Callan Park: a question of Trust

Debate surrounds which Trust should oversee the long-neglected former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane at Lilyfield, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart.

A war of words has broken out over the future management of Callan Park, the former psychiatric hospital in Lilyfield, and whether the site is under new risk of commercial redevelopment, reports Alec Smart.

Throughout July 2021, campaign group Friends of Callan Park (FOCP) delivered leaflets to all households in the vicinity of Callan Park, calling for the establishment of a dedicated Callan Park Trust to oversee the future of the historic 61 hectares site. The pamphlet declared: “The state government has now split up the site and is planning the legislation to hand the larger part over to an agency dominated by corporates … The larger part, encompassing 62% of the site, has been given to the Centennial Park Trust. This Trust is now controlled by the new Greater Sydney Parklands (GSP) agency … almost entirely made up of people from the Big End of town.”

However, despite Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne publicly weighing in on the side of the FOCP, there is a counter argument that they’re being alarmist, because a 2002 Act of Parliament protects the whole site.

The Sydney Sentinel canvasses the history of the site and consults the main players in the tussle for its future …

Chequered history

Callan Park, on the shores of Iron Cove in Sydney’s Inner West, once housed a mental health facility called Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.

The facility was launched in 1878 with the stated intention to improve patients’ lives through psychiatric treatment, a relatively new medical discipline at the time.

Previously, until the end of convict transportation to Australia (November 1840 in Sydney, January 1868 in Fremantle, Western Australia) mentally disturbed people were incarcerated and subjected to harsh cruelties. No remedial drugs or therapies were available to treat various psychiatric disorders, so those suffering the likes of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia, were typically restrained and ill-treated.

However, despite advances in medicines and patient care, Callan Park’s reputation almost a century later revealed administrators systemically failed to implement humanitarian relief. The Stoller Report of 1955 confirmed rumours of overcrowding, squalor and stench. The NSW Government responded, providing financial support for new patient buildings, which were reportedly so late between design and construction that overcrowding persisted for many years.

A 1961 Royal Commission found some members of staff were starving, intimidating, assaulting and failing to clean patients. It is said many bodies of deceased patients were buried anonymously in unmarked graves. Some died through neglect. Others, ignored by their families due to the social stigmas surrounding mental health, just wasted away in the institution.

Nevertheless, the asylum continued and improved, with a name change in 1976 and again in 1994, when it was rebranded Rozelle Hospital. Eventually, in 2008, all patients and services were transferred to Concord Hospital and the facility closed, with parts of it allowed to deteriorate into ruin.

Disused former accomodation block in Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Lilyfield, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart.

Resisting developers

At the turn of the last century, there were several attempts to redevelop the prime waterside parkland of Callan Park. If successful, these would have seen a continuation of the high-rise apartments that characterise the neighbouring waterfront acreages of Rozelle and Drummoyne, on either side of Iron Cove. These moves were strongly resisted by the local community. A campaign group, Friends of Callan Park, was established to challenge the developers and the politicians backing them.

According to their webpage: “Friends of Callan Park (FOCP) was formed in 1998 by a group of committed, passionate and dedicated volunteers in order to safeguard the heritage-listed Callan Park & Broughton Hall estate … Over the past two decades, FOCP have successfully led the community in a campaign to protect Callan Park from sell-off and commercialisation attempts by successive governments …

“The Inner West municipality has the third highest population density in New South Wales, and yet the third lowest ratio of open space in the State. Callan Park is a precious and unique green community space enjoyed by thousands of people every year”

Upgrade plans

According to NSW Government’s Draft Landscape Structure Plan (LSP), their template for upgrading the park, “Callan Park contains over 130 buildings and structures … The LSP recommends retaining all buildings that are identified as medium, high or exceptional heritage value. Where buildings have been classified as intrusive, or where their removal may restore significant views, access or landscape potential, the LSP recommends investigation for removal. A total of 25 buildings and 13 ancillary structures (garages, toilet blocks and utility structures) are recommended to be investigated for removal.”

Although many of the red brick former nurses’ houses in the Callan Park grounds are now closed, awaiting asbestos removal or demolition, several of the historic stone-and-timber heritage-listed buildings remain in use, including two of the original properties, Garry Owen House (built in 1839) and Broughton Hall (1841) as well as three sports fields (Balmain Road, Glover Street and Waterfront Drive).

The heritage-listed central block, made of locally quarried sandstone, is named Kirkbride and its construction was completed in 1885. Consisting of around 20 treatment rooms and patient accommodation buildings, from 1996 to September 2020 they were utilised as an art school for Sydney University College of the Arts (who were moved on under controversial circumstances).

Kirkbride, the central block in the former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Lilyfield, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart.


On 20 January, 2021, Jamie Parker, MP for Balmain, issued a statement: “Yesterday I joined the Minister for Planning [Rob Stokes] to announce the plan for $14 million worth of major improvement works that will transform Callan Park.

“The implementation of the Landscape Structure Plan [LSP] will see upgrades across Callan Park including improvements to the foreshore Bay Run to make it fully pedestrianised, the removal of intrusive non-heritage buildings, new picnic areas, accessible amenities, a new waterfront sporting and community facility, the protection of Indigenous cultural heritage, and repairs to the Garry Owen Summer House and heritage buildings on site.

“On a personal note, after twenty years fighting government proposals for the sell-off, privatisation and development of Callan Park, I feel this is a genuinely historic achievement,” he said.

On 8 February, 2021, independent councillor John Stamolis for the Inner West Council’s Balmain-Balludari ward, issued a statement praising Parker for his involvement in Callan Park’s future: “Thanks to our State Member, Jamie Parker MP, who has been committed to this wonderful public outcome for many years.”

Divisions, decisions …

However, on 2 July, 2021, Inner West Council mayor Darcy Byrne released a statement by email, which said: “It was recently discovered by the Friends of Callan Park that shortly before Jamie Parker and Rob Stokes, Minister for Planning, announced new plans for Callan Park, the NSW Government secretly hived off all of the open space in Callan Park (38 hectares, almost two thirds of the whole park) into the ownership of the Centennial Park Trust. Council received no notice of this major transfer of public land.”

He said Inner West Council “voted to reject the NSW Government’s attempts at breaking up and hiving off Callan Park into various agencies and we will instead fight for a Callan Park Trust to be established”.

Cr Byrne did not respond to the Sentinel‘s requests for comment – but Cr Stamolis countered Byrne’s statements, telling the Sentinel: “Byrne has not been a friend of Callan Park.  He did not attend any session of the lengthy Callan Park Draft Masterplan process conducted by Leichhardt Council in 2010 …

“For over 20 years, Friends of Callan Park have been the heroes who have fought off developers and unsuitable proposals. Look where we are today because of their dedication. They have made submissions and representations. Their meetings, their care and their advocacy has continued uninterrupted for 23 years. Jamie Parker then led the masterplan process through Leichhardt Council. There is immense local commitment and local attachment to Callan Park.”

Balmain MP Jamie Parker also rejected Cr Byrne’s implication that he endorsed Callan Park being “secretly hived off” to commercially-minded administrators. He told Sydney Sentinel: “I’ve always been opposed to transferring the ownership of Callan Park to anything but a fully funded, dedicated Callan Park Trust. I’ve made this clear to the Minister [Rob Stokes] and I welcome the support of the Inner West Council.

“For over two decades I have strongly supported a standalone trust for Callan Park made up of experts in heritage, park management, mental health and First Nations and community representatives.

“[But] after years of inaction and demolition by neglect by Labor and Liberal governments, in the past twelve months we’ve seen more money committed to restore Callan Park than we have in the past ten years.”

The former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Lilyfield, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart.

Corporate interests

FOCP initially cheered the 19 January, 2021 announcement by Rob Stokes that the upgrade to the foreshore areas of Callan Park would proceed at a cost of $14 million – a significant increase on the $10 million originally promised.

All this is an historic and welcome breakthrough, ending the decades-long refusal by state governments to fund works at Callan Park – the notorious demolition by neglect.”

However, on their website they observed: “The absence of anybody from the new Greater Sydney Parklands agency that is now notionally the manager of Callan Park, was conspicuous.”

And in their leaflet delivered to residents in the Callan Park vicinity, FOCP drew attention to points made in an article written by investigative journalist Wendy Bacon, who was suspicious of the motives of Greater Sydney Parklands (GSP), the administrators of the Centennial Park Trust: “Bacon has discovered about the GSP: ‘Of the 7 directors, 6 have property development experience – two have worked in Sydney’s top corporate law firms.’ Smart people for finance and development perhaps, but not exactly ideal qualifications for managing a heritage/mental health site such as Callan Park.”

Bacon’s article, published on 28 February on her website, elaborates further: “The new agency rolled the management of Sydney’s major parks Callan Park, Fernhill Estate, Parramatta Park Trust, Sydney Western Parklands Trust and the Centennial Park and Moore Park Trusts into a single super agency …

“Scientific experience including environmental, biodiversity and climate change expertise is completely missing. The many community members who have contributed to maintaining the parklands have no representation …

“The vision sounds attractive. But rather than rely on the promise of a vision that claims to be all ‘about working in partnership with communities’ there is little actual information about the new agency…

“And there is something else missing – there is no Indigenous voice on the board and not a single representative of the millions of citizens using Sydney parks who don’t happen to be white, upper middle class people with thriving corporate careers – how, I ask you, can this happen in the 21st century?”

Cr Stamolis also acknowledges that Callan Park would be better served by a dedicated Callan Park Trust.

“The creation of a trust for Callan Park goes back to Leichhardt Council’s Draft Masterplan in 2010. It was fundamental to the plan. It is a key community expectation and has been since 2010,” he told the Sentinel.

“The GSP is a departure from this longstanding expectation. The GSP is also an untested model. Placing the most historic and unique parks in Sydney (and NSW) into an untested governance model will undoubtedly cause concern … The Draft Masterplan treated Callan Park as a whole. The breakup into two entities compromises this concept, which has a long historic and practical basis.”

Clocktower in the former Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Lilyfield, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart.

Is Callan Park now at risk of commercial redevelopment?

With Inner West Council voting in July to reject division of Callan Park into management by various agencies, is it reasonable to believe the Centennial Park Trust is not to be trusted, due to their commercially-minded administrators, Greater Sydney Parklands?

Cr Stamolis is cautious: “The LSP does prioritise the exceptional heritage and landscape of Callan Park and it commits to community use. I would suggest, however, that Councils’ Draft Masterplan presents a better governance blueprint to take this vision forward (i.e. with a Trust and a single entity).”

Mr Parker would also prefer to move ahead with the current LSP than delay any longer.

“To clarify, this motion was put by Greens Councillor Rochelle Porteous and supported by Labor and independent councillors,” he told the Sydney Sentinel.

“Our distrust is a result of successive Labor and Liberal governments trying to sell-off, commercialise and develop this site. The only reason there aren’t apartments on Callan Park to this day is the huge, successful community campaign that has been waged over two decades to preserve it as a public park.

“The government hasn’t proposed to weaken the Callan Park Act which protects the site from sell-off, commercialisation and development. But as long as Callan Park isn’t given its own standalone trust it won’t have the dedicated expertise and community input it needs to realise its full potential as one of Sydney’s premier open green spaces.”

Although the FOCP acknowledge the Callan Park (Special Provisions) Act 2002, which bans the sale or privatisation of any part of Callan Park, they stress, “There is always the danger of commercialisation.”

Cr Stamolis is sceptical: “Callan Park is protected by an Act. I can’t envisage any proposal for residential but we need to be alert to any risks.”

Mr Parker is also confident commercial interests won’t subdivide and redevelop Callan Park.

“Regardless of the technicalities of site ownership, the Callan Park Act ensures that no government is able to sell it, redevelop it, commercialise it or privatise it in any way. Callan Park is one of the most protected pieces of land in Sydney,” he said.

The Callan Park Masterplan approved in 2011 by the former Leichhardt Council – now subsumed into Inner West Council – is available to view online at

Kirkbride, opened 1885, the heritage-listed former treatment rooms and patient accommodation at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane, Lilyfield, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart.