New life after a dark history on Peat Island

Peat Island may become a tourist detination

In March this year, the NSW government announced that it would proceed with plans to rezone Peat Island and the surrounding land at Mooney Mooney for a number of different uses, including tourism, community facilities, environment, residents and commercial or retail operations. The news will be welcome to the residents of Mooney Mooney and surrounds, as the property has remained under-utilised for many years. The proposed use of the island for tourism and “community facilities” sits oddly with the island’s sometimes gory history of insanity, violence and death, but should in fact make the site all the more interesting because of this rich history. Perhaps there will be “ghost tours” of Peat Island!

PeatIsland 1
Peat Island just after completion of accommodation.

Peat Island is a small island of approximately eight hectares in the Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney, New South Wales. It forms part of the suburb called Mooney Mooney, located upstream from the Sydney – Newcastle Freeway bridge. The island is linked to the mainland by a narrow man-made road. The island occupies a scenic view of the Hawkesbury River across to Brooklyn. It also occupies a significant place in the history of the treatment of mental health and alcoholism in the state of New South Wales. Originally called Rabbit Island, the island was renamed in 1936 due to its proximity to Pear’s Ferry. George Peat was an early settler and boat builder who established the first ferry across the Hawkesbury in 1844.

Peat Island was originally intended as an asylum for “inebriates” (alcoholics) where they could be treated in isolation from the general prison population. The prisons in NSW were under pressure in the late 1800’s and it was proposed that the care of alcoholics and the mentally disabled should be transferred to the medical profession. Relevant legislation was passed in 1900 and Peat and nearby Milson Islands were selected as the sites for the female and male asylums respectively.

Construction began in 1902, with Peat Island being cleared and levelled. Several buildings were erected, including the two storey brick edifices that still stand on the island. Considerable work was performed to provide fresh water to both Peat and Milson Islands, with the construction of a 24 feet (7.3 m) high concrete dam holding 7,000,000 gallons in a gully on the northern bank of the Hawkesbury River.

By 1907 the government’s position with regard to alcoholism had changed such that it was no longer considered a medical disease. It decided instead to set aside space in Darlinghurst gaol for the treatment of inebriates, and the facility was handed over in 1908 to the Lunacy Department for use as a hospital for the “insane”. Most inmates at this time were diagnosed as “congenital mental defectives”, which term included helpful categories such as “idiocy, imbecility and epilepsy”. Many inmates were diagnosed with disabilities now recognised as physical and not intellectual, such as cerebral palsy.

The first 79 boys and men were admitted to the facility in 1911 and the facility began to grow and develop, initially as a male-only institution.

Peat Island - 1940
Peat Island in 1940’s

In the 1930’s, visits to the island were restricted to particular Sundays. The remoteness of the island meant that many parents and relatives were unwilling or unable to make the journey to visit the inmates of the island. Until the causeway on Peat Island to the mainland was built in 1957, the islands were initially accessed only by ferry, so they were quite isolated. In the 1950’s only 80 of the 623 boys and men on Peat and Milson Islands had any regular visitors. In these times, mental illness and disability carried with it some stigma, so sufferers of illness or disability were generally kept away from the public in institutions such as this one.

Manual labour was thought to have therapeutic benefits for the inmates of the island. Paths and gardens were constructed and new buildings were added by the inmates.

As is perhaps typical of institutions of this era, there are grim stories of violence and death on the islands. In 1924 an inmate named William Pfingst confessed to killing another inmate, Harold Besley, by hitting him with a stick, putting a bag over his head and tying his arms and legs with rope. Pfingst then pushed Besley into the water where Besley drowned.

In 1938, four patients died of enteric fever (another name for typhoid) which was thought to have been brought to the hospital by a new patient. From this time, patients were routinely innoculated against the disease.

In 1940, an 8-year-old boy was found floating in the Hawkesbury River. It seems that the boy had been kept in a pen which could be undone by the inmates. The Coroner found that there was no evidence to show whether the boy jumped or fell into the water and no findings were made against staff for lack of supervision.

There were numerous escape attempts, with some inmates drowning before making it to the mainland. Others were lucky enough to make it to the mainland, but were often recaptured and returned to the facility.

Butler EscapesIn 1944 it was reported that “two dangerous lunatics” (William Butler (23) and Leonard Morgan (18)) knocked out two attendants with billets of wood, escaping from Milson Island in a row boat. Police had to search the area before finding Butler’s body in the river. Morgan was recaptured in Darlinghurst. He told police that the boat became waterlogged near Peat’s Point and that he and Butler had to swim to shore. Butler didn’t make it.

In 1950 a jury found that an 11-year-old inmate of the island died from asphyxiation in a linen bin made of iron. It was not clear how the boy came to be in the linen bin, however no neglect on the part of the staff of the hospital was found at the time.

Despite the scenic location, there is no doubt that the facility would have been a grim place to live, especially in the earlier years. Various press reports document drownings and unexplained deaths of young men and boys, and at least 300 patients who died during their time here were interred in unmarked pauper’s graves at the nearby Brooklyn cemetery.

As social attitudes to mental illness and people with developmental disabilities changed, the facilities and amenities at Peat and Milson Islands improved. A school was opened in 1951 when it was realised that the boys would benefit from schooling. Many of the patients were boys who were left in the care of the state, as their parents lacked the willingness or ability to deal with their condition.

Many patients lived out their entire lives on the island, having been admitted as children, and the island and staff provided a stable and happy home for the bulk of these people. There were some patients who were allowed the freedom of movement in the adjacent neighbourhood, and whose presence provided the area with some character.

In 1983, the Richmond report on Mental Health Services in NSW recommended that institutions such as Peat Island should be closed and the patients integrated into the general community where possible. This was part of a broader move away from institutionalised care towards integration. Various plans were announced for the facility over the next 27 years until it was finally decommissioned in October 2010, with the last remaining residents moved to new facilities on the Central Coast at Hamlyn Terrace and Wadalba.

In late 2010, local press reported rumours that the island was being considered as a detention centre for asylum seekers, a claim denied by the state and federal governments. Currently the facility is boarded up and empty, awaiting the rezoning which will in turn allow a decision to be made about its future by the NSW State Property Authority.

Milson Island, which is only accessible by ferry (being larger than Peat Island and more centrally located in the expanse of the Hawkesbury) has accommodation, lodges and operates activities such as high ropes courses, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking and abseiling. All that is left of the old mental asylum are the old nurses’ quarters/ hospital.

About Sandra 111 Articles
Sandra is a staff writer at The Kuringai Examiner. She likes to take on research-focussed articles. Shy and retiring, Sandra likes nothing more than scouring a pile of books and research articles for a morsel of information.