Sarah Luke, Callan Park Hospital for the Insane

Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018, 253 pp., ISBN: 9781925588965, p/bk, AUS $39.95

The nineteenth century lunatic asylum, in both the literary and the historical imagination, is often a lurid and depressingly dark place. The story goes that mad houses were sadistic, secretive institutions where inmates were abused and mistreated, starved and beaten, perhaps chained in solitary and left howling in lofty turrets. These ‘abodes of misery’ were convenient places to incarcerate and forget about the mad cousin or potty aunt, the clinically insane spouse or the deviant sibling. Victorian madness itself has long been associated with batty old ladies dwelling in attics, religious maniacs, abject alcoholics, chronic masturbators, deranged defectives, and raving imbeciles. To be sure, and having read many colonial asylum records myself, there is certainly some truth to this frightful depiction. And yet there is another story, perhaps co-existing rather than entirely refuting it, that sits side by side in the wards and dormitories of the insane hospitals of the nineteenth century.

In Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Sarah Luke suggests a rather more measured, perhaps even benevolent, view of life in the asylum. From the start of her book she sets out to answer the question, ‘was this horrific treatment of the mentally unwell actually the case at Callan Park?’[i] Or did the hospital in Rozelle instead strive to achieve its carefully conceived and original purpose, which was to care, protect, shelter, restore and ultimately try and make broken minds better?

The book is based on the first twenty years of the asylum and is split into two parts. Part One considers the hospital itself, from its inception in 1876 as an offshoot of Gladesville Hospital for the Insane, and the original forty-four patients that occupied its first building Garryowen House. Today this building is home to the New South Wales Writers’ Centre where this book was first conceived.

Before the close of the century, Callan Park had become Australia’s premier mental hospital. With the completion of the magnificent sandstone Kirkbride Complex, designed by James Barnett, there was room for more than 750 patients. Luke deftly explains the admission process, the routines of daily life, and, importantly, explores the myriad reasons why there were indeed so many people in need of asylum admission and treatment in this period.

Along the way, we meet some of the hospital’s patients whose lives were shaped by the remarkable career of the colony’s leading alienist and Inspector General of the Insane, Dr Frederic Norton Manning. Under his governance, new therapeutic practises and legal safeguards to regulate and govern the lives of the insane were introduced into New South Wales. Manning’s philosophy was very much based on ideas of ‘moral therapy’, with the hospital to be a place of asylum and care, work and usefulness, rest and recovery, sympathy, gentleness and kindness. By the 1890s, several more institutions in the colony had been ‘opened under Manning’s watch.’[ii]

These ideals of moral therapy were also spatial and architectural. Asylums were often located amidst stunningly scenic, peaceful, serene landscapes. This reflected the contemporary belief that the environment influenced behaviour and temperament, and so a calm setting would lead to tranquil minds. Callan Park Hospital was no exception to this, set in magnificent grounds rolling down towards Iron Cove Bay. The Elysian setting was further enhanced by pleasant precincts, gardens, farms, vegetable plots and orchards which were carefully planned to help in the therapeutic and restorative regime that underpinned much Victorian psychiatry in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Part Two examines the patients themselves. They were a colourful, motley crew from various backgrounds and cultures, and cut across a spectrum of ages, occupations and states of mind. Their stories are remarkably varied; some extraordinary, others mundane, a few inspiring, too many just simply tragic. A number of patients at Callan Park were well educated, well to do and from seemingly respectable backgrounds, victims perhaps to lost fortunes or the product of a ‘strong hereditary lunacy’.[iii]

Some patients were local and colonial born, but many were overseas sojourners, far from friends and family. It is easy to forget that in the days before immigration restrictions, the Australian colonies were composed of migrants and wanderers from across the globe. And in the late nineteenth century, many migrants suffered from a temporary, sometimes permanent bout of insanity, brought on by a sense of diaspora, displacement and perhaps their own despairing loneliness. The Callan Park Hospital housed Italians, Africans, Americans, Chinese, Irish, French, German, South Sea Islanders and others besides. They were perhaps the fortunate ones, for too many ‘foreigners’ committed suicide in colonial New South Wales. The faint traces of their sad lives were recorded by a coronial inquest, rather than left in the medical case books of a mental asylum.

Like today, mental illness in the colonial era did not discriminate and insanity was not class, race nor gender specific. This is perhaps one of the themes and central historical messages of the book. Later fascinating chapters on escapees, voluntary admissions, and the successes of the recovered and the tragedies of the chronically insane round out the very complex nature of mental illness, unstable lives and the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ in nineteenth century Australia.

Luke’s central thesis is that Callan Park’s beginnings were ‘honourable’ and ‘importantly helpful to the hundreds of patients who walked its corridors’ and … found contentment in its farm …’.[iv] Certainly, the intentions of moral treatment and therapy were benevolent and humane and this is indeed persuasively argued in the book.

Less convincing however is the idea that Dr Manning’s reforms and regulations successfully brought in a regime of complete transparency to the workings of the state’s insane hospitals that the author at times suggests. The appointment of official visitors to Callan Park as ‘outside’ inspectors would not necessarily serve as a precautionary or preventive panacea either, because such visits would be carefully planned and managed. Complaints made by the patients were probably not mostly ‘false’, ‘exaggerated’ or the product of delusions’.[v] Asylums regulated and ‘inquired’ into their own internal affairs, and so such ‘officially’ recorded conclusions are perhaps not altogether surprising.

The late nineteenth century saw a whole sweep of Royal Commissions and Inquiries into the state of a variety of government run institutions, with most recommending at least some changes be implemented. Others were utterly damning and condemnatory. The Government Asylums Inquiry Board, convened to inquire into ‘numerous complaints’ at the Newington, Liverpool and Parramatta Asylums for the Infirm and Destitute was one such inquiry. In 1887, it reported that the mostly elderly, blind and crippled inmates who gave appalling evidence of terrible neglect and abuse were to be believed over the word of the matron, the doctors and the medical staff. It was not a pretty picture at all. And so, it begs the question, if gross neglect and sadistic treatment was occurring here, and at this time, what were the chances of it not being perpetrated in colonial asylums elsewhere?[vi]

Today, Callan Park in Rozelle is still a remarkably beautiful and picturesque waterside landscape. The hospital buildings remain, mostly broken and empty, hiding many secrets and untold stories, at least until now. And so, my sceptical concerns aside, 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 hospitals’ 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. This, very usefully, appears at the start of the book.

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.

Reviewed by Dr Catie Gilchrist,  September 2018

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[i] Sarah Luke, Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Australian Scholarly, North Melbourne, 2018, p xii

[ii] Ibid, p 67

[iii] Ibid, p 196

[iv] Ibid, p xiii

[v] Ibid, p 80

[vi] Report of the Government Asylums Inquiry Board and Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, Charles Potter, Government Printer, Sydney, 1887

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