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 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.