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Ha-ha surrounds Asylum for the Criminally Insane

September 6, 2018 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Australia’s largest abandoned mental institution, where thousands of people died during incarceration over a span of almost 130 years, is becoming a notable attraction for “dark tourism” in which tourists visit weird, spooky or dangerous places.

Aradale Mental Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital located in Ararat, a rural city in Victoria, is considered by many to be Australia’s most haunted building. Built in 1866, it wasn’t decommissioned until 1993. It also boasts a ha-ha, but more about that in a minute.

Originally known as Ararat Lunatic Asylum, Aradale was commissioned along with two sister asylums: Kew Idiot Asylum and Beechworth Hospital for the Insane. They were built to accommodate the growing number of people deemed to be lunatics, idiots or imbeciles (19th-century medical terms, now used only as insults) in the colony of Victoria.

Treatment was harsh, utilising straitjackets, padded cells, restraining straps and other 19th-century methods.

Welcome to Ararat Lunatic Asylum. Built in 1866, decommissioned in 1993.


“Dark tourism” is gaining popularity, and Aradale fits the bill perfectly.

One of the most popular sections for touring is J Ward Lunatic Asylum, where visitors walk through the cavernous wards and echoing halls of the institution that treated and housed the mentally ill.

J Ward frightened even the Edwardian-era warders.

“It’s continuance as an adjunct to a mental hospital, in this the 20th century, is more barbaric than barbarism,” wrote W. Ernest Jones, the Inspector General of the Insane, in 1908.

Ararat is set in enormous, 100-hectare grounds. A distinctive feature of the surrounding parklands is the use of a ha-ha – a recessed landscape design element like a sort of sunken wall, creating a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view. In Ararat’s case the ha-ha consists of a trench faced with stone to prevent patients escaping. The peculiar name “ha-ha” is thought to stem from the exclamations of surprise by those coming across them, as ha-has were designed to be invisible until close up.


Verdict of the Director General of the Insane. 1908


Ghost tours of Ararat explore the home of notorious criminals and maniacs, with highlights including the hangman’s gallows, shower block, gravesites, West Wing, J Ward Block, exercise yards and grounds.

Stories tell of governors whose spirits are still lurking, prisoners buried in the grounds and souls said to be trapped within the walls. Visitors “gain an understanding of the history of the Victorian Mental Health System”, publicity states.

J Ward has become the premier tourist venue in Ararat, visited by more than 10,000 people a year.

Reports persist of visitors feeling unexpectedly faint, experiencing nausea while walking through certain rooms and hearing methodical muffled banging sounds said to resemble patients beating their heads against the walls.

J Ward is 2.5 hours from Melbourne, close to the Grampians and open daily for tours conducted by “passionate Friends of J Ward volunteers” according to its website. Tours run at 10am, 11am, 1pm and 2pm each day with extra tours at 12pm and 3pm on Sundays and Victorian public and school holidays (except Christmas Day).

Admission charges:

  • Adult AUD 20
  • Concession AUD 18
  • Child (16 and under) AUD 10
  • Family (2 adults, 2 children) AUD 50

Nocturnal ghost tours of J Ward, conducted by Lantern Ghost Tours, cost AUD 36. Due to the nature of the stories related, only children aged over 12 are allowed on the J Ward Tour.

Written by Peter Needham

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