Published: 25 May 2022
A team of archaeologists has uncovered relics from a long-gone prison and asylum at Yarra Bend Park, as part of preparations for an exciting new netball facility.
It’s now a little-used site in the north-eastern Melbourne suburb of Fairfield. But, in its 160-year history, this area hosted the Yarra Bend Asylum, the Fairhaven Venereal Diseases Hospital and the Fairlea Women’s Prison. Before any work on the new pavilion and courts could begin, it was key to preserve this rich past.
Directors Catherine Tucker and Sharon Lane led the enthusiastic team of archaeologists. Over two months, they researched the history of the site, undertook careful excavations and recorded some fascinating findings.
The most notable discoveries included a well-preserved bluestone cellar belonging to the asylum hospital building, foundations of the hospital, handmade bricks and a cobbled path that led to one of the wards from the main gate.
"The Yarra Bend Park netball court development makes up a relatively small portion of the Yarra Bend Asylum grounds,” Dr Lane said. “The evidence we found suggests that the site may have contained some of the earliest asylum buildings.”
“Mapping from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries indicates that it contained the hospital and a ward building of the asylum.”
The asylum was Victoria’s first permanent institution devoted to the treatment of mental illness, and the site is included on the Victorian Heritage Register.
Dr Lane said their goal was to salvage and record any historical remains at the site. Around 4,500 artefacts from the asylum-era were found there, including nineteenth century ceramic and glass, and clay smoking pipes.
When the asylum closed in the 1920s, most of the site was demolished. Only a handful of buildings were retained and became the Fairhaven Venereal Diseases clinic. Later, from the 1950s, these became Fairlea Women’s Prison. It was the first all-female prison in Victoria and remained open until the 1990s
The artefacts and excavation results from the site will be analysed further. Archaeologists hope this will bring to light new information on the day-to-day lives of those who lived and worked at the site in centuries past.
It will help write the chapters of this site’s history, while preparing for a new chapter to reveal itself when the new netball courts and pavilion are complete.