On the dazzling shores of Iron Cove, a mere five kilometres along the Parramatta River west of Sydney’s CBD, and on the lands of the Dharuk people, stands the heritage-listed Garry Owen House, a grand sandstone building of Georgian design. Positioned on a slope next to the old psychiatric hospital once known as the Callan Park Asylum for the Insane, the building now nestles behind century-old magnolia and jacaranda trees. It is the home of Writing NSW where a 30th anniversary is brewing. It is a place that makes my heart flutter each time I set foot on its grounds.
Callan Park Asylum, as it was then known, was established in 1878. Later, it became the Rozelle Hospital, though was often simply referred to as Callan Park. It was there, as a wide-eyed medical student in 1976, I took my first lessons in what was then considered modern psychiatry. Callan Park was filled with stories: nostalgic, grotesque, sad, at times brutal and violent. There were failures of justice, and many secrets, from unmarked graves to human tragedies.
At the time, group therapy was hailed as the new approach to solving challenging psychological conditions. Many people were sent to Callan Park when treatment in the community proved unsuccessful. I liked the idea of psychiatry, which didn’t require you to wear a tie and white coat to identify yourself as a medical student, or to hang a stethoscope around your neck. Just come in your comfy casual wear, the teachers instructed us.
There, sitting in one big round circle were men and women of all ages in various styles of dress, some bohemian, some barefoot or in slippers. We students stuck together, unsure who were the patients and who were the doctors or nurses. Quiet, like most of the group, I stole a look around the faces: some bored, others worn down or numb. Many stared at the worn floor, withdrawn and motionless. A few rocked gently. An hour later, we students emerged seeking fresh air, carrying with us the weight of emotional outpourings, the anger, sobs, happiness and despair.
We were warned not to approach the high-walled, heavy wrought iron-gated main building without escort by one of the beefy male nurses. They carried rings of big keys, unlocking and relocking each door or gate as we passed through. There were always patients in the central courtyard, sitting or pacing as if in constant search for their past life. A few were kept in locked cells and the nurses liked to shock visitors with stories of their violent crimes and even cannibalism. It was impossible to know if there was any truth to these tales.
The controversial psychiatrist, Harry Bailey, was on the staff at the time. He advocated the now-discredited deep sleep therapy, along with electroconvulsive techniques (ECT), and surgical interventions as panaceas for depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, and other mental illnesses. He did some controversial experiments at Callan Park as well as at the Chelmsford Private Hospital where he was the chief psychiatrist. After 60 Minutes revealed a number of suspicious patient deaths, a Royal Commission was established. On the eve of the Commission announcing its findings in 1985, Dr Bailey committed suicide with barbiturates, the same drugs he had used on his patients.
The Commission’s findings supported the 1983 Richmond Report in declaring an urgent need for a more human approach to psychiatric care, including decentralising treatment and deinstitutionalisation of patients. This eventually resulted in the Callan Park hospital being decommissioned in 2008, twenty-three years after the Royal Commission recommendation and some 130 years after its establishment.
In my later career, as a GP on the Central Coast, I was involved in helping former psychiatric inpatients from the Peat Island Hospital, a sister institution of Callan Park, transition back to community living with support from a team of dedicated carers. It was pure joy watching them edge their way back into the world they once belonged to.
Many in previous generations were not so lucky.
It is hard to imagine how easy it was, in the days when the man of the house controlled the destiny of the household, to commit a mother with postnatal depression into Callan Park. An eccentric like Bea Miles, a student at Sydney University, was admitted there by her father for being bohemian, radical, and believing in free sex after she apparently suffered viral encephalitis in her early university days. This prevented her from pursuing a planned career in medicine.
The unconventional William J Chidley, a sex reformer and author, was locked up in Callan Park for speaking openly about the taboo subject of sex in the waning days of the priggish and hypocritical Victorian era, and died there. Other inmates included the co-founding editor and publisher of the renowned Bulletin magazine, JF Archibald who published much of the iconic poet and author Henry Lawson’s work, and whose bequest established the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture as well as the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park.
Henry Lawson’s outspoken suffragette mother Louisa, a feminist, inventor, author, poet and publisher was admitted to Callan Park in 1918 when her memory began to fade and she became more ‘eccentric’, but only after her son Peter secured her signature to make him her beneficiary. She died in the hospital two years later.
While my time in the once notorious Callan Park as a medical student was unforgettable, I have had very different experiences there as a budding writer. I have enjoyed many writing courses at what was then the NSW Writers’ Centre in neighbouring Garry Owen House, and was also grateful for its nurturing and support for writers from diverse backgrounds and at all stages of their careers. I also joined the Australian Storytelling Guild, which once shared the premises with writers, to learn the art of verbalising my stories.
The tutors at Writing NSW are inspiring for writers of all levels and genres. My fellow writers are passionate and enthusiastic in our common pursuit of excellence in the art of writing, and many friendships have been formed. It was through Writing NSW I first heard of Varuna, the National Writers’ House in Katoomba, and its legendary team of writing consultants. Several writing fellowships later, my stories began to take the shape of a manuscript, which was nurtured and polished further over time.
To be a published author is every writer’s dream. Writing NSW helps writers find avenues to publication, including the Open House program that links its members to publishers. The November 2018 program was unforgettable for me. There were ten of us hopeful writers of non-fiction that Friday afternoon. We were each allocated a brief slot to pitch our manuscripts to a representative from a major publisher.
Being the last to present, my turn finally arrived at ten minutes to five. Staff at Garry Owen House were shutting windows and checking doors as they prepared to close down for the day. Sitting in front of the publisher with only ten minutes to present my manuscript, I dug deep to evoke the pitching skills learnt at Writing NSW. I have never looked back.
One Bright Moon, a memoir of my family surviving a bloody revolution, followed by a devastating famine, and subsequently making it out to safety, was released on 18 May 2020 right in the middle of the COVID pandemic. It was exactly fifty-eight years to the day after I, as a twelve-year old, was nailed inside a hidden tunnel in a fishing junk and smuggled into Hong Kong, a British colony at the time. It felt like a miracle that my writer’s dream had also come true. One Bright Moon has attracted many glowing appraisals, including winning the Michael Crouch Award for a debut biography after being shortlisted for the annual National Biography Award 2021.
I am humbled by the dedicated Writing NSW staff and enthusiastic teachers who share their skills and experiences with writers from all walks of life. So, with much gratitude and great pleasure, my friends and fellow writers, I ask you to join in celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Writing NSW.
Congratulations Writing NSW!
I am grateful to Dr Robert Lewin, psychiatrist, for verifying facts about Callan Park during the time we were there as medical students.
Sheree Kwong, always my Number One reader.
Andrew Kwong was born in Zhongshan in the Pearl River Delta in the People’s Republic of China, educated there and also in Hong Kong and Australia. He trained as a doctor at St Vincent’s Medical School of UNSW, was a resident at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney and is now in active general practice on the Central Coast. He has published many short stories and has been the recipient of numerous writing awards and fellowships, including the Varuna Publishers Award in 2014. He was also recently a guest speaker at the Adelaide Festival Writers’ Week in March. Andrew’s first book One Bright Moon was published by Harper Collins in 2020.