and drive the kilometre or so up the hill (up top) and to work. The women generally walked to the Post Office from their homes to get there – on time – if they wanted a ride to work.

I have a vivid recollection of ghostly figures emerging from all directions out of a chilly winter fog and pre-dawn darkness, mistily materialising in front of the Post Office steps.

Everything about nursing in those days was starch, including headgear and uniform dress.

When she started as a Ward Assistant, my mother knew no English. She was taught in the madhouse.

Notes on poem 4: first breakfast

The hours of work for nursing staff in the wards of the old institution spanned some 13 hours from )7:00 in the morning until 19:56 (four minutes to eight) in the evening, and the roster pattern was two days on duty/two days off duty across a 28 day month.

In the course of the 13 hours, there would be three meal breaks for staff, each of thirty minutes duration, with half the staff on duty having the ‘first’ meal break and the other half having the second break, ensuring the wards were always staffed, at least minimally.

When both my parents were working, one or other of them would find a way to leave work, get back to home, wake the kids and get them ready for school, and so on. Then, get back up the hill to work in time to relieve the remaining staff for their meal break.

The days were a constant grind filled with unsavoury duties, and exhausting in their relentlessness.

Notes on poem 5: the smell of stockings

My recollections are of a tired woman coming home after eight o’clock in the evening and having spent thirteen hours on her feet in the ward.

I’m a little ashamed now of my reaction back then.

Children, hey?

Notes on poem 6: conditions of employment

At the time I am writing of, working as a public servant – an employee of the government, which all workers in the Mental Asylum were – was considered a ‘safe’ job, but not lucrative.

Men like my father – new immigrants with no assets, young families, and burning ambition to earn and to establish themselves – looked for every opportunity to work extra jobs – on days off duty, after normal work hours and so on. In my father’s case, working as a mess hand in the Main Kitchen and later as a Cook in the staff Mess Room, his shift pattern was one day on and one day off. There were many jobs that could be done on that day off, back in the 1960’s.

Unfortunately, a government employee could be dismissed if they were caught breaching their ‘conditions of employment‘.

Notes on poem 7: sunday lunch with the ladies

As a young lad – around the age of independence on a bicycle – if my parents were both at work, I would make my way up the asylum hill to visit them. Dad in the kitchens and his cronies had access to a full-sized billiard table (there is a lot of down-time when you are all day in an asylum kitchen) – I was in awe of it for a long while.

When I visited mum, the atmosphere of the ‘women’s wards’ was one of work – cleaning – and of a kind of regimented girlishness.

To say that a young visitor was ‘pawed over’ doesn’t quite capture the sense of naive delight that these women gave off.

Meals were delivered to the meal as bulk, cooked items – a certain number of cooked chooks, a tray of roast potatoes and so on. A lamb or beef roast would be carved slice by slice for forty or more residents by the Nurse-In-Charge. A privilege and a responsibility that goes with rank.

I don’t think junket is readily available anymore. It was a strange dessert – usually pink in colour. Let Wikipedia tell you all about junket.

Notes on poem 8: spreading magic in the bread room

This was fair dinkum magic to me as a kid.

As the most junior man in the Kitchen when he started work, my father had to operate the bread room. Massive boxes of butter and double block loaves of uncut sandwich bread. If I recall rightly, sliced bread wasn’t yet common at the time.

He tells me that the solid butter was softened with warm milk to a spreadable consistency. The bread would go in, get sliced and buttered, all in one go. Wow.

A calculation was made and bread allocated on a per head basis, ward of seventy people, by ward of thirty people. Enough to feed a thousand and more every day.

I sometimes wondered if the butter boxes had a melted memento of my bottom imprinted on them after I’d sat there for awhile, and whether that would improve the flavour of the bread …

Notes on poem 10: card collector

During my childhood, almost all of the kid-friendly breakfast cereal brands included incentives for young breakfasters. For example, one brand of corn flakes contained a small moulded plastic figure modelling the traditional attire of one of the European (I think) countries – Malta Greece, et cetera.

Another corn flake would include a package of plastic parts to assemble which would turn into a four legged creature that could be made to walk by attaching a length of cotton and a small weight, which was draped over the end of the table, or bench.

All of these ere good things, but I was enamoured of collectors cards. Two in a packet of weet-bix or vita-brits, I can’t quite remember which, but I do recall that it was slow going to collect a whole set.

The solution was to cycle up the hill and ask the Storeman if I could have a forage.

The arrangement within the store was a sort of compactus of fixed shelves, and in one area, it was floor to ceiling cereal packets, which I was allowed to excavate.

You don’t get good support like that for collectors, anymore.


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