Broughton Hall: 1915-1918

Image: Callan Park Mental Hospital, 1903. Courtesy: State Library of NSW.

Amid the tumult of World War One, as the workforce was redirected towards war industries, disfigured and disabled troops were returning home in droves. Patriotic funds, war charities and state governments were unable to cope with the strain of treating incapacitated soldiers. Concerned landowners shouldered impressive responsibility, bequeathing houses and estates to government authorities or the Australian Red Cross. Rathmore in Neutral Bay, Rose Hall in Darlinghurst and Graythwaite in North Sydney are some examples of the numerous properties dotting Sydney’s landscape that were used as convalescent hospitals. Countless simpler lodgings supported the same services, even if they did not mirror the scale of these manors[i]. The Langdon brothers, who had purchased Broughton Hall in 1912, offered it to authorities in July 1915, foregoing their original plan to develop a sawmill on the land[ii]. In October 1915, Broughton Hall became the 13th Army Auxiliary Hospital, where war invalids with mental illnesses were sent. Servicemen with more severe mental illnesses were transferred to the adjoining secure wards at Callan Park Mental Hospital, or sent there in the first place.

As historian Marina Larsson argues, families of shell-shocked soldiers frequently claimed their kin were a more deserving class of patient, thus ensuring their kin were placed in segregated military hospitals. Scarred troops thereby maintained their heroic reputations and avoided the stigmatisation of civilian lunatics[iii]. Broughton Hall slides smoothly into the mould of this historical phenomenon. Jess Learing, who worked as a nurse at Callan Park between 1935 and 1943, offered her thoughts on the veterans housed at Callan Park: ‘They were spoilt. A lot of psychiatric people were very spoilt. Some of them should never’ve been there… there was a ward full of dementia people – a ward full… but the repat: one used to go home every weekend. I said to him one day, “Why don’t you live at home?” “Oh no.” It was heaven back at Callan Park. They had bowling, they had tennis, golf.’[iv] One psychiatrist from Broughton Hall wrote that ‘Continuous pressure [was] brought to bear to ensure that 1) returned soldiers [were] not branded as Insane and 2) that they should be treated as far as possible on the lines of the best type of mental treatment – not as lunatics.’[v] Public pressure to prioritise the comfort and well-being of war veterans appears to have had an impact.

Newspapers approvingly recorded the donation of Broughton Hall, citing the beauty and quiet of the gardens and surrounding bushland as key benefits. The Sun reported:

‘The home is one of the most picturesque in Sydney, and is essentially suited for those who are suffering from shock, and who find themselves in need of absolute quiet and rest. Just now the avenue of wisteria is bursting into bloom, and the ground surrounding Broughton Hall is so beautifully laid out as to remind one of the Botanic Gardens. Sloping towards Iron Cove is a splendid lawn… Farther down a grove of palms is watered by a little creek. Everything is suggestive of ease and rest.’[vi]

The Daily Telegraph described Broughton Hall as ‘one of the finest properties in the State’[vii].

Newspapers (see below) illuminate how the local community united to support scarred war veterans. People donated food, cigarettes and even animals. Red Cross women played a vital role in fundraising, sourcing entertainment for the recovering invalids and hosting events at Broughton Hall. Historians have generally undervalued their efforts. As Melanie Oppenheimer asserts, ‘The integral role that non-government organisations and institutions played in soldiers’ repatriation has received scant attention from historians who focus largely on the role of the state, especially the… Department of Repatriation…’[viii]

Scholars have also ignored the broader theme of mental disability among ANZAC veterans. The subject was largely disregarded until Marina Larsson published Shattered Anzacs in 2009[ix]. This extended interest beyond wartime, individual acts of valour and foreign battlefields. Perhaps it took people so long to take note because psychologically-scarred soldiers, despite the special treatment they received, were far from immune to self-deprecation and malaise. They did not suit an emerging national narrative. ANZACs, especially those who fought at Gallipoli, carved their names into the DNA of generations of Australians through the mateship and heroism they displayed. This militaristic national identity revolved around mental toughness, physical strength, masculinity and resilience[x]. As Larsson writes, ‘Shell-shocked soldiers represented the antithesis of Anzac masculinity because they had been unable to stand the heat of battle and lacked the moral fibre to stay in the trenches and face the enemy’[xi].

One soldier, brought to Broughton Hall in January 1917 and transferred to Callan Park Mental Hospital the next month, claimed he was shot by a sniper in the left side of his chest. A physical examination quickly exposed this as a lie. This man had a distant tense relationship with his mother who was living in India. In 1918, he wrote to the Inspector of Police in Calcutta:

‘Somebody has got me detained in an Asylum and I have been nearly six months. Things are in a state of chaos and I am firmly convinced we need an invasion to put this right. If I am detained here much longer it will probably render me useless as a soldier – not the “Australian service” as it is just too crook for words. They are not a bit of good at figures, the pay being 6s per diem.’[xii]

In reality, he had spent five weeks fighting at Gallipoli. He spent his remaining time in the AIF hospitalised with various mental and physical illnesses[xiii]. He was repatriated in June 1916 but clearly still felt a keen obligation to fulfil his duty as a soldier. His complaint about corruption and poor pay in the AIF sounds like an excuse for leaving the army. The brevity of time spent on the frontline, the fabricated war wound and the expression of a need to fight suggest that shame frequently occupied the headspace of this man.

Shame – among both those afflicted and their relatives – was not uncommon. In her PhD thesis, Jennifer Roberts cites the fascinating case of a man she labels ‘Leo H’ for anonymity purposes[xiv]. Leo H was arrested at Victoria Barracks in Paddington, where he had pillaged the stores in search of a uniform. He had hoped to be admired in the new garb. While being assessed, he told one doctor he ‘went back to the AIF to get his clothes’[xv]. He later revealed that he had enlisted in the AIF too late to be sent overseas. This anecdote powerfully demonstrates the way in which the rigid iron of the brave volunteer identity became magnetised. One mother, whose son was institutionalised at Callan Park shortly after beginning training in Liverpool, wrote to the medical superintendent: ‘His father takes it hard. Sir, is there no hope he will go away with the lads? Is he no better?’[xvi] A perpetual tide of letters flowed through Callan Park, with frequent comments such as ‘for some days he was afraid to go out of the house for fear of shells coming’ and ‘his nerves are bad’. Relatives clearly wanted to demarcate the boundary between the stigma of insanity and the honour of war injuries[xvii].

One soldier was found wandering behind French lines on the Western Front in September 1916, mumbling incoherently and wearing nothing identifiable, besides an Australian army hat. He claimed his name was George Brown. Field doctors described his condition as ‘shell shock’. He likely had amnesia[xviii]. He was soon repatriated to Australia. On 27 February 1918 doctors assessed him at Reception House, Darlinghurst. He was diagnosed as certifiably insane and immediately transferred to the secure wards at Callan Park. One of the doctor’s reports is particularly revealing: ‘He states that people’s voices, who are unseen, worry him by calling him a coward. His memory is so dull that he cannot answer any question except by answering “I don’t know. I don’t know.”’[xix] With a paranoid mind like this, one wonders how large a factor pressure to appear stoic played in Brown’s psychosis. Tragedy was never far from the door at Callan Park, which became a battlefield of its own.

In 1928, newspapers across Australia began to publish photos of Callan Park’s ‘unknown patient’, George Brown, in an effort to identify him. While most media coverage was philanthropic, some were also condescending. The Sun claimed ‘the Digger who had gone away from Australia’s sunny shores as somebody, had returned as nobody – a man who had as thoroughly and effectively lost himself as if he had been stranded in the barren heart of the Sahara Desert’. Brown was ‘a bad mental case, utterly irresponsible at times and liable to strange fits of violence’[xxi].

During the interwar years, feeling of uselessness and alienation pervaded the lives of many physically and mentally-scarred Australian soldiers. Some ‘diggers’ rebuked public commemorations, masked their identities as returned servicemen, abrogated loyalty to the monarchy and conservative politics and shunned the RSSILA (Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia – now the RSL)[xxii]. Recent historiography has added colour to the black and white images of a divisive martial narrative, illuminating the depth of reactions to war, while avoiding shining a rosy light on a prickly field[xxiii]. Fear, paranoia and mental illness were defining features of diggers’ wartime and post-war experiences. We need to question the blind subscription to a national story that glorifies war[xxiv]. Acknowledging Callan Park’s wartime history is therefore vital for redefining national identity in a more inclusive compassionate way.

[i] Melanie Oppenheimer, ‘“Fated to a Life of Suffering”: Graythwaite, the Australian Red Cross and Returned Soldiers, 1916-1939’, in Martin Crotty and Marina Larsson, eds., Anzac Legacies: Australians and the Aftermath of War (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010), pp. 20-25.

[ii] The Langdons were timber merchants, possessing numerous timber yards around Sydney. For more information, see: Roslyn Burge, ‘Broughton Hall: Private Gardens, Public Therapy’, Locality: The Community History Magazine (2001), p. 20.

[iii] Marina Larsson, ‘Families and Institutions for Shell-Shocked Soldiers in Australia after the First World War’, Social History of Medicine 22, no. 1 (April 2009), pp. 97-114.

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

[v] Notes of AG Butler (1935), quoted in Marina Larsson, Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009), p. 155.

[vi] The Sun, 5 September 1915, p. 18.

[vii] Daily Telegraph, 15 July 1915.

[viii] Oppenheimer, ‘Graythwaite, the Australian Red Cross and Returned Soldiers’, p. 20.

[ix] Larsson, Shattered Anzacs.

[x] Graham Seal, Inventing Anzac: The Digger and National Mythology (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2004).

[xi] Larsson, ‘Families and Institutions for Shell-Shocked Soldiers’, p. 106.

[xii] Letter dated 4 September 1918, from Frank W to Inspector F, Calcutta Police, Admission files, 14/9394 – Callan Park Mental Hospital, No. 1918-79. 12247, quoted in Jennifer Roberts 2013, ‘Bereft: War, Grief and Experiences of the Asylum, 1915-1935’, PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, viewed 2 November 2016,

[xiii] This account is reconstructed from Roberts, ‘Bereft: War, Grief and Experiences of the Asylum’, pp. 209-212.

[xiv] Ibid., pp. 221-22. Accessing patient files requires special consideration. To protect the identities of soldiers and their families and preserve their anonymity, I too have sought to omit the names of repatriated troops.

[xv] Admission files – 14/9412 – Callan Park Mental Hospital, No. 1919-266. 13112, quoted in Roberts, ‘Bereft: War, Grief and Experiences of the Asylum’, p. 221.

[xvi] Letter date d 24 October 1918 from mother to Medical Superintendent, Admission files, 14/9402 – Callan Park Mental Hospital, 1918/366a.12734a, quoted in Roberts, ‘Bereft: War, Grief and Experiences of the Asylum’, p. 222.

[xvii] Larsson, ‘Families and Institutions for Shell-Shocked Soldiers’, pp. 97-114. Roberts, ‘Bereft: War, Grief and Experiences of the Asylum’, pp. 195-236.

[xviii] Jen Hawksley, ‘Long Time Coming Home: The “Unknown Patient” of Callan Park’, in Crotty and Larsson, Anzac Legacies, pp. 61-82.

[xix] Dr A Chapple, 27 February 1918, Brown; Personal history, 14/10082, Callan Park medical files – discharged male patients, NSW State Records, quoted in Hawksley, ‘Long Time Coming Home’, p. 66.

[xx] Singleton Argus, 29 August 1916, p. 1.

[xxi] Sun, 15 March 1928, quoted in Hawksley, ‘Long Time Coming Home’, p. 69.

[xxii] Alistair Thomson, ‘The Return of the Soldier’, in Richard White and Penny Russell, Memories and Dreams: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Australia, Pastiche II (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997), pp. 62-73.

[xxiii] See, for example: Crotty and Larsson, Shattered Anzacs. Peter Charlton, Pozières: Australians on the Somme 1916 (Sydney: Methuen Haynes, 1986). For a critique of the Anzac Legend, see: Alistair Thomson, ‘Passing Shots at the Anzac Legend’, in Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee, eds., A Most Valuable Acquisition: A People’s History of Australia since 1788 (Melbourne: Penguin, 1988).

[xxiv] Peter Stanley’s research shows that some ‘diggers’ were rapists, criminals, alcoholics and brawlers – hardly reflections of manly virtue. Peter Stanley, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010).


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.

Callan Park Today and Yesterday

Image: Loading coal at Balmain Mine, 3 March 1952. Courtesy: State Library of NSW.

While recognising the beauty of the Sydney College of the Arts’ location (SCA), the SCA’s (now resigned) dean, Colin Rhodes, made a telling remark last year: ‘…[the] park… remains in a state of limbo and it is really hard to develop a world-class art school in a location that only seems to be deteriorating.’[i] At first glance, this comment may appear unremarkable. The architecture of the Kirkbride complex, which the SCA currently inhabits, and Garry Owen House, which the NSW Writers’ Centre currently inhabits, is awe-inspiring. But alongside these buildings sits incongruously the brutalist architecture of air-raid shelters, the rustic architecture of stables and a coach house, with rusty tin roofs, and the scorched architecture of Broughton Hall, which suffered fire and vandalism in the 1980s (it is now boarded up). Callan Park sits (today) on 61 hectares of land, situated at Sydney’s heart. With the first permanent structure, Garry Owen House, built around 1840, the park has a rich history[ii]. However, beyond the local level, the park has evaded the quantity of historical analysis it deserves. Without history, these places are curious oddities with only a present and future, but not so curious as to invite examination. They appear a blank canvas for developers. They appear in need of human meaning and improvement to a naïve eye[iii].

The popular image of mental asylums as locked-down forts where patients were brutally treated as prisoners persists. Public ignorance about the histories of abandoned sites can be damaging. Sensationalist media reports have long over-emphasised the brutality and austerity of Callan Park’s mental hospitals[iv]. In the early 1920s, the Lunacy Reform League directed the attention of newspapers to what they saw as a corrupt Lunacy Department and widespread mistreatment of patients in Australian mental hospitals[v]. The government responded via the Royal Commission into Lunacy Law and Administration 1923. This investigation found the accusations of wrongful confinement and mistreatment of patients to be groundless. Yet, conspiracy theories, regarding the use of the tunnels below the Kirkbride building and a supposed secret passageway leading to the Parramatta River, still abound[vi].

Dr Jeyasingam admitted to the preconception he had of the place as ‘a really horrible hospital – one of those places where you absolutely had to avoid being at no matter what the cost , being one of the scary, dangerous places that was filled with the absolute worst and… hardest to treat psychiatric in-patients.’ In reality, Callan Park has often housed acute patients, rather than chronic patients, and less dangerous patients than, for example, the criminals housed at Parramatta Psychiatric Centre. Dr Jeyasingam expressed his surprise upon arriving at work on his first day: ‘I was expecting… increased levels of security with… patients being excluded or away from open areas. I was quite surprised to find that patients were wandering around outside the wards and that it was all completely open access.’[vii]

It is not immaterial that newspapers reported the location of Francis Webb’s death in 1973 as Callan Park Mental Hospital (he actually passed away at Rydalmere Hospital)[viii]. By the 1930s, Callan Park’s reputation was deteriorating. As McClemens wrote in 1961, Callan Park was ‘an institution to which many people go to die. Owing to… senile degeneration, they have become mentally ill and their relatives and friends are either unwilling or incapable or both of looking after them. Some have no relatives or friends; many of them have never been married… many have been patients for so long that their ties with the world are broken.’[ix] These factors made Callan Park appear a place of death, and therefore decay and misery.

As Grace Karskens remarks, in The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, ‘while there are kernels of truth in… foggy tales, places, like stories, need to be taken seriously, they need to be researched as well as visited and experienced; they need history.’[x] Growing up in western Sydney as a child, she witnessed suburbanisation and commercial development consume empty, neglected farmhouses[xi]. Like Karskens, we must write local histories that restore humanity to places. Social history is particularly useful. So is sensorial history, so often ignored in secondary sources. Recently, scholars, such as James Scott, have argued that urban planners reduce human experience to what is visible through maps and models[xii]. Instead of propagating fictionalised tales and seeing a blank canvas for redevelopment, we must smell the earthy purity of Callan Park’s lush gardens, where mental patients rehabilitated themselves. We must hear – or not hear – the muffled urban soundscape, overpowered by the squawking of birds. We must feel the blustery winds of Callan Park on our skin.
Local historians Max Solling and Peter Reynolds eloquently capture the onslaught on the senses living in the inner-west fostered:It is difficult to give Callan Park’s patients a voice because so few sources from their perspective remain. Medical files represent patients via the subjective filters of police, doctors, magistrates, family and friends. Instead of sketching a portrait of patients’ personalities and humanity, they often hold up a mirror to class-based anxieties about respectability and proper behaviour[xiii]. Newspapers provide one of the few non-institutional sources, but they are not immune from class-based sentiments. Some letters by famous patients, such as sex-reformer William Chidley and Francis Webb, can be found at the State Library of New South Wales[xiv]. But even then it is extremely difficult to get inside the head of mentally-ill people whose characters fluctuated in erratic patterns. As Dr Jeyasingham explained, 97 percent of people with schizophrenia do not realise they have schizophrenia. This caused patients to frequently criticise any restrictions on their movement and freedom (since they did not believe they needed treatment) and to discount the curative effect of their time at Callan Park[xv]. With these methodological problems, we need to place ourselves in patients’ shoes, find a holistic viewing platform, where we can see the surrounding geographic landscape and engage with our senses, and even, to some extent, use our imagination.

With large gardens and numerous verandas, Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic and Callan Park Mental Hospital were open to the natural world, accessible and relatively peaceful, especially when compared to the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of the surrounding suburbs from the beginning of the twentieth century. Pungent aromas from animal-based noxious trades quickly overran the eastern side of the Balmain peninsula. The Glebe Island Abattoirs, established in 1860, was for a long period the key site of animal slaughter in Sydney[xvi]. Cowan & Israel’s soap and candle factory soon after occupied the North Annandale shores of Rozelle Bay. The estate agent Alfred Hancock – the ‘father of Rozelle’ – used the slogan ‘Homes for the People’ until 1907 to attract working men to Rozelle. He sold small building plots at relatively cheap prices, advertising the region’s proximity to heavy industry and new tramlines[xvii]. In the coming decades, however, Rozelle and its surrounding suburbs earnt reputations as inner-city slums[xviii]. Industrialisation boomed. Coal-fired powerhouses, sawmills, steamships, dockyards, foundries and chemical and soap factories, caused environmental degradation and atmospheric pollution.

‘… horse-drawn carts, cabs and coaches turned the streets into quagmires. The rattle of harnesses, the shouting of drivers controlling their charges and the piercing noise of iron-shod hooves and wagon wheels on asphalt roads were part of daily life, as were the shrill summonses of factory whistles. Machinery in suburban factories hummed away throughout the day and about every ten minutes the clatter of a tram was heard along the main roads. Smells were as prevalent as sounds. Local geography and local industry gave each district its own particular odour…’[xix]

These carts soon turned into cars and diesel trucks.

Paula Hamilton has conducted oral history interviews of residents who lived in Balmain during the 1960s and 70s to ascertain what affect the new arrival of middle class citizens had on locals’ sensorial experiences. Hamilton’s research shows that all locals struggled to control the onslaught on their senses of the industrialised urban landscape[xx]. The clanging of the container wharf intermixed with the roar of diesel trucks going down to the oil terminal at Ballast Point, the barking of stray dogs (nicknamed the ‘Louisa Road gang’[xxi]), the din of Balmain’s numerous pubs, the ‘grating and thudding’ of harbour dredging[xxii] and the clamour of ‘hundreds’ of ship-builders ‘streaming up the street from the wharf’ after work, accompanied by an ‘endless row boys selling [afternoon edition] papers and yelling in competition’[xxiii]. Local were able to determine in which direction the wind was blowing through smell. As one claimed:

‘…if the wind blew from the west, you’d smell Monsanto chemicals, a very strong smell. The one I loved the most was the one from CSR across at Pyrmont [Colonial Sugar Refinery], that sugary, honey smell, I think it was more like treacle. It was in the southerly from memory… in other winds you could smell the soapflakes from Palmolive, Lever & Kitchen… it was a clean smell.’[xxiv]

While residents adapted to urban sensory experiences, many sensory invasions they withstood on a daily basis were unpleasant and undesirable.

Cramped, sometimes squalid, living conditions defined life in the inner-west from the beginning of the twentieth century until gentrification in the 1960s stimulated the region’s metamorphosis. The Housing Conditions Investigation Committee declared in 1937 that ‘Right through the inner ring of the metropolitan municipalities are thickly populated areas, where property has deteriorated beyond recovery… [they are] breeding places for crime, disease and social demoralisation.’[xxv] Judith Wright recalled that, during her university education, she ‘moved to an upstairs room in a terrace house at Glebe. There was neither bath nor shower, the landlady indicating that the backyard washtub provided all a Christian should need (she was stronger on Godliness than cleanliness)’[xxvi]. The suburb was nearly devoid of natural features. As one resident remembered: ‘…I remember my first summer here [1971] walking back down from the shops how hot it was walking along Curtis Road and there were no trees there then. And, of course, there were very few birds.’[xxvii] With little green space, living quarters were consequently very cosy. Another local explained that she could hear the quotidian activities of her neighbour, who was a ‘very vocal bather’[xxviii]. Personal space and privacy was difficult to find in Balmain. At Callan Park, however, both of these were in abundance.

Callan Park was certainly not immune to the industrial pollution emanating from the surrounding areas. ‘For several years’, from October 1875, refuse from the Glebe Island Abattoirs was brought to Callan Park by horse and cart for burial. This practice, however, ‘created a nuisance in that locality’, probably because it interfered with the rehabilitation of Callan Park’s first mental patients and frustrated the owners of neighbouring houses, such as Broughton Hall, Kaloun House (renamed Broughton Villa in 1878) and Austenham House. The practice was therefore quickly abandoned[xxix]. When a parliamentary committee investigated sewerage and drainage systems in 1889, Leichhardt’s Mayor, Benjamin Moore, claimed there were ‘less death from fever than any borough around’. However, when Leichhardt’s refuse was dumped into the waters around Iron Cove ‘at low water, and when the sun is strong, the smell is very bad.’[xxx] In an interview, John Williams, describing growing up in Rozelle during the 1950s and 60s, highlighted the pervasive smells of surrounding factories, including the coal-fired power station near Iron Cove Bridge: ‘the atmospheric pollution and the ubiquitous smell of sulphuric acid pervaded the atmosphere of that area for a long time’[xxxi]. However, examples like these are exceptional in Callan Park’s history and most manufacturing occurred on the eastern side of the Balmain peninsula, away from Callan Park.

These vignettes provide a fascinating contrast to the tranquillity, quiet and natural landscape of Callan Park. With Callan’s Park vast scale and its distance from many of the factories dotting the horizon on the eastern side of the Balmain peninsula, the air was surely cleaner, the scenery greener, the noise quieter and the smells less pungent. Dr Jeyasingham testified to the therapeutic effect of the grounds in an oral history interview:

‘…every day, whenever I went back from work I would regularly see my patients just lying out on the grass and looking at the trees…. You would be having sunset just as it’s time for you to leave, toward wintertime. And it was absolutely incredible. You have a sensation, when you’re looking at patients, that they are automatically getting an incredibly good form of therapy….  I remember a patient… who was transferred over to us from a private field where she had everything… a private room and people to wait on her beck and call…. just watching the trees and just watching the landscape, she showed a significant amount of improvement. In fact, we were actually able to get her better… than she was when she was transferred to us.’[xxxii]

Callan Park’s mental hospitals were compassionate institutions that became home for many. Broughton Hall was a shining light during the interwar years and exceptional during an era of custodial treatment. During the 1961 Royal Commission, Callan Park Mental Hospital bore the brunt of public disdain for decaying mental hospitals and ineffective mental treatment nationwide. But this assessment, reflected in vitriolic newspaper articles, was unnecessarily harsh. It was more government apathy and inadequate funding that was hindering Callan Park Mental Hospital than the supposed negligence of its staff. The following claim of the Illustrated Sydney News, published in 1879, was prophetic: ‘The new asylum will… be a durable monument to the sympathy and compassionate regard of the people for the people of New South Wales for their afflicted brethren.’[xxxiii] The good intentions behind the park’s psychiatric history must be chiselled into the intractable metal of public memory. Only then can we overturn the negative stereotypes that have plagued mental institutions around the nation. They have persisted far too long.

[i] Andrew Taylor, ‘Nick Greiner Letter Reveals Sydney University was Offered Subsidy to Run Art School’, 31 August 2016, Sydney Morning Herald, <;, viewed 6 October 2016.

[ii] The exact date of the building’s construction is unknown. See: Ken Leong, ‘Garry Owen and Callan Park: The Story of Rozelle Hospital, Lilyfield: 1819-1984’, Leichhardt Historical Journal 14 (1985), p. 6.

[iii] Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2010), pp. 5-18.

[iv] For newspaper reports from the early 1920s, describing the ill-treatment of patients and their unfounded nature, see: Stephen Garton, Medicine and Madness: A Social History of Insanity in New South Wales, 1880-1940 (Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1988), pp. 86, 95. See also: Ben Pike, ‘Sydney’s Shameful Asylums: The Silent Houses of Pain where Inmates were Chained and Sadists Reigned’, 2 March 2015, The Daily Telegraph,

<;, viewed 7 October 2016.

[v] [v] Daily Mail, 3 February 1922. Daily Telegraph 2 November 1922. Daily Telegraph 10 April 1923.

[vi] No evidence has ever been found to prove these theories.

[vii] Interview with Niel Jeyasingham by Roslyn Burge, 18 February 2008, transcript, Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project, available at Leichhardt Library, p. 3.

[viii] Helen Frizell, unknown newspaper obituary, and Les Murray, unknown newspaper obituary, MLMSS 7105, State Library of NSW.

[ix] 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, p. 113. For statistics and tables showing the high rate of patients who passed away at Callan Park and their old age, see: chapter 2, pp. 55-56.

[x] Karskens, A History of Early Sydney, p. 16

[xi] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[xii] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed (Newhaven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[xiii] 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. 17-18.

[xiv] Various letters from Francis Webb, MLMSS 7105, State Library of NSW. Various letters from William James Chidley, Folders 1 and 2, MLMSS 4829, State Library of NSW. Callan Park’s mental hospitals saw a high turn-over of patients. While many remained for much of their life, many others experienced brief stays of a few months, or even a few days. Unsurprisingly then, Callan Park saw a slew of famous writers and political activists pass through its porous boundaries. These included Louisa Lawson, writer, suffragist and mother of Henry Lawson, J.F Archibald, editor of the The Bulletin, Francis Webb, poet, William Chidley, sex reformer, and Nancy de Vries, Indigenous activist and nurse. Nurse: Lillian May Armfield – one of the first female police detectives in the New South Police Force and a key player in Sydney’s ‘Razor Wars’ – worked as a nurse at Callan Park.

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

[xvi] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December 1880, p. 3.

[xvii] John Williams, ‘Rozelle’, Sydney Journal 3, no. 1 (December 2010), pp. 36-38. Quotes pp. 36-37. See also: Bonnie Davidson and Debby Nicholls, ‘Alfred Hancock, 1835-1919’, The Peninsula Observer 28, no. 4, issue 224 (August/September 1993).

[xviii] Max Solling and Peter Reynolds, Leichhardt: On the Margins of the City, a Social History of Leichhardt and the Former Municipalities of Annandale, Balmain and Glebe (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1997), pp. 149-156, 190-201.

[xix] Ibid., p. 153.

[xx] Paula Hamilton, ‘Remembering the Suburban Sensory Landscape in Balmain’, in Paula Hamilton and Paul Ashton, eds., Locating Suburbia: Memory – Place – Creativity (Sydney: UTSePress, 2013), pp. 18-30.

[xxi] Interview with Alan Rogers by Annette Waterworth (Part 1), 18 August 2009, transcript, Transforming the Local Project, p. 7,

[xxii] Interview with Diana Bryant by Annette Waterworth, 29 April 2009, transcript, Transforming the Local Project, p. 8,

[xxiii] Interview with Joan Chapman with Annette Waterworth, 4 June 2008, Leichhardt Local History Project, quoted in Hamilton, ‘Remembering the Suburban Sensory Landscape’, p. 24. For more information, see: Hamilton, ‘Remembering the Suburban Sensory Landscape’, pp. 18-30.

[xxiv] [xxiv] Interview with Bronwyn Monroe by Annette Waterworth, 2 March 2009, Leichhardt Local History Project, quoted in Hamilton, ‘Remembering the Suburban Sensory Landscape’, p. 23.  For another example of a resident describing the smells that wafted on the wind, in remarkably similar fashion to Bronwyn Monroe, see: Interview with Teresa Mortimer by Rose Pickard, 21 October 2009, transcript, Transforming the Local Project, p. 5,

[xxv] G R Gerlach, ‘Housing Improvement in NSW’ (1937), quoted in Solling and Reynolds, Leichhardt: On the Margins of the City, p. 193.

[xxvi] Judith Wright, ‘Forty Years and Australian Cities’ (1975), quoted in Solling and Reynolds, Leichhardt: On the Margins of the City, p. 200.

[xxvii] Interview with Teresa Mortimer by Rose Pickard, 21 October 2009, transcript, Transforming the Local Project, p. 6,

[xxviii] Interview with Rose Pickard by Paula Hamilton, 2 July 2013, Leichhardt Local History Project, quoted in Hamilton, ‘Remembering the Suburban Sensory Landscape’, p. 26.

[xxix] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 December 1880, p. 3.

[xxx] ‘Report together with Minutes of Evidence Relating to the Proposed Drainage Works for the Western Suburbs’ (1889), quoted in Solling and Reynolds, Leichhardt: On the Margins of the City, p. 151.

[xxxi] Interview with John Williams by Annette Waterworth, 29 July 2008, transcript, Transforming the Local Project, p. 2,

[xxxii] Interview with Niel Jeyasingham by Roslyn Burge, 18 February 2008, transcript, Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project, available at Leichhardt Library, p. 4.

[xxxiii] Illustrated Sydney News, 6 September 1879, p. 7, quoted in Leong, ‘Garry Owen and Callan Park’, p. 16.