The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum


Felicity Jack & Lorraine Siska

Mary Kehoe’s history of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, published in 1998, is a comprehensive account of the history of the building and tells the story of some of its residents.

On the afternoon of Saturday, May 4, Mary Kehoe led a walk around the perimeter of the estate on which the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum once stood.

The walk began outside the TAB on Errol St and took in Miller, Abbotsford, Elm and Curzon streets. Mary pointed out the different styles of the buildings in Miller St: those on the south were Victorian, while those on the north were Edwardian in style, having been built after the Benevolent Asylum had been demolished and turned into a housing estate.

The Asylum stood at the end of Victoria St, a large and imposing building. It would, in those days, have been visible to shipping approaching the Port of Melbourne. The building was gradually extended over the years but despite its size it was unable to meet the demands that were made on it, with many people being refused admission for want of room.

The size of the estate (10 acres) was a surprise to many of the participants. Several large banners were displayed at appropriate points providing visual representations of aspects of the building.

The walk stopped near the corner of Curzon and Victoria streets to examine a plaque that had been unveiled on November 10, 2000 by former Governor of Victoria, Dr Davis McCaughey, and his wife Jean. This celebrates the 150th anniversary of the laying of the first stone (that no longer exists) that had been placed by Charles Joseph Latrobe, then superintendent of the Port Philip District of New South Wales, in June 1850. The land had been granted by the New South Wales Government (Victoria became a separate state the following year and Latrobe took on the role of lieutenant-governor).

While the scale and design of the building was lavish and resembled a great Tudor country house, it had been poorly constructed. The dilapidated condition of the building, as well as the value of the land, led to it being demolished in 1911. The residents were transferred to Cheltenham.

Mary focused on one inmate in particular, Anastasia Leahy. She had arrived in Australia from Tipperary, Ireland, aged 15 in 1853, and took on the role of general servant.

She entered the asylum when she was 19, having become totally blind. She was the institution’s longest resident, dying aged 83 in 1921. She was described in the annual report for that year as having a “happy disposition”.

Mary is hopeful that an unnamed lane running off Curzon St might be named after her, but this is a decision to be made by the Melbourne City Council.

This is one of a series of walks and other events that the Hotham History Project is organising. The next one, on Saturday, June 22, has the title True Crimes & Paranormal Activities of North & West Melbourne and will be led by Andrew Morgner. More details of the walk are available on the Project’s website, which also has a list of publications that are available to purchase. •


Captions: (main image) Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, and one of the visuals displayed on the walk.

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