Matilda Cutler – Died aged 69 in 1903

Beatings, whippings, force feedings resulting in death; the removal of teeth from inmates who bit warders or other inmates; patients being placed in bags and hung on hooks for days; high rates of sickness and death; inmates being used for sex by doctors and warders, or being pimped out into the community; having their medication and brandy stolen; murdering each other.  She had been held at the Western Victorian Institution for being ‘excitable’ a catch-all condition that was as easily used against the reputation of a woman as it was about her mental condition.  On probation release, she told her husband Joseph Cutler of the devilish and squalid practices and conditions at the already sprawling asylum.

I have seen Dr. McCreery, under whose care (Mrs Cutler) was a considerable time, and he describes her as a violent, destructive patient, and suffering from acute mania, when she was quite incoherent…

W. Dick, Inspector of Lunatic Asylums

An Argus newspaper report of June 1883 reported Matilda Cutler as being received into the Ararat Asylum for being ‘very destructive and having torn up a great quantity of clothing’. It dismissed her allegations as being ‘without foundation’.  Five years later it had changed its opinion of Matilda Cutler and of the entire asylum system in Victoria completely, condemning it as ‘barbarous and inhuman, and utterly mean, unworthy of our prosperity and our humanity.’

We are punishing our mentally sick and afflicted more cruelly than our criminals… in ignorance, or out of a… desire to swell… a balance of profit.

The Argus, November 1888

How did this change in attitude, one that led to a series of Royal Commissions and wide-reaching changes to the mental health system, come about? It transpired through the persistence of newspapers like The Courier and The Ballarat Star, through the support of men like Joseph Cutler, and most of all through the bravery of Matilda Cutler, who paid a high price for her outspoken advocacy of the rights of asylum inmates.

Dr David Waldron is a lecturer in History and Anthropology at Federation University in Ballarat. He’s written a paper on the uses of what was once called the Ararat Lunatic Asylum, and is studying the case of Matilda Cutler.  He writes the original design of Ararat was inspired by the American Kirkbride asylum plan, but the design itself was modelled on the British insane asylum at Colney Hatch.  However, the asylum also integrated several innovations, such as the extensive use of ha-ha walls, an ornate gate lodge, and several large airing courts for patients.  While Ararat was, along with Kew and Beechworth asylums, a magnificent series of buildings and gardens, the upkeep was prohibitively expensive and governments of the time simply chose not to provide sufficient funds or adequate staffing and medical care.

It cost £128,222 to construct the original asylum.

By the time Matilda Cutler was incarcerated, the entire system was a hidden disgrace.  These medical gentlemen caused over fifty persons to be sent to asylums as lunatics for medical treatment, the Medical Superintendents considering, on examining the person sent to them, that such a course was not necessary, and the subjects thus made lunatics on certificate were, in effect, declared sane.  The 40-year-old made a series of graphic allegations against staff of the ‘Refractory Branch’, a ward of the asylum where inmates were sent for infractions against the rules or as punishment for being ‘difficult’.  She accused the staff of habitual cruelty and drunkenness, and of assaulting the inmates if they were late out of bed by dragging them by their hair or ears.  The bathrooms, such as they were, for they were filthy spaces, seemed to be where the majority of assaults took place, the warders using towel racks and bunches of keys to beat and bash the patients to bloody messes.  “They have drawn rivers of blood from me, and my body is covered in bruises caused by the blows from these weapons,” Cutler wrote in a letter to The Ballarat Star.  Among the other allegations Cutler makes are the theft of brandy and eggs supplied to the inmates as treatment, and the non-supply of food sent by relatives; the theft of her clothing and the ministering of large doses of drug salts to reduce the inmates’ resistance.   Most seriously, she alleges that patients who refused the poorly-cooked food were violently force-fed, with one attendant holding the patient’s nose while another forced the food in.  In one case she alleged she had witnessed, this caused the patient’s death.  “The bowl of the spoon was rammed so far down the gullet that the spoon had to be forcibly removed, and the withdrawal was followed by a terrible gush of blood,” Cutler described.

Previous accusations of staff cruelty at the Kew asylum were revisited, and reports of appalling behaviour from afar as Adelaide began to surface.  The Inspector of Lunatic Asylums, William Dick, was dismissive of Matilda Cutler’s claims, but undertook an investigation.  Cutler’s husband Joseph, although appreciative of her treatment at the asylum generally and initially, listened with an attentive ear to Matilda’s terrible accusations, and wrote letters in support of his wife to The Ballarat Star and The Courier.  Published in the city’s papers, they provoked outcry and the assertion that a woman’s testimony was not to be trusted – a striking correlative to the events of the present time.  But the papers called for change and investigation, and the liberal government of the day listened.  Premier James Service appointed the member for East Melbourne Ephraim Zox to conduct a Royal Commission in 1884.  Zox was a conservative, a financier and president of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. He was opposed to female suffrage among other causes, but he was an effective ‘and painstaking’ commissioner.  His recommendations were clear: the separation of ‘criminally insane’ patients from those who were not; the separation of men and women generally; the use of medical specialists and the establishment of more specialised institutions. The brutal warders were examined and largely removed; the Master of Lunacy (in charge of the asylums) lost his position. He recommended placing some patients in the community; this recommendation was ignored.

And Matilda Cutler? Horrifyingly, she was returned to Ararat in 1896, at a time when it took just two male signatures to sign a woman’s life away. She died there in 1903.

Matilda is buried in the Ballarat Old Cemetery with her husband.  Ballarat Old Cemetery WN Section 2 Row 1 Grave 3