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.