Advice to all readers
The Lock Hospital History contains:
Images and names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.
Text from historical sources composed in a derogatory language.
If learning about this history causes sadness or trauma, you are encouraged to seek out the following services and sup-port:
Lifeline on 131 114 or online (https://www.lifeline.org.au/). Or call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
For young people 5-25 years, call the Kids Helpline Helpline (https://kidshelpline.com.au/) -1800 55 1800
For resources on social and emotional well being and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see Social and Emotional Well being and Mental Health Services in Aboriginal Australia: http://www.sewbmh.org.au/
Prior to the Colonial Secretary’s instructions under the 1905 Act, the Chief Protector sent a circular to “protectors” of Aboriginal people, requesting a “return” of Aboriginal women and men who were thought to have syphilis or other forms of venereal disease and to cost the transport of so called ‘fit subjects’ to the lock hospitals. The Commissioner of Police sent similar instructions in a circular to all police stations authorising the use of force to detain Aboriginal people.
This system of police surveillance, capture and transport, often involved long journeys, on foot and by boat, and often in chains. Before the idea of using these islands for medical purposes, it had been suggested as early as 1892 that Aboriginal people should be moved en masse to the islands. In May 1908, the s.s. Bullarra arrived at Carnarvon, with staff, furniture, and stores for the lock hospital at Bernier Island. Rough seas delayed their crossing, and they experienced some traumatic days trying to reach the islands in dangerous conditions.
On 6 October 1908, the first patients arrived on Bernier Island – three women from Onslow, according to a later report by the Superintendent Medical Officer, Dr Frederick Lovegrove. Many of the prisoner patients also suffered rough and frightening crossings to the islands over the next decade, and there are many reports of damage and destruction to ships and other vessels.
In March of 1909 shelter sheds were erected on each of the islands after eight people died from “coughs and colds”, according to a later report by the Superintendent Medical Officer Dr Frederick Lovegrove to the Chief Protector. The sheds, measuring eight feet by four feet, had three canvas sides and a tin roof and were expected to house three people each; however, the people used them in a variety of ways, some pushing the shelters together to make a camp for a larger group. The prisoner-patients were given clothes, blankets, and rations of flour, sugar, tea, and tobacco. They also fished and hunted, and Dr Lovegrove reported that “a kangaroo dog sent from Carnarvon by Dr Hickenbotham is of great assistance in providing food and recreation”. Newspaper reports published this month detail the Colonial Secretary’s recent visit to the lock hospitals; he said the sheep on the island were used only for staff, and great savings were made because patients could hunt for food. As also happened at another official visit in 1910, a corroboree was given in honour of the visitors. Despite the difficult circumstances on the islands, the Aboriginal people maintained cultural practices, including dancing, carving message sticks, fishing, hunting and gathering bush medicines. A number of official parties, including politicians, officials, pastoralists, Aboriginal people and journalists, visited the islands during the scheme. Newspapers reported that the prisoner patients told visitors they wanted to return to their own country.
The prisoner patients were also put to work, building, carting and carrying materials, and also assisting with the medical treatment. On 30 June 1910, the orderly on Dorre wrote a letter stating that the Aboriginal men had “worked splendidly” and were a credit to the Aboriginal community. The orderly wrote: “They have helped to carry and cart all the timber from the shore to the building, and gathered load by load about 400 or 500 loads of coral (and all this coral has to be collected and picked out of the sand on the beach), sand, and limestone; they have napped all the stones for concreting, and have mixed all the mortar, concrete, etc. They have also got about 50 cement casks of clean, water-worn, broken shell, and this had to be gathered on the west coast beach and carried up on their heads to the top of the cliffs, and then carted over to the hospital.
They have been a saving of hundreds of pounds to the department, and have done their work faithfully.” Writing several years later, Nurse Lenihan said the young girls helped out in the operating theatre and staff quarters. Initially in 1908, the women were held on Bernier Island and the men on Dorre Island, but this arrangement was reversed in mid 1910.
During the years of World War One (1914-1918), there was much less public attention to the lock hospitals, and public concerns were raised about the scheme’s expense. There were periods when there was no doctor on the islands.
In September 1917, a Pilbara newspaper reported that the hospitals were likely to be closed, and this was endorsed by a Cabinet meeting on 6 November 1917, with plans to transfer remaining patients to Port Hedland. At the time of the announcement, it is reported there were 35 females on Dorre and 15 males on Bernier. A Geraldton newspaper report about moves to close the hospitals said:
“The natives themselves will be greatly pleased at this decision as they looked on deportation to the islands with even greater aversion than a Russian regards enforced absence in Siberia, and many and various were the stratagems resorted to by the collectors in mustering the patients.”
The remaining patients left the islands on 9 January; they were taken to Carnarvon where they were held until being transferred to Port Hedland. On 14 October 1919, a Pilbara newspaper reported that about 20 Aboriginal patients arrived by the Bambra for the new lock hospital there. Mr and Mrs WH Batty, caretakers, also arrived to look after them.
Chief Protector records confirm that 17 Patients were transported from Carnarvon on 6th October and arrived Port Hedland 9th October. As the newspaper clip above shows, the Port Hedland lock hospital was still under construction at that time.