Callan Park Mental Hospital, 1945-1976: ‘A Squalid Relic of Victorian Times?’

Image: Callan Park Mental Hospital, 20 July 1955. Courtesy: State Library of NSW.

By the 1950s, Callan Park was in many ways a closed institution. The 1955 Stoller Report revealed that significant overcrowding, bad smells, dilapidation and short staffing were restricting mental hospitals across Australia to purely custodial roles. Jess Learing explained that, while the patients at Broughton Hall used to ‘go to the pub… up the street… go to the doctor and get a script’ and  ‘go to the chemist and get the script made’, the patients at Callan Park Mental Hospital did not have such freedom of movement[i]. The poet Francis Webb intermittently spent four years at Callan Park. He proved enigmatic, even to his literary peers. He trod a fine line between respect and mocking humour. The poet Geoffrey Lehmann visited Webb at Callan Park in 1966. He recounted: ‘As we were leaving, the nuns produced some bananas, which they handed to him [Webb]. With enormous courtesy – he was always very courteous – he said: “Thank you kindly, sisters. I much appreciate it. Like the animals at the zoo.”’[ii] Webb felt inappropriately caged. Gerard Oosterman was similarly disapproving of Callan Park’s gaol-like and ‘intimidating’ atmosphere[iii]. In his autobiography, Almost There: Fragments of a Restless Life, he claimed that ‘the one item missing’ from his brother’s time at Callan Park was ‘genuine care’: ‘The nightmare of Callan Park courtyard, with bunches of keys hanging from scowling wardens belts, wasn’t acceptable, nor the wrapping up of Frank in wet bed-sheets when he became violent. This was 1960 not 1860.’[iv]

The Sydney Morning Herald was especially harsh about living standards and care at Callan Park. It claimed in October 1960:

‘Stone walls may not make a prison, but they certainly breed corruption… [for patients] the world has shrunk to a place of high walls, locked doors and barred windows… It is lived (except in a few modern wards) in all pervading stench which clings at the back of visitors throats… it is an atrocious anachronism, a squalid relic of Victorian times, something that should be bulldozed into the earth from which it arose.’[v]

Vitriolic rhetoric like this heaped pressure on the Federal Government to act. But such sensationalised hyperbole only exacerbated the need to educate and better inform the public about insanity.

Undeniably, overcrowding was tainting Callan Park’s image. The addition of new structures – Ward G (1944) and Male Admission Ward 16 (1948) – clearly did little to halt overcrowding at Callan Park. The surplus patient population was a key issue in the 1955 Stoller Report. The investigation resulted in a new initiative from the Federal Government to subsidise state governments funding building projects for mental institutions[vi]. This encouraged the addition of new buildings to Callan Park in 1959: wards 17, 18, 21 and 22 and the Cerebral Surgery and Research Unit. But, once again, this was not enough, as the 1961 Royal Commission on Callan Park reiterated the need to solve overcrowding. Judge McClemens argued that the patient population needed to be reduced by 25 percent[vii].

It is difficult to pinpoint the chronology of changes in psychiatric treatment. In the twentieth century official phraseology transformed the older terms of ‘alienist’, ‘asylum’ and ‘lunatic’ into new words – ‘mental hospital’ and ‘patient’ – to reflect medical professionals’ ability to treat patients, rather than to simply monitor, isolate and detain them, as had been tradition for much of the nineteenth-century. However, as Stephen Garton explains, ‘there was never a clean break – modern practices of psychiatry remained embedded in their origins as a form of incarceration.’[viii]

Fundamentally, by 1961, psychiatric authorities had returned to promoting the benefits of open environments, but there were new perspectives that Manning and Barnet could not have foreseen when they designed the Kirkbride block.  Psychiatric authorities favoured institutions with personal living space and individualised furnishings to replicate homely atmospheres. Seclusion rooms and large dormitory areas were frowned upon[ix]. Dr Thomas Kirkbride had asserted that a superintendent should know every patient personally. Therefore the maximum patient population was considered 250[x]. From the very beginning, Callan Park had exceeded this number. Overcrowding and short staffing was a problem because staff were not able to form close relationships with patients. Nurses and doctors were not sufficiently exchanging patient information. Judge McClemens noted some minor cases of negligence, but Callan Park Mental Hospital really suffered due to a lack of funding and government apathy. By 1961, expanding psychiatric knowledge meant Callan Park’s layout, size and architecture were out-dated. It is no coincidence that McClemens targeted the Kirkbride complex as lagging the furthest behind required health standards of all Callan Park’s facilities.

In contrast, McClemens praised the quality of renovated and new instalments, such as the new female dining room, the canteen and the Cerebral Surgery and Research Unit (CSRU). The CSRU was opened in 1961 in a renovated section of the Kirkbride block. It possessed a ‘pleasant home-like environment’ and ‘an air of cheerfulness’. This atmosphere was missing in most male wards, but present, to some extent, in the female wards, which were better maintained[xi].

McClemens concluded: ‘owing to the war and to financial stringency, nothing material was done until 1955. In spite of attempts to better it since, Callan Park is too big, too overcrowded, its standards of accommodation low, its emphases mainly custodial; owing to lack of staff and amenities there is little active treatment or rehabilitation.’[xii] Despite the modifications needed in psychiatric care at Callan Park, McClemens found that the report of Medical Superintendent Dr Bailey from March 1960 to be exaggerated, particularly the accusations of theft, cruelty towards patients and inadequate and disrespectful treatment of dead bodies[xiii].

1961 thus saw Callan Park at a crossroads. Something had to be done to rectify the fact that patients were given more freedom and attention at the end of the nineteenth century that during the interwar years. The infamous male Ward 7 – a temporary weatherboard building that had lasted from 1879 – was knocked down soon after the Royal Commission. The boundary wall was lowered. From the mid-1970s, the gradual shift from institutional to community care meant patient numbers dwindled. This, combined with the stigma of Broughton Hall and Callan Park Mental Hospital, resulted in the two hospitals amalgamating under a new name – Rozelle Hospital.

Letters written by Francis Webb, while institutionalised at Callan Park and Bloomfield Mental Hospitals in New South Wales and Plenty Valley Repatriation Psychiatric Hospital and Larundel Mental Hospital in Victoria during the 1960s, illuminate the relative decay and depressing atmosphere of Callan Park compared to other mental institutions in Australia. In a letter to Sheila Wiley from Plenty Hospital in March 1970, he wrote that he was ‘not very happy here – but as you well know, I was never recently a bouncing ball of joie-de-vivre. But soon, if I’m patient, some good news may come: a doctor and poet at Melbourne’s Latrobe [sic] University is pulling a few strings to get me out of hospital. I’ve a multitude of ideas for poems, but can do no more in mental-hospital environment.’ The tone is hopeful. While he writes he is not happy; throughout the letter he is jovial and upbeat. Webb may not have written any poetry, but at least he felt inspired[xiv]. In contrast, his Callan Park letters are bleak; filled with complaints about damaging rumours seeping outside the asylum walls and about the communists supposedly surrounding him. During four years at Callan Park, he did not produce any poetry[xv]. It is impossible to know how much of Webb’s despair stemmed from poor care at Callan Park. He may have been uncomfortable in any environment. But one letter he wrote at Bloomfield Mental Hospital is particularly useful because it shows that the natural surroundings of this Orange facility were rejuvenating. By contrast, Callan Park’s greenery and views failed to help Webb. Webb wrote from Orange:

‘Orange is as lovely as ever in this golden autumn. And I have a pleasant little room to myself. I can’t say that I’m free of all the old troubles as yet; nor have I been able to scribble out some verse. But the beauty of the place is recompense enough. And in the evenings I can go outside and see the stars.’[xvi]

But, we must be careful of presuming the public unanimously loathed Callan Park as an ancient relic. McClemens believed the situation was not as dire as some (Dr Bailey, for example) made out. This view is reinforced by Gary Rowley, who worked as a nurse at Callan Park between 1967 and 1971, when she left to work at Gladesville Hospital. She returned to Callan Park in 1981: ‘I always had at the back of my mind that I wanted to go back to Callan Park, because I knew the place was really buzzing…. It was very “leading the way”. If anybody did anything in mental health, it… always… originated in Callan Park. It’s got an enormous tradition and respect from all around Australia…’[xvii]

[i] Interview with Jess Learing by Roslyn Burge, 28 November 2008, transcript, Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project, available at Leichhardt Library, p.52.

[ii] Geoffrey Lehmann, ‘Like Animals at the Zoo’, The Australian, April 2, 2011,

<;, viewed 15 November 2016.

[iii] Gerard Oosterman, Almost There: Fragments of a Restless Life (Gerard Oosterman, 2016), pp. 77-83. Quote p. 77.

[iv] Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[v] Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 1960, quoted in Leong, ‘Garry Owen and Callan Park’, pp. 18-19.

[vi] State Grants (Mental Institutions) Act 1955 (Cth).

[vii] Report of the Honourable Mr. Justice McClemens, Royal Commissioner, Appointed to Inquire into Certain Matters Affecting Callan Park Mental Hospital, 1961 (Sydney : Govt. Printer, 1961), p. 9.

[viii]  Stephen Garton, ‘Asylum Histories: Reconsidering Australia’s Lunatic Past’, in Catharine Colebourne and Dolly MacKinnon, eds., Madness in Australia: Histories, Heritage and the Asylum (Brisbane: Queensland, University Press, 2003), pp. 11-12.

[ix] Ken Leong, ‘Garry Owen and Callan Park: The Story of Rozelle Hospital, Lilyfield: 1819-1984’, Leichhardt Historical Journal 14 (1985), p. 18.

[x] Report of the Honourable Mr. Justice McClemens, Royal Commissioner, chapter 1, p. 34.

[xi] Ibid., chapter 4, pp. 65-90. Quotes pp. 67-68.

[xii] Ibid., foreword, p. 7.

[xiii] Ibid, chapter 16, pp. 161-171.

[xiv] Letter from Francis Webb to Sheila Wiley, 29 March 1970, MLMSS 7105, State Library of NSW.

[xv] He explains in one letter ‘I have been unable to think of writing a poem, nor ever be able again to write whilst in this hospital’. Letter from Francis Webb to Rosemary Dobson, 13 July 1968, MLMSS 7105, State Library of NSW. Letter from Francis Webb to David Campbell, April 9 1968, MLMSS 7105, State Library of NSW. Quote from letter to David Campbell.

[xvi] Letter from Francis Webb to Sheila Wiley, 29 March 1969, MLMSS 7105, State Library of NSW.

[xvii] Interview with Gary Rowley by Roslyn Burge, 5 March 2008, transcript, Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project, available at Leichhardt Library, p. 20.


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