Small boxes buried at Goodna Cemetery contained exhumed hospital patients, according to former hospital worker.
A retired carpenter and hospital worker holds an important piece of the puzzle in the hunt for the remains of more than 2,000 patients of the notorious Wolston Park Mental Asylum in Brisbane’s west.
While a teenage apprentice, Mr Ferg Brindley made hundreds of small wooden boxes that, he says, were used to house the remains of patients who were exhumed from the hospital’s cemetery in the late 1940s.
About 50,000 people were hospitalised in the asylum in the 120 years between 1865 and the 1980s. In the late 1940s, bodies in the asylum’s third cemetery were exhumed over a four-year period to make way for the development of the new Repatriation Pavilion for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War.
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.
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”.In response to my research efforts to find those remains, and a subsequent blog, I’ve been in touch with Mr Ferg Brindley, who worked at the Asylum from 1948 to 1953 as a teenager.
Making boxes to fit leg bones
Now in his late 80s and living in the western Queensland town of Roma, Mr Brindley remembers the cemetery being exhumed by a hospital employee and patients. (Mr Brindley’s recollection is corroborated by Hansard’s Parliamentary record-keeping. On 11 Dec 1946, the Minister for Health, Mr T Foley, told Queensland 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”.)
As an apprentice carpenter, it was his job to make plywood boxes for the storage of each of the grave’s remains. Mr Brindley made “hundreds of plywood boxes, stained black, for the remains”.
“They were designed to enclose bones, so the size was about 2 feet long (to fit a shin bone), by 10 inches by 10 inches. That’s only an educated guess. They were rectangular boxes, not coffin-shaped.”
Mr Brindley can’t recall how many boxes were made but says before he started work at the asylum, there were others before him making the boxes.
“The work was quite a production line.”
He said it was his job to make the framework while an inmate put the plywood on, and the painter did the staining.
Burying remains in trenches
Mr Brindley says the rectangular boxes were buried in trenches in the nearby Goodna Cemetery, about five kilometres away.
“They were re-sited in the Goodna cemetery to the left of the shelter shed.”
“Long trenches were dug by an employee and inmates. I don’t know if any identification was placed on the boxes.”
The Goodna Cemetery, west of Brisbane, is one of the oldest in Queensland and is one of the few that remains community-run, with a Trust overseeing its operation.
The Trust secretary is Ipswich Councillor Paul Tully who wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s recollections.
However, Cnr Tully says another former hospital worker (who became an alderman of the Ipswich City Council in later years) gave him details about the exhumations which took place in the late 1940s.
“Those who had been buried for fewer than 30 years were exhumed and re-buried at the Goodna Cemetery with a full and proper burial, with a Minister of Religion and two witnesses in attendance. These are all recorded in the official burial register.
“They were individually buried along with their original headstones. The burial area is towards the middle of the cemetery,” wrote Cnr Tully in response to my query about the possibility that hundreds of small rectangular boxes were buried in trenches at the Goodna Cemetery.
Playing with a skull
Ferg Brindley’s father was a warden at the hospital. Growing up in the nearby suburb of Goodna, Ferg Brindley remembers swimming in Woogaroo Creek, near the site of the Asylum’s original cemetery which was later abandoned because of its proximity to the creek and river and subsequent regular flooding.
“The early cemetery was parallel to the creek to the left of the bridge (now gone),” recalls Mr Brindley.
“This is where we swam as kids. Some kids had a skull.
“Work on removing this cemetery was done in the early 1940s. The area became a vegetable garden. I have no way of knowing, but I believe the bodies are still there, and just the headstones were removed.”
The Asylum’s first cemetery is now the site of the Wolston Park Golf Club, a very scenic and peaceful space that is home to hundreds of kangaroos.
Commenting on my earlier blog (Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients), ‘David’ tells me “the golf club has had numerous sonar sessions through the place to make sure there are no remains left along the bank and indeed most of the course”.
“The course and its 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 feet under, it’s sad to think what could have been displaced from the site.”
There were at least three cemeteries at the hospital over the years; two of which were moved to make room for hospital wards. The exhumations of the 1940s weren’t the only ones in the Mental Hospital’s history.
An article in the Brisbane Courier of June 22 1911 says “following upon the arrangement for the erection of the two new wards it has been found necessary to remove the old asylum cemetery, and the remains of 198 patients have been taken up, enclosed in new coffins, and transferred to a new cemetery”.
So the mystery remains…
WHAT WE KNOW:
Records show there were 200 patient re-interments at Goodna Cemetery. Cnr Tully says those 200 received full burials.
Newspaper reports and Parliamentary records claim thousands of hospital patients were exhumed between 1945 and 1948.
A former worker says he made hundreds of small boxes for the exhumed remains which were then buried in trenches at Goodna Cemetery.
The Goodna Cemetery Trust wouldn’t be drawn on Mr Brindley’s claims.
So … where are the remains? Your guess is as good as mine. I’d like to know your thoughts.
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 Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au or leave a comment on this blog.
UPDATE March 2022: Thanks to historic aerial photos and an extended interview with Ferg Brindley, I have identified the approximate location of the trenches at Goodna Cemetery. Read the blog HERE.