Joseph Thomas Digby was born 20 April 1812 in Shoreditch, London, Middlesex, England to Joseph Digby and Catharine Unknown and died 10 September 1899 in St Pancras, London, Middlesex, England of unspecified causes.

Joseph Thomas Digby's family

Joseph had an older sister, Mary Wiltshire Digby, who was born on 23 February 1809 and baptised on 21 May 1809 at the same church where Joseph was later to be baptised.

This then means that Joseph's parents were not the Joseph Digby and Catharine Mason who married on 23 March 1809 at St Clement, Eastcheap, London.

Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum, New South Wales, 1838-1850

Joseph Thomas Digby was the Keeper or Steward in charge ([non-medical] Superintendent - "Sydney Morning Herald", 9 June 1847) of the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum from 1838 to the end of 1847. The Asylum was situated on the northern shore of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) at Gladesville west of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia . The position of the Asylum, in the early years accessed by water, was roughly equidistant between the two main centres of Sydney and Parramatta.

On 1 January 1848 a Medical Superintendant was appointed above Joseph Thomas Digby. Digby continued on at the Asylum as a Keeper or Steward, but no longer in charge of the establishment. He was then dismissed in 1850.

In a dispatch dated 31 October 1837 from the Right Honorable Lord Glenelg, Secretary of State for the colonies, in London to Governor Sir George Gipps (1791-1847) in Sydney, Charles Grant Glenelg (1778-1866) announced that he had appointed Joseph Thomas Digby as the first Steward in charge of the newly built Lunatic Asylum at a salary of £200 per annum, and Joseph Thomas's wife as the first matron at a salary of £100 per annum. They were to start receiving a half-salary from the date of their embarkation from London. This appointment was based upon Joseph Thomas's and Susannah's "some years" of previous experience employed under the inspection of Dr Andrew John Sutherland (1811-1866), the Medical Officer to St Luke's Hospital for Lunatics in London. They came with "high testimony" from Dr Sutherland as to their "capacity for the services they are about to undertake".(Sydney Morning Herald", 16 October 1846). In a letter to Gipps dated 11 December 1837 Glenelg added that Digby was to bring with him "some specimens of the most approved methods of confinement used in the treatment of Insane Patients in the Asylums in this Country [Great Britain]".

The combined salary that the Digbys received of £300 per annum was generous and allowed them to live a lifestyle that allowed them to mix socially with the rich and prosperous in the city of Sydney as evidenced by the newspapers of the day. It also allowed them to build a large and extravagant home that was described as an "edifice", to fill their home with luxurious furnishings and possessions, and to build up a nest-egg of savings. In comparison the cook at Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum received a salary of £20 a year.

Joseph Thomas Digby and his wife Susannah arrived in Sydney on 1 July 1838 aboard the "John" ("Sydney Gazette", 3 July 1838) to a new purpose-built, but yet unfinished, building. He immediately clashed with the architect and wanted skylights installed to reduce the darkness in the corridors, but his pleas were ignored by the colonial authorities. He also clashed with the colonial authorities over expenses and equipage of the buildings for occupation. The Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum then opened on 29 November 1838 when 39 female patients were transfered from the Liverpool Asylum and the Female Factory, Parramatta. The first 23 male patients were transfered from the Liverpool Asylum in January 1839. Tarban Creek was to receive both free and convict patients, the proportion of the later decreasing as transportation of convicts to New South Wales diminished and then ceased. Tarban Creek Asylum was then the first Government medical institution to be granted full civil status.

Digby had to cope with many problems during the time of his administration. These many problems were caused by government cost cutting, resulted in inadequate living conditions for the patients, and frustrated Digby's aims for the appropriate treatment of the patients in his care. From the very beginning there was overcrowding at the facilities that the government provided, evidenced from day one with the admission of the 39 female patients into just 30 purpose-built single cells. Within 3 months of completion the buildings had begun to crumble. Water had to be carted on a daily basis by water cart over a very bad road, and on several occassions had to be transported from Sydeny. There was also lack of the drainage from the original design, "postponed" as one of the cost-cutting measures in the construction of the facility. As a result Digby and his patients had to construct a temporary drainage system. Lack of drainage meant that the storage space under the main building could not be used, and additional wooden service buildings had to be constructed. Other wooden structires came and went over the years including additional accomodation for the overcrowded patients. These additional buildings overcame some problems but created others. The contempory view of the treatment of the insane at that time included patient access to open areas, but the open areas were compromised by the necessary additional buildings.

During Digby's administration the assistant surgeon, Dr Robert Bowman (1830-1873), had supervision of those patients actually ill, but no control over the others or the conduct of the Asylum. In 1846, after public but anonymous agitation in the newspaper by Dr Francis Rawdon Campbell (1798-1877) that the medical executive should have control over the Asylum, a Select Committee of Enquiry of the NSW Legislative Council was held which issued a report that it was "indispensable that the head of the institution should be a medical man". The report recognised Digby’s services and proposed that his services should be retained as Keeper or Steward.

On 11 May 1847 the situation at Tarban Creek was heatedly discussed in the NSW Legislative Council in regard to the management of the instituation after a motion was put to the parliament by Charles Cowper (1807-1875) for the implementation of recommendations of the 1846 Select Committee in relation to the appointment of a Medical Superintendant. In the lengthy debate Digby was both criticised and defended. A number of editorials that continued to agitate for the appointment of the Medical Superintendant at Tarban Creek were then published in both the "Sydney Morning Herald" and "The Australian" during May, June and July referencing the motion that Cowper had put to the parliament on 11 May 1847 and quoting parts of the evidence before and report of the 1846 Select Commitee. Also published were letters giving opinions either defended Digby's administration or critical of the same. Notable were the letters and opinions of Rev George Edward Weaver Turner (1815-1869), vicar of St Annes C of E at Ryde, in his role as an official Visitor of the Asylum who defended Digby, and a reply from Charles Cowper criticising Tuner's opinions.

This result of the very public agitation and discussion was that a Medical Superintendant was appointed to Taran Creek at the end of 1847, with Dr Francis Campbell beginning his role as Medical Superintendant on 1 January 1848. The working relationship between Campbell as Medical Superintendant and Digby as "a" Steward rather than "the" Steward was not successful. This was evidenced when Campbell lay a formal charge of insolence and insubordination against Digby.

Digby stayed on as a Steward until he was dismissed in 1850 after two further Boards of Enquiry. The later Board of Enquiry in July 1850 was into the deaths of 2 patients and accusations of an "alleged system of mismanagement of allowing lunatics to be placed together without any adequate control" ("Bell's Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer" 6 July 1850), accusations that Dr Campbell took personally. The enquiry found that the problems that needed to be addressed were staff shortages and lack of an infirmary, problems that came from insufficent funding and had nothing to do with either Dr Campbell or Digby. Nevertheless one of the recommendations of the enquiry was that Digby be dismissed.

Susannah Digby, Matron

Joseph Thomas's wife Susannah was matron at Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum from 1838 to 1847. In September 1847 an enquiry was held into her conduct at the Asylum on the accusation that she had been drunk on duty. During the enquiry Joseph Thomas Digby gave evidence that she had fallen from a horse three years previously, "and from subsequent illness, has at times suffered from aberration of intellect, which might to a stranger have given the appearance of intoxication". This evidence was supported by two others who added that they had never seen her actually intoxicated or even drinking. The findings of the enquiry were that the appearance of drunkenness could have come from "the disordered state of her mind arising from bodily ailments" (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September 1847). After this enquiry Susannah, still in ill-health, resigned as Matron.

At the 1846 Select Committee enquiry Joseph Thomas has given evidence as to the duties that his wife Susannah, as matron, performed at the institution. This evidence also by default described some of the duties that he himself performed.

Her duties are similar to mine; she goes round the wards every day, generally with the medical officer, and attends to the comfort and enjoyment of the female patients. She also has the management of the household affairs of the establishment...She is constantly with them, almost too much so for her health, as she has no person to assist her.

Digby's treatment of the patients at Tarban Creek

Whilst at Tarban Creek Joseph Thomas Digby insisted on a humane system for his inmates by negotiating tirelessly for tolerable living conditions and the minimum of restraint (Rev. Eileen Thomson, Baillie Henderson Hospital: A Century of Care 1890 - 1990).

Digby was a conscientious administrator and firm believer in the existing philosophy of insanity, viz that it was due to moral causes associated with undue social and psychological stresses. Therapy emphasised ‘close and friendly association with the patient, intimate discussion of his difficulties and daily pursuit of purposeful activity’. This philosophy was the underlying factor in the struggle for control by medical staff, in the belief that only with medical control could a sympathetic therapeutic milieu be maintained in each institution. (C.J. Cummins, A History of Medical Administration in NSW 1788-1973- Chapter: Lunacy and idiocy, Page 36)
Digby’s administration of Tarban Creek Asylum is an important milestone in the history of psychiatry in this State (New South Wales). His was an endless fight against frustration and opposition, and yet withal there is continuing evidence of his strong dedication to the welfare of his charges. He was pilloried for his failings and but grudgingly acknowledged for his successes. (C.J. Cummins, A History of Medical Administration in NSW 1788-1973- Chapter: Lunacy and idiocy, Page 36)

Digby came to New South Wales with practical experience in the latest practice of treatment being then offered in London. It embraced a philosophy that, given the right circumstances, "lunatics" could change or at least control their behaviour, and an understanding that insanity was a 'moral' disorder. It involved segregation of those classed as insane into institutions where they could receive treatment. In contrast previous to this view, until about the middle of the 1700s, "lunancy" had been accepted as one of the many variants of the normal human condition. Treatments had not been offered, and the responsibility had belonged to the family and the community. All save the most violent and unmanageable had been kept in the community, these only requiring detention for the safety of the "lunatic" and the public at large. The first change was the institutionalisation of these that society found troublesome into workhouses and houses of correction. Then separate institutions for the "lunatics" began to appear, at first as private ventures run for a profit. These were followed by charity hositals for the insane, with the understanding that insanity was an illness, and treatments began to be offered by the medical profession.

The philosophy that Digby embraced and brought with him from London was based upon the views of Samuel Tuke:

In his [Tuke's] view detention was not the best means for treating lunatics. On the contrary, what was required was a system that would encourage lunatics to behave reasonably. Tuke advocated the use of isolated retreats where lunatics could wander around in pleasant surroundings and be provided with religious instruction, hard work and good food. The surroundings would transform the 'raging' lunatic into a placid and co-operative individual. (Stephen Garton, "Medicine and Madness", 1988)

Samuel Tuke (1784-1857) wrote about a Retreat for the insane at York that had been begun by his grandfather William Tuke (1732-1822), a layman with a distrust of the medical profession. He was skeptical of the value of medicine (purges, vomits, bleedings, medicines) in treatment of the insane, and instead offered humane care with the hope of cure. Despite being skeptical he encouraged visiting physicians to make trials of the various medicines and techniques suggested by the medical profession with disappointment in the outcomes, all, except warm baths for melancholics, being found to be at beat useless and at worst harmful. The result was that visiting physicians became confined to treating cases of bodily illness. Lay people were left in charge of the day-to-day running of the institution and the alternative "moral treatment" of insanity began to develop. Treatment was based upon treating patients with kindness and as individuals, reeducating the patients so that they could reassert their powers of self-control, placing them in an environement which would tent towards their recovery, and "treating the patient as much in the manner of a rational being, as the state of mind will possibly allow" (Samuel Turk, "Description of the Retreat: An Institution near York for Insane Persons of the Society of Friends", 1813, p158). Harshness towards the patient was understood as producing violent outbreaks rather than avoiding them. Therefore minimised was external, physical coercion, and not used were chains, physical abuse or fear as a way of managing the patient. The long-term aim was to return the individual to something approximating a rational individual who could be returned to society. A large proportion of patients were able to be discharged, and only some of these were later readmitted.

The inadequacies of the facilities and accomodation at Tarban Creek only served to frustrate Digby's attempts to implement Turk's philosophy of care, a treatment along 'moral grounds'. This included that some patients forced to share accomodation had to be fitted with restraints to prevent them injuring themselves or others. Even under these difficult circumstances, however, he never deserted his aims for the care of his patients. For example in 1840 and again in 1845 he sought approval to enclose 2 acres of the land at Tarban Creek to create a Pleasure Garden for a calming and restorative effect by providing for the patients exercise, employment, and enjoyment. He also classified the patients as either quiet, convalescent, idiots, or refractory in an attempt to allow those who were calm not to become excited by the more boisterous. In 1846 he tried to establish four airing yards on the sides of the Asylum so that each class could exercise separately. Instead he was limited to two yards with minor areas in which to keep separate the frantic and incurable.

Digby did what he could with the limited funds and facilities that were made available to him. He set aside a library for the use of the patients and also made newspapers available. The 1850 enquiry was told that a considerable number of patients read books from the library and seemded to take great pleasure in it. There were ocassional religious services. Quieter patients, under supervision, were allowed to fish, row, and sail. On occasions he took a patients to Sydney allowing them to walk around the town under supervision.

Work was also seen as conducive to the treatment and recovery of patients. From the evidence presented to the 1846 Select Committee it is learnt that work included cleaning, clearing, stumping, fencing the two acres for the Pleasure Garden, gardening and growing of vegetables, repairs, cutting wood, and the construction of the temporary drains. Force was not used to make patients work but instead a system of rewards and punishments was employed to induce patients to work like extra dinner or tobacco.

Although there were exceptions, like Dr Sutherland under whose inspection Digby had worked in London, the general response of many in the medical profession was hostility towards the claims of moral treatment. They were hostile to a treatment where lay people were placed in charge of the day-to-day running of the institutions for the insane, while physicians were confined to treating cases of bodily illness. They believed that the treatment of mental illness was the preogative of the medical profession, and should not lay in the hands of lay persons. It was this hostility that lead to the push to place a Medical Superintendant at Tarban Creek. This was in keeping with the then trend overseas, spearheaded by the medical profession, to recreate an Asylum system dominated by medical men. It formed part of the transistion that took the responsibility from the family and local community and placed it into the hands of "a group of trained professionals, who, by reason of their expertise, claim to have a unique capacity for understanding and treating them [lunatics]". (Andrew T. Scull, "Social Order, Mental Disorder: Anglo-american Psychiatry in Historical" p121)

The then views of the medical profession in New South Wales is evidenced in the testimony of the witnesses before the 1846 Select Committee. For example Dr Eckford, Colonial Surgeon in chage of Liverpool Hospital gave his opinion that causes of insanity could arise from organic disease of the brain, liver, or heart. A medical man could treat these organic diseases which would alleviate the condition; while a non-medical man would not be able to diagnose or treat the organic disease and, thinking that the patient would do himself or others harm, might restrain unnecessarily, too vigorously, and for too long a period. Dr William Dawson, Deputy-Inspector of Hospital in New South Wales, gave his opinion that only a doctor be counted upon to correctly keep the records necessary for the proper management of an Asylum, and that the reponsibility of restraining patients should also reside in a medical man. In contrast Rev George E Turner argued that medical men were often less suitable because "their whole studies have been directed to physical and bodily diseases, not to the mental". While taking on board some of the new views and agreeing that insanity could result from bodily disese, the responsibility of doctors, he still believed the treatment of insanity was the responsibility of the Superintendent, in other words in the treatment along 'moral grounds'. Turner stated that the Superintendent (in this case Digby) "in treating the disease of the mind combines with the medical man who treats the disease of the body."

The position of the medical profession prevailed, and the 1846 Select Committee recommended that that the head of the instituation should be a medical man. Campbell took over the running of the Asylum in 1848 and left his position there in 1867. In practice there was very little difference between how he, as a medical person, administered the establishment and treated the patients during this time when compared with how Digby had done so.

Joseph Thomas Digby's "death" announced in the newspapers of 1846

On 15 January 1846 Joseph Thomas Digby was viciously assaulted by a convict keeper (convict in charge of convict inmates at the Asylum). Digby was punched to the ground and then kicked about the head a number of times. Immediately after the assault Digby was at first thought to be dead. As a result The Sydney Morning Herald of 16 January 1846 published:

We announce with great regret that Mr. Thomas Digby, Superintendent of the Lunatic Asylum, Tarban Creek, was most inhumanly murdered yesterday morning by a convict named Edward Maher

This story was picked up by other newspapers.

When it was realised that Digby was not dead, his survival at first was still not certain with The Sydney Morning Herald of 17 January 1846 publishing that Digby had not been expected to survive from one moment to another.

In April Maher was before the court charged with intention to murder and intention to do some grievous bodily harm. The prisoner's defense was that the assault had not been as aggravated as stated, and that he had experienced great provocation from Mr. Digby, who had repeatedly called him an Irish convict, and other similar epithets. In his defense, he endeavoured to show that Mr. Digby displayed much prejudice against such assigned servants as were Irishmen, that he had on the occasion in question, used a good deal of abusive language towards the prisoner, and had seized him by the collar and violently shaken him. (Morning Chronicle, 8 April 1846)

The jury found the prisioner not-guilty of the charges, but instead found him guilty of the lesser charge of common assault. They did, however, express their opinion that it was one of a very aggravated nature.

Luck on the gold-fields of New South Wales, 1851-1852

After Joseph Thomas was dismissed from Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum in late 1850 he used his capital to try his luck on the gold-fields around Braidwood south of Sydney. The New South Wales gold-rush had begun at Bathurst on 14 May 1851 and had spread to the Braidwood area by September 1851. Joseph Thomas accumulated enough alluvial gold dust to set himself up for life. The "Sydney Morning Herald" of 20 March 1852 reported that he had sold in Sydney at auction 86oz 18dwt of gold for £270 16s 9d. In the "Empire" of 3 April 1852 he is reported to have in Sydney on 30 March 1852 sold 502oz 29dwt of gold for £1599 5s 7d. On 9 April 1852 he had sold another 47oz 16dwt for £153 3s 3d ("Sydney Morning Herald", 17 April 1852).

He then returned with his wife Susannah to London, after first applying for a clearance to leave the colony ("Sydney Morning Herald", 6 April 1852) on the "Duchess of Northumberland" barque on 23 April 1852 ("Sydney Morning Herald", 24 April 1852), accompanying 590oz 7dwt of his gold that he had not already sold in Sydney. The "Empire" of 26 April 1852 valued this gold at £2066 6s 11d. Before leaving for London he had sold at auction on 8 April 1852 from his then address of Hotspur Cottage, Balmain, all his household furniture, books, carpenter's tools, a boat with oars and sail, an Anson's patent salting machine, breaking-in tackle (for horses), etc, property of "a gentleman returning to England". Among the items sold was a guitar, a man's and a lady's saddle, and firearms. ("Sydney Morning Herald", 1 April 1852).

In total it is reported in the newspaper's of 1852 that Joseph Thomas Digby had accumulated 1228oz 15dwt (76lb 12oz, 39.3kg) of alluvial gold dust worth £4089 12s 6d which in the average earnings of 2013 is worth A$4,260,000. This is far too much gold dust for one man to have obtained by his own effort, and to have obtained by his own effort on no more than 6 months. The clue to how Joseph Thomas obtained all this gold is contained in the newspapers of the day. The people who did extremely well on the gold-fields were not the gold-diggers but the traders who sold food and equipment. Merchants usually in the long run made a fortune quicker than the diggers and with less hard work. Diggers paid for the goods that they purchased from merchants in either cash or gold dust, and merchants would also act as gold-traders buying gold dust from diggers with cash that they accumulated. In these transactions they were able to maintain an exorbitant profit margin. The other names of other persons selling large amounts of gold dust in Sydney in 1852 included the names of many merchants/traders like Campbell and Co, Lyell, Scott and Co, and R. Coveny. Historian Geoffrey Blainey has argued that butchers on the gold-fields were often particularly prosperous, especially as they were the only food sellers who could rely exclusively on local produce. Historian Geoffrey Blainey has also argued that ‘If we were able to piece together a list of the hundred men who in the 1850s made the most money from the gold-fields butchers would probably predominate.’ The other clue to how Joseph Thomas Digby accumulated so much gold dust is then found in the items that were sold before he departed Sydney for London. In the list of items was an "Anson's patent salting machine". This was a machine for salting and curing large amounts of fresh beef and other animal products. People on the Australian goldfields in the early 1850s most commonly drank tea and ate damper, mutton stew, or salted beef jerky. By setting up a salting machine at his home at Balmain, buying fresh beef from local farmers, processing the meat into salted beef jerky, and then taking wagon-loads of this salted beef jerky to the gold-fields to sell the diggers, Joseph Thomas Digby was able to make his fortune.

Life in London 1852-1899

On his return to London Joseph Thomas was able to invest the money from the sale of his gold in property (1861 census) and never had to work again (1871, 1881 & 1891 censuses).

His wife Susannah died in London in 1860 and Joseph Thomas was left a widower.

In 1866 Joseph Thomas remarried to the younger Caroline Susan Brierley, and they then had 3 children.

Joseph Thomas died in London in 1899. He left his widow an estate worth £602 16s 5d.

Land Grants

Whilst living in Australia Jospeh Thomas Digby had received 3 land grants:

  • 12 July 1839 he received 1 acre 25 perches of land near the Lunatic Asylum at Gladesville, New South Wales for an annual quit rent of one farthing. On this grant he built a home in about 1841. This home was described as a "beautiful Italian villa edifice" ("Australasian Chronicle", 5 August 1841).
  • 16 December 1839 he received a town allotment in Dungog, New South Wales for an annual quit rent of one farthing.
  • 23 December 1839 he received a town allotment in Berrima, New South Wales for an annual quit rent of one farthing.

The land grants were either sold or were abandoned when he returned to England after 1850. The first land grant (Gladesville) ended up in government ownership, and in July 1947, nearly 100 years later, the last land grant (Berrima) was advertised in the "Sydney Morning Herald" as owned by Joseph Thomas Digby of Tarban Creek with over £7 of outstanding rates owing.


Offspring of Joseph Thomas Digby and Susannah Shaw (1814-1860)
Name Birth Death Joined with
Son Digby (1840-1840) 8 August 1840 Gladesville, New South Wales, Australia 8 August 1840 Gladesville, New South Wales, Australia

Offspring of Joseph Thomas Digby and Caroline Susan Brierley (1835-1913)
Name Birth Death Joined with
Louisa Mary Digby (1866-1945) September 1866 St Pancras, London, Middlesex, England December 1945 Padington, London, England
Alice Caroline Digby (1869-) September 1869 St Pancras, London, Middlesex, England Frederic William Parker (c1867-)

Thomas Joseph Digby (1871-1951) 1 April 1871 St Pancras, London, Middlesex, England 21 December 1951 Sway, Hampshire, England Helena Davis (1871-1919)



Footnotes (including sources)

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