Mary Esther Stephens

Mary Esther – our ancestor who lived for 51 years complying to a world of authority to survive each day of those 51 years. Imagine being locked away for 51 years in a world which probably only changed slightly in terms of patient rights, treatments etc – in essence the same four walls, gardens, food, peers. Not to mention 51 cold winters!! Without doubt Mary Esther would have seen many careers during this time, the good……….. the bad. Mary Esther deserves a voice, so we, her ancestral family are able to place her in our history with the pride and the respect she deserves as a survivor, not once but twice. Firstly surviving complications from Measles in 1875 and secondly surviving the oldest mental health system in Australia as a woman living with a disability.

Chronological reconstruction of information located about Mary Esther………she was born on 4 March 1870 in Gladstone South Australia.

The fourth child to Ed and Maria – Morgan was her older brother, whilst Charles her youngest, sisters Adeline and Maud both younger.

When Mary Esther was about 6 she had the measles and suffered a severe complication which left her disabled and prone to fits.

When Mary Esther was about 10 the family moved to Launceston for several years before locating to Waratah where her father worked as a miner at Mount Bischoff Mining Company.


On 25 November 1885 Mary Esther aged 15, (after living at home for 9 years with a disability) was admitted to the Royal Derwent Hospital for full-time care. The FORM 1 Medical Certificate was completed by her father Edward Stephens. FORM 2 JUSTICES’ ORDER FOR THE RECEPTION OF AN INSANE PERSON was completed under the ‘Insane Persons Hospital Act’ by Ferd Kayser, James Seagrave and John Kennedy.

On 10 April 2013 I travelled to the Hobart History room to read Mary Esther’s correspondence file which came to light after my first trip on 1 March 2013. The file gives us information about Mary Esther, mother Maria Jane and younger sister Adeline  both whom loved their sister and daughter dearly. I will refer to each article in the file (short overview). I am sure there must have been a lot more correspondence however this was all that was in her file.  The Royal Derwent was flooded at one time  and files destroyed. So to have this file as small as it is, a treasure!

IMG_0062  3 October 1910 – Maria visits Mary Esther in New Norfolk, for her 40th birthday and Easter.
28 July 1920 – Adeline writes (from 8 Frederick St) to the Superintendent to enquire is Mary Esther is still alive as they had heard she may have died. She wanted to know as soon as possible, Adeline tells us that she was known by Mary Esther as ‘Little Adeline’.
2 August 1920 – a typed letter arrives (all replies – typed) (from the Superintendent) to 8 Frederick St advising Mary Esther is alive and well, ‘good bodily health, but there is, unfortunately, no improvement in her mental condition’.

20 August 1920 – Adeline writes a letter to J. Power the Superintendent explaining she has sent a parcel and forgotten to put who it was too on it. She also refers to Mary Esther as ‘my dear sister’ and in the parcel she has also included some papers she thought Mary Esther may like to read. In this letter Adeline cites ‘I have not long come back from Launceston, have been very ill, diseased heart, dropsy, very bad back, can’t be cured but may live a long time with care’.

2 September 1920 – letter back to say Mary Esther has received the parcel and Courier Mail.

1 December 1922 – Adeline sends a parcel to Mary Esther and asks to hear word of how she is. She stresses all correspondence  to be addressed to Mrs Harry Briant as there is another Mrs A Briant (that would be Alf’s wife Clara) Adeline also notes she sent another parcel earlier and did not receive a note saying it had arrived. Again she uses ‘dear sister’ and that she always used to call her ‘little Adeline’. Also to tell her Mother and Father are still living and not far from them – Father will be 82 on New years day and mother is 78. Adeline asks for word as soon as possible.

12 December 1922 – letter back ‘there is no improvement in her mental condition. She is very dull and stupid, appears to take little interest in her surroundings and is almost quite idle’. Physically she appears to be in very fair health, but is still subject to fits occasionally. Parcel received and receipt for same is enclosed. Your message will be given to her, but I am doubtful wether she could write you a letter’

1 June 1924 – A letter from Julia Adams as she was in Hobart (Forest Rd) making enquiries on behalf of Adeline who had not had a reply to last letter. (Julia was the school teacher on Flinders –  obviously Adeline had a close and trusting relationship with Julia if she had asked her to find out about Mary Esther).

9 June 1924 – letter back ‘no improvement in her mental condition nor unfortunately is there much prospect of such. She is very dull and stupid and has little sense and is still subject to fits occasionally but otherwise appears to be in very fair health’.

17 August 1925 – Maria from 38 Elizabeth St writes ‘will you kindly inform me as to the Mental State of my poor dear daughter Mary Esther Stephens and oblige her old widowed mother MJ Stephens’. Ed died in Sept 1924. I suspect Maria was in Launceston with Adeline who was unwell and passed away about 10 weeks after this letter was written.

19 August 1925 – return reply ‘I beg to inform you that she appears to be in good bodily health and helps a little with the work in the ward, but there is no decided improvement in her mental condition nor, unfortunately , is there any prospect of such’.

2 September 1926 –  this unusual letter from M Priest IMG_0040

5 May 1927 – this heartfelt letter from Maria, who died in 1930 at 96 Balfour St.


11 May 1927 – letter back with much the same.  And yes a winter coat would be appreciated.

6 September 1936 – Mary Esther passes away – she has outlived her Mother, Father and sisters Adeline and Maud and brother Charles. She is survived by her brother Morgan. The hospital mortuary notes are as follows:

No suspicious circumstances. Staff involved were Nurse N Bomford, Dr C Brothers and Dr Douglas.

‘Mary Esther Stephens was admitted to the Mental Hospital, New Norfolk, on 3 December 1885. She has lately been getting frailer, and less steady on her legs. In the last few years, she has had several very slight strokes. She developed pneumonia on 5 September 1936, and died on Sunday, 6 September 1936, at 8.55pm’.

Harry on Flinders is sent a telegram on 7 September 1936 advising of Mary Esther’s death – he wires back on the 8 September 1936 to recommend they tell Edmund Stephens (nephew) Head master of Hutchins School’.




God Bless Mary Esther! and her family.

One thought on “Mary Esther Stephens

  1. Pingback: Mental Diseases Hospital, New Norfolk – Women’s Division 1918. | Flinders Island: Badger Corner and Samphire River

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