A Lunatic Garden

by Terri-ann White

© all rights reserved

Dream myself a place. A walled garden solidly enclosed with limestone. The sheen and bluntness, the unrelieved colour of bones that limestone is, carried into construction by teams of convict men including the instigator of my Australian family.

There is fecundity and there is this. He has been used to that smell of verdant undergrowth that you get in woodlands, even in London city parks, the smell of life; bodily moist. Now he is in a mediterranean climate with drying-out summers and wet and mild winters. Construction of the convict establishment of Fremantle offers up these smells: stale smoke in the nostrils: hot bodies and parched earth.

Gardens can usually come only after matters involving survival have been sorted out by a community. It can be the first activity of leisure, and is a softening of these spaces she occupies, although how it may be moulded by her faith is impossible to gauge.

Theodore Krakouer, my grandmother’s grandfather, arrived in the Swan River Colony in 1851, twenty-two years after the British invaded and made a fledgling free town. He arrived as a convict on the Mermaid. He was already married, he had a son, he had had a variety of occupations, including wool sorter, and had been convicted of stealing clothes and money. He spent time in Portsmouth Gaol before making the journey to Fremantle. He was literate, a Jew, and his convict papers declared that his state of mind was hopeful.

Brina Israel, my grandmother’s grandmother, arrived two years later by her own volition. With her sister Esther she made the remarkable choice to leave London and its community of Jews to start a new life in this colony so far from her home. She was a single emigrant woman on supported passage to a colony that wanted domestic servants and wives for its male population.

These two people in Perth and Fremantle in the middle of the nineteenth century, categorised in the language of that century’s census-keeping as Jews Mahomedans and Infidels.1 There was just a handful of Jews here then, not enough for coherence or community. The congregation wasn’t founded until 1892, when a handsome synagogue was built in Brisbane Street near the city. Until then there were only small family units and a few convicts, Jews from different classes, some of them here since 1829, the first year of the colony. Their faith contained within their isolation. In 1892, the congregation planted trees around their synagogue.

The walls speak back. Carry the murmurings of inhabitants over the many decades. We once enclosed separate gardens for the men and women patients; we are eighteen inches thick and too high for the prying citizens outside who seem always fascinated by madness. Fierce storms have been the only enemy and destroyer of our solid defence.

In the men’s garden grew vegetables tended by all of the men who were capable of looking after something outside themselves. Daily, for planting, weeding, and picking for the kitchen to provide that circularity of life: without a source of fresh water, the used water fed the garden and the garden—in turn—fed the inmates and staff. As well, the gardens were planted with fruit trees: mulberry, fig, lemons and oranges.

We stand tall still around the majestic buildings: one of the finest examples of colonial gothic architecture constructed from blocks of local limestone and jarrah. Started life as a lunatic asylum and filled up fast; then a receptacle for homeless women; a school for Midwives; an Old Women’s Home and then headquarters for American troops during the second war. Now we follow the pursuits of the making of art. We have seen suffering, as well as joy. We can give back some chronicle of the life of those inmates—not just in the ghost sightings we are renowned for—but for those forebears who want to hear.

Theodore’s delusions told him he had a voice operating from his belly giving him messages from God Almighty to destroy the world. Sick in the head and body, he occupied the garden. I look at the walls of limestone in this asylum, I sit and stare through long days. Think I have captured every detail, every rivulet, the cadence of a wall. And then after hours, days, months, I suddenly see a new feature. Seen entirely for the first time. A pattern in the limestone, its colour at the different times of the day. The same with the symmetry of the windows on the asylum’s north-facing wall, all the way up to the tower. The way that they have been placed, the logic of the pattern. The tessellated pattern of fossils in the limestone. I look and look at these things, the things around me, and I do it for my own comfort and to stay in the world. Because when I can notice a perfectly new thing after habituation then I know my mind still works.

I take my exercise in the garden under the shade of the Rottnest pines [Callitris preissii]. On mild mornings there is the pleasure of the colours and scent of some of the native flowers, scents that remind me of allspice and clover. The crimson flower of the Kennedya [prostrata]. I have few names for these flowers but they can each take me by surprise when I notice them: their subtlety and the way they can thrive under this fierce sun. The trees of my childhood and the somber landscape of Poland as I recall it provide the contrast in every manner: the oak, the beech, the hornbeam and the white alder.

The Garden of Eden as the beginning of everything. Filled with all manner of tree and plant, and delicately shaped fruit trees with luscious produce. The tree of life at the centre, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil alongside it. Trees overhanging the walls, providing shade and casting shadow. The beauty of the garden as a private room.

Inside the walls of Jerusalem, rose gardens were grown. Outside and around the walls grew trees and vegetables. Balsams; Oaks, Pistacia Lentiscus, alongside palm groves.

Then jonquils and sourgrass, reminding me of the foliage of cemeteries. And stones, surrounding these flower beds; stones as we place them—in our faith—onto graves as a sign of remembrance. I remember my family:

In the shtetl we were our community, autonomous, complete. And God saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.And then we had to move, always moving, being chased from beloved places when foreign powers meddle in how we will live. In time we go to Berlin. This burden of our race. How I ended my days in this place when I started there—the burden of our race. My midnight breathing, the only time I pause and am not hot. An infernal heat. Bright sun beating down all year. And that fierce ice wind at night through Fremantle town just to remind you between day and night, cold and hot. There is nothing in the middle. The bush like Palestine —covered in Spring by beautiful green of grass and herbs and then soon scorched brown and parched in the heat and drought of summer. But always cold at night. Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Fremantle; every man and his household came with Theodore:

Abraham, Phoebe, Rachael, Fanny, Sampson, Rudolph, Philip, Raphael, David.

And all of the souls that came out of the loins of Theodore were many souls and they also numbered Samuel back in London, my forgotten son. Seven sons and three daughters.2

Writing of Fremantle, early colonist George Fletcher Moore reassures family in the Old Country with:

(Now) there is a town laid out in regular streets of stone houses with low walls, and in some places palisades in front; two or three large well kept inns or hotels, in which you can get clean beds and good private rooms. The soil there is loam resting upon stratum of easily worked limestone, and possessing a fertility almost exceeding belief, with abundant water near the surface.3

We kept scented geranium beds in our gardens, Pelagoniums that bloom most of the year. Thriving in the heat; the lack of water is ultimately a problem. Those early gardens around Fremantle consisted of a combination of native plants with the British and southern African that arrived on each boat, transported with care. Our visitors noticed the remarkable variety: the numerous types of leaves with the same flower, the rich and luxurious trees which adorn Paradise4

Every act of memory an act of imagination. His childhood in Cracow and Berlin ; his adult life and misdemeanours in London. And now Fremantle. The thread of faith is one link in these different landscapes. He spent more time with soil and agriculture in this new country than the previous homes, in part as his punishment for crime.

Captain James Stirling and the Colonial Botanist of New South Wales, Charles Fraser, landed at the Swan River in 1827 and, after exploring the river and the foothills of the Darling Ranges, described the landscape in this way:

The richness of the soil, the bright foliage of the shrubs, the majesty of the surrounding trees, the abrupt and red-coloured banks of the river occasionally seen, and the view of the blue summits of the mountains from which we were not far distant, made the scenery round this spot as beautiful as anything of the kind I had ever witnessed.5

Theodore was in the Asylum for his last four years of his life. Before that he had observed the evening curfew for bond men at 10pm with a bell in the front of the Round House, at which point he came home to Brina and their children. What a blinding day it had been, the fearful glare of limestone and white sand, wherever you went. Even the delicate little shrubby plants covering Fremantle had leaves and twigs with a whitish look, harmonizing with the white sand.

Being accustomed to birch, oak and elm, the lemon-scented gums ( Corymbia citriodora ), at first sighting, give her an enormous fright. They look like people towering right down and over her, full of a naked white skin, both vulnerable and threatening.

In mid-life she is prone to pronouncements from the learning she is doing. A botanical garden gives us permanence; it classifies and names and protects the unique, the wild, the introduced. A forest is a stand of trees, close enough to touch and form a canopy effect. Each name carries a multitude more, and signals many stories. From her awe of the bush and the botanical she begins to borrow books from the lending libraries, the mechanical institutes, and confirm her instinctual understanding of this new world.

I walk along a street of the town and there is a most remarkable explosion of sounds. At each step is a new bird song, sometimes a screech of humour or heartache. I am sorry that I do not know the names of these species. There is the shaking of trees, the crackle underfoot of foliage, of leaves and grasses and also crickets. I know no names yet to describe any of these things aside from bird, tree, cricket. It is a new world. This world is alive.

Later, after her nine children and the death of her mad de facto husband, at the age of forty six she becomes a married woman for the first time. This is her moment of pause, with fewer chores than ever before. She learns the botanical names of these favourite, startling trees and plants in the city Park, visiting as often as she can and practicing the names: Species of Eucalyptus: marginata, ficifolia; citriodora, cladocalyx; Marri; Karri; red and green kangaroo paw Anigozanthos manglesii; Nuytsia floribunda; Allacasuarina fraseriana.

Alluvial; aeolian; estuarine soils. The immense age of trees. Mixing native with introduced species of plants, birds, and animals. Each requiring special consideration. Remnant plantings; endemic vegetation; a venerable old Tuart tree. Brina is fascinated by the sight—in Perth, in Fremantle, in the bush when she gets to travel in it, of trees growing out of stone, rocky outcrops; out of the limestone face, what appears sometimes as out of boulders. The ability in nature for such examples, of trees that grow out of the harshest conditions, is a marvel. Stones remind her of family graves; the placing of stones on graves for remembrance and reverence, part of the ritual of her faith.

Prior to their arrival in the Colony, various expert and other assessments had been sought about the site of the city. Lieutenant Breton wrote, in 1833:

Many and very contrary opinions have been given concerning the soil immediately around Perth; and the reader will easily perceive to what an extent this was carried, when he is informed that one gentleman said it was a rich loam, with a superstratum of sand; and another asserted that there was nothing but sand to the depth of several feet! Both of them were residing upon the spot, not above thirty or forty yards asunder and neither of them would have willfully misrepresented the matter. As there happened, opportunely, to be a saw-pit at hand, I examined it with great care to the depth of nearly seven feet, and found the latter assertion to be strictly correct.6

Theodore recalls and laments: Once I was lost in the bush after I travelled with Brina and it was hot and I was in a fever and everything was prickly and forbidding of comfort. Walking in circles for hours, for days, four days, crying for help or some dear woman to give me a drink. I was nearly perished.

I recall and lament, his great granddaughter in the fifth generation of the occupation he inaugurated:

Driving around the river again—it’s not so hard, as the river runs through Perth and down to Fremantle—I hook into a mood, an incipient fear. Isolation, the favourite myth, strikes in our bellies and changes us. We sit here upon the landscape, on the edge of this dryness, looking out onto the Indian Ocean. Water and heat. The perils of the encroaching outback and the day-after-day reports of how much water is in the dams and how much is required; it is no wonder we talk about the weather so much. But then there is this luminous body: the river sparkling, even at the end of a winter day.7


Terri-ann White is the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia.


1. Census, (Colonial Secretary’s Office). Perth : Government Press, 1854.

2. Terri-ann White, Finding Theodore and Brina. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001, p.181-2.

3. George Fletcher Moore Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an early settler in Western Australia. London : 1884

4. Georgiana Molloy, from Alexandra Hasluck Portrait with Background. Melbourne : 1955

5. Quoted in Ewers, John K. The Western Gateway. Fremantle: Fremantle City Council, 1948, p.11.

6. Lieutenant Breton RN. Excursions in New South Wales Western Australia and Van Diemen’s Land during the Years 1830, 1831, 1832 and 1833. London : 1833

7. Terri-ann White, Finding Theodore and Brina. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2001, p.15.

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