State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 70 Spring 2002

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The Old Men's Home

The majority of them were needed in the days when they were young, and strong and brave, and before the west was won. They pushed out into the aweful Australian wilderness and fought through dangers and hardships that we could never realize, and opened new country, west and built towns, and drew railway lines roads and railway lines after them — and those who profited by their sacrifices — and opened up new country, west and ever west. But we only hear of the “marvalous progress the country has made in seventy years. The young strong brave men turned their backs on the world and fought East, by twos and threes, through the dreadful loneliness and desolation: the old broken men drift East again, one by one, to the Old Mens Home — save those who died at the back of the runs. Their work is done, their strength is spent and they aren't wanted any more. It is the old song, over and over again, “What of your pioneers? And, no doubt, poor disabled old Bill, lying on his crowded bed, between a drivelling old idiot and a consumptive patient spitting his diseased lungs, often wishes, from the bottom of his brave old heart, that he was buried with his old mate, Jim, in the baking scrub at the back of West o’ Sunday. For Jim died amongst men who understood.
‘Why didn't they make money?’ you ask ‘or at least save enough to keep them in their old age?’ Cant. The pioneers hadn't time to save make money — it was the men who came behind who did that. The pioneers built the cities towns and railroads, and farmed the wilderness, isn't that enough. ‘They drank and threw money away’ you say. They did They didn't throw the money into the sea, and what if they drank did drink. The periodical spree was all they had to look forward to — it saved them from going mad in the dreadful lonliness of the bush. The were of the men Australia. Isnt that enough.
Liverpool, where the Old Mens Home is, is about the dreariest place in Australia — the most depressing. Most Australian towns are wretched looking and God-forsaken, but there is a certain brightness about the majority which is lacking in the atmosphere of Liverpool. There is the dulness and dampness from the abortion of a scrub which is all over the district, there is no prospect, and a stink comes up the George's river.
The buildings look well enough and the gardens a well kept and pretty, but the place is shamefully, appalingly overcrowded.
One ward contains forty beds were twenty would be in an ordinary hospital. A row of beds against the wall, another row in front of them, with just space to pass between, then the general dining tables! Almost touching the foot of the beds, another row of beds, and a fourth against the wall — and a row running parelell at the top of the ward. This is a consumptive ward — there are 140 cases in the asylum and the rest are amongst the mixed up with the old men. The first ward contained 30 mixed cases patients suffering from all diseases.
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Imagine 30 or forty delicate, sensative consumptives sitting to a breakfast of porridge and bread and butter in that close foeted room with poor bed ridden fellows coughing and spitting up lungs at their backs. Those who can get about have only the narrow crowded balcony or the dull court below, full of feeble, infirm men. And imagine the ward on a hot night! A consumptive passes his weary time fighting for air, and hoping for life. Fresh air is half the battle in fighting.
The Asylum was instituted as a refuge for the poor old men of the state, and many of them, clean old Bushmen, and some of them educated men, used to wide spaces and free air.
“We try to keep the consumptives together as much as possible” said the matron “but we are compelled, for want of room to place many of them in general wards.”
These patients are supplied with pocket spitting cups with a disinfectant of bichloride of mercury, but some of them spit on the floor in spite of the attendants.

Notes on ‘The Old Men's Home’

Unsigned and undated, this apparently incomplete article is written in a school exercise book. There also exists in the Lothian Papers an identical exercise book with a 10-page article in Bertha Lawson's hand; signed ‘Bertha Lawson/ Manly, 17th 1902', it is headed ‘Liverpool Asylum’ and describes in some detail a visit to the Asylum. From the fifth paragraph onward of ‘The Old Men's Home', Lawson appear to have been following his wife's narrative, which he reproduces almost word for word in places. Bertha Lawson's article, urging the need for public action to end the situation in which the Asylum houses both old men and patients with advanced consumption, may have been an attempt on her part to earn money by newspaper publication.
In a letter to Bland Holt on 12 August 1902 Lawson referred sardonically to his wife as ‘blossoming into an author'. The exercise book with Lawson's text also contains an undated letter from him written in pencil to a Mrs Reynolds (whose name does not appear in Roderick's biography) in Marrackville, a Sydney suburb, telling her to ignore ‘scandals', and explaining that he is ‘going through drink cure treatment’ in a ‘medical retreat'. Lawson was in a private hospital soon after the return to Sydney from England in July 1902. ‘The Old Men's Home’ was probably one of his first attempts at writing prose after his collapse. After his ‘fall’ he attempted to write about the experience of being in hospital; and in the years that followed his experiences in hospital, ‘Jim-Jam Land’ and gaol provided him with ‘copy'. ‘A Child in the Dark', his first substantial prose publication after his return, was based on writing that he had done in England, though the manuscript is dated October 1902.