The first time I went to Yarra Bend Park, I came across it almost by accident, not long after I arrived in Melbourne. I crossed a footbridge over the Yarra in Richmond and from there followed a path that ran high above the brown meanders of the river, through the dappled shade of pale gums, enjoying the birdsong and the rough ground beneath my feet and the late summer sun on my face. Just as I was starting to feel tired, I saw the charming wooden Studley Boathouse cafe down below and made my way there for ice cream. An interpretive panel nearby informed me that a large part of the park was formerly Melbourne’s first lunatic asylum.
I returned a few weeks later, wanting to find out more. I went via Abbotsford Convent, on the other side of the river. There are no nuns at the Convent anymore, just cafes and art projects, and a childrens’ farm. I had planned to get something to eat or drink in one of the cafes, but there are long queues everywhere, so I give up on the cafe idea and wander around the buildings, which are arranged in a series of quadrangles. In one courtyard, two women are creating something out of white sacks and tape. I stick my head into a room advertising a ‘walking project’ but the artist seems to be busy organising people to do something so I duck back out again to my own walking project.
The Convent stood empty for some time after the nuns left and many of the buildings are still awaiting restoration. I enter one through a sort of cage tunnel, presumably to protect visitors from falling debris. An information board explains that the building was formerly a commercial laundry where the young girls of the Convent’s Magdalen Asylum worked. The Magdalen Asylum was a place of ‘refuge and rehabilitation’ for young girls of uncertain morals. According to the information board, the convent seems to have taken in girls from the 1880s until at least the 1960s. The girls worked in the laundry without pay or access to education.
Down towards the river, is the nuns’ swimming pool. It has been filled in with soil and childrens’ play equipment. A redundant truncated diving board still stands beside it. Over the fence, a horse that seems to be wearing a blindfold crops at the grass.
I leave the convent, and cross the river to Yarra Bend Park. I find the layout of the park on my map rather confusing. The river meanders through it in a messy squiggle, and it is broken up by golf courses and dissected by roads. The approaches to the park do not seem to be designed for pedestrian access and I find myself on the wrong side of a very busy road with nowhere to cross.
When I finally make it into the park, I cross the river over a wooden suspension footbridge, and up a flight of rustic bluestone steps to some sports pitches edged with autumnal maples and poplars. I know from some quick googling before I set out, that this is where the asylum had its vegetable gardens. The bluestone walls that border the pitches supposedly used to border the vegetable gardens but they look a bit too ornamental to me. The asylum, established in 1848, seems to have been anything but ornamental. It was overcrowded, chaotic and primitive. It was also self-sufficient – as well as the vegetables, there was a farm with animals and the asylum even brewed its own beer. It would be nice to think that the patients might have found some respite working outdoors in the vegetable gardens beside the river.
Apart from the bluestone walls, the only other physical remnant of the asylum is a single bluestone gatepost. I’m not sure where the gatepost is. I wander around the sports fields looking for it and then follow the road, past the golf club with its 1930s Hollywood style clubhouse, which could be straight out of a David Lynch film. There is still no sign of the gatepost. I’m not even fully committed to finding it, but I can’t bring myself to stop looking for it.
The road crosses the Eastern Freeway, a brutal ten lane highway that was gouged through the park in the 1970s forever altering the course of the Yarra. I stop to look at the cars speeding through the cutting.
The park is different on the other side of the freeway, although I don’t fully realise it at the time because at last I find the bluestone gatepost, standing among trees.
There is more information here. I learn that the area now occupied by the park was ideal for an asylum because it was almost completely enclosed by the river. I look at my map to decide where to go next, and suddenly the layout of the park, that I’d found so confusing, jumps out at me. The meandering Yarra, and the Merri Creek branching off from it do indeed enclose the park, creating an irregular green pocket of despair.
I also learn that the despair did not end when the asylum finally closed in 1925. The asylum became a venereal disease clinic and then, when the discovery of penicillin meant that venereal disease no longer required long periods of hospitalisation, the clinic closed and was in turn replaced by the Fairlea Women’s Prison. The prison was damaged by a fire in 1982 which destroyed the last of the asylum buildings. The single gatepost was all that remained. The prison fire was deliberately lit and caused the deaths of three inmates. Fairlea prison was closed in 1996.
Even now however, according to my map, the park houses a psychiatric institution, a little further up the road. I decide to take a side road that runs along the edge of the institution for no good reason except to see what there is to see. I find myself walking beside the high perimeter metal fence of the Thomas Embling Secure Facility. On the other side of the road are empty playing fields and beyond them, the freeway. There are a couple of cars parked up, but the dog walkers and the joggers that were plentiful elsewhere in the park are nowhere to be seen. I suddenly feel very uncomfortable. What am I doing, nosing around a place like this? But for some reason I keep going. A couple of vehicles pass, driving to the end of the road, turning round and returning up the road. I can’t think why they would do that. I look the other way, trying to make myself look confident, unconcerned, as if I know what I’m doing here. And still I keep going.
At the end of the road is an L-shaped concrete pool, half-filled with water. As I get close to it, I see that it is very shallow. There are some odd platforms scattered around. I can’t work it out. I have a mental picture of a body, barely floating, face down. A path continues on from here according to my map, but I have lost my nerve. I turn round and head back to the main road. I feel relieved when I reach it. A little further on, I stop to look at a map of the park and find out that the L-shaped pool is an international standard fly casting pool and laugh at myself for feeling so freaked out by it.
The location of the gatepost had seemed odd and I couldn’t work out where the original asylum buildings would have been. I found out later that the gatepost was moved and rebuilt after the prison fire. The road that I had walked down, along the side of the Thomas Embling Secure Facility, was called ‘Fairlea Road’, the name of the women’s prison. I should have realised then, but it wasn’t until later on, when I was googling around that I realised with a creepy jolt of recognition that the site of the asylum was on either side of Fairlie Road.
As well as producing its own food, the asylum buried its own dead. When the asylum closed, some remains were transferred to Melbourne’s general cemetery, but an unknown number of unmarked graves remain, possibly somewhere near the river, on the site now occupied by the Yarra Bend public golf course.
Another kind of asylum, a protectorate for aboriginal people, for their ‘protection and civilisation’ was located somewhere around here in the earliest days of European settlement. Like the asylum’s graves, the site of the protectorate is also lost in the vagueness of the history of the dispossessed. It is known that the Assistant Protector, William Thomas, distributed rations and conducted religious services and school classes from a hut not far from the bluestone gatepost.
By now, I feel thoroughly oppressed by the park and its history, despite the trees and the Merri Creek flowing nearby. It is my own fault. I sought out darkness, and I found more darkness than I expected to find, and I can’t shake it off. I’m at the end of the park now, standing by a busy road opposite one of those bleak featureless public housing tower blocks. I could get a train back from here, but I need to shake my mood. I cross a bridge over the Merri Creek and take a concrete path back down the other side, through a park. There are attractive villas along the edge of the park. I stop to look at a little stone building with a tin roof. There’s a sign by the building that I assume is going to tell me about its history, but it turns out to be a sign saying that the council was planning to demolish the building, a former gardener’s hut built in the 1930s, for the crime of taking up valuable green space and lacking heritage significance. The building has been offered a reprieve, if the community can come up with a good enough idea about how it could be used. I hope that they do.
I continue unmerrily along the Merri creek. I pass a circular stone labyrinth, built for quiet contemplation. A large group of people are sitting beside it listening to loud music. Near a magnificent double concrete underpass where the Eastern Freeway crosses the creek, is a sign marking the site of an indigenous school, established by the Collins Street Baptist Church in 1846. The school did not last long, partly because the aboriginal population in the area dwindled, and also because the Wurundjeri people did not want their children to be separated from their culture. Beyond the underpass, a path leads back into the Yarra Bend park. A notice board, almost completely obscured by tagging like everything else around here, pays respect to the traditional owners of the land that is now Yarra Bend Park.
There is a metal gate here and a path leading to the river. I push it open and go down through the trees to the river bank. I realise I am standing at the point where the Merri Creek meets the Yarra. The brown water stretches wide to the trees on the far bank, gently shivered by the breeze. Above the noise of the traffic I can hear parrots, and those birds that have a single piercing call, that they echo back and forth to each other. Despite the traffic thundering close by, it feels serene and beautiful. Something clicks then, between me and the muddy Yarra, a recognition, a sense of connection.
A little further on down the river by Dight’s Falls is a mural celebrating the significance of the confluence of the waters for the Wurundjeri people – a place for catching eels, for bathing children, of burial, and a place of peace and healing.
Otto K (2009) Yarra: A diverting history of Melbourne’s murky river