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Night tours shine a light on Sunbury asylum’s dark past

A GRIM, dark and little-understood part of Sunbury’s history can now be relived, with walking tours of the town’s old asylum relaunched after a two-year hiatus.

Ghost tours at Jacksons Hill, site of former Sunbury asylum

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A GRIM, dark and little-understood part of Sunbury’s history can now be relived, with walking tours of the town’s old asylum relaunched after a two-year hiatus.

The sprawling Jacksons Hill site was the home of the Sunbury Industrial School, before it was handed to the Lunacy Department in 1879, where several versions of mental health care under the guise of an asylum unfolded.

Tours bringing the routines and hidden stories of the asylum back to life will once again be held by Sunbury woman Julie Mills, starting on Saturday.

Ms Mills spent two years researching Public Records Office documents in a bid to better understand the history of the hospital, with extensive displays now forming the route of the two-hour night tours.

In an arrangement with the owners of the site, Victoria University, Ms Mills has access to seven buildings that form the asylum, including the old admission building, morgue, and men’s ward for the criminally insane.

She said the asylum’s place in Sunbury’s history was one she had built up a passion for.

“I moved to Sunbury 13 years ago, and I’ve been interested in this place from the start,” Ms Mills said.

“I’m particularly interested in the mental health system and nursing, and how it was viewed back then.

“A lot of the Sunbury asylum history is about stigma and it is something that was buried in family histories.”

Ms Mills has transcribed many admission remarks of patients and found photos and other snippets of their lives.

“It was important to me to bring some of the strands together and to have the photos and stories of some of the patients there for people to see to get a deeper appreciation of what went on here,” Ms Mills said.

While many approaches improved after the 1950s, tools such as straight jackets, padded cells and electric convulsive therapy treatment were all realities for residents at “The Hill”.

Those items are among tour relics and replicas.

Ms Mills said one of the biggest tragedies of the asylum’s history were people, many women, who were thrust into the facility with treatable conditions today, such as post-natal depression, while others were admitted for simply being drunk and disorderly.

Other patients were transferred from the state’s prison system after being deemed “criminally insane”, where they were kept in lonely cells.

But despite the misery that plagued many residents, the asylum had formed an unmistakably central part of Sunbury’s history, Ms Mills said.

“It was critically important to Sunbury as a community. It was the major employer and the town needed it as it grew,” she said.

The site currently homes a specialist school, radio station and community groups.

Ms Mills and husband, Greg, take tours for up to 30.

Click HERE to book, or phone 0422 807 248.

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sunbury mental asylum tours

Time’s running out for Sunbury Historical Tours

sunbury mental asylum tours

Locals are racing to get tickets to a Sunbury Historical Tour before the former mental asylum site is shut behind a fence.

It seems time is almost up for the beloved tours after Victoria University issued the business with a termination notice last month.

The notice said Sunbury Historical Tours’ contract with the university would end on January 28, which has since been extended until the end of February.

Sunbury Historical and Heritage Society president Peter Free, who helps Julie Mills to run the tours, said the university had not disclosed if the tours could continue beyond February.

Mr Free said the university had begun boarding up windows over the past few weeks, and that a fence was soon to be erected around the buildings. CCTV is already in place.

The Victorian Planning Authority released a draft masterplan for the Jacksons Hill site in November, detailing plans for construction at the grounds. But the final plan for the site is yet to be released.

Tour business owner Julie Mills posted on Facebook that the building had been sold, and that “negotiations will likely take place with the new owners of this property in due course” about recommencing the tours.

Residents have taken to Facebook to mourn an end to the tours.

“Such a big loss to our community,” one Facebook user posted.

Mr Free said extra tours were being held in February, but they were already almost booked out. He said people had loved taking the tours through the heritage-listed buildings.

“People love it, they come from all over the state,” Mr Free said. “We’ve had people come from Beechworth and Packenham.”

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findingrecords.dhhs.vic.gov.au

Sunbury/Caloola (Mental Health Facility) 1879–c.1993

On this page:, sunbury caloola history in brief, warning about distressing information.

  • Auspice: Hospitals for the Insane Branch 1867–1905; Lunacy Department, located in Chief Secretary's Department 1905–34; Department of Mental Hygiene, located in Chief Secretary's Department 1937–44; Department of Health I 1944–52; Mental Hygiene Authority [statutory authority] 1952–62; Mental Health Authority [statutory authority] 1962–78; Health Commission of Victoria 1978–85; Department of Health II 1985–92 (mental health)/Community Services Victoria 1985–92 (intellectual disability)
  • Name: Sunbury Asylum (1879–1905)
  • Other names: previously: Sunbury Industrial School (1865–79); Sunbury Hospital for the Insane (1905–34); Sunbury Mental Hospital (1934–62); Caloola Mental Hospital/Training Centre (1962–85); Caloola Training Centre (1985–c.92)
  • Address: The Avenue, Sunbury

sunbury mental asylum tours

Caloola/Sunbury: Building with bay windows and nurses, 1964

The Sunbury Industrial School was established in 1865 and, by the end of 1868, housed 651 boys. In around 1880, boys from Sunbury were transferred to the Royal Park Industrial School in Parkville.

In 1879, the Sunbury Asylum opened, with patients transferred from Lakeside in Ballarat. More patients and staff were transferred from the Yarra Bend Asylum, followed by further transfers from Kew Asylum and by the end of 1880, Sunbury had nearly 500 residents.

Three years later, the Sunbury Asylum was overcrowded and the boarding-out system (adopted from Scotland) was advocated as cheaper and offering patients better lives than government institutions could provide.

The new Lunacy Act 1905 changed the title of all 'asylums' to 'hospitals for the insane' and 'mental hospitals'. The Act also brought reforms such as nursing staff training and improved food and clothing of patients. Staff salaries were increased and duty hours lessened. Building works included new wards, new staff facilities, patient workshops, and extensive additions to the farm.

In 1913 the number of patients at Sunbury exceeded 1000. The following year, a large hospital for 32 male and 32 female patients was completed, staffed entirely by female nurses under the charge of a trained hospital sister.

In the 1920s , the general conditions for patients were only moderately improving. Staff shortages at Sunbury worsened during the war years of the 1940s . Attendance at the department’s nursing examinations had dropped to 104 candidates in 1944 (from 256 candidates in 1933).

In the early 1950s , a new Supervisor of Catering improved the cooking and variety of food available. Artisans were also employed to improve the appearance and maintenance of buildings and grounds, and the golf course was upgraded for the use of staff and patients.

In 1955, the first full-time chaplain was appointed; a brand new nurses' home was built and opened; all day and dining-rooms throughout the hospital were completely refurnished with modem fittings and a small bio-chemical laboratory was setup and equipped. The following year there were new developments in recreational activities, including a fishing club, photography club, variety club for community singing, a dressmaking class, choir and an art class.

The transfer of patients from other institutions to the Hill Wards completely changed the character of Sunbury. The Mental Health Act 1959 designated hospitals providing short-term diagnosis and accommodation as "psychiatric hospitals". However throughout its life Sunbury has been used almost exclusively for long-term patients.

In 1962 Sunbury was proclaimed a Mental Health and Training Centre, responsible for mentally disturbed and mentally retarded patients. Overcrowding continued, with instances of patients sleeping on the floor. New admissions of all patient types were initially mixed together which was totally undesirable for patients' treatment and care.

Since 1962, the Training Centre progressively changed to house only people with an intellectual disability. From 1970, these were the only clients due to the closure of the mental hospital in that year.

During the early 1980s , the Caloola Training Centre for the Intellectually Disabled provided residential services to some 500 people with an intellectual disability. Caloola was not, as often described, a geriatric institution – approximately half of its residents were under the age of 50.

In 1985, responsibility for Caloola was passed from the Mental Health Division to the Office of Intellectual Disability Services. Caloola Training Centre closed in October 1992 as part of the deinstitutionalisation program. Part of the site became a Victoria University campus from 1994 to 2011, and the remainder (in 2016) is in use by the Department of Education and Training. It is now a heritage-listed site.

sunbury mental asylum tours

Caloola Sunbury building, 1964

This guide contains information that some people may find distressing. If you experienced abuse as a child or young person in an institution mentioned in this guide, it may be a difficult reading experience. Guides may also contain references to previous views, policies and practices that are regrettable and do not reflect the current views, policies or practices of the department or the State of Victoria. If you find this content distressing, please consult with a support person either from the Department of Health and Human Services or another agency.

Please note that the content of administrative histories is provided for general information only and does not purport to be comprehensive. The department does not guarantee the accuracy of this administrative history. See Find & Connect External Link for more detail on the history of child welfare in Australia.

Caloola Training Centre, Sunbury Finding Aid -Compiled by Haydn Blennerhassett , Archival Services, Department of Human Services, 18 June 1996

Government of Victoria 2005, VA 2843 Sunbury (Asylum 1879-1905; Hospital for the Insane 1905-1934; Mental Hospital 1934-1962; Mental Hospital/Training Centre 1962-1985; Training Centre 1985-ct.), Public Record Office Victoria

sunbury mental asylum tours

Sunbury Hospital for the Insane: stock and manufacturing records, 1907-18

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Reviewed 07 May 2019

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    Sunbury Historical Tours, Sunbury, VIC. 967 likes. Historical Guided Walking Tours of a former Industrial School for Children, Lunatic Asylum & Women's

  8. Night tours shine a light on Sunbury asylum's dark past

    The site currently homes a specialist school, radio station and community groups. Ms Mills and husband, Greg, take tours for up to 30. Click HERE to book, or phone 0422 807 248. A GRIM, dark and ...

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    Sunbury Lunatic Asylum was a 19th-century mental health facility known as a lunatic asylum, located in Sunbury, Victoria, Australia, first opened in October 1879. Prior to being opened as an asylum, Sunbury was controlled by the Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools (VA 1466). When Sunbury was acquired by the Hospitals for the Insane ...

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  15. Time's running out for Sunbury Historical Tours

    Locals are racing to get tickets to a Sunbury Historical Tour before the former mental asylum site is shut behind a fence. ... The notice said Sunbury Historical Tours' contract with the university would end on January 28, which has since been extended until the end of February.

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  17. Old Mental Asylum Tour

    Review of Sunbury Historical Tours. Reviewed 16 October 2016. Toured the grounds and buildings of the old Mental Asylum Evening guided tour. Great tour very interesting site lots of history dating back to the 1860s. Magnificent buildings let down only by the lack of maintenance in garden and grounds. Tour itself fascinating very good well run ...

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  20. Sunbury/Caloola (Mental Health Facility) 1879-c.1993

    Sunbury Caloola history in brief. Caloola/Sunbury: Building with bay windows and nurses, 1964. The Sunbury Industrial School was established in 1865 and, by the end of 1868, housed 651 boys. In around 1880, boys from Sunbury were transferred to the Royal Park Industrial School in Parkville. In 1879, the Sunbury Asylum opened, with patients ...

  21. Sunbury Mental Asylum : r/melbourne

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