The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum

Dunwich Benevolent Asylum early 1900s (photo Antony Love)

The asylum’s function was not to help the weak and crippled but to hide them, the outcasts of society “whom nobody owned”. There were other asylums in Moreton Bay: the prison at St Helena, and the quarantine station and later the leprosarium at Peel Island.

The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum operated from 1865 until 1946 to provide support for those who could not look after themselves, particularly the aged but also epileptics, alcoholics, and those suffering from TB. By the 1920s there were 22 wards with 800 beds for male inmates and 7 wards with 150 beds for females. Another 150 men were in tents. A total of 21,000 inmates were housed there over the period of the institution.

The Queensland Government supply steamer ‘Otter’ visited Dunwich twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays with supplies and visitors for the institution. As well as Dunwich, the ‘Otter’ also serviced the prison at St Helena and the leprosarium at Peel while they were in operation.

Visitors to the Benevolent Asylum paid a shilling (10 cents) for the round trip, leaving at 7am from Brisbane at William Street, just near the Victoria Bridge, down the Brisbane River and calling in at St Helena and then Peel Island. Then the boat sailed on to Dunwich where it stayed for about two hours.  This gave relatives time to visit residents or walk around the area.  Then the Otter returned to Brisbane at North Quay, arriving at 6 pm.

The Otter at Dunwich Jetty (Photo courtesy Ossie Fischer)

As well as providing accommodation for the inmates, the asylum provided employment for many of the Aboriginal population of Stradbroke, and when the institution was closed and shifted to what was to become Eventide at Sandgate, many of the island’s former employees were left without work.

Working on the ‘Otter’ 

22.05.2021 – Working on the Otter 

The Otter at Dunwich Jetty (Photo courtesy Ossie Fischer)

The Otter was the supply ship for the old people’s home (Benevolent Asylum) at Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island. It had previously also been the supply ship for the prison at St Helena but this had closed a few years prior to the war. However, the ringbolts for the shackles for the prisoners’ chains were still in the forward cabin in the forecastle, which was part of our quarters. There were also two long forms on either side where the prisoners sat in their chains while being transported to St Helena.

Dunwich was our regular run, on Tuesday and Thursday. We would load up with stores on Monday, leave at 7 am on Tuesday. Passengers who were visiting relatives at the old people’s home at Dunwich had to be aboard by a quarter to seven, and it used to cost them 1/- (one shilling, or 10 cents in today’s money) for the round trip. The Otter left Brisbane just near Victoria Bridge. We’d unload the stores at Dunwich and return to Brisbane by 5pm. The trip itself took about 3-4 hours. On Wednesday, we’d load stores again and make another trip on Thursday, same conditions. On Fridays we would clean up. Everything had to be scrubbed and the brass polished.

At Dunwich there were rail tracks along the jetty and the stores would be transported along these from the shed at the end of the wharf where they were stowed as they were unloaded. We also supplied stores for the Lazaret (Leprosarium) at nearby Peel Island. However, the Otter was too big for its jetty so their launch, the Karboora, would have to come over when the Otter berthed and collect their stores from the end of the jetty at Dunwich. Bonty Dickson was the skipper of the Karboora at that time.

What was interesting was that we also used to bring back the bodies of the old people who had died at Dunwich. We would load the coffins onto the top deck onto big stools. It wasn’t a very pleasant job because if the person had died on Friday and had to wait until we bought them back on Tuesday, the body liquids would have started to seep out of the coffin. We used to have to hose the deck down afterwards. In spite of this, working on the Otter was a very good job – probably one of the best jobs I ever had and I liked it very much. It was lovely trip down the river and across Moreton Bay. I was working on the Otter when the war finished because I remember going up to town with another deckhand, Alan Nagel, for the celebrations on VJ Day. However, I left about a month after that. 

During much of the war, Otter had been on examination service, where she used to meet vessels incoming to Brisbane. However, by the latter stages of the war, when I worked on her, all the war’s fighting had moved further north towards Japan and she was back on the service to the old people’s home at Dunwich. After the war, the Otter was getting old and her condition and the expense of servicing Dunwich were given as reasons for shifting the old people’s home to Sandgate. However, there was a lot of politics involved. I myself thought that Dunwich was a very pleasant place for the old people. Most people seemed to enjoy being there and their relatives could enjoy a beautiful trip down the bay to see them – for just one shilling!

Alex King with a dredger bucket at the Maritime Museum

(Extract from ‘The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities’)