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In 1900s Australia, mental health was defined by doctors who administered beatings and clamped down on “subversive thoughts”. A league of women fought back with one of the weirdest groups this state has ever seen.
In February of 1916, a man was picked up by police and carted off to Kenmore Mental Hospital at Goulburn. His incarceration made headlines throughout the country, because this was William Chidley. Chidley, the son of an itinerant photographer who worked from a horse-drawn studio, was a gentle soul, horrified by the poverty and misery he saw around him. A helpful kind of bloke, he had devised a method to deal with the horrors five years before, and written it down in a book called The Answer.
What people needed, he thought, was a mixture of vegetarianism, fresh air, sunlight, loose clothing and antipathy against capitalism and making money. To top it off, there was also the ‘correct’ way to have sex, ‘taking place only in the Spring…and between true lovers only’. After some problems finding distributors for his magnum opus, Chidley hit the streets, where he sold copies to people he met.
In 1912, this ‘offensive behaviour’ put him at odds with the Lunacy Court, which deemed him insane and sent him to Callan Park Mental Hospital in Lilyfield. Within days, there were questions in Parliament, asked by MPs who thought it strange that somebody could be admitted simply for having opinions that were different from the mainstream. Chidley was released, but because he kept up his missionary work, history repeated in 1913, 1914 and 1915. And in 1916. But this time, after ten months, he suddenly died, leaving an autobiography (of course called Confessions) and inspiring a new political pressure group.
This organisation was first called the Lunacy Reform League, and, after 1924, the Citizens Liberty League, and it is one of the weirdest and most interesting groups NSW has ever seen. It was small, with probably only forty people in its ranks, but between 1916 and 1939 it made life very difficult for the powers-that-be. Maybe this was because most of its members were women. And what women! First of all, there was the feminist Kate Dwyer. A school teacher by trade, she and her husband, also a teacher, had been working at Broken Hill Public School in the early 1890s, when working-class people in NSW were severely impacted by drought and two strikes. Those strikes were lost, but in the end led to the creation of the Labor Party, and Kate became one of its most prominent members and organisers. Especially concerned with the plight of women and children, she was also an early member of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW and a founder of both the Women’s Progressive Association (in 1901) and the Women Workers’ Union (in 1909). She was one of the few women on the 1911 Royal Commission into the Conditions of Employment of Female and Juvenile Labor, visiting more than a hundred factories in a fact-finding mission. Putting her money where her mouth was, she opened a factory for unemployed needlewomen in 1916, giving them an alternative to what was called ‘sweating’ and piecework.
All three women knew women, for example, were declared crazy on the behest of their husbands, who were eager to take up with their mistresses.
Two other activists in the Citizens’ Liberty League were the Gullett sisters, Lucy and Minnie. Lucy was one of our first women doctors, the first resident medical officer at the Women’s Hospital in Sydney and later the first resident surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children in Brisbane. In 1916, when William Chidley came to an unfortunate end, Lucy had just returned home from a stint working in a French Red Cross military hospital in Lyons. But soon she and her sister Minnie joined Kate Dwyer in taking on the doctors in what was then called lunatic asylums. After the Chidley debacle, they were convinced that psychiatrists in particular, but medico’s in general, abused their power to lock up people against their will. People who were perfectly sane, but who were in other people’s way.
All three women knew women, for example, were declared crazy on the behest of their husbands, who were eager to take up with their mistresses. There were also stories about older men who had ended up in the sin bin because their sons wanted to get their hands on their inheritance. And then, of course, people who had, like Chidley, awkward opinions that needed to be silenced. The ladies of the Citizens’ Liberty League were convinced that doctors were abusing their power to assist these kinds of societal removals, and they vowed to do something about it.
Minnie Gullett, in particular, was tireless in her advocacy. Freedom, in general, was her God. Not just for people, but for animals too. That is why she demanded the closure of Taronga Zoo: clearly an animal prison by another name. She also wanted the ocean to be liberated, which is why she sent letters to politicians demanding the removal of the retaining walls at the harbour. But most of her time went into fighting for lunacy reform. Minnie, who was also a member of the Single Women’s Union, was convinced that male doctors were ‘tyrants’, who had ‘sinister motives’ for incarcerating sane people, especially women. She had a few friends, otherwise respectable women, who had spent time in the asylum, and she was convinced that they were nothing more than ‘full of kindliness’. So in 1921 and 1922, she started visiting Sydney asylums, talking to patients and asking their superintendent to release them into the care of her and her (doctor) sister. Sometimes that worked, and the Gulletts often had discharged inmates in their house, providing a roof over their heads and jobs. But in 1922, Minnie went political, encouraging 175 patients to petition for their release. Understanding PR, the Citizens’ Liberty League also went to the newspapers. And they organised public meetings under the banner ‘All lovers of liberty roll-up’, where they pushed for a Royal Commission into lunatic asylums.
Soon, the whole of Sydney was abuzz. In the Ladies’ Room at David Jones, ex-patients told their stories to groups of appalled women. Kate Dwyer headed a delegation to the Premier, and members of the League met with MPs and Ministers. Then there was another scandal. Martin D’Arcy had been a violinist when he enlisted to go to WWI, but had come back without a right arm. Not very happy, he had started drinking and in July 1921 he had been admitted to a lunatic asylum. A few months later, he was given something to help him sleep, but had convulsions and died. Not long after, somebody went to the League to say that D’Arcy had been beaten to death by another patient, who had been given keys to all the cells by the wardens. The papers exploded. Headlines like ‘Was D’Arcy done to death in dastardly fashion’ appeared and the League ran with the moment by telling the journalists about all manner of other cases they knew about. A few months after D’Arcy’s death there were stories about a woman who had been locked up by a husband who wanted to have an affair. Then a former patient said he had been drugged and beaten. By December, the government couldn’t hold the tide any longer and appointed a Royal Commission into Lunacy Law and Administration.
The ladies of the Citizens’ Liberty League were convinced that doctors were abusing their power to assist these kinds of societal removals, and they vowed to do something about it.
Now the League went into overdrive, campaigning hard to cash in on this golden moment. There were dozens of stories, and Minnie got herself banned from visiting any more asylums. In the Daily Telegraph of 20 March 1923, she said that ‘all insane asylums should be abolished as a public menace’, and that doctors should not be judge and jury when it came to deciding who was crazy and who was not. Unfortunately, during 1923 and 1924, two things happened. The reading public was getting bored with stories about nutcases who weren’t nuts after all, and stopped pushing for change.
And the League started fighting with the Lunacy Department and the Royal Commission, claiming the amount of doctors involved in the inquiry amounted to ‘intimidation’ and would never result in an unbiased verdict. In the end, it seems that they were right. The Commission refused to believe that there were sane people locked up and that others were badly treated. Instead of pulling back on the powers of doctors, they endorsed more medical intervention, recommending legislation for the compulsory detention of ‘feeble-minded persons, particularly children’. The League kept fighting, though.
In 1929, they claimed that the Lunacy Department was doing illegal operations on traumatised returned soldiers. And even as late as 1942, Lucy Gullett took part in the Provisional Committee for Lunacy Reform. It would take until the 1960s and 70s to really change things for people in psychiatric institutions, and we are still debating what the best cause of action is for men and women who are (momentarily) mentally confused. But the first ones to ask the questions were the women (and some men) of the Citizens’ Liberty League. For that, we surely owe them a debt of gratitude.