Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 4, 2018

Peat Island (2018), by Adrian Mitchell

Peat Island is less than 250 pages long, but it took me a while to read it because its subject matter is distressing.  It’s the sad and sorry story of one of Australia’s institutions for the mentally ill, and how as a society we have failed to care for the vulnerable in ways that show respect for their humanity.  My reading of the book coincides with the Victorian Premier’s announcement that it will hold a Royal Commission into mental health if his government is re-elected.

Premier Daniel Andrews made the pledge because he recognised that mental illness is an issue for everyone.  He is quoted as saying that it hit home when both of his children had returned from school with letters about the death of a student.  In the ABC report (viewed 4/11/18)—while he didn’t allude to the recent Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the one revealing disgraceful banking scandals—it’s clear that his intention is that a commission into mental illness would achieve the same powerful result and bring mental health out of the darkness and into the “blinding light”.

He said the inquiry would change lives and save lives. “We don’t have the best mental health system we can possibly have,” he said. “Only when a person is in real crisis do they get tailored individual help. We have a system that simply can’t cope and will continue to contribute to tragedy if we don’t have a royal commission and seek those answers, make that reform, drive that change and show that leadership,” he said.

Retired Adelaide historian Adrian Mitchell makes it clear in Peat Island that he doesn’t have much time for official reports that result in weasel words that mask cuts in funding, that badge inmates as ‘clients’ or that result in pointless changes of name for government departments.  But he notes that there were moments in the history of Peat Island where legislative change led to improvements.  From its beginnings in the early 20th century as a lunacy asylum, it was not until 1978 that the NSW parliament passed a Mental Health Act, which at long, long last, differentiated between mental illness and intellectual disability. 

This was an important step, though just one in the series of Acts by which the state gave itself the right to determined exactly what kind of care, control and treatment should be appropriate for a patient, and to deliver it.

There is an emotionally-wrenching ABC History Listen podcast about Peat Island, featuring one of the men who was an inmate there for many years.  (The link is here.) If you listen to Bernard talking, you realise that for the best part of 25 years before the passage of this 1978 Act, he lived in an institution that housed those with mental illness together with the intellectually disabled.   And it was a place where any rights a patient had were surrendered to the Health Commission; once a patient was admitted to the hospital it was all but impossible to get him or her out again.  

For Bernard, born in the early 1950s—yes, I am choosing to personalise the saga of Peat Island with his life—at least there was some semblance of education.  A new superintendant turned up in 1947 and with electricity connected at last (in 1947!!) he ordained that the lights could stay on till 9.00pm. Not only that…

… he encouraged two of his staff to experiment with teaching a small class of ten boys to read and write, the first actual instruction that had taken place in all those years.  That had a beneficial effect, not only on the boys but on the Department of Education, which sent up a team to assess whether there was a need, to consider the inevitable report or reports, to discuss them, to engineer a budget allocation and so on and so forth and then formally to open a school three years later, with a full-time teacher.  And three years later again, in 1954, to build a new school, of two classrooms. (p.96)

These innovations coincide with my lifetime.  It was only in my lifetime that the inmate children of my age group had access to any education at all. Prior to that, for the generation that corresponds to my father’s age group and the generation before his, the belief that guided operations in asylums of this type was that nothing could be done.  The people who worked there, whether they did their best or not, had no training.  There were never any medical reports in this era, because nobody was qualified to write them, and even in 1931 there was no medical director to read them so nobody was preparing any treatment plans.  Indeed, alongside the WW1 shell-shocked veterans, there were other returned soldiers who worked there—men whose concept of management focussed on the discipline and punishment that they had experienced in the army. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

As you can see from the photo below Peat Island today is a prime piece of investment property on the tourist mecca that is the beautiful Hawkesbury River.  The one thing that this place had going for it as an institution was that it was beautiful.

Peat Island Hawkesbury River Aerial Panorama (Wikipedia*)

The light above the river changes most amazingly.  Mist can hang low over the water until well into the mid-morning.  When that is burnt off by the sun, the light is stunningly clear, yet in a very little while another kind of faint haze starts to form above the trees.  As the afternoon proceeds, further hints of that haze begin to appear up in the gullies and hang about the hillcrests.  When the sun descends behind their outline, darkening tones rise up from the water to meet the lengthening dusk inching down the rocky escarpments.  That is when the island is left in deep shadow.  At such moments it seems abandoned to its fate, the fate swirling about it.  Forlorn, where earlier in the day it had been a picture of serenity. (p. 166)

In its last days, Peat Island became what it always should have been.  Deinstitutionalisation had reduced the number of residents and the improvement in staffing ratio meant that for the first time there were individual service plans and the place became a gentler place, a sanctuary, a safe haven.  Mitchell is adamant that ‘one size does not fit all’ and that for the ageing residents being uprooted to live in the community was not always the best course, especially in cases where they were not welcome in local communities. (There have been some terrible instances of vulnerable intellectually disabled people being set upon by young thugs).  But…

…the politicians held on like grim death to the overworked notion that these old asylums were Dickensian: bleak, some managed to add; but being more familiar with each other’s speeches than with the collected works of Charles Dickens, they could neither elaborate their comparison nor clinch the allusion to bleak houses. (p.169)

A local campaign backed by relatives of the residents to save the institution failed, reminding me of a similar furore here in Melbourne when Kew Cottages closed for deinstitutionalisation.

It’s a tough read, but it’s an important book.  Adrian Mitchell deserves congratulations for spending his retirement in unearthing this unedifying history and making his anger about it so palpable that no one who reads Peat Island can ignore it.

Photo credit: By Hpeterswald – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: Peat Island, Dreaming and desecration
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018, 244 pages
ISBN: 9781743055502
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available from Wakefield Press


  1. The story here in the UK was no better. I recommended to you recently a book about Broadmoor and the Victorian conflation of mental illness with crime; there’s an interesting fictional version of the sad story of John Clare’s time in an institution in Epping Forest in the 19C: The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds, which I posted about recently. A big story here even this last week or so is that our government’s policy on ‘austerity’ has resulted in real-term cuts to the mental health service, let alone the NHS. But yes, at least Peat Island was an attractive setting…


    • I think that some of my ideas about mental illness came from reading fiction about Dickensian places of great misery, but it was not until I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that I reassessed my entire perspective about what being ‘normal’ was. The other thing that alerted me to institutional attitudes was when Victoria introduced mainstreaming for disabled children, including intellectually disabled children. I was a consultant at the time and it was part of my job to turn around the attitudes of teachers who were, perhaps naturally enough, anxious about being untrained to deal with the change. And – as always – well-intentioned and long overdue as the change in philosophy was – the resources never were and still aren’t adequate for children with special needs…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember touring Kew after it closed and seeing the buildings. I was working in Disability Services when Willow Court closed in 2000 and helped with getting clients into community based homes. The stories were distressing. I think a Royal Commission into mental health services would educate a great many people who have their heads buried in the sand.


    • Yes, I think the RC will have an educative effect, but it will also expose the realities about resourcing. For as long as we have the Fed and State governments muddying the waters about who’s paying for what, funding will never be adequate. And it is my firm view that we as a wealthy nation can definitely afford to pay for better than adequate; we can afford the very best and that’s what we should have.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A gripping read from the first page and a great review Lisa, CHINA


  4. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM and commented:


  5. Just a comment: I can think of lots of places in Victoria at least that didn’t get electricity until the 1960s.

    Without any personal experience, I disagree with the policy of pushing the mentally ill out onto the streets and I think that there should be places where people in fear of themselves often, can claim refuge. I also think there should be relatively comfortable places where the criminally insane can be held away from the general public for life.


    • I think you’re probably right that there would even now be some places that don’t have it because they’re too remote, but the point is that this was an institution, a place where we would expect certain standards to be in place: e.g. food to be safely prepared and stored in fridges, and comfortable surroundings – maybe not AC, not in those days, but TV & radio for entertainment and so on. Not to have electric light when dealing with an emergency after 9.00pm seems negligent to me.

      As to deinstitutionalisation, obviously it would have been traumatic for long-term residents, especially since it was never adequately funded, and still isn’t. And neither, if media reports are to be believed, are emergency services… The trouble is, there’s no votes in any of this, not until someone criminally insane does something terrible. Let’s hope Victoria’s Royal Commission does a good job, and makes recommendations that other states might pick up too.


      • I hope so too. At the moment we indefinitely jail people who are a risk to society – a knee-jerk policy which I think is necessary but unfair. (necessary because some men are incurable predators on children, unfair because jail is not appropriate for a crime not committed).

        Don’t answer. I’m having a day off, if you can’t already tell, catching up on old posts. Not sure when I’ll actually read a book.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Ms Hill,
    You are obviously an admirer of the works of Adrian Mitchell. I was an overseas student at Sydney Uni many, many years ago. There was a line in the Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985), that A. Mitchell was editor of. The line was probably in his introduction of the book, or maybe a free standing quote on a page after the publishing info; somewhere in the very beginning of the tome. It spoke of the dislocation that colonists and others would have felt arriving in Australia for the first time. It was something like this:
    “Where they found the seasons out of sync, trees shed their bark instead of their leaves, the biggest animals hopped, the biggest birds could not fly, and the stars hung upside-down in the sky.”
    I loved the line, and actually painted it on the wall of my room. I cannot remember the exact wording of the full line, nor the exact words used. I have not been able to track down a copy of the Oxford Companion (I live overseas, primarily in 3rd world countries). You are likely to have a copy of the book. If you are familiar with the line can I ask you to send me via email. I would be eternally grateful.
    Best Regards, Karen Godley


    • Hello Karen, I am so sorry, I have the Oxford Companion, and the Macquarie Anthology but not the Oxford Anthology. But I will find it for you: one of my local libraries is bound to have it, and I will do a search for it. I’ll let you know when I find it.
      My other line of pursuit will be to contact Adrian, who writes to me from time to time when I review his books.
      One way or another, I’ll find it for you:)


      • Dear Lisa,
        You are really kind! Thanks for the rapid reply, and your efforts to track it down. Best, Karen


        • You’re welcome, I’ll find it, I promise:)


        • Hello again Karen, success! I had a reply from Adrian today:

          So – to your relayed enquiry. I was familiar with the sentiments but could not quite recognise ‘out of sync’… It took a little fossicking but I found the delinquent. Not in the Oxford books, but in one of the first books I was involved in, Bards in the Wilderness: Australian Poetry to 1920 [1970 – wow!!]. There it is, rarely visited I imagine, in the Introduction, p. xix: “the immigrant’s malaise – his shock at being transported to a distant and inverted world,/ where the seasons were out of phase,/ the trees shed their bark instead of their leaves, the largest animals bounced, the largest birds ran, and the stars were upside/ down in the sky..”

          And Adrian remembers you, Karen, so the magic of the internet has brought all of us pleasure today:)


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