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).