Updated: Feb 8, 2022
A forgotten asylum patient, a newspaper article from the 1980s, and a callout on a Facebook page adds up to an intriguing mystery.
When ex-journalist for the Daily Mirror Steve Pivetta posted on Facebook page Australian People Through the Years asking for help to solve a mystery surrounding 104 year old Sophia Stewart, the reaction was overwhelming.
The front page of the Daily Mirror with the story Steve Pivetta wrote about Sophia Stewart in 1980. Courtesy: Steve Pivetta
In 1980 Steve had received a tip from a staff member at Bloomfield psychiatric hospital in Orange about a 102 year old woman named Sophia Stewart who had spent 81 years in mental institutions.
"Nobody knows why Sophia was put away 81 years ago, as most of her records no longer exist," Steve wrote in his article, published on July 10, 1980.
He also quoted the chief executive of the hospital at the time as saying, since Sophia had arrived at Bloomfield in 1944, he couldn't recall her ever receiving a visitor.
Steve was able to uncover a few facts about Sophia which only deepened the mystery of why she was incarcerated back in 1899. Sophia, herself, had no recollection of what happened.
"Sophia's address in 1899 was 107 Foveaux Street, Surry Hills, according to surviving records," the article went on to say.
Sophia had been a domestic servant at this address for an Emily Brown, whose name, along with Mrs Wing of 17 Isabel St, Camperdown and Mrs Grindall of Bullanaming St, Redfern, appeared on an ageing hospital record for Sophia.
After the article was published, Steve found out only a few extra clues to Sophia's life.
"A woman caller told me Sophia had been the centre of a sensational legal battle soon after 1903," he said.
"Sophia’s records before 1903 and up to 1925 were 'lost in a fire'. "
The mystery caller went on to intimate that Sophia was "an heiress to substantial money and property".
"A wealthy Sydney man, believed to be a prominent figure in (why Sophia was incarcerated), was buried in an unmarked grave at Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery," Steve said.
Sophia died two years after the article and is buried in the cemetery at Orange, with no further light shed on the mystery of her life.
Sophia was born in 1877 to James and Julia Ann (nee Hayes) Stewart in the inner west suburb of Balmain in Sydney.
Members of the Facebook page uncovered many sad events around Sophia's family life including drunkenness, desertion and even a stabbing.
Official records show she was the second youngest of six children. One older brother, James, has no registered birth record but appears in the newspapers in 1883 when his mother is charged with stabbing him with a three-pronged fork when he was only 14 years old. The article goes on to say James' mother stabbed him when he refused to buy her more alcohol.
Two months later, James the father has submitted four of his children, including Sophia into the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children. Sophia is only 5 years old at the time. All four children are discharged to him again a year and a half later.
Life didn't seem to get much better as Julia was found drunk in Little Darling Street, Balmain in 1889 and fined five shillings. Then in 1891 James was summoned by Julia for maintenance, indicating that he must have left the family home. A warrant was issued for his arrest when he did not appear in court.
By 1898 Sophia was working as a domestic servant for Mrs Emily Brown in Surry Hills, shortly before her incarceration. From there official records go cold.
Sophia was treated exceptionally well by the staff of Bloomfield and died peacefully in her sleep shortly before her 105th birthday on September 19, 1982. Her secrets, unfortunately, all died with her.
Sophia's final resting place in Orange General Cemetery. Photo: Findagrave
' Grave took Sophie's Secret', Sydney 'Daily Mirror' Oct 1982
'Locked-up' Lady', Daily Mirror, 10 July, 1980, Page 1
'Sophia Stewart', BDM NSW, Registration 3848/1877, accessed online 4th September, 2021, Family History Search Results (nsw.gov.au)
'A Sad Case', The Sydney Daily Telegraph, Thursday 31 May, 1883, Page 4
'Sophia Stewart', New South Wales, Australia, Registers for the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children, 1852-1915, accessed online 4th September, 2021, Ancestry.com.au - New South Wales, Australia, Registers for the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children, 1852 - 1915
'Balmain Police Court', Balmain Observer and Western Suburbs Advertiser, Saturday 14 December, 1889, Page 5
'Balmain', Evening News, Monday 6th April, 1891, Page 2