Comments on Shauna Hicks’s talk on Asylum Records

On Saturday Shauna Hicks gave two very informative and enjoyable family history presentations in Darwin. Shauna apologised for her laryngitis and croaky voice but it didn’t affect the pleasure of listening to someone with such wide experience.

Shauna’s talk on asylum records highlighted how these records could help people to find missing ancestors and the diverse information one could gain from the records. She also rightly warned people that it can be distressing reading these records even if they are not for members of your own family, and more so when they are your ancestors. In the past many (if not most) people were placed in asylums for illnesses (eg post natal depression, post traumatic stress) which are much better understood today. Another reason was that there was no alternative institution in which to place them eg orphanages, old age homes. These records can be found through the online catalogue of most Australian state archives.

Shauna’s talks can be found on her web site at

In the past I’ve used the array of  Dunwich Benevolent Asylum records to learn more about family members or others I’m researching and they have been helpful in rounding out what I know about the person, confirming hunches, and  revealing marital and family separations. BTW Dunwich Benevolent Asylum was on Stradbroke Island off Brisbane.

I’ll give you some examples of what I’ve learned from the records.

  1. Stephen Gavin #1, with his wife Honora, applied to be admitted to Dunwich Benevolent Asylum on 2 February 1889 when he became too frail to work and Honora was suffering from blindness. They had been living in western Queensland with a daughter and son-in-law who were no longer able to look after them. The couple died on Dunwich and were buried in an unmarked grave. Some 100 years laters a descendant and friend of mine, Carmel, erected gravestones in their memory. Stephen and Honora had survived the Great Potato Famine in Ireland and the drowning of their son early in their Queensland life.
  2. The Dunwich records helped me to confirm that an illegitimate child, registered as Stephen Telford, was indeed the son of Stephen Gavin junior (#2 and son of Mark Gavin) . The admission record also confirmed the children of Stephen Gavin and his wife/de facto Johanna even though their marriage is not registered in the civil indexes and provided information on their residences.
  3. It helped to confirm that Stephen’s (#2) father, Mark, was known as both Mark and Matthew -presumably to disguise Mark’s convict past.

Early hospital records in Queensland can also provide biographical data as well as providing clues to the early lives of pioneers in the colony eg I found a record for Carl Diflo, an immigrant from Bavaria during the time of his tenured service in Moreton Bay. Other records can be more frank than the death notice eg alcoholism may be more truthfully documented in the hospital records. All of these sources are worth a try if you can find a family name among them.

Judy Webster’s site on Queensland genealogical records can be a fantastic tool to locating people in these records as she has indexed a diverse array of sources.

Judy’s publication: Tips for Queensland Research (2008 edition) is also a fabulous resource for family historians with Queensland heritage. She is also available to undertake paid research for people who are unable to get to the archives themselves. (No this is not a sponsored advertisement -just a genuine recommendation).

So if you get the chance take Shauna’s advice and follow up asylum records in your state of origin.

4 thoughts on “Comments on Shauna Hicks’s talk on Asylum Records

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