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Destitute Asylum

In April 1851 the government granted the Destitute Board access to part of the barracks complex next to Government House on North Terrace. The destitute moved into their new quarters on 10th May 1851. It became the Destitute Asylum and a place where the aged, poor and chronically sick were looked after and kept alive. The Asylum was not abandoned until 1917.

Destitute Asylum 1850’s – 1860’s

The term ‘asylum’ was often used in the early nineteenth century, in England, the United States and Australia. It referred to the use of a building or group of buildings where institutional care was provided. The asylum allowed regularity, supervision and control. It provided economies of scale and was the most efficient way of handling those who were socially dependent. Consequently, the Destitute Asylum provided institutional care for women, children, the aged, destitute and the sick. During the 1850’s and 1860’s the Asylum’s occupancy of the barracks expanded.

The building was repaired and wings added to accommodate the increasing number of residents. In 1863 an Act was passed for the ‘Regulation of the Destitute Asylum’ to better regulate the government’s aid to the destitute and sick. It also provided rules relating to the inmates’ behaviour in the asylum. However, the Act did not address the issue of eligibility for assistance. The majority of inmates in the Asylum were aged, chronically ill, bed-ridden, crippled, blind, paralysed or diseased. Some were young or middle-aged and had no future. The Asylum also housed deserted women, children and pregnant destitute women. By the end of June 1864 there were seventy six males and sixty nine females (including children) in all these groups.

From the beginning there were children at the Asylum. During the 1860’s the problem of destitute children increased. It wasn’t until 1868 when the Destitute Board established institutions for state children that they were removed from the Asylum. This left the Destitute Board with responsibility for adults. Over time the Asylum became a hospital for aged and chronically ill people. On 30th June 1867 there were one hundred and sixty nine adults living in the Asylum. Of these, one hundred and fifty two were suffering from a physical disability which ensured their permanent residence in the Asylum.

Destitute Asylum 1870’s – 1917

Destitute Asylum 1932 (Courtesy of History Trust) In 1870 the Asylum grew and took over the rest of the military barracks. However, applicants continued to arrive, increasingly referred by the Adelaide hospital. The Colonial Surgeon realized that he could send chronically ill patients to the Destitute Asylum and free up beds at the hospital. The Destitute Board was forced, in turn, to press for improved facilities and extra nurses to care for these people from the government. However, as there was no other alternative, public or private this only meant patients would continue to end up at the Asylum. The Adelaide Hospital did, however, send its house surgeon to visit the Asylum’s inmates each day. In 1882 the government recognised the need for professional full-time medical care at the Asylum and allowed the appointment of a paid medical officer.

During the 1890’s and 1900’s the Destitute Asylum was usually full, with over six hundred inmates.

In 1909 and 1910 the Deakin federal government introduced a Commonwealth Old Age pension and a Commonwealth Invalid Pension which reduced the need for the Asylum. However, it wasn’t until the Old Folks Home at Magill was opened in 1917 that the Destitute Asylum was finally abandoned. In 1927 the State Children’s Council was absorbed into the Destitute Board and the Board was renamed the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Department (CW & PRD). In 1965 the Dunstan government abolished the CW & PRD and it was replaced by a Minister and a Director of Social Welfare.


Dickey, Brian 1986. Rations, residence, resources : A history of social welfare in South Australia since 1836. Netley: Wakefield Press.

Richards, Eric (ed.) 1986. The Flinders history of South Australia. Netley: Wakefield Press.

24 Responses to “Destitute Asylum”

  1. Kerry Gummow Says:

    Thanks interesting info and photos too

  2. shannon sandford Says:

    do you know anything about how intellectually disabled people were treated in the 1700s and 1800s?

  3. doug Says:

    Hi Shannon

    South Australia was founded in 1836 and people with an intellectual disability were either dependent on their family for support or ended up in the State government’s Destitute Asylum or Parkside Lunatic Asylum.

    In 1898, a non-government charity called Minda opened to provide a home for children with an intellectual disability. Prior to the establishment of Minda Home, children with intellectual disabilities were placed in the Parkside Lunatic Asylum.

    The following websites might also be of help with your question:

  4. Peter Nicholson Says:

    I can recall reading in a suburban history that what became the Parkside Lunatic Asylum was originally built to become the first Adelaide University but as there was no transport available to this locality it never eventuated. Is this true, and was the building on the corner of Botanic and Hackney Roads ever used as an asylum?
    I hope you can answer my questions,


  5. Marie Atkins Says:

    This site that you talk about, I was informed by an elderly friend of mine that it was in fact the origional infectious diseases hospital

  6. Doug Lyall Says:

    Hi Marie
    The original infectious diseases hospital was located at the Adealide Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum was opened in March 1852 and was built on the parklands at the eastern end of North Terrace, on ground overlooking the Botanic Garden. The Adealide Lunatic Asylum remained in use until 1902, when its last patient was finally transferred to Parkside Lunatic Asylum. It was then used for several years as an infectious diseases hospital before it was razed in 1938.

  7. Phil Ledgard Says:

    My 2 great grandmother was admitted in the Parkside Lunatic Asylum 23 September 1908, her previous occupation /Conditon of life was inmate of Destitute Asylum,Adelaide would this be the same place, if so would there be records going back to the late 1800′s early 1900′s

  8. Janis Harrington Says:

    My great grandfather died in the Destitute Asylum in 1899 and I also would be interested to know if records exist.

  9. Wendy McLeish (Bee) Says:

    I have just read through the Trove web site that my Great Great Grand Mother Sarah Bee was Matron at the destitute asylum in the early years while her husband TW Bee was a releiving officer there before becoming an Inspector of police & for a short time Commisioner of Police. Would love any further info if anyone has any

  10. maree Says:

    Where might one find inmates names and details if one was looking for someone whom they know lived there .

  11. lynette knight Says:

    how can I find out about a patient named Constantine Warick who died in parkside in 1909?

  12. Gail Williamson Says:

    Hello, do you have photos of the chapel at the Destitute Asylum. My g/g/ uncle’s daughter Bessie Pinkney was married to Joseph Pickles in 1883. I do not know whether she was a nurse there or a patient and likewise with Joseph.
    Also a Carl Zobel died there in 1907. Do you have records of patients or staff who may have been there from c1875 to 1907?
    I would appreciate any help you can give.
    Gail Williamson
    Mt Gambier
    S.A. 5290

  13. diane mcgrath Says:

    i have an ann mckinnon nee mclachlan dying at parkside 10 feb 1905. would the asylum had had their own unmarked grave site as i can not find a burial

  14. Julie van de Water Says:

    My great-grandmother, Amelia Doyle (nee Rebeira) arrived in SA in 1883. She came from India with my great-grandfather, Patrick Doyle. He was with the British Army serving in India and married Amelia in 1881 (she was Portugese/Indian). When they arrived in April, 1883, she was pregnant with their first child. He left her in the Destitute Asylum whilst he went to Wirrabara, SA to look for work. Amelia stayed there until after the baby was born and then she went to Wirrabara with her husband. Can you imagine being dark skinned, speak no English (or limited), pregnant, no family and living in those conditions. Amazing lady and I wished I’d had the chance to meet her.

  15. Lynne Says:

    this was a very interesting article more of this info please

  16. liz humphrys Says:

    my great great grandparents jeremiah and ellen/helena(collins) sullivan/o’sullivan were in the destituta asylum in 1854/1855 are ther any records of these or any inmates

  17. admin Says:

    Hello Liz

    The State Records of SA Gepps Cross Research Centre have several catalogues relating to Destitute Asylum Admissions.

    See here:

    Based on the timeframe you give, you probably want collection GRG 28.

    The Gepps Cross Research Centre is at:

    115 Cavan Road
    Gepps Cross SA 5094

    Telephone: (08) 8226 7750
    Fax: (08) 8260 6133

    Map and opening hours:


  18. Andrew Jory Says:

    Anyone looking to read or find out more information about the asylum and information regarding records should contact the state library first, as they will be able to look up historical literary facts regarding the sites. Second I would contact the SA Museum to find out if they have any papers/documents on hand.
    I would be supprised if those 2 bodies had nothing on the history of those 2 sites.
    FYI I work at a public hospital in Adelaide and most of them have an archives section with a wide range of artifacts and literary information on the early years fo Adelaide.

  19. Libby Says:

    I started my family tree and found out my great grandmother was sent to the destitute asylum in Adelaide because she needed an operation on her eyes. She was from a small town in the mid north of South Australia and was sadly going blind. Her children were placed in care while she waited at the asylum, then went to the hospital to successfully have the op done.
    I made a few calls to find out more information and spoke to a lovely lady who works a the mortlock museum in Adelaide. As it happens there was a fire which destroyed some records and sadly the only link I had to knowing more information on my great grandmother was destroyed in the fire.

  20. Paul Reeves Says:

    As a former mental health nurse I became interested in how people with mental illness were treated historically taking into consideration that there were little available treatment options or funding offer by governments for accommodation or research. Patients with mental illness really suffered and were really tormented not only by there illness, but by the institutional treatment given.

    If you had a caring and supportive family with money – then life may have been easier! If you were poor and unmanagable…well life wasnt so good.

    Patients lived in institutions dim locked Asylums and were exposed to experimental treatment that had no evidence that they even worked.

    There were lots of theories – but not much evidence. Many of the drugs used had severe side effects.

    It was a very misunderstood science then – generally unsupported by the community or governments. Particularly during 1800s. Patients were often misdiagnosed – not that this would have changed their treatment.

    Today we understands that someone who have alter perceptions or altered cognition may not be a form of any psychosis – but could have a organic or medical pathology. Medications (anti-psychotics and anti-depressants today work faster, have fewer side-effects (but like all medication side-effect still can occur). While there is room for improvement in any mental health service…. there is greater access and support since the 1970s.

    I dont work in this area of nursing anymore, but things have improved – I am glad we dont live back in the 1800s. An asylum was a place the family can have a day out to ‘watch the mad people’ act out – like how we would have a family day out at the zoo today. It was a sad era of history throughout the world for people with mental health issues. Unfortunately there are countries where they have not moved forward due to Poverty

  21. Racel Says:

    Some really great information

  22. Lyn Says:

    Hi, I am wondering whether you can help me find one of my ancestors. His name was Jeremiah Nicholls b 1823 in Cornwall. The only information I can find that I think could be him is a Jeremiah Nicholls admitted to Adelaide Hospital with ulcers 8/12/1842, discharged 01/01/1843. He was described as a destitute emigrant. The age of 19 years fits with his birthdate. I would really appreciate any information that tells where or how his life ended.
    Thank you.

  23. Colleen Bennett Says:

    Hi Lyn
    I found a death for Jeremiah Nicholls in the South Australian Deaths records but he died 11/6/1879, aged 83 years, meaning this Jeremiah would have been born about 1796. I can’t find a marriage or any children for Jeremiah Nicholls in SA BDM.
    I searched the Victorian Births/Deaths/Marriages online records and found one Jeremiah Nicholls who died between 1850 and 1875. With the Victorian BDM you have to pay 99 cents to view the record. Good luck trying to find the information you need.

  24. Lyn Says:

    Thank you Colleen Bennett for your answer. I didn’t find your answer until yesterday and now have a coy of the Vic BDM.

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