Inside the Abandoned Callan Park Mental Asylum, Sydney

Abandoned Callan Park Hospital in Sydney, Australia│Abandoned World Photography Urbex

There’s something intriguing about exploring abandoned places—a mix of fascination, apprehension, and a desire to uncover hidden stories. Among such places, the Callan Park Mental Asylum in Sydney, Australia, stands as a testament to a tumultuous past. A sprawling complex set within 104.5 acres of land, this asylum once housed the afflicted, and its walls echo with a history both haunting and complex.

Who built Callan Park?

Callan Park was designed by renowned colonial architect James Barnet, in collaboration with Dr. Frederic Norton Manning, a visionary medical doctor. Their collaborative efforts led to the creation of a pavilion-style layout, which emphasised a patient-centric approach. The design focused on creating comfortable, well-ventilated buildings surrounded by airing courts. This approach was revolutionary for its time and aimed to provide a more humane and effective environment for the treatment of mental health disorders.

Who owns Callan Park?

Callan Park is owned by the New South Wales Government and is currently used for a variety of community-oriented purposes, including art studios, galleries, educational institutions, and public events. The Kirkbride complex, once a significant part of the asylum, now houses the Sydney College of the Arts, a division of the University of Sydney. The repurposing of Callan Park reflects a shift towards utilising the space to foster art, education, and community engagement within the precincts that once carried a sombre history.

The History of Callan Park Hospital for the Insane

Site Name: Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, otherwise known as Callan Park Mental Asylum or “The Jewel of the West”.
Site Dates: 1878 – 2008
Site Size: 104.5 acres

In 1876, Garryowen House, also known as Callan Park House, was transformed by a local architect into a branch of the nearby overcrowded Gladesville Hospital.

Over 200 male patients were admitted to Garryowen for “moral therapy treatment” throughout the first two years, but beds were seriously limited.

In 1880, construction began on a much more extensive mental health facility called Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.

Five male and five female wards were built to accommodate approximately 600 patients, and the hospital took in its first patients in October 1884.

Yet constant overcrowding, staffing difficulties, and inadequate funding increasingly made the hospital a place of incarceration.

In 1905, Callan Park became the first mental hospital to have a laboratory and clinical rooms for ‘scientific work’ where the first steps in studying the pathology of mental diseases in New South Wales began.

To deal with the overcrowding and downgrading of patient care, alterations were made and new buildings were constructed. The period 1894–1922 saw the relocation of the main gates and the erection of the high brick boundary wall, made necessary by the widening of Balmain Road.

In 1923 an official enquiry began into overcrowding but little eventuated. The problem remained and emerged again in 1930 when patient numbers reached 1500.

Douglas Grant, nurses and ex-servicemen around the World War I war memorial in the shape of the Harbour Bridge at Callan Park c1931
Douglas Grant, nurses and ex-servicemen around the World War I war memorial in the shape of the Harbour Bridge at Callan Park c1931

After the war, in 1948, another inquiry was held into conditions at Callan Park, but it had little effect on the stop-gap program.

In 1955, conditions in mental hospitals Australia-wide were investigated under the Stoller report. Stoller recorded the overcrowding, the squalor and the stench at Callan Park. The government provided some much-needed financial support to the institution and more stop-gap work commenced, mostly on ward blocks.

“In the pre-asylum, pre-19th century situation they used to chain these poor devils up and they were like wild animals. The early view of them was that they were not really human beings, but half animals.” Sydney University medical historian Dr Milton Lewis told the Australian Daily Telegraph in 2015.

“These so-called nurses treat patients most cruelly. They are mechanical, inhumane creatures,” one ex-patient wrote in the newspaper Truth on July 29, 1900. “I once had my hair pulled until my nose bled. I have seen the nurses twist patients’ arms behind their backs until they cried out in pain, and bump their heads against the stone wall.”

Throughout later years, there were accusations of elderly patients bashed with a leather strap filled with studs, patients forced into straitjackets for more than five days at a time, and pills being forced down patients’ throats with the full knowledge they would have a severe allergic reaction.

In 1961 a Royal Commission investigation into Callan Park Mental Hospital revealed further incidents of patient abuse and neglect. 

In 1976, Callan Park was amalgamated with the adjoining Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic to become the Rozelle Hospital, and building work on the original hospital ceased.

In 1991, a program of urgent maintenance commenced and the main block, known as Kirkbride, was adopted as the new home of the Sydney College of the Arts, a division of the University of Sydney. It opened in 1996.

When did Callan Park close?

The Callan Park Mental Asylum officially closed its doors on April 30, 2008. After years of serving as a mental health facility, the decision to close the asylum was made, and staff along with patients were transferred to a mental facility at Concord Hospital. Since then, there has been constant resident action to preserve and upgrade the remainder of the hospital buildings.

Urban Exploration: Accessing the Abandoned Asylum

The abandoned Callan Park Mental Asylum was one the most challenging sites I’ve ever explored alone. It was extremely hard to gain access and when I managed to get into two buildings, the spooky silence and eeriness nearly had me running for the hills.

There were at least 15 derelict buildings in total, scattered throughout the park. These included wards, chaplain houses, the asylum library, a special care unit (renamed to “special scare unit” by a graffiti artist) and a drug and alcohol rehab facility. Some of the buildings were huge, some were tiny and every window and door was boarded up/surrounded by fences, barbed wire and trespassing signs.

However, where there is a will, there is a way! After circling the buildings numerous times, I found two entrances.

To get into the 1st building, I had to climb over a wire fence, then through a hole in an outdoor bathroom wall and through a hole in another wall. It was a windy day so I kept hearing leaves rustling that sounded like footsteps, which was unnerving when I was inside. There were tiny rooms with thin, long windows with multiple forms of barricades and disturbing graffiti. I stood in a few of these rooms trying to imagine who or what was going on in them back in the day, but all I got a sense of was emptiness and loneliness.

The second building was dark and unpleasant. It was a desperate attempt to get into one more building before I gave up hope for photographs that really showed how an abandoned asylum looked like after time. I wasn’t particularly satisfied with my photos from the first building and I knew I wasn’t getting into the main building where all the rooms and beds were still intact. Would this formidable-looking place have rooms stuck in time that I could photograph?

Nope, just pitch-black rooms, massive holes in the floor and a lack of graffiti – which struck me as very weird. It felt like no one had stepped foot inside for years.

The weight of the darkness descended on me as I manoeuvred my way in and it was impossible to shake off. I had stupidly read an article whilst walking through the park of a film director who refused an offer to shoot a movie in the asylum buildings because apparently, it’s the most haunted mental asylum in Sydney. So, with this enlightening article stuck in my mind combined with the spookiness of the inside, I was shitting a brick at this point and my clothes were soaked in sweat and dust.

I went upstairs to check for rooms still intact but as soon as stepped into one, the floor sank a little bit under my foot. It was time to retreat. It was hard to walk back through the house and stay calm, but I did it and once I got out I swore to myself I’d never again go into a mental asylum without a buddy with me!

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