The Interwar Years: Broughton Hall Leads the Way

Image: Broughton Hall garden view looking north-east across north lawn towards the conservatory, with Iron Cove in the background, 1900. B&W, photographer Henry King, courtesy Mark Turnbull and Keep Family Collection, Leichhardt Library Local History.

In 1918, the Commonwealth Government formally resumed Broughton Hall. By the end of World War One, 1,045 patients had spent time at Broughton Hall, of which 941 had been discharged[i]. However, by the 1920s, war invalids were no longer admitted at Broughton Hall. Mentally-scarred troops had no refuge, unless they were certifiably insane or could afford private nursing. As local historian Ken Leong explains, ‘A half-way house between the general hospitals and the mental asylums was needed… Broughton Hall filled this need…’[ii] On 4 April 1921, Broughton Hall became Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic – the first clinic for voluntarily-admitted mental patients in New South Wales.

Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic began as a thoroughly progressive institution, thanks largely to the vision of Dr Sydney Evan Jones. Evan Jones began work at Broughton Hall in 1920 and served as Medical Superintendent from 1925 until his death in 1948. He developed the clinic and its gardens in the same spirit as Inspector-General of the Insane Frederick Norton Manning and architect James Barnet had designed and built the neighbouring Kirkbride block[iii]. Dr Thomas Kirkbride – the American physician who promoted the therapeutic influence of agreeable rural surroundings and limited physical restraint – inspired the block’s name. The name’s symbolism has echoed down the corridor of time, carrying with it an enduring legacy of openness, tranquillity and humanity.

In 1863, Barnet was horrified by what he saw at Tarban Creek Asylum: ‘such sights as he hoped never to see again, and they affected him so much that he was unable to sleep for three nights afterwards. The rats were over running the patients, and gutters were stinking, the closets overflowing and everything was in a fearful condition.’[iv] Manning was similarly disappointed in the standards of care at Tarban Creek Asylum, suggesting in his annual report in 1869 that conditions had scarcely improved since Bishop Willson had toured New South Wales’ mental asylums in 1863 (Willson had condemned them as inhumane)[v]. In 1873, James Barnet suggested the Callan Park Estate to Henry Parkes as the site for a new mental asylum because the surrounding bushland and water were picturesque and the land was exposed to summer breezes and the winter sun.

The architecture of the Kirkbride complex illustrates the compassionate aspirations of its designers. The open-air courtyards and verandas encouraged exercise and outdoor activity. There was little repetition of building forms and the monotony of black-tiled roofs was broken up by structures like the water tower. This made the hospital less visually daunting and less like a prison. The complex was enclosed by a ‘ha-ha wall’, located at the bottom of the slopes surrounding the hospital. The wall was sufficiently high to prevent patients escaping but also to allow them to enjoy views of Iron Cove and the Parramatta River beyond[vi]. In 1903, the Sydney Mail labelled Callan Park Hospital for the Insane a ‘veritable palace of mental affliction’ and ‘one of the finest institutions in the Commonwealth’. The newspaper praised the hospital’s pleasant design and eloquently captured the stunning panorama visitors were treated to as they approached the Kirkbirde Block:

‘A fine avenue of Moreton Bay figs and Pinus insignis and a well macadamised roadway, fringed with bright flowers, relieved with rich green verdue, affords on one side a convenient approach to the main hall and offices and the medical superintendent’s and assistant superintendent’s residences while a carriage drive serves for the convenience of tradesfolk and others.’[vii]


Callan Park Hospital for the Insane was so open to its natural surroundings that concerned locals expressed dismay on multiple occasions. When the Parkes government announced that a mental asylum would be built at Callan Park, local residents submitted a petition. They argued that the asylum was ‘a great worry, injury and annoyance’ and a hindrance to the rapid expansion of housing in Balmain. In 1876, a deputation to the Colonial Secretary organised by local residents complained that fencing around Callan Park was too low to prevent patients escaping[viii]. While the hospital did become quite secluded during the interwar years, it was always intended to be a welcoming environment.
To describe the construction and layout of the Kirkbride buildings as forward-thinking would be overly presumptuous. Belief in the curative power of fresh air, natural scenery and beautiful gardens was, to some extent, a nation-wide phenomenon. In the late nineteenth century, institutions, such as Parkside Lunatic Asylum in Adelaide, optimised access to green environments[ix]. Callan Park Hospital for the Insane (renamed Callan Park Mental Hospital in 1915) was not ahead of its time. But the scale of the hospital and its success in early decades certainly pushed it into the spotlight of public acclaim.

Evan Jones meticulously planned and shaped the gardens around Broughton Hall. He further developing previous owners’ efforts, which had, by the mid-nineteenth century, already established the property’s impressive horticultural reputation[x]. Patients were put to work nurturing the landscape. Practical activities like gardening and growing fruit and vegetables helped Callan Park’s mental hospitals to become self-sufficient and the patients themselves to recover. Their labour enhanced the curative power of rambles through the gardens, distracted plagued minds and gave patients a sense of accomplishment and productivity[xi]. Staff considered the prospects of recovery for patients who could not or refused to work as severely limited.

By the interwar years, Broughton Hall had carefully-maintained lawns, fish ponds, lush tropical ferns, Hoop pines, zoological gardens with kangaroos, emus and peacocks, a rainforest gully with a paved water course and more. Evan Jones’ pet project involved oriental-themed ornamentation, including dovecotes, gateways, lattice work and a red East Asian-style bridge. He received praise from fellow medical professionals, who explained in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1948, that he ‘set out to exploit the influence of visual environment [and]… with rare cunning… he devised walks [where] the details were perfect. Willow-pattern bridges spanned waters in which concrete flamingos and crocodiles disported themselves.’[xii] Evidently, Evan Jones conceived of his work in a remarkably similar vein as James Barnet and Frederick Norton Manning before him.

Somewhere in Callan Park’s history – probably by the 1930s – Callan Park Mental Hospital (not Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic) deserted progressive principles. Drugs and electroconvulsive therapy were used to sedate patients. Nurses became prison guards in disguise. Historian Stephen Garton referred to this period of psychiatric history as the ‘melancholy years’[xiii]. Dr Neil Jeyasingham referred to this era as the ‘bin days’ due to staff behaviour. He explained, with a hint of exaggeration:

‘“Bin” as in you just basically dump them inside and they never see the light of day because there was nothing you could do with them… it created… a culture that these people with mental illnesses really needed to be rounded up and sort of herded away. So that led to most people who were being hired to work in mental hospitals operating basically prison wardens, because their only role was in terms of securing and sequestering patients.’[xiv]

Like negligent parents locking their child in a car and losing the keys, nurses begun to ignore chronic patients and psychiatrists began to increasingly see them as having hereditary conditions and no prospect of recovery[xv]. Patients were allowed outside. They had access to Callan Park’s lush greenery. They enjoyed leisure and sporting activities. But these were increasingly offered only to acute patients, who showed signs of improvement[xvi]. Judge McClemens, who investigated the state of Callan Park’s mental hospitals for the 1961 Royal Commission, found that the institutions no longer employed recreational officers. Passive activities that kept patients inside, such as watching television, offered the only entertainment. McClemens believed a greater emphasis should be placed on occupational therapy (as it once had been)[xvii]. By 1961, Callan Park Mental Hospital had truly veered off-course.

It must be remembered that Callan Park Mental Hospital was not a horrifying outlier. These trends were prevalent throughout the psychiatric community. It impossible to know how prevalent the use of electroconvulsive therapy was, but Jess Learing never administered this treatment and explicitly expressed her distaste for it in an oral history interview[xviii].

Furthermore, Evan Jones’ experiments in psychotherapy placed Broughton Hall at the forefront of changes in mental policy. As Stephen Garton has demonstrated, the strict policing of public behaviour in the late nineteenth century meant that predominantly men were committed to Australian mental asylums. However, this vision of insanity as violent and aggressive had changed by the 1930s as the patient population became feminised and more patients were admitted with melancholia rather than mania. Clinics like Broughton Hall, which relied on voluntary admissions, were instrumental to this shifting perception of insanity (in every year after 1923 more women than men were admitted to Broughton Hall)[xix]. Broughton Hall was so cutting-edge that it was technically illegal until the Lunacy Act was amended in 1934 to make legislative provision for the admission of voluntary patients into psychiatric institutions.

Callan Park’s mental hospitals were compassionate institutions that became a home and refuge – to war veterans too unstable to assimilate into society and to civilians, particularly women, unwilling to subscribe to middle-class values of respectability and docility. Jess Learning played golf with an Aboriginal man, Douglas Grant, who she described as a ‘thorough gentleman’, humorous and well educated. According to Learning, ‘he shouldn’t have been there if he had someone’[xx]. As an Aboriginal man brought up by white parents, living in a middle-class sphere – his own parents were victims of frontier violence in Ngadjonji country – Grant spoke with the heavy Scottish burr of his adoptive father. He was a talented artist, who could play the bag-pipes and recite Shakespeare[xxi]. But this rendered him an isolated figure in both white and non-white circles[xxii]. Clearly, Grant appreciated his new home at Callan Park and did not want to leave. He poured his soul into the park, building an ornamental pond spanned by a small-scale reproduction of the Harbour Bridge.

[i] Ken Leong, ‘Broughton House, Austenham: The Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic’, Leichhardt Historical Journal 13 (1984), p. 8.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Roslyn Burge, ‘Broughton Hall: Private Gardens, Public Therapy’, Locality: The Community History Magazine (2001), pp. 17-24.

[iv] Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 1883, quoted in Stephen Garton, Medicine and Madness: A Social History of Insanity in New South Wales, 1880-1940 (Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1988), p. 161.

[v] Garton, Medicine and Madness, p. 21.

[vi] Ken Leong perceptively argues that the architecture reflected Manning and Barnet’s faith in moral therapy and the ideas of physicians like Dr John Connolly and Dr Thomas Kirkbride. Ken Leong, ‘Garry Owen and Callan Park: The Story of Rozelle Hospital, Lilyfield: 1819-1984’, Leichhardt Historical Journal 14 (1985), pp. 13-17. See also: John Conolly, The Construction and Government of Lunatic Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1847).

[vii] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 12 August 1903, pp. 409-413. Quote pp. 409-410.

[viii] Leong, ‘Garry Owen and Callan Park’, pp. 11-12.

[ix] Julie Collins, Susan Avey & Peter Lekkas, ‘Lost Landscapes of Healing: The Decline of Therapeutic Mental Health Landscapes’, Landscape Research 41, no. 6 (June 2016), pp. 664-677.

[x] Burge, ‘Broughton Hall’, pp. 19-20.

[xi] This was certainly the opinion of John Bostock when he reviewed Evan Jones’ career upon his death in 1948. John Bostock, ‘A Psychiatric Centenary (1848 to 1948)’, The Medical Journal of Australia 1, no. 24 (June 1948), pp. 763-769.

[xii] Ibid., p. 768.

[xiii] Garton, Medicine and Madness, pp. 75-96.

[xiv] Interview with Niel Jeyasingham by Roslyn Burge, 18 February 2008, transcript, Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project, available at Leichhardt Library, pp. 5-6.

[xv] Garton, Medicine and Madness, pp. 75-96.

[xvi] Ibid., pp. 166-168.

[xvii] 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), chapter 8, pp. 121-123.

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

[xix] Garton, Medicine and Madness, pp. 88-92.

[xx] Interview with Jess Learing by Roslyn Burge, 28 November 2008, transcript, Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project, available at Leichhardt Library, p. 7-8.

[xxi] Chris Clark, ‘Grant, Douglas (1885-1951)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography,, viewed 20 November 2016.

[xxii] This character analysis of Grant as alienated from all sides aligns with scholars’ views. See, for instance: Paul Daley, ‘Indigenous Diggers and the New Age of Anzackery’, Meanjin 74, no. 1 (March 2015), pp. 1-15.


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