Callan Park, Hospital for the Insane

CP w award

Shortlisted for the 2019 NSW Premier’s History Awards
(NSW Community and Regional History Prize)
Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018
Available from 26 July 2018; available online here or in bookshops.

Tales of Victorian-era madness have imbued twenty-first century minds with images of inconvenient husbands and wives, locked up in attics or diseased madhouses in the English countryside, without hope of real care or release. But what was the reality faced by the ‘insane’ in nineteenth-century New South Wales?

In 1874 Sir Henry Parkes purchased the pleasure grounds that were Callan Park, and turned them into the jewel in the crown of New South Wales’ mental healthcare. Despite local protests, Garryowen House became the site’s first hospital – equipped with a cricket pitch, farm, orchard and zoo. Soon the asylum proper was built and became home to over 700 patients.

Callan Park, Hospital for the Insane uses Victorian-era medical files to explore the lives of the first patients and staff of the early hospital, detailing their daily routine, treatment, escapes and cures.

Reviews for Callan Park, Hospital for the Insane

Review by Bill Perrett (appearing in Spectrum in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 15–16, 2018, p. 22).

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane began in controversy; the neighbours didn’t want their quiet part of Balmain ruined by the presence of wild, probably criminal lunatics. In modern times its closure was also the occasion of competing interests arguing over ownership of its next function. Sarah Luke admits when she began researching its history she had in mind the popular image of 19th–century bedlam, replete with “brutal treatment, fear, humiliation”. What she found instead was on the whole humane and enlightened, especially under the superintendency of Dr Herbert Blaxland. The grounds featured a cricket pitch and a zoo for the entertainment of the patients, who included Frederick Legard, erstwhile vicar and scion of the Legard baronets, some of whom shared his mental instability. A fascinating history.

Review by Dr Catie Gilchrist (Dictionary of Sydney, September 2018).

… This book is an important one because it has opened up these stories with an original take on an old subject and an alternative way of thinking about the origins of the asylum. It has also clearly been researched with great passion and aplomb. From the records that remain from Callan Park, the patients’ case books have been minutely examined, alongside the hospital’s medical journals, correspondence files and annual reports, as have records from other colonial asylums, contemporary newspapers and the lunacy laws. The author is also to be applauded for the detailed explanation of the sources used in the book and the lament to those that have been sadly lost to history … Callan Park Hospital for the Insane is beautifully written and will attract readers interested in nineteenth century Sydney and those attentive to the history of mental illness and its treatments. It will also appeal to readers fascinated by everyday folk whose lives have been faintly yet perceptibly left behind in the paper trails of dusty record books from the colonial era. Because all too often, it is precisely in the ordinary life, wherein lies much great interest.

Read the full review here.

NSW Premier’s History Awards Judges’ Comments:

If society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, Sarah Luke’s Callan Park confirms the complexity of mental health histories in Australia…This meticulous history seeks to tease out the hospital’s ambitious early aims to protect and care, under the leadership of determined, compassionate directors.

Callan Park is an impressive addition to New South Wales community history. Deeply researched and beautifully written, Luke populates those early decades of an enduring Sydney institution with the people whose lives were invested in it. It is a deeply empathic and critical exploration of patients and the institutions established to care for them. Using medical records, hospital archives and the material culture of Callan Park itself, Luke recreates the many experiences of Callan Park for its diverse communities of patients, medical professionals, families and government officials. This is a vivid history of a place and its past, speaking to wider histories of mental illness and health in colonial Australia. 

Read the full review here.

Review by Ann Westmore, Health and History (21/2, 2019), pp. 118-20:

The result is this book which is a welcome addition to the recent surge of historical publications about mental hospitals and/or mental health services in colonial Australia.