An aerial photo and a sharp memory: location of missing Wolston Park Mental Hospital patients identified

To make room for more patient wards, the cemetery at the Brisbane Mental Hospital (as it was called then) was closed in 1945. It was the hospital’s third cemetery, used for patient burials from about 1911.

Soon after the cemetery’s closure, it was reported that the remains of those buried there were exhumed and re-interred at nearby Goodna Cemetery. But Goodna Cemetery only has records of 200 of the reported 2,800 patients whose remains were moved.

The Queensland Times newspaper. 1946. Mass Exhumation of Bodies.
A 1946 newspaper article mentions the “mass 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”.

Small cement grave markers moved from the hospital cemetery are the only evidence that these patients existed. No names, no dates. These markers are now part of a memorial to the patients.

Upon learning about that a few years ago, I started exploring where the missing remains could be. I had more questions than answers. And then I received an important email that would lead to the answers to some of my many questions.

An eye witness

After I published my first blog about the missing remains in 2018 (Mental asylum mass exhumations and missing remains: the tale of Wolston Park’s lost and forgotten patients), I was contacted by the wife of a former hospital employee who was able to shed some light on the exhumations.

Ferg Brindley was a teenage apprentice carpenter who worked at the hospital in the late 1940s and early 50s. As a first-year apprentice, he was paid one pound 5 and sixpence per week ($2.55).

“Having a trade was a privilege,” he told me.

One of the 17-year-old’s jobs was to make small, wooden boxes that were used to hold the remains of exhumed patients.

I liaised with Ferg and his wife Dot via email and subsequently published a second blog that contained new information and Ferg’s insights. (Read here: Small boxes buried at Goodna Cemetery contained exhumed hospital patients, according to a former hospital worker.)

 “They (the boxes) 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,” Ferg told me at the time.

Burying remains in trenches

Ferg said that the rectangular boxes were buried in trenches at 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.”

(Known as ossuaries, the method of burying these boxes in trenches is not unheard of in modern-day times. For example, when I worked at the ABC in the Kimberley in 2018, a colleague wrote this story about the burial of exhumed Aboriginal remains in boxes into a trench-like grave.)

The Shelter Shed

Fast forward a couple of years and I was still curious about the actual location of the trenches that Ferg had mentioned.

I started looking for evidence and more information. The key was interviewing Ferg face-to-face, showing him maps, aerial photographs, and him drawing me ‘mud maps’ to describe locations. I needed to find evidence of the shelter shed at the Goodna Cemetery to verify Ferg’s memory.

Days of searching for photographic evidence of a shed paid off. More on that shortly.

Interviewing Ferg: a wonderful oral history

I’m a journalist by trade, most recently spending seven years with the ABC. Armed with maps, photographs, plans, and pages of questions, I drove five hours to meet Ferg and his wife Dot at their home in western Queensland.

For two hours he offered an invaluable insight into the workings of the hospital in the mid-20th century and, most importantly, his recollections of what happened during and after the closure of the Brisbane Mental Hospital cemetery.

Me, Lisa Herbert (left), Ferg and Dot Brindley at their home in Roma, Qld, 2021.

The exhumations

I showed Ferg an aerial photo from 1946 which shows the hospital’s newly built repatriation centre and the adjacent cemetery site. (Source: BCC Run 16A, Frame 34405, 31 May 1946)

Ferg told me, “Part of the cemetery was in the yards of the returned soldiers centre. I went out there to the fellow who was digging the graves up, a fellow called Sommerville.

“They didn’t dig the whole coffin up. They dug down, smashed the top open and took the remains out and put them in a box.

As far as I know all the coffins are still there. But I imagine there are still some whole corpses there. I doubt if they removed the whole lot. They couldn’t dig up anything under 10 years old. That’s what I was told.

I doubt very much if any identification went with them. They were just dug up and put into a box.

That was happening before I went there in 1948 and was still happening when I left there in 1953.”


Ferg Brindley, former hospital worker.

Goodna General Cemetery

These days Goodna Cemetery is a lovely piece of Aussie bush with tall eucalypts towering over many of the graves there. But that wasn’t the case 70 years ago.

The cemetery’s trees were cut down to fuel the hospital’s heating.

“The cemetery trust asked us to come and cut the trees down. All the big trees were cut down for firewood. Every ward had a wood stove,” Ferg said.

A 1951 aerial photo confirms Ferg’s recollection, showing Goodna Cemetery to be a treeless block. (Run 14 BCC6 Frame 39512, 24 Aug 1951) The photo also confirms the existence of a shed at the cemetery.

A cropped 1951 aerial photo of the Goodna Cemetery reveals the site was cleared of trees, as Ferg had claimed, and shows a shelter shed in the middle of the photo. (Source: QImagery: Run 14 BCC6 Frame 39512, 24 Aug 1951)

The shelter shed

Ferg told me the trenches where the ossuary boxes were buried were dug near a shelter shed at the cemetery, drawing me a mud map. It was therefore important to confirm that a shelter shed did in fact exist when Ferg was working at the hospital.

Ferg’s mud map shows his recollection of the location of a trench (‘remains’) next to a shelter shed that he witnessed in 1950.

“The shelter shed from the road to the shed would have been 100 metres: cement base, closed in three sides, small water tank.

“A fellow called Kedge and several inmates used to dig the trenches. I had to go out there one day with a message to give to him and I saw the trenches open. That was 1950, 70 years ago now.”

“As far as I know, the trenches weren’t very deep – a metre, metre-and-a-half. It’s easy digging. Sand. Those boxes would have rotted out 50 years ago. And the ground would have subsided.

“A long trench and they buried the boxes end to end in the trench. Only single height. The boxes were held together with just nails. They’d be rusted out by now. White ants probably ate the wood out,” he told me.

Me to Ferg: Do you have any idea how many boxes you made?

“They were made before I went there and they kept on making them when I left. Hundreds. At least 500, at least. That’s a wild guess.”

Me: Are you confident those boxes were buried there at Goodna?

“Yes.”

Me: When you started, how many people were making boxes?

“Two. Lummy Matheson, a patient – I don’t know his right name. We were in the workshop together. He used to make wagon wheels and repair furniture and that sort of thing. A conscientious bloke. He used to talk to himself a lot, but they all did. He was a nice bloke.”

Me: How did you feel making these boxes?

“Just a job.”

The trench location

By overlaying the 1951 aerial photograph with a recent photograph I’ve been able to identify the vicinity of some of the boxed remains at Goodna Cemetery.

Coincidentally, the site of the remains, as identified by Ferg, aligns with the relatively new Sinclair Memorial Garden. It’s my understanding that the Goodna Cemetery Trust has long believed there was a ‘mass grave’ of sorts at the cemetery. Boxed remains in trenches aren’t a ‘mass grave’, but I don’t know how many boxes were re-interred, nor how many trenches were dug.

Goodna Cemetery’s response

Like my previous blogs on the missing remains, I sought comment directly from the Secretary and Treasurer of the Goodna Cemetery Trust about Ferg’s recollections while employed at the Brisbane Mental Hospital. The Trust did not respond.

However, in correspondence with Ipswich Councillor and Cemetery Trust executive Paul Tully in 2018, Mr Tully recounted the following about the 200-or-so known burials at Goodna:

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 which dates back to when Goodna was still part of NSW.  They were individually buried along with their original headstones. The burial area is towards the middle of the cemetery. 
Those who had been buried for more than 30 years were not exhumed but their headstones were transported to the Goodna Cemetery and laid out in rows.
This process took place over 4 years between 1945 and 1949. 
I obtained all of this information from a former worker at the Mental Asylum back in the 40s (and subsequent decades) who was to become an alderman of the Ipswich City Council in later years. He was a knowledgeable and well-regarded citizen. 

CR PAUL TULLY – LLB JP(Qual) MAICD MMIA MMA MMEA FPIA(Hon)
Councillor for Division 2 – Augustine Heights, Bellbird Park, Gailes, Goodna and Redbank
City of Ipswich

A big thanks to Mr Tully for those insights. It’s interesting to note that, as well as the hundreds and hundreds of boxed exhumed remains, the whereabouts of many of the 200-or-so graves are also unknown – the headstones have been removed and the cemetery records don’t show the location of the graves.

What all this means for cemetery visitors

A mass gravesite could be seen as bad for business. It will also attract people who wouldn’t usually visit the Goodna Cemetery. Already my previous blogged findings are being used by a company that runs ‘ghost tours’ of the cemetery. It’s unfortunate that the information contained in my well-researched blogs is being used somewhat inaccurately. The last time I was at the cemetery, early one evening, there were also ‘paranormal investigators’ wandering through the peaceful bush surroundings with loud beeping Apps.

More recollections from Ferg: The mental hospital’s hearse

File photo: A Buick hearse.

Let’s leave Goodna Cemetery and head back to the mental hospital.

The hospital ran a very successful farm for many years, growing both vegetables and livestock, using a team of heavy horses to work the fields.

But the horses were sold and machinery took their place, including a special ute.

Ferg recalls: “About 1950, I think, that’s when they (the hospital) ceased to conduct their own funerals because we cut the hearse down made a work utility out of it. A 1927 Buick owned by the government. A fantastic bit of workmanship. All the carved woodwork, the sides were etched glass. It was a straight 8 motor. It had a reverse gearbox. It was so powerful it would start off in top gear.

“It was a shame to cut it down,” Ferg said.

Hospital patient funerals (*warning – graphic description.)

“I think the funerals were then contracted out to someone or another. There were still coffins made by Lummy in the workshop in 1950. He made them from solid Queensland pine, heavy as lead. He used nails. If you had a metal detector, there’d be nothing left to detect.”

Me: Was everyone in that hospital cemetery given a decent farewell?

“Don’t know: the labourers used to do it. One of the patients had been dead so long, there were two fellas shifting the coffin – one was a real big fellow, the other a little fella – and the big fella took the small end, and the little fella had the high end, and all the ‘gravy’ ran all down his legs.

“There’s no dignity in death, mate.”

Me: If someone died that no one cared about, would they be given a funeral or just buried?

“I think there would have been Christian services held, for sure.”

Me: Were they all buried in coffins?

“Oh yes. Because I saw plenty of them in the workshop.”

The mortuary (*warning – graphic description)

“There was a very steep hill going down from the kitchen to the morgue, a single-storey building that had big wide shelves all around.

“As they died, they just put them in the box and put them on the shelves. They had a table there and they’d cut the top of the skull off and take their brains out.

“All those who trained to be psychiatric nurses used to go there. A lot of them would faint… with all the ‘sauces’ running around.”

Me: How did you know that?

“I saw it.”

Me: Did they do that to every patient?

“No, no, no, no, no. Only one or two every now and again, I suppose.

“But doctors do it all the time in the morgues. For viewings, they had a nicely varnished coffin and a headrest, so his head wasn’t lying on the bottom (of the coffin). People would come in and view it.”

Ferg’s career

Reminiscing about his time working at the Brisbane Mental Hospital, Ferg called it a “big holding camp”.

“(It was) keeping them (patients) safe and out of harm’s way. It was a double bonus.

“They were safe and they were kept safe.”

Ferg Brindley

“The people I worked with were fantastic tradesmen, they were all drunk, and I thought ‘if I stay here, what future is here?’”

So Ferg, now in his early 20s, left the hospital and made his way to Roma in western Qld where he worked as a carpenter.

“My sister was out here and all was good. 1950 when the wool boom came and it was the first time people had a quid in their pocket and they built shearers quarters, shearers sheds, put down dams, put up fences. I built houses for stations hands, that sort of thing. I used to get called on to give a hand with the sheep, drenching, jetting.

“I didn’t mind because I was paid carpenter wages,” he said.

Ferg Brindley provided a fascinating oral history about his time working at the Brisbane Mental Hospital to journalist and cemetery blogger Lisa Herbert.

So what happened to the mental hospital’s third cemetery site?

“Between 1895 and 1912, more than 1500 patients died there and were presumably buried in cemetery no 2 and possibly some in cemetery no 3. In addition, the remains of staff members and their families were interred in the cemetery. Between 1914 and 1940 approximately 4670 patients died – an average of 155 per year. With perhaps few exceptions, all would have been buried in the hospital cemetery.”

Blake, ‘Wolston Park – Police Academy Cultural Heritage Survey’, p. 21.

The site of the Brisbane Mental Hospital cemetery that was supposed to be the final resting place of patients who died between 1914 to 1945 is a patch of bushland adjacent to the Queensland Police Service training precinct.

75 years after being closed, the Brisbane Mental Hospital cemetery site has regenerated. Former hospital worker Ferg Brindley says some remains were exhumed from the cemetery, but the coffins were left in situ. He also believes there are graves that were not exhumed here.

I’m very pleased to report that the site of cemetery 3 was last year listed on the Queensland Heritage Register, recognised as a “significant element of the State heritage place 600340 Wolston Park Mental Hospital“.

The Repatriation Pavilion

When it was built in the mid-1940s, the Repatriation Pavilion included three new wards for “mentally unbalanced” and “war-affected” soldiers returning from the Second World War. The repatriation wards are now QPS police offices and accommodation, part of the QPS Police Academy.

The area has a huge population of eastern grey kangaroos. I grew up near Wacol so I remember seeing healthy kangaroo numbers there in the 1980s. The population has exploded since then. Ferg recalls that when he worked at the hospital there were wallabies on the grounds, but no kangaroos.

Do you have any information?

It’s wonderful that Ferg and Dot were so generous with their time and memories. Ferg’s recollections offer an important insight into life (and death) at the Brisbane Mental Hospital in the mid 20th century.

If you have anything to add about the hospital’s cemeteries, funerals and patient remains, I’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch via Lisa@thebottomdrawerbook.com.au

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.

2 Responses

  1. An absolutely fascinating story and it’s so wonderful that you have perfectly documented this piece of incredibly important history before it was lost forever. Bravo Lisa.

    1. Thank you, Virginia. It’s been a fascinating journey. I’m so thankful for Ferg’s willingness to share his recollections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts

The Bottom Drawer Book blogs: Contents page

Some of these blogs took weeks of research. The more we learn about death and its rituals, the more comfortable we become with them and our own mortality. I hope these blogs are helpful as you come to terms with your finite existence.

Read More

The consequence of scattering ‘ashes’

You may have seen the video of Swans support Krystal Clayton scattering of ashes of her nan at the SCG. There are things you should know if you’re planning to do something similar. Ashes are certainly not environmentally or sportsfield friendly.

Read More