The ghosts of Callan Park

14 December 2021 | Posted In: #141 Summer 2021,

The heritage-listed foreshore site was once home to a notorious asylum for the insane. Shana Chandra reports.

Like any good haunting, chances are you’ll hear the legend of Callan Park before you go there. The former site of an insane asylum, more than 1,000 corpses of ex-inmates are buried in an unmarked lot on the grounds. Not only that, the asylum was supposedly built on top of 100 anonymous graves. No wonder then, that Callan Park is regarded as one of the most supernatural sites in Sydney.

What astounds most when walking through the grounds of Callan Park is some of its buildings unabashed dilapidation. The beauty of Callan Park’s degradation hints at its haunting past.

Much of the mythos permeating its grounds is due to its history as the site of a psychiatric hospital. Consisting of a cluster of sandstone buildings known as the Kirkbride complex, it was initially labelled Callan Park Hospital for the Insane. Although today, the use of the term ‘insane’ is no longer considered apt, in the late 1800s this was the more politically correct term.

Callan Park was originally built to alleviate overcrowding from the nearby Gladesville Hospital for the Insane — a name the medical superintendent Dr Frederic Norton Manning bestowed on it to help eliminate public prejudice and indifference towards the patients. Its previous moniker was Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum.

Manning’s resuscitation of these institutions was not just limited to changing their name. Part of the reason he was lured to Sydney for his role as superintendent was his proposal to tour England, France, Germany and the USA so he could study a range of international techniques in treating patients and the construction of the establishments that housed them.

Facilitating what he learned in Europe in Sydney, Manning transformed Gladesville and Callan Park into places where patients could come to receive treatment rather than merely being held captive in “a cemetery of diseased intellects”.

Manning’s revolutionary treatment was based on moral therapy, which saw ‘insanity’ as a disease of the mind, rather than of the body. Key to patient care was the layout of the building the patients resided in, and together with the architect James Barnet, the two created wards symmetrically arranged along the main cross axis of the official buildings. Each spacious ward had courtyards overlooking the grounds of Callan Park — the greenery and fresh air seen as a suitable tonic to aid patients in their rehabilitation.

After Manning’s establishment of Callan Park, the facility continued to be a forerunner in mental healthcare. Along with Gladesville, it was the first in New South Wales to allow admission without committal, and the first hospital to have a laboratory, where studying pathology of mental diseases in NSW began.

Despite the hospital’s initial success, overcrowding would soon become a problem, one that occurred as early as 1923, and became exacerbated by the influx of patients during (and in the aftermath of) the Depression and World War II. It was a problem that further construction to the site could not compete with, and would eventually contribute to the stories of trauma that would escape from its halls.

Over this period, hasty additions of basic facilities to Manning and Barnet’s wards not only obscured the original elegance of them, it encroached on patients’ space, and was the exact antithesis of Manning’s moral therapy.

The surrounding lawns of the park, however, were still places patients could go to coalesce through gardening, as it was thought the patients’ ills could be cured by an “improved environment” and “good honest work”. And so many of the park’s gardens were kept and cultivated by the patients of the Kirkbride complex — from the planting of trees to the laying of its uneven cobblestones.

The grounds also house a couple of war memorials. One — with rough white walls, terracotta roofs and turquoise arches — is reminiscent of a Mediterranean abode and contributes to the park’s hotchpotch charm. The two plaques that sit above the once functioning water fountain have a more Australian feel — concrete wreaths of Australian gumnuts, leaves and flowers pay homage to WWI veterans.

The other monument commemorating WWI — a replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge straddling a circular wishing well — was erected by patients of Callan Park’s B ward and designed by a WWI veteran himself. Douglas Grant, an Indigenous draughtsman and soldier, was captured at the first battle of Bullecourt and became a German prisoner of war for two years. His ethnicity made him of interest to German anthropologists, and yet he survived the trauma to come back to Sydney and pay homage to his fellow countrymen who had died serving.

Despite this, there are no monuments that commemorate the original inhabitants of Callan Park the Wangal who were part of the Eora or Dharug tribes. They lived on the site now known as Callan Point, a site which extends along the Parramatta River to Petersham. They, too, experienced mass trauma: during a period of one year, between 1789 to 1790, a small pox epidemic wiped the majority of their population out. As did subsequent European land development, which meant that by 1900 there were only 50 people from Dharug families still living.

After decades of overcrowding, of stench, straightjackets and investigations resulting in little-to-no improvement, in 1976, Callan Park eventually closed its doors and amalgamated with the Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic to become Rozelle Hospital.

But, after a renovation in 1996, the Kirkbride complex sandstone structure transmuted into Sydney University’s Sydney College of the Arts, providing budding artists a unique setting to capture their inner muse. But now the art students have vanished too relocated last year to a smaller space at the Old Teachers’ College in Camperdown.

Today, although some of the buildings at Callan Park are still in use, most remain abandoned and continue to degrade — fertile grounds for ghosts to wander.

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