ALMOST 21 years after they closed, Aradale Lunatic Asylum and J Ward are booming tourism businesses.
In 2018 Friends of J-Ward, which runs the day tours, counted about 13,000 visitors across both sites, including the paranormal night tours which run on weekends.
The group’s president, John Mawson, said that was about a 15 per cent jump in visitors from the previous year, and member Alex Beveridge attributed this to the properties’ distinct fascination.
“People were attracted by the words ‘lunatic asylum’ and they still are,” he said.
There’s no doubt that the buildings have a strange history bound to capture the imaginations of history buffs and seekers of the bizarre, especially J-Ward with it’s former criminal occupants.
“The facility was originally opened as a jail. When the gold ran out the population dropped, so then you had a jail and not enough customers,” Mr Mawson said.
“But the lunacy department took it over as a temporary measure – which lasted for 126 years.
“It became a ward of Aradale, which is why it’s called J Ward, but it only housed violent male patients here so 50 originally but towards the end that number got lower than that.”
The facility only took two years to build and evidence of the prisoners is still visible, with an early version of graffiti – painted ships – etched onto the courtyard walls.
“They’re probably from sometime between the 1860s and 1890s,” Mr Mawson said.
“They’ve been touched up but you can see the original paint.”
The cells themselves are distributed through the various buildings, with one area, built later on in the 20th century, labelled low security and cells in the original jail considered higher security.
“You’re talking about people whose mental illness meant that they were a danger to themselves or other people, and probably more so to other people,” Mr Mawson said.
In the original jail, cells are rudimentary at best.
“It’s a Pentonville model of jails where you have a central point and you can look down the corridors from that point,” Mr Mawson said.
Verifying prisoner stories can be difficult but it forms an important and ongoing project for the Friends of J-Ward, which wants to increase the value of the tours.
“What we’re trying to do is upgrade. So we’ve spent a lot of money on displays and we’re trying to get more and more stories of patients and events here,” Mr Mawson said.
At Aradale, the men’s, women’s, nurses and other staff quarters can all be toured, and the buildings serve another purpose too – emergency services training.
Dog squads and other types of training run through the nurses quarters, a large separate building to the north of the complex.
The upkeep of the complex of abandoned buildings is funded by tours after a failed attempt at selling the buildings when the facility closed.
“When it closed it was on the market,” Mr Mawson said.
“I’m surprised it didn’t sell because I would have thought some private enterprise might have picked it up.
“But at the time Ararat was in the middle of a downturn in it’s economy, largely because Aradale closed and the loss of jobs.
“People didn’t have confidence in spending a lot of money and setting yourself up as a private residence, so it didn’t happen.”
But then a group of residents came up with the idea of opening it up for tour.
The idea was immediately a hit.
“They just asked for volunteers to come and help and 4000 people turned up over Easter to come and walk through here,” Mr Mawson said.
“I remember I was in the caravan out the front one day, collecting money, and it was extraordinary. There were people everywhere.
“It was the intrigue of the lunacy asylum.”
The group managed to convince Ararat Rural City Council to purchase J-Ward, although Aradale is owned by Melbourne Polytechnique who use it as a training centre.
“That was probably pretty brave of council because I reckon a lot of people in town would have thought it was probably not worth investing rate payer money,” Mr Mawson said.
“But I think in the end it’s turned out to be very beneficial for the town.”
The real struggle now is to ensure the Friends of J-Ward has enough volunteers to keep everything running.
“We’re sort of victims of our own success in that when your numbers go up, you need more volunteers. That’s our biggest challenge, renewal,” Mr Mawson said.
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