Callan Park Stories – NSW Writers Centre | Lost Collective
This blog post is more or less a transcription of that presentation. But, I also wanted to expand a little on some of the things I had to cut from the presentation to be able to fit into the allocated time (which I still ended up exceeding by about 20 minutes).
I’ve lived in Sydney’s Inner West most of my life and often walked my dog in Callan Park; I think I probably shared in the curiosity of quite a few people as to what is beyond the walls that you can see when peeking through some of the windows.
Callan Park was the first time I’d ever tried to obtain permission to access an unused building for the purpose of photography.
When I first posted the gallery to Facebook in late 2015, I didn’t expect the reaction that followed.
I honestly had no idea how much the site affected some people. I mean, I’d heard all the stories and the urban legend, but none of that had ever really had any personal impact on anyone I knew (or so I thought at the time).
Until you hear that raw version of events coming from someone’s personal experiences, I don’t think it really sinks in just how much Callan Park affected some people in such a way that has stayed with them for their entire lives.
This works both ways too.
Not every story about Callan Park is bad. Undoubtedly quite a lot are, but part of what I learned from publishing this gallery was the importance in presenting some balance in the written component, and trying to keep as neutral as possible in what I present.
Before Lost Collective was even an idea, I would just photograph abandoned buildings without giving much thought to a written accompaniment.
There certainly wasn’t any historical write-up. The individual photos didn’t have any captions. I don’t think I even gave titles to the galleries, let alone the pictures.
They were just mindless posts on my personal Facebook page.
Even with this collection, the initial introduction I wrote was admittedly, quite lazy. It was a quick run-down of the history of the site and finished up with me saying that I don’t know much about the history of Callan Park, then inviting those who did, to share their stories.
Still, though, the gallery received quite a strong reaction, both directly on the Lost Collective Facebook page, and on a couple of other Facebook Groups groups where the post was also shared.
There was quite a mix of people who interacted with the post; the bulk were Nurses, then families of people who were patients, historians, paranormal investigators, urban explorers, and locals who frequent the grounds.
Understandably, some people who worked in Callan Park were upset that the site, as was depicted in the pictures was being related to something from a ghost story. The general feeling was that this diminished the value of the roles they played here in helping people.
I have often mentioned that I realise a lot of my photos have an underlying sadness, an almost horror movie like quality to them.
It’s difficult to explain that I am not trying to make the photos look depressing or frightening. I know they do though, and of all my pictures, those taken in hospitals reflect this more than any.
The photos are what they are; I don’t think too much about how I make them look the way they do; I just do it. It’s all just what comes out of my creative processes.
I can’t change the way I do this. So, I think that because of this aspect alone, more than anything emphasises the importance of a balanced written component.
Contrary to the many stories that exist about Callan Park, not everyone had bad times here. Some people did for sure, don’t get me wrong! But, if that’s the only side of Callan Park that I share, it’s not very fair to those who didn’t suffer either.
Some people, whose family members were former patients, had some stories that were incredibly sad to read and tough to sit back then imagine going through something the same.
After publishing Callan Park, I realised that if I was going to share photos in this way in future, I really had to have the photos accompanied by a balanced presentation of the history, taking as neutral a position as possible.
I do my best to try and research so that my writing is as accurate as possible. I want it to connect on a personal level, and often I reach out to people who have first-hand involvement in the places I shoot.
It’s a constantly evolving process that takes enormous amounts of time. I have completely re-written my introduction to the Callan Park Gallery three times, and I am still to correct the many errors that remain and to try and put some more context into the captions.
Some of these rooms I have photographed, I cannot even remember where they were taken. Getting accurate information about what I’ve shot is incredibly difficult.
Looking back at the photos without being able to retrace my steps, and having to rely on direct approaches to complete strangers through social media, really has very variable rates of success.
But on occasion, some people can draw on such a wealth of excellent first-hand information. Those stories of personal connections are what I find to be the most valuable contributions of all. It’s really what Lost Collective is all about.
I try and follow this with everything I do to this day. There are times when it borders on impossible to dig up any past on some of the places I photograph such as Kuwashima Hospital and most of the Home gallery, and I’ll freely admit that I let the imagination take precedence in those cases. Otherwise, I do my best to try and learn as much as I can and add that into what I publish.
So, having said all that, I thought I’d show some of the photos where people left comments which had the greatest influence on what Lost Collective is all about, and why.
“Creepy, but there’s something about this photo I like, but I’m not sure why.”
I suppose this is one of the “creepiest” photos I’ve posted. I noticed many comments along this line for this picture, not to mention the rest of my work.
This particular shot does have something unsettling about it, I think this element exists to a degree in all of my photos, but there is something about it that is probably a bit stronger than my other pictures.
“I had a few ice baths there in the late sixties.”
Then when I couple the imagination with the picture with being subjected to an ice bath in a mental health institution, the scene in my mind seems to become a bit darker.
“I remember evening socials and union meetings in this hall.”
I’d always wondered what this room was. It’s one of my favourite photos visually too, because of the detail in the broken parquetry.
This building seemed like one of the more peaceful spaces of all those that I photographed, and even after all the years passing and the onset of dilapidation, the area seems to have still held onto the mood of it’s past.
“I worked in A-Ward during my training, and I’m almost sure this is the dining room. Such mixed memories but incredibly thankful for my experiences there.”
What an interesting comment. I’m sure there’s an interesting story within “mixed memories”, but he does mention being thankful for the experiences there. So I can assume that the overall memory in this instance was a positive one.
This picture inspired the “Nature always finds a way 🌿 ” tagline.
“Yes, both are A-Ward. People used to sit out the back and admire the view; it was very peaceful.
There was 2 DVA units side by side A and H-Wards.
I remember there was a beautiful old gentleman named Jim there who used to regale us with stories about Changi Prison on the opposite side of the river.
He believed that the nurses had been flown over to Singapore from Australia to look after all the sick servicemen.
Great memories, I met my beautiful wife here!”
This was such a lovely comment to read! I feel as though I can almost picture this wonderful gentleman speaking to me. If his comment doesn’t warm your cold dead hearts, nothing will.
Another of my favourite photos. There is a certain sense of majesticness in this room with a beautiful view of the surrounding outside environment. It really helps to conveys how much of a Park it really is.
“This part was the dining room of aged care later. It was so lovely. Old people loved it, and so did staff.”
“The McKinnon detox centre used three different locations, and this was one. I was a detoxer at all of these locations. It was a peaceful place.”
“I remember when this room was filled with residents and nurses.”
These were some of the more pleasant memories of Callan Park.
“It was a terrible place. People drugged on medications, dribbling, imprisoned by drugs such as Serenace, an absolute torturous drug. Filthy dirty lounges.”
“Lucky there were a few good nurses, the rest had hate issues and took it out on certain patients.”
“There was a lovely Catholic Priest Father McCallum. Thank God for the good people.”
Sometimes with a subject like Callan Park, you need to be able to distinguish the urban legend from the truth.
In this instance, the tone of the comment seems to be coming from a first-hand experience that is vastly different to the three previous ones.
“OMG! Can anyone else see the face of a man above the right-hand side heater!”
“There is also a man standing between the two black marks above the right-hand heater.”
“Three girls are above the left-hand heater.”
“There are many faces to the left.”
“There are faces everywhere!”
This was the first of many comments that come through Lost Collective regarding ghosts.
It continued for some time, and to this day it continues to appear in comments of many of my other galleries. I feel that it diminishes the legacy of the places I photographs.
“On the far-right corner of the lower back wall, there is a man’s face.”
“Under the window in the next room, there are at least two people against the wall.”
This ended up continuing into late night private messages; I had to ask her to stop.
“All food came in via service tunnels that link to RPA.”
Interesting to hear there are tunnels to RPA. That would be interesting to explore. I’m sure the likes of The Cave Clan are acutely aware of their existence.
“It hasn’t changed much; I remember one male patient that use to drive me mad. He just wouldn’t leave that bloody fire hose on the right-side wall alone.”
I got a laugh out of this comment she talks about it like it’s a happening from earlier today.
“This reminds me of Nurse Ratchet’s station in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.”
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is the first thing my mum drew comparisons with when she saw this album. Many people have said the same thing.
I still haven’t seen it, but I probably should watch it, so I understand what everybody is talking about.
“I can see in the middle window at the bottom part two faces one person with glasses and the other person above looks like he has a rocker style hair do. He has a chubby face!”
More ghosts. Quite a detailed description too. Clearly, everyone has their own unique way of looking at the pictures. I guess for photography, that is a good thing.
“The only image so far that doesn’t look like from a horror movie (great photos by the way!)”
This was funny to read, but it also helped make me aware of the inherent disturbing nature of the pictures.
The context of this comment was a spelling correction. I got a lot of them. It made me feel I really should be giving writing copy the same effort I use to create the photos.
Somewhat a given when you consider that I never actually spell checked my original copy. It was typed directly into the Facebook post, without any proof read or draft.
Below are some of the general comments that weren’t specific to any one picture, but for one reason or another, I found them to be important, moving, or interesting in one way or another.
“Through researching the family history, we recently discovered that my great-great-uncle had been a patient at Callan Park.
He came home front World War 1 a ‘Mental case” and was sent to Callan Park, where he lived for 40 years until his death in 1059.
Sadly, none of his family ever saw him again when he returned from the war, and no one was even at his funeral when he died.
We found his war grave in Sydney only last week and have now have been to visit it.
I’m sure Callan Park most hold some very sad, sometimes fascinating stories such as this.”
What a sad life story. Although, it has a happy ending of sorts.
I certainly agree there must be a lot of fascinating stories such as this out there that are likely to be forgotten.
I think this is an important aspect of what drives Lost Collective; unearthing these small bits of history. While it’s just a short story, it’s an entire known lifetime for someone else that’s been condensed into a comment.
It’s the only glimpse into the past of someone that would otherwise never be realised again.
“My father was a produce merchant working out of Sussex Street in the city.
About 50 years ago when driving past Callan Park, he informed me that his business used to provide the straw for the cells at the asylum.”
Admittedly, when I read this, I pictured inmates on the straw covered dungeon floors.
I’ve since come to understand that straw-covered floors weren’t so much about treating people like animals as they were about hygiene, given the limited access to absorbent material in that era for patients with involuntary bowel movements and the like.
“When my grandparents moved to Sydney, they set up in Rozelle; I grew up in Drummoyne, and Callan Park was always used as a threat.
I remember my Gran used to say “you’re sending me to Callan Park” to my grandad. He used to take me to the Callan Park Hotel all the time.”
This ‘threat’ was something I’d never heard of before posting the gallery. But since then, dozens have brought to my attention that is a commonly known used disciplinary tool from days past.
“I remember walking through the grounds and hearing the screams.
My dad spent time there for shell shock (or PTSD as it is known today) and he was stabbed by another patient.
I have awful memories of that time. I was glad when he came home, but the whole experience made him that much worse.”
Quite a horrific comment to read. I struggle to imagine experiencing an ordeal like this.
“My Nan spent 35 years in Callan Park, admitted when she was 33 and pregnant.
She died in there when she was 64 from being bashed by another patient.
It happened all the time. That’s why a lot of the patients had to wear a camosile (Strait Jacket).”
This sounds even more horrific than the previous comment. I don’t know how I’d cope with an experience such as this.
The same person also expanded on this story in the comment below.
Mum was only 17 months, and her brother was three when their mother (my Nan) was admitted.
My grandmother’s illness all started when she gave birth to mum. She suffered from Post Natal Depression, but unfortunately, back then Dr’s knew nothing about it.
When mum was old enough, she would Visit her mother every Sunday at Callan Park, rain hail or shine.
Mums sister was born in Callan Park in 1934 and taken home the next day to be raised by their grandmother along with mum & her brother.
How on earth a 60-year-old woman took on three kids including a newborn, I don’t know.”
I don’t know how she did either. Quite a sad life story, but at the same time, it gives a real appreciation for the advancements in modern mental health care and awareness.
“It states that some of the rooms have been taken over by cats, shame on our government when so many are homeless and sleeping in Central Park and the station tunnels.
Take a walk through central park and see the homeless bloody disgrace.”
I think the most, if not all of the places I photograph are unsuitable to safely house people.
Most were never designed for residential use. They’re almost always in a state of disrepair, have no essential services and contain hazardous materials.
Homelessness is something I believe we need to address better as a society, but there are better opportunities to act on this such as The Addison Project.
The building overrun by cats are the Convalescent Cottages. There is somewhat of a story behind the cats too. I was hoping to be able to shoot that building, but it was deemed unsafe.
Callan Park is not the answer for homeless people.
“My brother was 19 when he was admitted. He was physically & sexually abused as well as being given electric shock therapy, and god knows what else.
It wasn’t until years later & treatments for schizophrenia had improved & my brother had become verbal again, that the family found out the cruelty he had endured.”
Such terrible degree of suffering on such a personal level.
“My Great Uncle lived here from the end of WWI until he died aged 79, he was placed in Callan Park as his brain was affected by war.
So sad they didn’t know back then that the boys were suffering from PTSD.
I remember visiting him as a child in the 60’s, his smile when we arrived was so broad, he didn’t talk much, just sat beside us kids & coloured in with us.”
There is just something about this comment I find so sorrowful without it even really saying anything about what happened.
“If Vic was alive what he could say?
If memory serves me correct, dad said he hated it there so much he jumped into the water and swam away.
A cruel, horrible place for a mental health patient.”
Not a positive story. Well, he escaped his torment by the sounds of things, so I guess there is a silver lining.
“Callan Park was always a fearful place to walk by as a young girl, and yet school excursions and swimming took us from Leichhardt Girls High to many of the back streets.
The ‘cat woman’ that at times would escape always carried a cat in her arms hence I guess why the cats are there now. She would scare the bejesus out of us as kids.
The stories we would listen to were horrible like the inmates attacking each other and ripping chunks of hair, biting, etc.
I don’t know if these stories were true, but this was the late sixties early seventies.”
The ‘cat woman’ I believe is who I referred to a few comments back. From what I understand, she returned to the site after being discharged to feed cats in and around the Convalescent Cottages. To this day the buildings and the area surrounding is overrun with stray cats.
I guess there is a reason to believe the stories this commenter refers to at the end.
“I did a research paper on Callan Park grounds while studying there. I think it’s in the SCA library collection.
There is also a very good Conservation Management Plan that I used at the time, also in the library.
Contrary to urban myth, the patients were allowed to wander through the grounds, and their treatment was very much to do with the theory of nature being the great healer.
The ‘ha-ha’ wall that surrounds Kirkbride allowed patients to admire the view and not feel confined.
The ‘sunken garden’ in front of Kirkbride (SCA) was for the patients to garden in, and surrounding that was ‘A Pleasure Ground’ which in its day had animals such as deer wandering through.
Broughton Hall is in the far west of the site. It was the first gentleman’s estate in the area before being used for war veterans suffering PTSD after the wars before a fire went through the building.
Dr Evan Jones designed the garden on this western side, built in the 1940s, and it’s a great example of Gardenesque Landscape Design.
I am sure bad things went on there, particularly in terms of our modern-day standards.
In the 80s a school without walls ‘Wawina’ was located in one of the now vacant buildings which my sister used to go to.
We grew up in the area and as kids used to explore the abandoned buildings which were easy to get into. Your photos are really special, thank you.”
A very detailed and well-researched comment that taps into the rich history of the site.
‘Nature being the great healer’ is a concept I discovered in my research about Queen Victoria Sanitorium.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that healing can be conducent of a natural environment. The old saying ‘You become a product of your environment’ probably points to this.
“I feel sad that these images are being described as creepy old buildings which have a haunted feeling.
I have many happy memories working here, and I think we need to be careful that we aren’t further stigmatising mental health and people who used these services, as well as the dedicated, fun staff that worked in this area. There are also Kookaburras, beautiful gardens, open spaces, the pool.”
This comment was really the one that made me realise I should take a more neutral approach to my writing.
It’s not so much that I think my previous writing was particularly unbalanced, but it was perhaps a bit lazy, and I thought it needed to touch on all aspects, especially given the mood of the pictures.
“I was a patient at Rozelle back in 2006. Best place ever it was a terrific facility, staff were unbelievable they helped me a lot with my recovery and to whom I am today.
I was very sad to hear that it had closed. Words can’t describe my experience there. A true blessing.”
The more good stories you hear, the better they feel. By this point, they really cut through some of the darker stories of the past.
“My great grandmother was a patient at the hospital for the insane. She died there shortly after her baby died.
She probably had septicaemia and was having hallucinations that angels were calling her.”
So sad. Imagine what stories are out there which people don’t talk about or know of. There must be such a huge amount of suffering in silence with no closure.
“My mother was Institutionalised in the old part of the building from 1952-1957 when I was born.
Sadly, she had schizophrenia and had many admissions.
I worked there in 1969 and again in 1971-72.
Mum’s last admission was to Rozelle Hospital when she was 84 years old.”
That comment shares a pretty extensive living history of Callan Park.
“These beautiful, haunting photos make me feel quite sad, as my Aunty was there also (I think in the 70’s, from memory).
My Aunty had had a minor nervous breakdown (don’t know what year that was) and was treated with deep sleep therapy at the infamous Chelmsford Hospital by Dr Bailey.
She was one of the ‘lucky’ ones that escaped with their lives but was never the same again.
She was in and out of mental hospitals for the rest of her life, tortured by ‘evil voices’.
I remember her as a beautiful, intelligent, kind young woman before it all. It was very sad.”
So incredibly sad. I didn’t know Dr Bailey until this comment. Some people were experiencing a real-life horror movie.
“I once met with him about a minor problem I had, and he suggested electrocuting me.
He was very convincing, but after speaking with some other medicos, I never went back to him.
One of his victims was Stevie Wright from The Easybeats.”
Then this person talks about their own near miss with Dr Bailey!
When this gallery was going viral, I found it to be quite emotionally exhausting to read all of these messages in one day.
I did find some of it upsetting. For some reason, it made me think of my late grandmother.
I knew I needed to do something with all this information, but I wasn’t quite sure what. I’m still not sure, but I guess this blog post is a good start.
If anyone has a relative that spent time in Callan Park or Broughton Hall, you can order copies of their records by visiting the Mental Health Facilities Guide at NSW State Records & Archives .