Glebe’s History of Maritime Industry and Heritage of Terrace Rows and Italianate Villas

Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

Glebe Point Road is the heart of the inner west suburb that bears its name…a leisurely stroll from the Broadway end of the road reveals the variable character of Glebe itself. Close to the Broadway Centre are numerous eateries and coffee shops frequented by Gen X’s, Millennials and the occasional Zennial, three-quarters of which are university students from just across Parramatta Road at USYD. As we get closer to the other end (Glebe Point) there is a mix of elegant old houses, isolated groups of shops and a liberal sprinkling of backpacker lodges. This built-up urbanisation a stark contrast to the era before white settlement in the 18th century when the Glebe area was a Turpentine Ironbark forest inhabited by the indigenous Wangal and Cadigal clans.

‘Florence Villa’ 1883
The word itself, glebe (from glaeba (L), clod of earth), refers to an area of land devoted to the maintenance of an incumbent of the church. The colony of Port Jackson’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, set aside the land here for church purposes in 1789[1].

Sydney’s Broadway and Parramatta Road marks the eastern boundary of Glebe and the suburb extends west to Rozelle Bay, a body of water flowing into Johnstons Bay and eventually into Sydney Harbour. Rozelle Bay houses a bustling marina sitting on a strip of land incongruously known as “Glebe Island” (not an island!) which accommodates the old bridge that once linked Pyrmont to Glebe Island and Rozelle, which was replaced in the mid 1990s by the modernist looking cable-stayed new Glebe Island Bridge (name later changed to Anzac Bridge).

Although Glebe was subjected to waves of greed-fuelled demolition during the 20th century, heritage architecture still characterises a significant chunk of the suburb’s residential complexion. A representative sample of 19th century houses have been preserved despite the best efforts of developers and development-sympathetic state governments to jettison the old to make way for new dwellings and a network of freeways crisscrossing Glebe (see PostScript on Lyndhurst below)[2].

Early trends toward gentrification
The Church’s 1856 sell-off of some of its land in Glebe was the spark that started the suburb’s long spiral into an inexorable gentrification. A two strata society developed with Glebe Point (the bay end) becoming the location for many new homes of the urban gentry, these better-off citizens were clearly separated off from ‘The Glebe’ where the more numerous working class resided[3].

Terraced Glebe
By 1870 the terrace had become the dominant build form in Glebe. By WWI there was several distinct types of terrace – colonial Georgian, Regency, Victorian Gothic, Italianate and Federal style – standing side by side. Terraces were the optimal solution to accommodate Glebe’s rapidly growing population, having the virtue of economical outlays on land and building materials[4].

‘Bellevue’ (detail)
Italianate villas and cottages figure prominently among the residences of Glebe that have survived to this day, eg, Bellevue c1896 (Italianate Victorian home reprieved from the demolishers’ wrecking ball, today a cafe for walkers (with or without dogs) and cyclists on the foreshore)❈; other Victorian Italianate buildings including the Glebe Court House, the Town Hall and Kerribree. Many of Glebe’s finer buildings were the work of the leading architects of colonial New South Wales (such as Barnet, Blackett and Verge). For a time Glebe was known as the architect’s suburb.

As the early land use of Glebe was taking shape the foreshore was not considered suitable for residential development, opening the way for exclusive use for marine industry – and for sporting activity. Glebe Rowing Club has long had its position on Blackwattle Bay and Jubilee Oval, near the old tramsheds, was the home ground of Glebe Cricket Club in the Sydney Grade Cricket competition[5].

Industrial remnant: Crane on walkway
Timberyards in the foreshore dress circle
A walk along the foreshore from Blackwattle Bay reveals precise little of the suburb’s concentrated industrial past. Modern apartments sit hunched together close to the waterfront where once timberyards and sawmillers dominated the landscape❈. On the foreshore path a monument to those activities is a rusty old crane and winch…Sylvester Stride’s Ship-breaking Yard and Crane business used these devices to break up steamers to recycle metals. Most of the industry – which also included noxious industries like boiling down works and slaughterhouses as well as a distillery – were gone from the Bay by 1975. Hardy’s Timber Mill, an extended complex of building structures, was for a time converted into artists’ studios[6].

Remarkably, the small grassy stretch of foreshore known as Pope Paul VI Reserve was until the early eighties the only public access point on all of Blackwattle and Rozelle Bays. The papal appellation bestowed on the reserve derives from the lobbying efforts of right-wing Labor Catholic politicians in Leichhardt Council to commemorate the spot where Paul VI landed by launch during his 1970 papal visit of Australia[7].

Griffin incinerator
One item remaining on Blackwattle is Walter Burley Griffin’s Glebe incinerator dating from the early 1930s. An elegant building in the Art Deco style, in 2006 it was restored as an interpretative work with its once impressive chimney stack in skeletal form. The incinerator was one of a number in Sydney (and elsewhere) constructed by the famous Canberra Capital designer as a response to council’s need to find a more effective way to dispose of increasing amounts of consumer garbage۞.

PostScript: Georgian mansion with a varied past
A survey of Glebe’s history and heritage is not complete without noting one of its grandest, earliest and still extant old homes. Lyndhurst is a mansion with an exceptionally colourful history. The once impressive scale of the estate has been plundered by successive subdivisions over the years…if you visit it today by locating its street address (57-65 Darghan St) the big surprise is finding that the building’s back affronts the street! Lyndhurst was built in 1833 by colonial architect John Verge as a marine villa for surgeon and pastoralist Dr James Bowman, the son-in-law of wool pioneers John and Elizabeth Macarthur. In the last 100 years the Lyndhurst estate has served many purposes – from theological college to pickle factory to hospital to broom factory and in the 1960s and ’70s as the headquarters of the Australian Nazi Party (Australian National Socialist Party). Lyndhurst was one of the many great Glebe residences slated for demolition in the early seventies by Askin’s government, a fate it and many others fortunately avoided![8].

❈ the campaign to save Glebe’s heritage homes from corporate culling was spearheaded by the Glebe Society, formed by concerned local residents in 1969
today there is one remaining timber yard along the shoreline of Rozelle Bay, Crescent Timber, being actually in Annandale, adjacent to Federal Park
۞ hitherto the preferred methods of disposal were either piling garbage on to tips, burying it or carting garbage six miles out to sea on barges and jettisoning it overboard (only for the tide to return it to shore!), had met with growing public disapproval

[1] B & B Kennedy, Sydney and Suburbs: A History and Descriptions, (1982)
[2] eg, the vision of long-term Liberal premier of NSW Robin (Robert) Askin, born and bred in Glebe, was to turn the suburb into a network of freeways – fortunately for Glebe’s heritage integrity this was never implemented, ‘Sir Robert Askin’
[3] ‘History and Heritage’, The Glebe Society Inc,
[4] Solling, Max, Glebe, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011,, 03 Oct 2017
[5] ‘History of Glebe Foreshore parks’, (City of Sydney),
[6] ‘Timber Industry’, (Glebe Walks),
[7] ‘Pope Paul VI Reserve (interpretative sign)’, (Glebe Walks),
[8] ‘Historic Glebe Mansion Lyndhurst, Once Australia’s Nazi Party Headquarters, on Market for $7.5M’, (B Wong), 07-May 2016,

Balmain’s Legacy of Industry, Workers, Pubs and Architectural Heterogeneity

Archaeology, Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

The Balmain peninsula, just to the west of Sydney’s CBD, has a long post-settlement history of European mixed land use, both as a magnet for industry and a place for workers and their families – and room also for those financially well-heeled enough to afford the pick of the land and a waterfront property with magnificent views of Australia’s finest harbour.

Balmain’s dirty industries
From the 1840s industry had started to make inroads into the Balmain landscape, and the types of enterprises were becoming many and varied. Over the next 150 years the suburb’s diverse industry has included power stationsφ, an English-owned colliery (from 1897) located just east of Birchgrove Public School, whose long-term productivity proved disappointing. After the mine’s closure in 1931 it produced methane gas until the early 1940s. Eventually houses were built over it and today an exclusive residential complex known as Hopetoun Quays sits atop the site.

Thames St Ferry Wharf, Mort's Bay
Thames St Ferry Wharf, Mort’s Bay
At Mort’s Bay a shipyard and dry dock (Australia’s first) was created in the 1850s, the shipyard was not very successful, and the business eventually morphed into a maritime engineering enterprise employing in excess of 1,000 men. Thomas S Mort, the dock owner, created ‘Mort’s Town of Waterview‘, a subdivision of land to provide housing for his dockyard workers[1]. There was also a ferry service built at Mort’s Bay c.1895. The Thames Street Wharf, with its distinctive curved shelter, transported between 20,000 and 24,000 workers to and from Circular Quay daily (it is thought to be the only Victorian era ferry still operating in the Sydney Harbour network)[2].

Colgate-Palm apartments
Colgate-Palm apartments
Balmain’s ‘clean’ industries
Other industrial enterprises on the peninsula included a saw mill at the end of Nicholson Street, owned by Alexander Burns, the location later taken over by the Adelaide Steamship Co which employed more than 600 men in its ship repair business; a coal loader; US soap and toothpaste giant Colgate-Palmolive with a factory employing over 140 operated in Broadstairs Street, later renamed Colgate Avenue (the Colgate building, which was known locally as “the Olive” is now smartly renovated apartments)[3]. Interestingly, grimy industrial Balmain had no shortage of soap as a second company, Lever and Kitchen (later becoming Unilever), also manufactured soap and glycerol in a huge (10ha) plant near Booth Street and Punch Park. At its zenith Lever and Kitchen had a workforce of over 1,250, many of whom lived locally.

imageThe co-existence between home-maker and industry in Balmain has not always been an easy one. The peninsula developed as an industry hub and a desirable place to dwell more or less concurrently. Its proximity to Sydney Town made it attractive to industrialists and to the workforce. By 1846 Balmain housed 19.6 per cent of Sydney and was the largest residential area of the colony – predominantly working class as the workers in the main wanted to be close to where the industrial work was[4].

Notwithstanding the numerous working men (and their unpaid women folk) in the early days[5] there was also a significant middle class component, after all someone had to live in those magnificent Post-Regency and Georgian mansions. “Captains of industry” like Ewen Wallace Cameron and Robert (RW) Miller lived in such palatial homes on the peninsula, as did local developers and businessmen like Robert Blake and JJ Yeend.

The peninsula’s population in 1848 was just 1,337, however there was a spike in numbers over the remainder of the century reaching a straining 28,460 by 1895[6]. The working class parts of Balmain were clearly overcrowded and the suburb’s pattern of development disorganised and haphazard, eg, factories were springing up alongside workers’ modest houses and public schools[7].

ALP “Holy Grail”
Because of the historic heavy concentration of blue-collar industry in Balmain, a strong trade union presence (in particular the maritime industries with the Painters and Dockers Union) has always been part of the landscape. That Balmain/union nexus led to the formation of the Labor Electoral League (which changed its name to the Australian Labor Party) at the relocated Unity Hall Hotel (290 Darling Street) in 1891. The ALP has dominated state elections in the seat covering the Balmain area (in 1978 capturing 82.4 per cent of the two-party vote), although the current MP is a Greens politician, which continues the traditional left-leaning trend of peninsula politics.

Birchgrove, btwn Snails Bay & Long Cove: 1855 map
Birchgrove, btwn Snails Bay & Long Cove: 1855 map
Louisa Road dress circle
Birchgrove in Balmain’s north-western point is thought of as the classiest (in reality values at least) area of the whole peninsula, well, not all of Birchgrove, just one street … actually just part of one street, Louisa Road, the end part. Birch Grove House, believed to be the first house built on the Balmain peninsula, was located at 67 Louisa Rd. It was constructed in 1810 for army regiment paymaster John Birch and demolished, sadly, in 1967. In the 1860s and 70s Hunters Hill developers, the Joubert brothers, subdivided Birchgrove land backing on to Snails Bay§. The estate was advertised as “a miniature Bay of Naples” but few of the villas were ever sold[8].

Home owners today in the exclusive bits of Louisa Rd (properties starting at well in excess of $3 million) include movie producers and directors, famous writers, members of platinum record-breaking rock bands, as well as the more mainstream common, garden variety” type of professionals. But it has not always been the exclusive preserve of society’s elite – 150 Louisa Rd at one time was the headquarters of the Bandidos bikie gang. After the 1984 Milperra Massacre involving rival Comancheros and Bandidos bikie gangs, the Bandidos members were turfed out of the 1897 Federation/Queen Anne house[9].

From pub to friendly society to medical centre
Darling Street: sandstone hotel precinct
The houses in East Balmain don’t overall tend to match the price tags of Federation-rich Louisa Road, but they represent some of the best and most interesting, as well as the oldest, architecture in the peninsula. Darling Street, starting from East Balmain Wharf, is dotted with 1840s-1860s sandstone hotel buildings. Some are no longer functioning as pubs, eg, the Shipwrights Arms, 1844 (10 Darling St), the original Unity Hall Hotel, c.1848 (49 Darling St), the Waterford Arms, now ‘Cahermore’ (“Fort on the Hill”) 1846 (50 Darling St). These 1840s buildings have a plain Post-Regency style to them, simple stone and wooden roofs, clean lines with little or no ornamentation. The contrast is with the later Victorian buildings, such as ‘Bootmaker’s Cottage’ 1860 (90 Darling St) which is more ornate (if restrained) with stone quoins (corner blocks) plus a combination of stone and brick materials and elegant cast-iron balustrading[10]. The enhanced use of decoration and superior materials in the grander later Victorian houses, reflect the affluence of Sydney after the colony’s Gold rushes.

Datchett Street
Datchett Street
Cameron’s Cove and Datchett Street
The extent to which Balmain had become an architectural zoo In the 19th century can be glimpsed from comparing Cameron’s Cove with its Victorian Italianate mansions like ‘Ewenton’ 1854-72 (1 Blake St)[11] with the delightful but ramshackled old timber cottages in little Datchett Street, a narrow, steep side lane-way just across the Cove. Some of the Datchett dwellings look a bit like holiday shacks and would not be out-of-place in a sleepy little backwater down the coast✲.

Just to the east of Ewenton in Grafton St, backing on to the fairly new White Bay Cruise Terminal, sits Hampton Villa. This 1849 Post-Regency house with its Tuscan columns is best known as the 1880s residence of Sir Henry Parkes (five times premier of NSW and “Father of Federation”).

De-industrialising the peninsula: Enter the developers
From the 1960s Balmain’s character began to change. A slow process of gentrification was occurring as property values rose and more people renovated their old houses. Industries moved out, partly because of a trend toward decentralisation, and partly because many were dying off[12]. The prospect of a waterfront home tantalisingly close to the CBD was a lure for many a “cashed-up” punter!

In the eighties and early nineties industrial areas of the peninsula were re-zoned as residential by a development friendly Leichhardt Council to the glee of developers like Leda Group who were free to carve out new middle class estates from the old Unilever site and elsewhere in Balmain. All of which meant the suburb had fast become beyond the reach of most working class home-owners.

_ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ __ _
φ strictly speaking, these two power stations, White Bay and Balmain (Cove), which book-ended the peninsula east and west, were located in Rozelle, but within the Balmain district
§ the Wan-gal (Aboriginal) name for the point jutting out from Birchgrove is Yurulbin which means “swift running waters” as it is the point of confluence where the two headwaters meet (Port Jackson and Parramatta River)
✲ a number of the street’s old timber cottages have gone, to be replaced with dense concrete heavily-fortified looking structures
[1] LA Jones, ‘Housing the Worker’, (unpublished BA(Hon) thesis, University of Sydney), Oct 2011
[2] ‘History of Balmain Thames Street Ferry Wharf’, (NSW Transport),
[3] G Spindler, ‘A Sydney Harbour Circle Walk 2011-12’ (Historic Notes & Background), Apr 2011,
[4] ‘Wyoming’ (Balmain Italianate Mansion), NSW Office of Environment & Heritage,
[5] so much so the mainstream Sydney press in 1889 described Balmain with its 5,000 dwellings as “working men’s paradise”, Illustrated Sydney News, 11 Jul 1889
[6] ‘Balmain: Local History’, Inner West Council/Leichhardt Municipal Council,
[7] ‘History of Balmain’,
[8] ‘Wyoming’, op.cit.. Didier Joubert named Louisa Rd after his wife and the adjoining streets after his children
[9] Spindler, op.cit.
[10] ‘Humble to Handsome – Balmain Architecture 1840-1860s’, (Balmain Walks, Balmain Association Inc),
[11] ‘Ewenton’ itself is something of an architectural mélange with its mixture of Moorish arches and Georgian and Victorian features, ibid.
[12] eg, the 14 or so old shipyards of Balmain have all closed down, ‘Old Balmain: Paddocks and Shipyards’, Local Notes (2012),

Walkers’ World: Rambling round a 19th Century Million Pound Foreshore Estate

Built Environment, Bushwalking, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

Whichever way you look at it, its one absolute corker of a good walk … a leisurely 8km or so saunter from Rhodes Station around the foreshore to the former estate of the fabulously rich Walkers of Concord. Whether it’s your dedicated step-counting walker or your insouciant, rambling flaneur, the Concord shoreline walk is an interesting stroll through rustic, undulating fields and flat, serene bayside paths bordered by mangroves and what remains of a eucalyptus forest. A walk through the erstwhile Walker estate takes you past historic reminders of grand Victorian/Edwardian homes and World War repatriation hospitals and convalescence facilities.

Rhodes house
Rhodes house
As we leave the western side of the railway station, we immediately have our first encounter with one of the local historical personages. Walker Street (next to the rail line) is named after Thomas Walker, the first of two Thomas Walkers to leave a weighty footprint on the area of Concord/Rhodes. This first Thomas Walker, an officer in charge of government stores in the early colony, purchased land at Uhrs Point, a locale which eventually became the suburb of Rhodes, named after the house Walker had built for himself.

Rhodes – a background of industrial polluters of the environment and the suburb’s anonymous domestic makeover:
Heading north along Walker Street, we pass the sites previously occupied by many commercial and industrial enterprises including the large paint manufacturer Berger’s and the multinational giant Union Carbide’s Chemicals plant (environmentally notorious for its shameful practice of discharging dioxins/Agent Orange into the Parramatta River). In their place we see the shape of the post-industrial landscape that dominates Rhodes today – masses and masses of heterogenous high-rise blocks of modern apartments and large clumps of new ones still going up. At the end of Walker Street there is a nice little park touching the river (Point Park) where members of the ubiquitous local Asian community perform their daily Tai chi exercises.

Walking under the railway line and passing some light industry and the IKEA warehouse, we loop around Uhrs Point below Ryde Bridge near the sea scouts hall and turn south in the direction of Concord. After a stretch of street we reach Brays Bay Reserve, named after the first land-owner in Rhodes, Alfred Bray, who built the now long demolished ‘Braygrove’ in ca 1800 (the pioneering Brays owned property in Rhodes from 1794 to 1909).

imageIn the Bray Reserve we walk onto a vacant concrete pier on the edge of the river, no indication that it once housed a Philips Industries site when they were in the bike manufacturing business. On the other side of the square there is a plaque with some rusty old sides of a ship signifying the former presence of Tulloch’s Iron Works in Rhodes (during WWII it functioned as ‘Commonwealth Shipyard # 4’). The remnants of a railed track with ship names engraved on the ground … female names, all curiously enough starting with the letter ‘E’.

Kokoda commemorative walk:
The next section of the trail, densely cordoned on one side by thick mangroves, comprises the 1990s constructed Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway. The walkway is set in a rainforest tropics-themed garden with Kokoda Campaign audio ‘stations’ named after various battles and campaigns of the New Guinea conflict (Efogi, Iorabaiwa, Myola, etc) positioned at different points. There is also a memorial with two high, semi-circular walls surrounded by a rose garden in the rainforest, and a small kiosk-style cafe at the mid-way point of the track. When the path reaches the open side gate to Concord General Hospital, the Kokoda Walkway ends and we take the path deviating to the left.

The path (usually muddy here) skirts round the back of the Concord Repatriation Hospital, which itself continues the WWII theme. It was built in 1940 as the 113th Australian Army General Hospital, taking in wounded and convalescing servicemen from the War. The ground on which the hospital dominated by the huge “Multi Building” stands passed to the Crown after the death of Dame Eadith Walker, daughter of the second Thomas Walker associated with the area. This Thomas Walker was a Scottish migrant in the 19th century who made it (very) big from property investment and finance in Australia (in his later years he was president of the Bank of NSW). At the time of his death his personal worth was estimated at around £2,000,000, a staggering amount for 1886!

Classical Greek artwork on Convalescent Hospital
Classical Greek artwork on Convalescent Hospital
Walker estate and convalescent hospital:
This is a very tranquil part of Concord, with only the occasional dog walker or jogger to be seen on the dirt track. As we come round the bend in the path, dense bamboo woods on our left, we get our first glimpse of the first convalescent hospital on the peninsula (much, much smaller than the Concord Repat). Walker left £100,000 for the construction of what became the Thomas Walker Memorial Convalescent Hospital, designed and built by famous architect John Sulman in the early 1890s after the injection of a further £50,000 from Eadith and her aunt and other relatives for the project’s completion. The hospital was an amazingly extensive complex in its day and the central core of the hospital remains, albeit a lot of the surrounding adjunct buildings have not survived.

Dutch bell tower
Dutch bell tower
At its height the adjoining structures included an admin block, separate dining rooms and pavilions for men and women, concert hall and servants’ quarters, with a tennis court for convalescing patients. Staying on the foreshore path we reach the distinctive Dutch bell tower on the water, from where a long stepped pathway leads impressively up to the hospital entrance. In the time it was a working hospital the bell tower was the landing-point for ferries conveying patients from Circular Quay, and it also served in a secondary function as a smoking room – for male patients only!

imageWalker’s convalescent hospital admitted 683 patients in its first year of operation and over the following 80 years took in thousands free of charge in accordance with Walker’s bequest. During WWII it was used to house the 3rd Australian Women’s Hospital. By the 1970s however it was no longer viable as a free convalescent hospital and in 1979 it began functioning as the Rivendell Adolescent Unit for the rehabilitation of emotionally disturbed youth, and it is still operating as such today.

Following the path further south we pass coastal bush and mangroves and come to a series of stairs (down and then up again) which are behind the Mental Health Unit of Concord Hospital – a newish facility relocated from Callan Park/Rozelle in 2008. The path curves around the peninsula into Yaralla Bay and the newer buildings (mental health and drug health) give way to a series of old, very dilapidated looking buildings comprising the hospital’s engineering and works divisions.

We walk toward a clear, grassy area and take a sharp left out of the hospital grounds, near the helipad, at its south-western end where the mangroves are at their most dense. This leads into desolate bush and scrubland alongside the bay. Pretty soon the path becomes fairly marshy and prone to be boggy after rain (avoid if waterlogged during a walk by veering to the right over the higher ground of the fields which has better run-off). This field is one of a series of large, empty and fenced off paddocks in this part of the former Walker Estate. What looks like a bare and fallow piece of land has become a hotly contested area of Canada Bay.

Horse-free paddocks
Horse-free paddocks
Agistment wars:
The paddocks had been used for decades by local horse-owners for the agistment of their steeds. The state government held an inquiry in 2012/2013 which found that the tenant in charge had mismanaged the site (fences not properly maintained leading to some horses escaping into the hospital helipad and adjoining streets, and other conditions of the agistment licence not fulfilled by the licensee). The government health authority then did a late night deal with the NSW Mounted Unit of the Police giving them the green light to move their 18 service horses from the city (Surry Hills) to the freshly vacated paddocks of Yaralla Estate. Then the government suddenly backflipped on its decision to move the police horses to Yaralla (prompting an ICAC inquiry into the whole matter of the paddocks’ usage). However it still went ahead with the revoking of the tenant’s lease and the recreational horses were turfed off the estate, causing a vociferous outcry from the aggrieved horse owners. Since then there have been signals from the government of an intention to turn the land into 18ha of parklands for future public use. However the agistment paddocks remain idle and unoccupied, giving further cause for protest from the ejected horse lovers at the current impasse.

imageContinuing the path through this second Walker peninsula we come to the grand Yaralla House set up on raised land 150 metres from the shoreline. Around it are the various auxiliary buildings of the Yaralla Estate. The Walker Estate was acquired by the millionaire banker in piecemeal fashion in the 1840s-1850s from the beneficiaries of Isaac Nichols, convict-cum-colonial postmaster and the original crown landowner in Concord. Yaralla House itself is an architecturally significant, asymmetrical Victorian Italianate mansion, the original alabaster white villa was built by colonial architect Edmund Blacket (1850s-60s) with John Sulman adding extensions to it in the 1890s.

Squash courts shunned by the future Edward VIII
Squash courts shunned by the future Edward VIII
Self-contained ‘Walker World’:
After Eadith Walker inherited the Yaralla Estate from her father she systematically built up the property holdings, adding a swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, croquet lawn, stables, coach-house, guest houses and other auxiliary buildings. The squash court was installed specifically for the use of the Prince of Wales on his visit. However the Royal declined to play on it because of its concrete floor (his cousin and travel companion Lord Mountbatten played instead!).

Yaralla also had its own dairy farm (supplying milk to the Walkers’ and other local hospitals), piggery, fowl enclosures, bakery, fire brigade and powerhouse (Yaralla was the first building in Concord to have electricity!). A good chunk of the 40ha plus grounds were used as a golf course – some of its members later established the Royal Sydney Golf Club in North Bondi. The rest broke away from the Sydney Club and formed the Concord Golf Course (Club) on land, then known as “Walker’s Bush”, that had been part of the Walkers’ holdings.

Eadith lived alone at Yaralla – in the sense that she never married, however in a very real sense she was far from alone, even after her companion/adopted sister Anne left to marry the architect Sulman. Dame Eadith maintained a huge retinue of some 200 servants, maids, grooms, cooks, gardeners, engineers and other live-in staff. In addition, twin cousins of the family from Tenterfield, northern NSW, Egmont and George (Walker), lived there for many years (each having a room named after him!).

imageRockery from Italy:
Dame Eadith spared little expense on the beautification of her estate. Stonemasons were imported from Italy to build an sculptured Italianate terrace and a grotto. The grotto is a series of sculpted rockery caves interspersed with exotic flora, ferns, palms and especially succulents, lying at the foot of the bluff on which the former Walker home sits. The area between the grotto and the shoreline once contained the Walkers’ swimming pool complete with its own pumping station. There is also a decorative sunken garden and the evocative Four Winds Fountain located near the house.

At one period around WWI Eadith was a regular holder of lavish parties and charitable fetes and balls at Yaralla (Walker received her DBE for charitable activities). For the socially advanced, “old money” set, it was the place to be seen! Periodically she entertained royalty … both the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) and the Duke of Gloucester (the future George VI) stayed at the Yaralla Estate. Lesser luminaries, including governor-generals and premiers, also stayed at the Estate. In one celebrated incident aviator Ross Smith landed on the front lawn in a bi-plane in 1920 and had cucumber sandwiches on the lawn with the good Dame Commander. From her art and artifacts collections garnered from frequent overseas’ trips she brought back many Indian treasures to incorporate into a special showcase Indian room at Yaralla. After visiting Scandinavia she had a Norwegian cottage shipped out and reassembled on the Concord estate.

During the Great War the patriotic Eadith gave over Yaralla’s grounds to the army to be used as a ‘tent’ hospital. Yaralla House (sometimes known by the name Eadith Walker Convalescent Hospital) fell into the Crown’s hands after her death sans heirs in 1937. It eventually came under the trusteeship of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (the RPA) and then that of the Sydney Local Health District (SLHD). RPA now uses the former mansion (and other on-site cottages) as a residential care facility to house HIV and dementia outpatients.

After Dame Eadith died, the contents of the Yaralla properties were auctioned in 1938 by Lawson’s and de Groot. Held over eight days, it was the biggest auction held in Australia to that time. Some of the Yaralla items sold are now in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

imageFortunately for the vast Estate, there has been a lot of conservation and restoration work carried out at Yaralla in recent years – a combined effort by the City of Canada Bay Heritage Society, the Council itself, and the SLHD. We resume the walk, past the grotto, where the path slopes gently down towards a dense patch of very tall and wild bamboo on the water side with a small child care centre on the right. If you look west up the road that leads away from the centre, you will see a row of planted trees which guards an elaborate rose garden created by Eadith.

In the next section of the walk the narrowing path is encroached upon by overhanging branches in what is a pleasant little, untamed stretch of bush. Shortly we come to a metal fence signifying the boundary where the Yaralla Estate once ended, it has a gate that is no longer locked. Past the gate is a large, well-kept park which looks out on to Majors Bay. A small but dense turpentine-ironbark forest leads to the right in the direction of Nullawarra Road which is flanked by Arthur Walker Reserve (coincidentally named after an apparently unrelated ‘Walker’!).

The expansive park curves around Majors Bay with a continuous trail of dense mangroves on the foreshore and sporting fields on the right. The concrete pathway ends, abruptly and surprisingly, at the back fence of someone’s house. Surprising because, with just a little imaginative urban planning and some funding, a bracket-shaped boardwalk could have extended the foreshore path around the houses to connect with close-by Shadrock Shaw Reserve (much in the manner achieved with sections of Salt Pan Creek and other coastal walkways).

imageThe conclusion of a wonderful walk full of interesting history and natural beauty and charm … a tranquil corridor of nature with an air of unhurried ambience. From the Majors Bay Reserve end-point you can choose between walking on through the Mortlake and Breakfast Point streets to the ferry at Cabarita, or heading west, cutting across Concord Road to the nearest train station at Concord West.

Yaralla Footnote:
The entrance to Yaralla is the main (wrought iron) gate and the Hyacinth (Gatekeeper’s) Cottage at the junction of Nullawarra Rd and The Drive. In its heyday however, the Estate extended as far west as Concord Road (the original gate being where the Masonic hall is on Concord Road). Where privately owned red brick cottages and Californian bungalows are today, Dame Eadith constructed retirement cottages for her loyal staff to live in at the end of their working lives.

Tradies entrance – circa 1900

Sheena Coupe, Concord A Centenary History (1883-1983), Sydney 1983.
Jennifer MacCulloch, ‘Walker, Dame Eadith Campbell (1861-1937), Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU, published in hardcover 1990
Patricia Skehan, ‘Yaralla estate’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011,, viewed 31 January 2016
Graham Spindler, Uncovering Sydney: Walks into Sydney’s Unexpected and Endangered Places, Sydney 1991
‘Rivendell School’,
‘Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital (Rivendell)’, City of Canada Bay Heritage Society,
Yaralla Estate, Dame Eadith Walker Estate Management Plan, 2014-16, (draft),

Eyes on the Prize: Callan Park, a Modern Saga of Development Vs Conservation

Built Environment, Creative Writing, Heritage & Conservation, Politics

In 1976 the NSW state government consolidated the two mental health care facilities in Lilyfield, Callan Park Mental Hospital and Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic, into one body, called Rozelle Hospital (the word ‘Psychiatric’ was discretely excised from the name). Drug and alcohol and psycho-geriatric services were added to the psychiatric care and rehabilitation roles of the hospital.

A watershed moment in mental health with profound and long-lasting repercussions for Rozelle Hospital occurred seven years later in 1983. The Richmond Report recommended a policy of deinstitutionalisation, moving patients of mental hospitals back into the community. From the 1960s, with overcrowding in state mental hospitals rife, there had been isolated attempts to deinstitutionalise starting to happen but the Report advocated that the government accelerate the process on a more systematic basis.

Stairs to a haven?
Stairs to a haven?
The Report’s blueprint advocated moving patients out of the psych wards and into the community at large. They were to be given support through a network of community-based agencies. As well, the plan was to open up new special units in mainstream general hospitals and accommodation facilities to take care of the needs of the former inpatients. In reality however these measures have never been properly supported by successive NSW governments, Labor or Liberal. Cynically but unsurprisingly, the parties in power have tended to manipulate the program to cut back on existing bed numbers and close wards in the mental health care system.

New specialised mental health wards were eventually opened, such as in Western Sydney hospitals Nepean and Liverpool. But the cost of caring for the former patients, providing them with the services and housing they needed once released, has not been adequately met by the authorities. As a consequence, the state’s prisons have returned in practice to a traditional role they had filled in past centuries, acting as de facto psychiatric institutions. Government research points to a high percentage of prisoners (90% female and 78% male) experiencing a psychiatric disorder in the year preceding their incarceration [R Pollard, ‘Out of Mind’, Sydney Morning Herald, February 12, 2005].

A side-effect of deinstitutionalisation at Callan Park was the physical deterioration of wards and other dwellings on the site. As wards closed, their upkeep was not maintained and many fell into various stages of dilapidation, some were found to contain very significant levels of asbestos. In 1991 an extensive DPWS Heritage Study was undertaken by the Department of Public Works with every building, evaluated zone-by-zone, to determine if it should be preserved, repaired or removed. Bizarrely, some of the buildings deemed suitable to be demolished were in satisfactory condition and still being utilised, such as the NSW Ambulance Service!?! Many of the old buildings earmarked for removal were subsequently pulled down but fortunately, somehow the Ambulance building complex survived [‘DPWS Heritage Plan’, (1991)].

The fallout from the policy to deinstitutionalise continues to be felt in the community. NSW Health’s 2007 ‘Tracking Tragedy’ report identified that there had been some 113 suicides by former psychiatric patients plus a number of patients who had committed homicides upon release [‘Final Government Response to Tracking Tragedy 2007’ (3rd Report)].

A monument to Ward B patients or war?
A monument to Ward B patients or war?
By the early ’90s the Kirkbride Block was being phased out as a psychiatric institution (the nearby wards however were retained for patient relocation) and a deal was struck with Sydney University (USYD) to lease it from 1996 as the site of its College of the Arts (SCA). The University then injected 19 million dollars into upgrading the facilities to make it suitable as a tertiary education campus. At the same time the nearby Garryowen House was repaired to become the new home of the NSW Writers Centre.

Uncertainty about the Government’s future plans for Callan Park led concerned citizens to form the Friends of Callan Park (FOCP) in 1998. Their concerns were well-founded as the Carr Labor Government in 2001-2002 produced a draft Master Plan for the land which included the sale of significant chunks of the site for residential development and the shift of psychiatric services to Concord – all formulated without having consulted local residents (this followed an earlier clandestine arrangement made by Carr to provide land in the Park gratis for a Catholic retirement village). FOCP and Leichhardt Council mobilised community support against the Government’s plan, resulting in a huge backlash from residents of the municipality.

Embarrassed, the state government backed down, ditched the Master Plan and enacted the 2002 Callan Park (Special Provisions) Act which guaranteed that the entire site would remain in public hands to be used strictly for health and education purposes only [‘Callan Park – a Tribute to the Local Community’, (FOCP),]

Later, Labor planning minister Sartor (again covertly) offered the the central core of the whole site (an area of 35HA) to Sydney University whose expansion plans for the SCA site envisaged increasing the student numbers to 20,000 and providing for up to 7,000 places in residential accommodation. USYD received a 99 year lease from the Government on the 35HA land. The University was planning to move the Sydney Conservatorium of Music from its present location in the city onto the Lilyfield site (the Conservatorium were very lukewarm to this proposal, as it turned out). This over-the-top development would have required 16 new buildings (some up to 4 storeys high!) to be built, which would have been a breach of the 2002 Act. Again after for a public backlash the Government backed down [Sydney Morning Herald, October 21, 2002;Inner West Courier, November 6, 2007].

Recently USYD has been murmuring about the prospect of pulling out of the Rozelle campus, citing financial difficulties as the reason. It has already flagged its intention to move the Fine Arts School to the main Camperdown site [‘Sydney University abandons art school at Callan Park’, Sydney Morning Herald, November 25, 2015]. The uncertainty about Callan Park’s future has prompted critics like FOCP to suggest that the Baird Government may follow the same path as Labor did in trying to sell-off part of the site for commercial gain. FOCP has accused the Government of taking a “demolition by neglect” approach to Callan Park, this will be a fait accompli, they contend, especially if USYD leaves Rozelle as the buildings will no longer be maintained and inevitably fall into disrepair [‘Callan Park in danger of being “demolished by neglect”, (23-04-15),].

New uses for old buildings
New uses for old buildings
The next signpost in the Callan Park story occurred in May 2008 when the Government moved the psychiatric patients out of Broughton Hall and relocated them at a new, purpose-built psychiatric unit at Concord Hospital, six kilometres down the Parramatta River. The Friends of Callan Park had campaigned to retain the psychiatric facility, the late Dr Jean Lennane advocated that, rather than closing down Callan Park, the bed numbers needed to be increased as deinstitutionalisation had led to an increase in homelessness among the mentally ill, or had seen them end up ‘warehoused’ in gaols, or tragically, dead. FOCP also called for an extension of outdoor recreational activities available to the patients, eg, establishment of a city farm on the grounds with the patients tending the animals as part of their therapuetic regime.

Leichhardt Council also voiced its disapproval of the Government’s plans for Callan Park. Despite the chorus of opposition, the NSW Government went ahead with the closures. The Council persisted with its criticisms and the NSW Government in late 2008 granted the Council care, control and management of 40 hectares of Callan Park (roughly two-thirds of the area) under a 99 year lease (previously the “physical fabric” of Callan Park as a whole had been managed by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) on behalf of the Government) [ downloads/background/A-Callan-Park-History-Timeline.pdf PHPSESSID=ecd5ab22e072 abe7c43db83d82830b6d].

Sensing the need to be more proactive, Leichhardt Council prepared its own “Master Plan” for Callan Park, which, in a poll conducted by the Council, elicited 87% approval from municipality residents. The plan provides for greater use of the land for a broad cross-section of the community, with new sporting fields and skate parks and other activities.

The land and structures of Callan Park continue to be owned by the NSW Government now under the agency of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (although the SHFA website still confusingly lists Callan Park on its website as one of the “places we manage” []). Some of the wards and halls (those remaining ones not riddled With asbestos) get rented out for film and television shoots from time to time, one building permanently houses a film production unit (building Callan 201) whose management harbours its own designs to expand further into the Park and create an international film production hub (again which would be a flagrant breach of the 2002 Act if it was ever allowed to happen)[‘Premiere plan for Callan Park film hub’, (20-06-13)]. Other current tenants of Callan Park include the Ambulance Service and a host of NGOs, eg, AfterCare, WHOS, SIDSKIDS and Foundation House.

imageWith Sydney University’s future campus expansion plans looking elsewhere (closer to the city, North Eveleigh has been mooted as the spot to expand into) [University of Sydney, Campus 2020 Masterplan], Leichhardt Council seems to be running most of the debate currently. Very recently, the Council approved (over opposition from The Greens and Liberals) a motion to use the complex site to house some of the 7,000 Syrian refugees due to be settled in Sydney next year, ‘Leichhardt Council approves plan to resettle refugees at former mental hospital’, ABC News, 09-12-15,]. This produced a predictable if minor furore from some quarters of the community, demonstrating that land use in the area known locally as “The Lungs of Leichhardt” continues to be a divisive and hotly contested issue within the community.

The Changing Face of Broughton Hall: Gentleman’s Estate, Repat Hospital, Psych Clinic and Beyond

Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

imageBroughton Hall at the North Leichhardt end of the broad Callan Park area has experienced all the highs and lows of fortune over its 170 years of existence. Broughton House (as it was first called) was built by John Ryan Brenan after he had obtained the block of land from the old Perry (Township) Estate in the early 1840s. Brenan’s home was a brick stuccoed, two-story dwelling in the Regency style. Brenan’s financial woes forced him to sell his assets in the mid-1860s, but Broughton House stayed in private hands as a Victorian gentleman’s estate until the 20th century. A succession of owners and leaseholders held the property until ironmonger/importer John Keep acquired Broughton House (which he renamed Broughton Hall) and the nearby Kalouan (renamed Broughton Villa, around 1870. Work on Broughton Hall extended the home to a 20-room mansion. Keep also started to cultivate a large garden on his estate.

After Keep’s death, Annandale timber merchants, the Langdon brothers, eventually acquired Broughton Hall in 1912, intending to use it as the site for a sawmill. When news of the carnage of Gallipoli shocked Australia, the brothers changed their minds and in a patriotic gesture offered the estate to the Commonwealth Government as convalescence and psychiatric hospitals, thus it became the 13th Australian Army Hospital for repatriated soldiers who were suffering the effects of “shell-shock”.

After the war Broughton Hall became NSW’s first voluntary psychiatric admissions clinic*, Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital (1921), whilst Callan Park remained the place for more serious, longer-care cases. Broughton Hall (BH) and the auxiliary wards that later sprang up around it found themselves servicing an increasing number of out-patients as well.
* prior to this there was a voluntary ward for men only at the Darlinghurst Reception Centre – the Darlinghurst patients were transferred to Broughton Hall after it opened.

imageThe BH clinic’s driving force was its Medical Superintendent Dr (Sydney) Evan Jones who also took charge of the building designs and planned a distinctive garden and ground layout, using Keep’s garden as a starting point. Jones did a complete makeover of the existing grounds, creating a curvilinear garden comprising a forested jungle of tropical ferns, oaks and lanky bamboo with fish streams, quirky Japanese and Oriental miniature bridges and ornaments in the gardens. The landscaping of the grounds consisted of “building hills where none had been, valleys, sunken gardens, streams, bridges and stone walls” [Medical Journal of Australia, 26 June 1948, p 806, cited in Peter Reynolds, “Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic,” Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, broughton_hall_psychiatric_clinic, viewed 04 December 2015]. Critically, Dr Jones encouraged BH patients to actively assist in the creation of the amazing flora park.

Jones introduced the practice of occupational therapy into patient treatments (echoing the earlier approach of Manning at Kirkbride). Animals, as well as dense garden jungles and plants, were integral to part of the BH therapy approach. Jones added a zoological park to the Hospital with kangaroos, emus, peacocks, cockatoos and parrots. The last remnant of the zoo, the ‘Roo House, was demolished in 1972.

imageIf Moore’s Kirkbride garden can be described as a ‘pleasure’ garden, then Jones’ Broughton garden well merits the characterisation ‘Fantasy’ garden! It’s magical little bridges with their Japanese motives and their ‘humpy’ paths and curvilinear shapes and the dense forested setting, all combine to bestow a particular enchantment on the place. Jones stated the gardens should be used “as machinery whereby a patient’s mind could be directed from neurosis to normality.”[cited in Sydney University, Sydney Medical School website].

During Jones’ period at the helm, the Broughton Hall complex became the largest voluntary admission facility for psychiatric treatment in Australia, with close links to Sydney University (Jones himself lectured at USYD)[Tanner Architects, Callan Park Rozelle Vol I Conservation Management Plan,]. The interwar period saw Broughton Hall in the vanguard of “a virtual revolution in mental health care” as the number of voluntary admissions in Australia exploded. In-house psychiatrists utilised a range of therapies and treatments, in contrast to the incarceration policy of the large institutions [S Gorton, Medicine and Madness]. Later BH patients were encouraged to tend the “community garden” which backs on to Glover Oval (planting vegetables and flowers).

imageAccordingly, a building campaign began in the 1930s with a series of new wards built, supplementing the original Broughton Hall. A second building spurt occurred from 1956 to 1963 with new, small-scale residential buildings and landscaped surrounds. It also included a new occupational therapy building, new electrotherapy unit, IPC units and canteen [Building Ideas (Dec. 1963) cited in “Tanner Architects”]. New building work in Church Street (opposite the historic BH building) resulted in a modern hexagonal building housing a new outpatients clinic and day hospital. Also constructed on this block was a lecture hall named in honour of Evan Jones (there is some disagreement as to when these buildings were built, some sources say 1962-63, some, 1971). The complex is currently being converted into a Sydney campus for the University of Tasmania [See “Tanner Architects” and Peter Reynolds, “Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic”].

Broughton Hall (the original house) after WWII functioned initially as a female ward, then as an integrated rehabilitation ward, finally as a home for patients of the hospital’s Adolescent Unit in the 1970s. It was renamed, with unconscious irony, Rivendell, from the JRR Tolkien novels – “a place of goodness, peace and strength, devoid of all evil.” Rivendell’s relocation to Thomas Walker’s old Concord estate on the Parramatta River was a death-knell for Broughton Hall. The once great mansion became derelict, was vandalised and damaged by fire. It was boarded up in the 1980s and left in an abandoned, déshabillé state [Peter Reynolds, “Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic”].

Broughton Hall today
Broughton Hall today
In 1976 the psychiatric hospital in the Broughton Hall precinct was formally amalgamated with the Kirkbride and the entire Callan Park complex was renamed Rozelle Hospital. Treatment and care of the mentally ill continued at Broughton Hall until 2008 when all psychiatric operations of Callan Park/Rozelle (BH and the Kirkbride Block) were moved to the newly constructed psychiatric facility at Concord Hospital. Since 2008 the former BH wards have operated as a drug and alcohol admissions clinic run by WHOS.

Callan Park: The Kirkbride Experiment, a Microcosm of “Good Intentions”

Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

On the water’s edge of the hills, lawns, fields, woods and scrubby vegetation that make up Callan Park, cyclists speed whilst joggers and walkers scurry, along the popular Bay Run track which skirts the Cove. Further up the slope on the grassy pathways of the Park’s environs, the primary daytime activity seems to be the local denizens out walking all manner of dog breeds.

Gardener's cottage
Gardener’s cottage
Callan Park is six kilometres west of the Sydney CBD, a broad area of some 61 hectares of largely park and woodland with scattered pockets of bush. If you stroll round its numerous, roughly concentric and hilly streets and walkways, you will find a very pleasant, tranquil parkland with an undulating landscape, gently sloping down till it reaches the foreshore of Iron Cove on the Parramatta River. The only residual sign of the presence of the area’s indigenous custodians, the Wangal clan (of the Eora tribe) who for thousands of years moved up and down its ridges and through its dense forests of Blackbutts and Ironbarks, are some traditional rock carvings out on the point of the Cove.

imageThe sense of tranquility that the visitor gets is joined by a second sense, that of a pervading air of abandonment. When I first explored the area with only a vague grasp of these old cottages and workshacks being somehow part of Callan Park, the disused, dilapidated buildings left me with the initial impression that I had stumbled onto some sort of industrial wasteland, much like you might encounter in Peter Carey’s early short stories, but with decrepit, crumbling, asbestos-ridden buildings replacing Carey’s old, rusty dismantled cars. So many of the old brick-and-stone buildings jotted across the land are in varying degrees of decay, some boarded up to prevent assault from vandals, for others it is too late – they are already showing the pockmarks of wilful destruction … countless broken windows and doors and graffiti everywhere. Almost all of the structures bear the familiar yellow-and-black warning sign “DANGER ASBESTOS” or more ambiguously, “MAY CONTAIN ASBESTOS”.

At least since the beginning of the 20th century it’s been an urban cliché in Sydney to hear the name “Callan Park” casually thrown around … people suspected of aberrant thoughts or exhibiting the slightest deviance from the norm would regularly be on the receiving end of a comment like “You should be in Callan Park!”. This often would be in a flippant tone but sometimes the intent was more threatening, or at least, definitely condemnatory. Such is the stigma of Callan Park’s long-held reputation as a place to dump the mentally ill.

The first significant European use of the land at Callan Park flowed from local land grants made by Governor Macquarie in 1819-20. Land speculators moved to try to acquire the smaller plots and consolidate them into larger estates. In the 1830s two men in the colony with influence and means led the way in this. At the southern end of the park Deputy Surveyor-General Samuel Perry acquired an estate known as Spring Cove (now in Leichhardt North) where he built an impressive mansion home he called Kalouan, around 1840-41.

At more or less the same time, John Ryan Brenan, the colony’s Crown Solicitor and Police Magistrate, consolidated his holdings at the northern part of the land where he constructed an elegant Georgian stone home which he named Garryowen (the closest pub to Kirkbride, just over from the park in Darling Street, is named after this pioneer home). Brenan also acquired land near Perry’s estate and built a second, more palatial home called Broughton House. By the mid-1860s Brenan, facing bankruptcy, was forced to sell his properties and holdings. At this point any idea that the land might be used as an asylum hadn’t been contemplated. The new owner of the Garryowen Estate, businessman John Gordon, renamed the estate “Callan Park” with the idea of subdividing it to create a bayside suburb. Gordon’s plans were trumped by the NSW Colonial Government after colonial architect James Barnet persuaded Premier Henry Parkes to purchase the whole site for £12,500 in 1873.

The government was coming under community pressure to address the increasingly critical overcrowding in public asylums, especially in the main Sydney asylum at Tarban Creek (Gladesville). By 1876 Callan Park’s first in-patients were transferred into Brenan’s former homestead, Garryowen House from Darlinghurst. This was only a stopgap measure and Barnet together with the Medical Superintendent of Tarban Creek, Dr Frederick Manning, eventually convinced the government to seek a more permanent solution for the burgeoning numbers of the mentally ill. Barnet and Manning persuaded the Parkes Government as to the wisdom of building a brand new hospital. Both men wanted to create a more humane environment than that prevailing in the appalling, gloomy, prison-like conditions of Tarban Creek (which frankly wouldn’t have been hard, so parlous was the state of the Gladesville asylum!) A site was chosen, directly across from Garryowen, to construct a very large complex intended as a state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital providing a curative and therapeutic environment.

Kirkbride & Italianate Tower
Kirkbride & Italianate Tower
Between 1880 and early 1885 some 33 graceful sandstone buildings in the Victorian classical style were erected on a raised rock and earth platform and then enclosed within four sandstone perimeter walls. The complex was eventually named ‘Kirkbride‘ (generally referred to later as the Kirkbride Block) was named in honour of an American psychiatrist who advocated that pleasant surroundings were conducive to “moral therapy”. The hospital’s first director of mental health, Dr F Norton Manning (also the NSW Inspector-General for the Insane), shared the prevailing moral therapy view of insanity as sinful, a character flaw that could be cured (or at least ameliorated) by preoccupation with work (outdoor gardening and trades for men and domestic service for women). If you coupled that with an attractive physical environment and religious instruction, this was the pathway to recovery, according to its advocates [S Garton, Medicine and Madness. A Social History of Insanity in NSW 1880-1940]

The Kirkbride complex, the work of colonial architect James Barnet, was the largest building project completed to that time in the colony (in fact the largest undertaken until the 20th century) at a then enormous cost of £250,000. Barnet collaborated with the hospital’s ), whose designs for Kirkbride were based on the Chartham Downs institution in Kent. Kirkbride was designed with spacious, pavilion wards and sun-lit verandahs and connecting courtyards. To compliment the aesthetic virtues of Kirkbride, an attractive lawn setting and a tree-lined picturesque (sunken) garden was constructed below the block. The appealing garden and the spaciousness of the Hospital was meant to break down the effects of the patients’ natural feelings of confinement by affording them more scope for movement.

imageThese grand, pleasure gardens were designed by Charles Moore, the Director of the National Botanic Gardens, with which they share some stylistic similarities. The gardens also contain something of a cross-cultural curio, a war memorial in the Spanish mission style [Graham Spindler, Uncovering Sydney, (1991)]. The eastern part of the park, near to Balmain Road, is lined with Port Jackson fig trees. At the northern end of Kirkbride, near where North Crescent circles round to become Central Avenue, are a couple of massive ancient Moreton Bay figs with the most amazing, gigantic root system.

Before taking up his post as Superintendent of Kirkbride Manning travelled overseas, researching the most modern methods of treating the insane. As well as creating the right aesthetic environment, his philosophy focused on the need to engage patients in meaningful work and recreational activities, such as growing their own produce and other farming pursuits (in this sense Manning was something of a harbinger in advocating the use of “occupational therapy”, a term and concept not in vogue until the 20th century) [Callan Park Conservation Management Plan, www.

Dr Manning also placed an emphasis on the quality of staffing, and played a key role in advancing the professional status of psychiatric nurses in Australian institutions. He insisted that nurses and attendants at Callan Park have proper training to be competent in working effectively in an asylum, and advocated that they be appropriately remunerated for their work.

'Clockless' Clock Tower & rear wall
‘Clockless’ Clock Tower & rear wall
A highlight of the architecture of the Kirkbride Block is the decorative Venetian “clock tower”(sans clock – it was never installed for some reason!). The tower is part of Kirkbride’s built-in reticulation system, on top of the tower is a tidal ball copper spire which indicates the water level of the underground reservoir below. Rainwater from the run-offs is collected in two underground tanks and pumped to the wards (one tank is reserved for any fire emergency). The surrounding walls of the complex employed a device called a “Ha-Ha” Wall. Barnet would have learned this from the work of 18th century English landscape architect ‘Capability’ Brown. A Ha-Ha Wall is where a steep ditch is dug on the immediately inside of the wall to prevent patients scaling it whilst at the same time retaining the exterior view (allowing patients views from their verandahs extending to the Blue Mountains)[“Rozelle Hospital Heritage Study” 1991 report (PDF), ; “Kirkbride Past & Present”, SCA,].

The 5.1HA block was designed to be entirely self-contained, with its own kitchens, separate dinning halls, capacity for 666 patients (with an even 333 split for each gender) in the rooms and dormitories (male and female were segregated at opposite ends of the block with other sections in the middle). The complex also contained staff residences, bathhouses, laundries, bakery, workshop, lecture halls, library, chapel, morgue and administration block. To the south of the tower is a furnace stack which was used to generate steam required for the laundries.

imageManning’s successor as Inspector-General Eric Sinclair was also ahead of the game! He introduced more specialised (special admissions) wards, such as the Female Cottage Hospital, to treat curable cases through early intervention, and advocated to have treatment of mental disease put on a more scientific basis [Peter Reynolds and Ken Leong, “Callan Park Mental Hospital”, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008,, viewed 05 December 2015].

Sadly, over the course of the next century, Manning’s vision of an enlightened psychiatric hospital using modern scientific methods to care for those unfortunate enough to suffer from mental illness, floundered on a sea of inadequate government funding, staffing problems and chronic overcrowding, and until more recent times, met largely with public indifference. The overcrowding was a contributing factor in Kirkbride patient treatment becoming less rehabilitative in emphasis and more custodial as time went on.

Medlow Majestic in the Wilderness: From a White Elephant to a White Palace?

Built Environment, Bushwalking, Social History, Travel

The Hydro Majestic Hotel stands on the upper slopes of the Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains, 115.8 kilometres west of the Sydney CBD. Last December it re-opened for business six years after it’s resale and interim closure in 2008. The new owners, the Escarpment Group (a consortium of Sydney developers headed by Huong Nguyen and George Saad), have an ambitious vision for the Medlow Bath hotel, including an extension to its facilities and services, and a major renovation of the once great Blue Mountains landmark to recover some of its past glory. About four years passed before construction work commenced on the site. There was a big clean-up job apparently as when vacated seven years ago, a very large amount of assorted clutter was left behind by the previous occupants [‘Saving a grand old beauty’s soul’, Peter Munro, Traveller, 7 January 2013,].

The Hydro Majestic through the agency of a renovation that cost $30 million has been transformed, from its erstwhile state of dishevelment and disrepaire, to again rise seemingly phoenix-like in 2015. The new exterior makeover resulted in the complex’s buildings being painted uniformly white, clearly the developers are hoping that the anticipated returns will repay the investment (all up a reported $40.5 million including the purchase price) so that the venture doesn’t end up a ‘white elephant in all senses!’

Mark Foy’s Liverpool St store
The Majestic’s current incarnation however is only the latest of many manifestations and reinventions that the hotel has gone through over its long, colourful history. The Hydro Majestic’s genesis lies in the overseas travel experiences of retail baron Mark Foy around the turn of the twentieth century. Foy was co-owner of the large Sydney department store, Mark Foys (named after his father Mark Foy Sr) in Oxford Street, Sydney, later relocated to Liverpool Street in a famous piazza building. The young entrepreneur’s experience of health spas on the Continent gave him the idea for starting a hydropathic therapy operation in Australia. In 1902 Foy purchased several large blocks of land in the Blue Mountains to re-create a similar spa resort to the highly-popular sanatoriums he had visited in Europe. The site chosen at Medlow Bath was supposedly located on natural mineral springs that incorporated the earlier Belgravia Hotel [John Low, ‘Palace in a Wilderness: Hydro Majestic Medlow Bath’,].

Upon completion in 1904 Foy opened his Medlow Bath hydropathic sanatorium (the first health resort in NSW) which he named the Hydro-Majestic. By this time whatever springs were present (if they ever existed) had dried up. Consequently Foy imported large quantities mineral water from Germany for use in his establishment [ (Wikipedia entry)]. He also introduced a German-manufactured generator to supply the Hotel and the surrounding township with electricity (purportedly four days before the city of Sydney achieved electricity!) [, ibid.].

A series of spa pools connected by springs to the hotel generator were constructed in the nearby bush for the use of guests. Foy advertised that the Hydro would provide cures for nervous, alimentary, respiratory and circulatory ailments. Foy from the establishment’s start was also intent on trying to broaden the Hydro’s appeal, advertising it as “the most enjoyable place to spend one’s holidays” [Elaine Kaldy, ‘Medlow 1883 and Now’ (1983), cited in ‘Mb002 : Hydro Majestic’, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage,]. To coordinate the therapeutic programs Foy brought out a Dr Bauer from Switzerland to introduce guests to his “diets of weird and wonderful treatments” [].

Mark Foy, to all accounts, was not particularly hands-on in his business pursuits, leaving it to a host of managers and agents. The Hydro for instance was apparently leased to influential hotelier and parliamentarian James Joynton Smith in 1913 [‘K032 : Carrington Hotel’, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage,]. Foy’s conspicuous affluence and delegation of tasks to others allowed him the leisure to pursue outdoor activities. The business baron also had a reputation of being something of a playboy-about-town in the ‘Great Gatsby’ mould, legendary for throwing lavish parties for his friends at the Hydro and at his other homes at Bellevue Hill and Bayview.

Mark Foy Jr
The Hydro Majestic owner was a keen sportsman, yachtsman and motor-car enthusiast. He was such a car enthusiast that he would periodically have sales of bulk numbers of his vehicles on site at his Bellevue Hill property [“MARK FOY’S MOTORS” (Advertisement), Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 1910 – an adroit coupling of business with pleasure on his part; cited in Pittwater Online News, Issue 102 (17-23 March 2013),]. Foy used his fleet of cars to ferry guests on trips from Medlow Bath to nearby Jenolan Caves. He also kept horses on the grounds for guests to explore Megalong Valley by horseback [Office of Heritage and Environment (Hydro Majestic),].

Majestic skyline
Majestic skyline

Foy had a series of bush walk tracks built on the cliffs below the Hydro Majestic. The walking tracks provided spa guests with a physical outlet that would complement Dr Bauer’s therapeutic programs. Guests were encouraged to exercise in the fresh mountain air as part of their recovery. These tracks with local physical features with names like Tucker’s Lookout, Sentinel Pass and the Colosseum offer breath-taking cliff views of the Megalong Valley, and are still explored by bush walkers today.

As well as the hotel site itself Mark Foy purchased a considerable amount of land in the Megalong Valley to grow food for the Majestic hotel dinner tables. Foy built a large rural holding at Megalong which he called the Valley Farm, on it was a racecourse, stables, diary farm and a piggery. The farm grew corn, turnips and oats [‘Mark Foy – Retail Tycoon and Megalong Valley Farm’,]. The produce grown in the valley was transported up to the resort by a flying fox Foy had rigged up.

The business tycoon also maintained personal properties on the Medlow Bath complex, including a cottage in the Valley known as the Sheleagh Cottage. This property with its great views of the valley, now called “Mark Foy House”, is today listed as a mountains getaway available for rental. It is unclear how much time the constantly on-the-go Foy spent at Sheleagh, or for that matter at any of his Sydney properties, as the newspapers of that day regularly reported him as embarking with his family on yet another world or European tour [cited in Pittwater Online News, op.cit.]. I can easily imagine Foy’s name cropping up constantly in the Vice-Regal column that used to appear in the Sydney Morning Herald.

‘The Lost World’
At the height of its popularity, in the twenties, the Hydro-Majesty was the fashionable venue to visit, “the place to be seen”. Over the years it has had more than its fair share of VIP guests, such as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose novel The Lost World was inspired by the vast wilderness environment that the Hydro was set in. Other guests include Indian rajahs, Australia’s first Olympic swimming gold medal winner Freddie Lane, and the Commonwealth’s inaugural Prime Minister Edmund Barton, who died whilst staying at the resort in 1920. Boxer Tommy Burns set up a training camp at the hotel where he prepared to fight Jack Johnson for the World Heavyweight Championship in a very famous boxing bout at Sydney Stadium in 1908.

The entertainment and amusements provided by Mr Foy at the Hydro Majestic took various forms. In its heyday when it was a luxury tourist resort, balls and concerts were regular events. Singers such as the soprano queens Dames Nellie Melba and Clara Butt were hired to perform at these concerts. A curious feature was the cross-dressing costume parties of well-to-do guests in which the husband and wife swapped clothing with each other for the event [‘Saving a grand old beauty’s soul’, op.cit.].

Taken at its broad scope the Hydro-Majestic is an impressive if a bit discordant sight, a long line of arranged buildings, albeit positioned in a somewhat higgledy-piggledy fashion stretching for some 1.1 kilometres across the Megalong escarpment. The Hotel’s architecture is hybrid in character, with buildings being added in an ad hoc fashion over time and in a novel mixture of styles: Victorian, Edwardian, Belle Époque and a blend of Art Deco and Art Nouveau interior design.

The Hydro – in its down-market days
The Majestic’s most distinctive external feature is the Casino building with its imposing Chicago-manufactured dome (this ‘casino’ has been used as an entertainment hall or pavilion rather than as a gaming house). The changing fortunes of the Hydro Majestic as a whole over the decades was symbolised in the fate of the Casino itself: going from the scene for grand balls and concerts in the 1920s and 1930s to a repository for (how the mighty have fallen!) pinball machine entertainment in the 1980s!

A Zimmerman
A Zimmerman

One of the most intriguing interior features of the Hydro Majestic is the so-called Cat’s Alley, a long corridor whose windows back in the day were draped with peacock feathers. Scone-and-cream afternoon tea visitors to the hotel would stroll down the corridor strewn with puff-pillowed lounge chairs and a set of bizarre panelled scenes, hunting scenes from different historical periods, the work of a Swiss artist called Arnold Zimmerman. Panel after panel comprised Prehistoric cavemen hunting wooly mammoths, Assyrian warriors slaughtering lions, British Raj mounted horsemen hunting tigers in India, Roman soldiers killing elephants, and so on and so on. The first time I ever visited the Hydro I marvelled somewhat bemused at Zimmerman’s paintings, finding them slightly disturbing in their obsession with the monumental struggle between man and beast, terrible but also engaging in a visceral way. Visitor access was blocked to the Alley for some years but it is pleasing to note that it is opened again after the refurbishment with additional seating.

The immediacy of a vast wilderness of National Park bushland has regularly posed a danger to the Hydro Majestic. In 1905 fire destroyed the Gallery building and in 1922 did the same to the original Belgravia wing. There have been several other close calls, the latest in 2002 when Medlow Bath’s “Gothic tourist pile”, as one article described it, narrowly avoided a spot fire blaze [Margaret Simons, ‘Majestic tourist icon survives ordeal by fire’, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2002].

The Hydro-Majestic over the course of its century plus existence has undergone a number of transformations. What started off as a hydropathic spa pretty soon morphed into a luxury tourist retreat after 1909 (“Mr Foy’s Private Lodge”), only to revert more modestly to a family hotel for ordinary guests and day-trippers. In WWII the Hydro was converted into the 118th US General Hospital to care for convalescing American soldiers, some of which showed their “gratitude” by inflicting damage on the hotel’s decor during their stay. After the War the Hydro reverted to a hotel and guesthouse. By the 1980s the buildings had declined alarmingly despite receiving a heritage preservation order in 1984, business had dropped off and the very visible signs of wear and age eventually necessitated a revamping in the 1990s and again in the last few years.

In keeping with the hybrid nature of the hotel, parts of the new Hydro Majestic exude a distinctly oriental flavour. The Salon Du Thé features a Shanghai chic tea room and bar and both it and the Cat’s Alley reprise many of the oriental traits of the original 1900s Medlow hotel which featured a Chinoiserie style favoured by Mark Foy. The original Salon Du Thé displayed ornaments and furnishings such as large Chinese vases and porcelain vessels, bamboo-look furniture and silk umbrellas [].

imageWill the refurbished Hydro Majestic rise again to the exalted heights it attained in the inter-war period? Will patrons flock to it again as they once did? Will it be able to attract the higher socio-economic clientele associated with a luxury resort? It is far too early to tell, but it should be noted that there is a lot more choice now in Sydney with high-class hotels and resorts. Nonetheless, the Hydro’s traditional high tea is back, the complex has more restaurant options than ever before, and the magnificent panoramic views of the Valley remain the Hotel’s strongest magnet.