The words in the image below certainly apply to me. I have loved social history since I was very young, Family history is even closer to my heart, especially right now, in relation to my second cousin, Winnie.

Visitors to this website will be aware that I have been researching Winifred Singleton as part of a broader, WWI project. She died at Victoria’s Sunbury Mental Asylum in 1937. Here is some BACKGROUND to her story.

Winifred (left) and Emily Singleton
Winifred (left) and her sister Emily.

Research can result in extreme frustration. Once my Freedom of Information application was approved, delivery of documents from Sunbury Mental Asylum was delayed on three occasions, due to Covid19, staff leave over Christmas/New Year and internal departmental changes. However, eventually I received 23 documents. By the way, there was no charge, which I doubt is the case in other countries.

Knowing the truth is important, but naturally mental health information is sensitive, and can be heartbreaking. Warnings from relevant agencies regarding impact on recipients are not issued lightly. In my case they were certainly warranted.

After growing up in the Launceston Girls’ Home with her younger sister Emily (known as Joy), 17 year old Winnie had been sent to Frankston in Victoria to live with her mother Lizzie and her stepfather, William ‘Pop’ Jenkins. The girls arrived in February 1936, ostensibly to assist in the running of their mother’s boarding house. Winnie required patience, kindness and support. For all its shortcomings, the orphanage had provided this as best it could. Winnie had been something of a favourite among the staff there. Sadly, life would be very different in Frankston.

DISASTER…’WRITTEN IN THE STARS’

The relationship between Winnie and her mother Lizzie (such as it was) had always been strained. Inevitably, the stress was too much for a fragile young girl. Almost as soon as she arrived, her mental health began to suffer. Within months she had a complete breakdown. She become psychotic, experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations. She broke china, believing there were stars shining in the bottoms of teacups, and physically attacked her stepfather. The family story had been that she tried to stab her mother, which could well have been true. Whatever the case, Lizzie had her daughter certified as insane, and in August 1936 she was admitted to Melbourne’s Royal Park Mental Asylum.

Royal Park Asylum, where Winnie was first admitted.
ROYAL PARK ASYLUM

Fortunately, after several weeks Winnie settled down. The hallucinations ceased and she began working satisfactorily in the institution’s laundry. By Christmas 1936 she was even well enough to return home for a few days leave. Hmm, I wonder how that went??

On April 8 1937 she was transferred from Royal Park to the Sunbury Asylum as a long term patient. Was it the right place for her? Definitely not, but in those days there were few alternatives for someone without a supportive family.

Sunbury Asylum, where Winnie died in 1937.
SUNBURY ASYLUM

Despite Winnie’s limitations she definitely had insight. She told medical staff that she knew her mother didn’t like her. She said she didn’t even feel she was her mother’s daughter and preferred to be away from the woman she pointedly referred to as ‘Mrs Jenkins’, perceptively adding, ‘ I doubt if she’s married at all to Mr Jenkins.’ Oddly enough this appears to be true. Winnie’s father, Arthur Singleton, had filed for divorce in 1922, on the ground’s of Lizzie’s adultery, but it does not appear to have gone to court. Arthur was suffering from severe shellshock at the time, and was almost certainly incapable of pursuing the matter.

Asked about her previous hallucinations Winnie responded with engaging pragmatism; ‘Oh, they were nothing to get excited about.

She was able to tell staff about being brought up in the Girls’ Home. She said she had been in a special class there, had ceased schooling when she was about 14, and had always been called ‘a dunce’.

At Sunbury, Winnie was employed in the laundry, just as she had been at Royal Park. The familiar, structured routine suited her and she was considered a good worker. I was relieved to discover that it was not all work. There were recreational activities, and inmates were taken on outings. Apart from a brief period of ‘obstructive behaviour’ in July, she was reported to be settled, physically healthy, and content.

However in early October 1937 she fell seriously ill with flu, which unfortunately progressed to pneumonia. She was admitted to Sunbury’s hospital ward, but did not respond to treatment. Lizzie, accompanied by Winnie’s younger sister Joy, did not visit until the day before her daughter died on November 13.

Winnie's original file, stamped DECEASED
TRANSFER DOCUMENT BETWEEN ROYAL PARK AND SUNBURY – 1936

It was very difficult to read all this, though much as I had anticipated. Despite everything, I was not completely overcome until, thanks to help from an on-line genealogy group, I saw Winnie’s death notice. For some reason I had never been able to locate it. When my husband asked me to read it out to him I burst into tears. I think it was the sheer hypocrisy of the words that upset me so much.

Death notice for Winnie
WINNIE’S DEATH NOTICE, PUBLISHED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

REST IN PEACE DEAR WINNIE. YOUR SPIRIT LIVES ON AMONG THOSE SHINING STARS. ⭐⭐⭐💛

A FINAL THOUGHT – It’s interesting to note that unlike Winnie, Joy Singleton, a particularly bright child, was disliked by the matron of the children’s home. Joy could never understand why, but records show it was because she was considered ‘too confident’. Thankfully her spirit was never quashed. Regardless of all the disadvantages she faced in life, she became a registered, double certificated nurse, serving in the Royal Australian Navy and working in hospitals and as a school nurse. She was caring and compassionate. I like to think that if Winnie had lived, Joy would have become a positive presence in her older sister’s life.

For more information on the Sunbury Mental Hospital, CLICK HERE.

6 Comments
  1. This is so tragic, Pauline. How can a mother dislike her own daughter? Poor Winnie and poor Joy too.

    • Pauline

      Yes Fiz, the whole tragedy had an enormous affect on our family, right down to my own generation. 💛

  2. What a truly tragic story. It’s enough to make any of us cry despite it being so long ago.

    • Pauline

      So true Marcia. My Dad was named after his uncle Arthur….Winnie’s father. He was never referred to by this name, due the shame and guilt surrounding mental illness and the whole situation with the little girls.

  3. Heart felt sadness. But good on Joy.
    Thanks Pauline.

    • Pauline

      She was amazing Simon. She died just a couple years before I tracked her down, much to my disappointment. However, her dear friend gave me all her papers.

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