150th anniversary celebration of the Ararat Aradale former lunatic asylum marked with ceremony on grounds

ARARAT’S Aradale former mental hospital has commemorated 150 years since patients first moved in with an emotional ceremony on Saturday.

Former staff gathered at a marquee on the grounds of what was once known as the Aradale Lunatic Asylum.

Ararat Rural City mayor Paul Hooper joined with Aradale’s former psychiatrist superintendent Dr Blair Currie and Friends of J-Ward president Ken Ritchie in unveiling a commemorative plaque.

Aradale was completed in 1867 and the first patients moved in on October 19 of that year.

“We can only imagine what the Ararat of that time was like,” Mr Ritchie told the crowd.

“Aradale rather reminds me of an aging dowager princess fallen on hard times.

“You can see that she was once a beautiful and dignified young lady but years of neglect have made their mark. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to see her restored to her former glory?”

Aradale became a major centre for the treatment of mental health issues and was also a major training hospital.

At the peak of its operation in 1959, the institution housed approximately 900 patients and close to 500 staff. 

It closed on December 10, 1993.

Melbourne Polytechnic University now leases the building from the state government.

Cr Hooper said he believed Aradale had helped make Ararat a more tolerant and accepting place.

“It’s almost impossible to find a long-term Ararat person who didn’t have a connection to Aradale, whether it was a family member, friend who worked here or someone who was a resident,” he said.

“That’s why Ararat was more than an institution to this town, it was and still is a landmark.

“I truly believe that Aradale is responsible for the acceptance in Ararat of people with a disability.”

Cr Hooper said the methods used when Aradale first opened its doors would be considered extreme by today’s standards.

“This dark history is now retold with Friends of J Ward tours and also after dark tours with Eerie Tours,” he said.

Aradale’s former psychiatrist superintendent Dr Blair Currie was next to speak at the institution’s 150th anniversary ceremony on Saturday.

Dr Currie said it was a daunting task to sum up the history of Aradale but it was good to be back with friends.

“It’s good to be back within sight of Mount Langi Ghiran and to those very contented years on these grounds where Bernice and I raised our five children, one of whom, Annie, is with us here,” he said.

“I thought we would gloss over anything too bad to repeat, but then did recollect a night lost in the Grampians, an ambush in head office, seeing our house burn down, and Sergeant McLennan wanting to arrest Terry Carr and myself for swearing on the football field.”

Dr Currie said there was no better display of mental health architecture in the quasi-Venetian design of Aradale.

“A survey indicated 100 of our residents entered institutional care before the age of 10 and 50 before the age of five; many stayed for decades, one man for 74 years,” he said.

“We welcomed people also with severe and persistent mental illness, from other mental hospitals, from metropolitan centres of excellence, from prisons and from loving homes.

“As described by the mother of an esteemed and well-known family, Arardale is the answer to a lot of people’s prayers.”

Historian Graeme Burgin described how there was a divide between patients, with some receiving a pension to pay for personal items and some not.

Then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was shown the conditions under which the pension-less patients lived and money was found for pensions in the next budget.

Mr Burgin said there were a number of reasons speculated to be behind Aradale’s closure.

“One version of the story is, that with improvements to treatment and a more centralised system, there was no need for Aradale after 1993,” he said.

“Another version had it that the whole place needed repainting and the quote was $3 million.”

The ceremony ended with a highly personal and emotional story from Eddie Smith, who grew up as a ward of the state and later found out he had a mother and brother who spent time in Aradale.

“I have medical reports that I’m reading only now; they are distressing,” he said.