Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients.

In 1947 a patient of the Brisbane Mental Hospital claimed he’d been forced to dig up the bodies of around 4,000 patients buried in the hospital’s cemetery. What happened to those exhumed remains isn’t clear. This is the story of Wolston Park’s missing bodies.

The Asylum and its cemeteries

The hospital at Wacol has had several name changes over the years including the Goodna Asylum for the Insane, the Brisbane Special Hospital, and Wolston Park Hospital.

Its first incarnation was as the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum’s first inmates (as they were called back then) were taken by boat to the 450-hectare bushland site, west of Brisbane, in 1865.

The Asylum’s first cemetery was in the very flood-prone south west corner of the site (now the Wolston Park Golf Club). Its location on the banks of the Brisbane River was ridiculed by an anonymous contributor to the Queensland Times (25 Feb 1869) who could foresee problems ahead:

“The graveyard is on the bank of the river, and the first flood will take all the dead lunatics down to Brisbane.”

A 1869 Queensland Times article mentions the flooding potential of the Woogaroo Cemetery.
An anonymous contributor to the Queensland Times writes: “Speaking of burials at Woogaroo. The graveyard is on the bank of the river, and the first flood will take all the dead lunatics down to Brisbane. (The Qld Times, 25 Feb 1869, p3)

The writer wasn’t too far wrong and a second cemetery for patients was soon built on much higher ground. But making room for more hospital building development, according to Vicki Mynott of the Richlands, Inala and Suburbs History Group, less than a decade later in 1910, another cemetery was established. This third and final cemetery sat on the northern outskirts of the hospital site, at the end of what’s now known as Wilga St in Wacol.¹

The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery
The estimated location of the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery at Wacol which was closed in 1945 to improve the outlook from the new Repatriation Pavilion which was opened on 26 Jan 1948. The remains of thousands of patients were removed from this cemetery over a four-year period by several patients who officials say “volunteered” to do the work.

It’s thought thousands of bodies buried in this third cemetery were exhumed between 1945 and 1948. Newspaper reports say 2,800 bodies were removed, though cemetery records have only accounted for around 200 of those which were moved to the nearby Goodna General Cemetery.

Qld Times article 29/11/46 - Mass Exhumation of Bodies
A 1946 newspaper article mentions the exhumation of 2800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to “improve the site of a new block being erected for servicemen suffering war effects”.

The remains were moved because the hospital cemetery was considered too close to the proposed Repatriation Pavilion which included three new wards for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.

How many people died at the Asylum?

LOTS. About 50,000 people were patients at the hospital in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s². The hospital was always overcrowded and there are regular mentions of an “acute shortage of female nurses” in the annual reports.

In 1941/42, for example, 2,466 people were patients. Of those, 214 died during the year. 23 of those deaths were within one month of arrival.

The table below shows that in the ten-year period between 1937/38 and 1946/47 there were 1,828 patient deaths.



































SOURCE: Queensland State Archives Series ID 201, Mental Hygiene Annual Reports.

With the hospital files locked up tight thanks to the Queensland Government’s Right to Information Laws, there’s no way of finding out more information about these deaths or how many of these patients were buried on hospital grounds. Patients with family who had the financial means were likely buried closer to Brisbane in Toowong Cemetery. Those without family were likely given ‘pauper funerals’ and buried on site until 1945 when the cemetery was closed. Burials were subsequently carried out in the nearby township cemetery, now known as Goodna General Cemetery. And it’s at the Goodna Cemetery where this tale unfolds and it becomes apparent the dead were lost and forgotten in death as they were in life.

The exhumations

There are no available government records that indicate how many patients were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery to improve the site of a new facility for returned servicemen. However, a newspaper article suggests 2,800 bodies were moved.

  • Exhumations took place over four years: 1945 to 1948 to “improve the immediate surroundings of the new Repatriation Pavilion”. (Hon. T A Foley: Hansard, 11 Dec 1946)
  • While licences costing £1 were required to exhume a body from public cemeteries, there was no such licence requirements to move a body from elsewhere. As such there are no official records. (Queensland State Archives Series ID 20957 – Exhumation Permit receipt Books – Correspondence )
  • In the 1944/45 annual report it was reported the “cemetery has been abolished and burials are now done in the township cemetery”.
  • In Parliament on 25 Oct 1945, Secretary for Health and Home Affairs T A Foley reported that two additional grave diggers were hired in the 45/46 financial year.
  • On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Parliament the “work of exhumation is being performed by an employee of the hospital , assisted by four border-line patients who volunteered to assist to do the work”. When asked if he considered it a “suitable activity for the mentally sick”, he responded, “The Director of Mental Hygiene has satisfied himself that the work has no detrimental effect on these patients”.
  • In the 19 June 1947 edition of The Courier Mail, an article disputes claims the patients volunteered. The newspaper says one patient “had to dis-inter and rebury 4,000 bodies from a cemetery “as part of “hard manual labour in the name of occupational therapy”.
  • A front-page article in The Queensland Times (29 Nov 1946) reports, “the mass exhumation of 2,800 bodies from the Goodna Mental Hospital Cemetery to the Goodna Public Cemetery is half completed”. A similar story in The Courier Mail had added, “After removal, a hearse is used to convey the bodies to the Goodna Cemetery, where they are reburied and allotted public grave numbers.”
  • BUT the Goodna Cemetery Trust says the remains of only two-hundred or so patients were re-interred at Goodna and that no records were kept in relation to the positioning of these graves on any of the maps held by the Trust.

The Goodna Memorial

A memorial plaque at Goodna Cemetery
A memorial plaque at Goodna General Cemetery commemorates all those who died at Brisbane Mental Hospital and whose final resting place is unknown. There is no such memorial or acknowledgment on the hospital grounds.
A memorial to those who died at Brisbane Mental Hospital sits in Goodna Cemetery.
More than 55 years after the remains of at least 207 hospital patients were re-interred at Goodna, the original cement grave markers from the Brisbane Mental Hospital cemetery were used to establish a memorial to all those who died at the hospital.

Cement grave markers from Brisbane Mental Hospital are part of a memorial at Goodna Cemetery.
Numbers are etched into each of the markers which originally stood over graves in the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery, less than six kilometres away. The highest number on the grave markers is 2,355.
The Brisbane Mental Hospital memorial sits at the back of the Goodna Cemetery.
The Brisbane Mental Hospital memorial, made up of hundreds of small grave markers, is nestled at the back of the Goodna Cemetery. While there are around 200 hospital patients confirmed buried in the cemetery, the whereabouts of those graves are unknown. According to a 1946 newspaper article, there are as many as 2,800 unmarked graves on the cemetery grounds.

“It doesn’t ring true”: Goodna Cemetery disputes reported grave figures.

The Goodna Cemetery Trust does not believe there are thousands of asylum patients buried in unmarked graves within its boundary.

Cemetery treasurer and trustee Helen Gilmour questions the 1946 newspaper article which claims the exhumation of 2,800 patients and their re-interment at Goodna was half completed.

“Maybe the journo made a mistake. Maybe they accidentally added an extra zero and it’s just 280 graves?” she said.

“Given the records we hold, it’s just not feasible.

“The 200-or-so burials are documented in the Cemetery’s register. Why would they not document them all if there were more?”, she asks.

Having trawled through the Parliamentary records of the time, I’ve found no official mention of the number of exhumations.

Ms Gilmour also queried whether it was physically possible for 2,800 exhumations and re-interments to be carried out in four years. Gravedigging by hand is hard work and time-consuming. It would have required opening 2 or 3 graves per day.

Another question to be asked is simply “why?”.

It is common for cemeteries and graves in Australia to simply be abandoned, with markers or headstones removed, leaving no hint of what lies beneath. I’ve lost count of the cemeteries I have visited where councils in previous decades have had a misguided “clean up” and removed grave markers.

(Why were the bodies supposedly exhumed from the Brisbane Mental Hospital Cemetery instead of being left there and the grave markers simply removed? )

Does it matter?

Does it matter that patients of a mental institution had their graves disturbed and that their final resting place is unknown? After all, these people died between 75 and about 120 years ago. I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.

The Goodna Cemetery trust’s Helen Gilmour said she is often contacted by people who are trying to find where their descendants are laid to rest.

“I get about two calls a week from people looking for family members who were at the hospital. It’s become more prevalent over recent years with the increasing popularity of family trees,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I have to tell them that I don’t know.”

The Woogaroo Asylum's female wards, built in 1866.
The Asylum’s female wards, built in 1866, are still on site. People were admitted to the institution for a range of psychiatric illnesses and, sadly, for a range of conditions that we know now didn’t warrant being locked up. These include epilepsy, postnatal depression, anxiety, alcoholism, dementia, senility, stammering (stuttering), cleft palate, syphilis, obsessive-compulsive, and simply because they were old and their family was unable to care for them.

If you have any information that may be able to shed light on the hospital’s cemeteries and the location of the remains of patients, you’re welcome to contact me via or leave a comment on this blog.

UPDATES: See two subsequent blogs that include additional information about the whereabouts of hundreds of remains. A former worker claims they were buried in trenches in the Goodna Cemetery. Click HERE (June 2018).  And a more detailed blog HERE (Jan 2022).

¹ Wacol, Wolston, Woogaroo 1823-2014 (Volume 1). Mynott, Vicki (2014).

² Wolston Park Hospital, 1865-2001: A Retrospect. Mark Finnane (2008).

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$12.99 on Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

36 Responses

  1. I had a great aunt that was in that asylum . She was sent there for what ever reason but her death certificate said she passed from TB . She was there for a number of years . I can’t help but feel she was sent there for some kind of mental illness to begin with and I strongly believe that she was abused like so many others . I have seen letters written by her father whom is my great great grandfather Duncan Urquhart. Her name was Anne Urquhart and she was only 32 and passed on the 6th February 1907. The letters from her father were very sad and I felt sad reading them all these years later . His wife Jessie Urquhart ( Anne’s mother ) died from cancer ten months before Anne and is buried in the old Rockhampton cemetery. I don’t know if she was dug up like the others and shoved in a box or just thrown into a trench . And I would probably never know . I don’t even think I’m able to obtain her hospital records from all those years ago . I feel very distressed about her and I need to make some kind of contact with her . It would put my mind at ease .

  2. I lived at BMH from 1950-1963 when we moved to Corinda. Patients in the Repat Pavillion saw the first release movies “Battle of River Plate” and others. My father was Medical Superintendent (Head Psychiatrist) from 1950-1964. I recall the cemetery at the end of Wilga Street, a classmate lived there. I spent 50 years in Neurology–had enough Psychiatry. I have met other people (non-patients) who grew up in Mental Hospitals. Don’t forget the French Royal Family lived in L’Hospital de Salpetrie–Frances largest Mental Hospital. I always knew I would be a doctor,it did not seem unusual to find human bones in the old cemetery, many of the trainee psychiatrists had a Brain to dissect. I recall one with Dr George Waga.
    Geoffrey M Boyce Retired Neurologist Assoc Prof Uni of Qld

  3. Hi Lisa, How would one find information on a relative that was admitted to the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum? The wife of my great-great-grandfather was a patient there until her death in 1888.

  4. A story to share…
    Maurice John O’Connell born to William O’Connell (Officer in the Army) and Margarette Laycock in Ireland, 1843. Maurice John’s early life is very sketchy and supposedly the bastard son of William John Bligh O’Connell who was the son of Sir Maurice Charles Philip O’Connell, Lieutenant Colonel of the 73rd Regiment and Lieutenant Governor of NSW. William’s eldest brother was Maurice Charles O’Connell, Governor of Queensland – much research is being completed on these links, but Denis O’Connell, former Mayor of the Gold Coast, believed strongly in these links and this included the possibility that Maurice John may have been the bastard son of Maurice Charles O’Connell and William O’Connell was used to hide this fact. We hold much information, but will we ever discover the truth… much like our chances of discovering the truth of the Woogaroo Asylum I feel.
    Now to information I know occurred: Maurice John O’Connell was married to Caroline Richter and had a family of seven children. Maurice leased 200 acres of land on the banks of Mudgeerbra Creek, Gilston (Gold Coast area), felling timber as a timber getter pre 1882. It cost about 23 pounds to take out this lease, a lot of money in those days. I have always wondered about this as he was a very poor man… so where did this money come from?? (interesting fact that William John Bligh O’Connell was a government representative for lands in Queensland)
    Maurice canvased parliament as a committee of employees of the Moreton Bay Oyster Company to start the Currigee School, Currigee, South Stradbroke Island around 1890. (This is where my grandmother was born in 1908; and Maurice was her grandfather). At this time, in the 1890’s, he worked for the Moreton Bay Oyster Company and this is where his life had a complete twist.
    While completing his paid job as a fisherman for the Moreton Bay Oyster Company, he was hit in the head by the boom of his fishing boat. After this his demeanor completely changed until police intervened and needed to ‘arrest’ him. He was ‘convicted’ to the Woogaroo Asylum on the 15th October, 1894. On the 14th March 1896, at the age of 53, he died of ‘brain softening’ and buried at the asylum cemetery.
    My father attempted to find where he was buried with no avail. The current Wolston Park Hospital wanted nothing to do with my father. In my early days of research, I attempted to talk to officials of the golf course and was put onto a particular person who said they knew nothing of this cemetery. I became friendly with an employee of our current Premier (Her electorate includes the Woogaroo Asylum). This person said if I sent him the background information he would talk to our Attorney General. After the email was sent, nothing was spoken, no comment made to me about this topic.
    From the stories I have heard there seems to me that there is a shroud of secrecy on this topic, or people just don’t care. This is what saddens me, after reading some of the blogs on this site, there seems to have been a complete disrespect for those convicted to the asylum, and a complete disrespect to us who want to know what has happened to our family members.

    1. Hi Anthony. Yes, there’s is very much a shroud of secrecy about Woogaroo. Maurice sadly would have been referred to as an ‘inmate’ in those days.

      I often wonder if the secrecy is because there simply aren’t any surviving records.

      That asylum was home to a very very sad time of our history.

      1. Thank you Lisa. It would be fantastic if the current Queensland Government would respect the supposed three sites of burial with some form of ‘obvious’ memorial at each ‘site’ (if they can be located). I feel this would make most people who have relatives buried ‘at Wolston Asylum’ happy. Our Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, electorate is Inala. This includes the Asylum area we discuss. She could easily take the leading step. I attempted to contact her government through a media representative of hers but received no response after sending my initial email.

  5. absolute crap. why would any intelligent person incite such rubbish. it is simply a lie.

    1. Hi Ian. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m not about to tell a person what they did or didn’t feel like during their care or treatment at any mental heath facility. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind sharing your experiences of your work and the care of patients. I’m sure we’d all gain something from your insights. Thank you. Lisa

  6. I’ve just discovered that I live directly across the road from one of the cemeteries… Chatting with a neighbour yesterday who told me the tree’d area across the road from my place was once a cemetary lead me to your site 🙂 Fascinating and very disturbing. Can’t say I’m shocked or surprised to be honest. The powers that be have a disgraceful record where caring for vulnerable citizens is concerned.

  7. Can anyone guide me to the website were I can find why the place was shutdown. The hospital sounds like hell. I know by experience that the Barrett Centre that was on the same ground was a complete nightmare. Living in a sewer with rats would have been better than there. It was haunting. And I am glad the government shut the Barrett Centre down. I read recently that three teenagers killed themselves once the place closed down and one of the parents had said if it had not of closed there daughter never would of killed herself. I tell you now, the Barrett centre did nothing for me. I left the place the same way as I went in. And I was nearly there for 2 years. People honestly have no idea what a blessing it was for the Barrett Centre to be closed. We were locked up and treated worse than rats.

    1. Hi there. I’m so very sorry to hear about your experience. I have no doubt you were treated appallingly. I’ve read many horrid things.

      The Wikipedia page for the hospital is actually pretty accurate.

      Modernisation from 1996

      As part of the 1996 Ten Year Mental Health Plan for Queensland, the main hospital became known as The Park Centre for Mental Health and has decentralised its extended care services with a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and recovery. The Park now provides clinical treatment and rehabilitation programs to patients from central and southern Queensland, including care for people with a chronic mental disorder and for people with a mental disorder who are also intellectually disabled, forensic care services and an extended treatment service for adolescents.

      From 1999 to 2002 many new buildings were erected, including a large new maximum-security facility at the eastern edge of the site. Most of the new buildings are domestic in scale and character and include accommodation for patients and medical and administrative facilities. Some replace buildings erected during the 1970s, such as parts of the Barrett Psychiatric Centre.

      In 2001 the hospital was renamed The Park Centre for Mental Health Treatment, Research & Education.”

      Here’s the link:

    1. let’s write one francoise with some true facts in it. you and vince know the way it was moving from the horrible to something we were proud of. we could write an encyclopedia, but very ill individuals will di want the truth. flogging, starving, sexual perversion and even murder by staff is the curse of social interaction. they don’t give names of course – my neighbor told me !!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. I worked at Wolston Park Hospital as a trainee Registered Nurse for 3 years in early 80’s. I certainly have some not so fond memories that will remain with me forever, it was certainly an eye opening and traumatic experience for me in some regards.The training given by the Nurse Educators at the School of Nursing was exceptional though and steered me in the right direction towards my career as a Registered Psychiatric Nurse. I would love to see photos of the hospital (prior to it’s closure) in particular the school. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Antonella. There are a handful of photos of the hospital itself in the state archives online. I wasn’t looking for the school though so some extra digging might be required. Yes, sadly there are many people who’ve contacted me saying they don’t have fond memories of their time at Wolston Park. Thank heavens times have changed.

      1. Times have changed yes. But have we come along in leaps and bounds? Definitely not. A friend’s sister was killed from domestic violence by her husband and he chose to use an unsound mind defence and was sent to The Park. My friend, her mother & family advocated for 3 years to push for him to be subjected to a new trial and prison time because he wasn’t of an unsound mind he was just trying to escape responsibility. They were so upset and felt the system let them and their sister down. After a particularly sad anniversary I couldn’t bear to keep what I knew to myself, for their sake,and I ended up sitting the whole family down and telling it to them straight: The Park is where people are subjected to illegal human testing drug trials, sexual assaults and torture for literally no reason except the fact that a handful of psychiatrists and psychologists enjoy doing it and can do it without the public knowing. It can go on for triple the time period of a guilty plea sentence. I said, do you want your sisters killer to go through untold misery? To which they said yes, and I said well he’s getting it in there. Prison is a piece of cake compared to where he currently is. And if he is one of the staffs ‘types’ he will be kept there indefinitely. They were really surprised by this, as most of the public would be and I think/hope it was helpful in making the lack of justice easier to handle. It’s not something I talk about openly with people unless I feel it could be helpful or they can handle it. I have never stayed there myself, but was treated out in the community, in the private practise by one of the park’s senior staff. I was a teenager at the time and she was older. I really had no idea what I was walking into.I was very blessed and lucky to escape her after 3 years of ‘treatment’ in which I was sexually abused, if I refused I was roofied using drugs that are unavaliable to the public. Every time I tried to leave, she used her connections and understanding of the system to trap me. She still works at wolston. I’m not a one off case. She repeatedly continues to abuse other teenagers and children in her care and if they try to leave, she reports them to the police for crimes/says they are resistant to treatment, that they admit to because they are terrified of her. They are then put on a forensic order, are taken to The Park without ever standing trial where the abuse continues until they can’t take it any longer. She writes government policy to ensure any person can be put on a forensic order without media ever knowing about it until years later. I also met several of her colleagues, two other senior staff sexually enjoyed preying on vulnerable people particularly those with an intellectual disability. And the thing is, how many people are going to have empathy for people who by association, are being held in a place with serial child rapists and serial killers are too? They won’t care because they probably think everyone in The Park is evil and it’s just not the case. Those staff that are a tier below or are just nurses for example, are quite nice, but they turn a blind eye to the human rights breaches. In prison, whistle blowers get fired or have their reputation and career destroyed by speaking out. It’s not worth it to them. There’s a high turnover of lower tier staff and it keeps those at the top protected. It’s really important to understand legally it is NEVER a good idea to plea not guilty by insanity. Any experienced lawyer will tell you that. But they won’t tell you why. It’s not a place I would wish on anyone, and i only saw a window of what it would be like had I not escaped.

  9. Hi Lisa, I have a copy of records of the wife of a 2x greatuncle who was admitted in May 1904 and died there in Oct 1828. I was very upset to find most of the file related to trying to find someone to pay for her time there and includes a letter written by her elder daughter saying she does not have any in in income, has been living with an aunt since she was 5 years old and she does not know of any assets. There is also a note signed by medical supt saying she did not want her wedding ring sold but the public curator sold it anyway as that was all she had. There is nothing to say why she was admitted but I did note the elder girl was 5 when her younger sister was born so presume it was either post natal depression not treated or some other medical issue to do with the birth that had been going on for a long time approx 16 years before she was eventually admitted to Wolston Park.

      1. Lisa, I’ve just read some more of your articles re Wolston Park and thank you very much for the work you have done here. In light of comments that the burials from the last 30 years were reinterred in Goodna General Cemetery and that these are recorded in the burial register there, I would expect the name Emily Murphy should appear since she had died less than 20 years before the remains were exhumed. Have you got access to the burial register records? I do have a copy of the page from a file at State Archives that says she was buried at the hospital. This would have been between D of D 27 Oct 1928 and date of report 30 Oct 1928.

  10. I can tell you the golf club has had numerous sonar session through the place to make sure there is no remains left along the bank and indeed most of the course, the course and it’s surroundings have been checked off by the historical society as well, although in recent times like the 2011 floods (and even the 74 floods) when the clubhouse itself went 6 foot under, it’s sad to think what could of been displaced from the site

    1. David, thanks so much for letting me know! There was a massive flood in the late 1800s too, and lots subsequently, so there’s little surprise there are no signs of a cemetery any more. I’m so glad that people have taken the time to do those sonar sessions. Again, thank you.

  11. My grandma and my dad worked at wolston park for many years and some of the story’s they told I feel sad for all those poor people who didn’t have families and I always felt eerie when I went there for fetes and other events I hated it as a kid

    1. Wow. They must have been hard to hear. Have you ever thought of writing those stories down, Evon? It’s a part of a terrible history that shouldn’t be forgotten, especially the poor souls involved.

  12. Hi Lisa,
    My question has nothing to do with the cemetery or deaths at the hospital, but I’m wondering if you could point me in the direction of where I can find info on the workers at the hospital and in particular the ‘hairdressers’ employed between 1943 and 1953.
    Kind Regards,
    Simone Hohenhaus

    1. Hi Simone. The state archives is your best bet. They have a fantastic computer search system but it takes a bit of getting used to. The staff at the Runcorn facility can help you. Unfortunately Wolston Park records are locked up tight these days (they never used to be) thanks to Right to Information Laws come into play a decade ago. Even if you found record files you may not be allowed to access them, though there is a process you can go through to apply for access.

    2. Hi Simone. The state archives is your best bet. They have a fantastic computer search system but it takes a bit of getting used to. The staff at the Runcorn facility can help you. Unfortunately Wolston Park records are locked up tight these days (they never used to be) thanks to Right to Information Laws come into play a decade ago. Even if you found record files you may not be allowed to access them, though there is a process you can go through to apply for access.

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