The Male Ward 7 of Callan Park Mental Hospital was known as “notorious”. It’s a strong word, and it made me want to figure out why. Yet I found out next to nothing. At least, not until I started digging into the patient notes of those who’d been inmates there.
The Notorious Male Ward 7
Note: the language used in this story is intended to depict the views and language of the past. I do not condone the outdated terms used.
Warning: this story has raw depictions of mental and physical health concerns
Today Callan Park Hospital for the Insane is closed – has been since 2007, when, then called Rozelle Hospital, it finally shut its doors. You can still visit it, however. You can even see it on Google Street View. Set on sprawling parklands, it’s a waterfront site in Sydney’s inner west filled with abandoned buildings.
I’ve walked those grounds, me one person of many having a wander, walking dogs, going for a jog, or letting their baby crawl on grass beside the decommissioned alcohol and drugs facility. It’s a surreal sight. Buildings, from heritage beauty to 60s drab, with broken and boarded up windows, the remnants of police tape and peeling Ambulance signage, security fencing keeping people out of unstable structures, and, before Ward 16, a mass of broken junk blocking the door. With serene prime parklands slipping between and around buildings just left there to moulder.
Interested, I’ve dug deep into the history of the place. Callan Park was established in 1878 to provide a pastoral and moral ideal of mental health care – something the other asylums in Sydney sorely lacked. Within ten years, however, it had become everything it had tried to hard not to be: overcrowded, underfunded, electricity used for punishments, patients sedated with an unknown drug referred to in records as only “Mist. Sed” – patients treated with brutality, or, at best, apathy.
I’ve gone through and catalogued every building on the site. The first was the Garry Owen House, a large homestead built in the late 1830s, converted for use when the asylum was opened. Then the attractive Convalescent Cottages and the Kirkbride Complex, an impressive sandstone structure constructed to allow patients to see the beautiful views and feel the air in courtyards and covered walkways.
As time went on and the Kirkbride Complex became a jam-packed and dreary hellhole, they added more and more buildings to cope with increasing demand. By the Second World War, new buildings in brick were being built to take returned service men, these, by all reports, the best treated patients in the hospital. Into the 60s, modern brick-veneer structures popped up more and more on land that had, over 50 years before, held stables, orchards, patient gardens, and vegetable fields.
And as I dug, I kept seeing references to the “Notorious Male Ward 7”. In some reports it was called “infamous”. You can look it up yourself. Punch “male ward 7 Callan Park” into Google or Trove, and you’ll find references.
But why, I kept thinking as I searched, was it notorious?
I found no good reason for it. What I did find was that the Notorious Male Ward 7 used to exist behind Garry Owen house, where now you’ll find the 1963 staff amenities building. I found that Ward 7 had been demolished in 1961 after the then Minister for Health demanded it. He’d described it as “obnoxious”, “overcrowded”, and “like a gaol”.
From what I can tell, the Notorious Male Ward 7 was built in 1879 as a temporary ward used to hold patients transferred to Callan Park while the main Kirkbride complex was being built. It was a timber structure, not built to last. Yet, until 1961, it continued to house patients, likely due to the incredible overcrowding.
That’s all I could find online about Ward 7. I searched and searched the internet for even a sight of Ward 7 captured in the background of a photograph. It was all in vain.
Perhaps it was merely that the Ward was well past its best before date. But for something so “notorious”, in amidst the plethora of other information I could find about the place, I found the lack of information about Ward 7 conspicuous.
Which is why I went to the State Library. You can get permission to see patient files about people who are no longer living, though it’s easier the further back you go. I was granted access to only the records of those who were now deceased, and I began my search in the dusty collection of boxed files, stored like someone without much time had attempted to bring order to disarray.
It was just a bunch of sheets folded together and stuffed in the back of the file for a Herbert Jones. The papers weren’t written by Herbert, however. They were written by a Joe Masters, who I found in another file to have been a patient of Callan Park from 1950 to 1951. Joe had been a patient assigned, like Herbert, to the Notorious Male Ward 7.
At the top of the first page was this statement:
Believe this if you like, don’t if you don’t. I’ve given a fair account of what happened as I saw it. I owe it to Herb to do that.
Below this, Joe Masters had signed his name. Beside that was the date 30th August, 1950.
What follows is a transcription of what was on those papers.
‘Melancholia,’ the man behind the table sneered. He looked me up and down, as though he could evaluate my melancholic state by taking in my well-worn coat. He returned his eyes to the papers before him. ‘Tried to jump off the Harbour Bridge,’ he went on. ‘How iconic.’
I said nothing, though my chest tightened with shame. We were nowhere private. We were stood in a dirt courtyard, surrounded by high stone buildings. The sounds of raging wailed down from the ward beside us. A couple old men, in grey asylum garb, were playing cards with a ratty deck. Around me were a dozen other new inmates. Either I’d chosen a popular time to be committed, or Callan Park took in multiple transfers from other asylums every day.
The sneering man was still looking at my papers. Without looking up he demanded, ‘What’s your delusion then?’
I stiffened, angry.
‘That I’d starve to death without any money.’
The man grunted.
‘What’s your trade?’ he asked.
‘I’m a writer. Mostly poetry.’
This got a snort as a response, and a derisive, ‘Out of work, then.’
I didn’t respond to this one. It seemed, compared to the listless man standing next to me staring at the wall, I still had some pride.
The sneering man signed my admittance papers with a shiny fountain pen. It was an ostentatious sign, like his tailored suit and cufflinks, that he wasn’t one of us.
‘Ward 7,’ the man told me, dumping my papers aside.
I’d been the last to be processed, the transfers having been signed in first. They split us up, half being directed into the ward with the raging man, a couple stragglers being shoved along as they stumbled, groggy. The rest of us filed behind a hard-eyed attendant.
‘Know how many it’s built for?’ the man next to me asked. He nodded to the stone walls. ‘This place?’
‘I don’t, no.’
‘Six hundred,’ the man said, giving me a grin full of brown teeth, ‘and sixty-six. The devil’s own number.’
If he was trying to spook me, the man would have to try harder. He waggled woolly eyebrows at me, his eyes shining with electric mirth. The eyebrows made up for his lack of hair.
‘How many are here now?’ I asked.
‘Two thousand,’ the man answered promptly. ‘With a few extra buildings only.’ He laughed, a strange, shrill sound in the glum courtyard, and introduced himself as Jordy.
‘You’ve been here before?’ a young lad asked. Nervous and skinny, he looked about fourteen, and had aged up his too-small shirt and trousers with a frayed flat cap. He looked like something out of a Dickens novel.
‘Time and time again!’ Jordy proclaimed, and opened his arms as though to embrace the dreary atmosphere. ‘That’s my usual home,’ he went on, indicating Ward 2 as we passed. ‘Get to see somewhere new this time! G’day Callan Park!’ he called out. ‘I’m off the drink again!’
Dropping his arms, Jordy cocked an eyebrow at the lad.
‘Who’re you, then? You weren’t on the boat with us.’
As I learned, the kid, Herb, was from Peat Island. It earned a grimace from worldly Jordy. Peat Island Hospital had an even worse reputation than Callan Park. As to why he’d been committed in the first place, the lad was an epileptic. And, though he looked fourteen, he was coming on eighteen.
We were led through a locked door out the side of the complex, up a grassy slope, and past a large house where men smoked on the covered veranda. There was a general air of hopelessness about the place, which jarred with Jordy’s expansive good humour and emphatic eyes. Despite the hopelessness, the tall blue gums and jacaranda trees framing this relic of a pioneer homestead offered the suggestion it all wasn’t too bad.
But if I’d thought Ward 7 would be like the homestead, I was sorely disappointed. Tucked away behind the homestead, as though ashamed of its existence, was what looked like a shack life had forgotten, only it sprawled out over the hill.
One storey, Ward 7 had once been painted white. That had been a long time ago. What was left of the paint was cracked and bubbled; paint having peeled away almost entirely from the lower half of the walls, were the wooden weatherboard was exposed. It had rotted away in places, leaving visible gaps. Two barred windows had been replaced with boards, and the corrugated metal roof, projected over a short veranda, had rusted itself into holes.
Three older men, looking like they’d dragged themselves only far enough out to find sunshine, were sat on the two steps up to the veranda. Unshaven and thin, they were smoking what looked like cigarettes rolled in newspaper. Another man, on a bench by the front door, hadn’t made it into the sun. He gazed out at us as we approached, a thin blanket obscuring most of his threadbare uniform.
They were the few who’d made it out of the building. Inside there were many more. Some talking to themselves, others looking catatonic. There were two attendants in the room. I saw one recap a needle and slip the syringe into his pocket. The man he moved away from just stared at the single card table that marked this as the recreation room.
Jordy greeted the new ward with generous aplomb. The rest of us stayed silent. To me, it didn’t make sense. The five of us new arrivals were able-bodied men. Even the man who stared hopelessly and the older bloke who was shaking like a leaf and scratching compulsively at his arm could turn their hands to work. Why had they sent us to a ward that looked, at best, like a hospice? Weren’t wards segregated?
An overcrowded hospice, as I learned. Like convicted criminals in Long Bay, we were marched to our room and ordered to change into our inmate uniforms; our own clothes would be taken off us. The beds were so crammed-in two of us would be mere inches from the open toilet, it looking like its flush was at half-mast and the decades of filth could no longer be scrubbed from it – if anyone tried. The stink from it made my eyes water. Perhaps that was the benefit of the walls having holes in them: ventilation.
Us the three that could move fast, Jordy, Herb, and I grabbed up the uniforms at the bases of beds a further distance from the toilet. Under my foot, the floorboard gave way in a soggy bowing that had me stepping hastily off it for fear of falling into some abyss below.
That was a dreary first day. It too late to have us join in at the workshops or fields, we were made to be useful by scrubbing the place. Scrubbing up drool and what smelled like piss from a corner of the poor excuse for a recreation room, I was startled by the old man beside me grabbing my shirt.
I looked up. His eyes drooped, lids pink and inflamed, he stared at me. He was saying something, though so quietly I had to lean in to make it out.
‘It’s hidden,’ he muttered, pale lips moving as though they were the only things that could in his face. ‘You wander… little crows in the field. The wind blows bad – rotten. The splash of water. The pain of no death…’
I was yanked back by a hard-jawed attendant who shoved me to my scrubbing brush.
‘He’s senile,’ the attendant said, grabbing the hand of the old man and pulling it from my shirt. ‘Keep it to yourself Robert,’ he told the old man, stuffing Robert’s bony hand back in his lap. ‘Get it done,’ the attendant snapped at me, moving away.
The able-bodied men of the ward returned at four thirty, and if I’d hoped they’d make the ward less morose, I was dim-witted. They sagged into chairs, listless and stinking, in the recreation room that became the dining room. Even the card table was used for dining, men shoulder-to-shoulder, if they could get that much space, spooning up grey water or dipping unbuttered bread into it.
I’d squeezed in between Herb and a man whose odour was putting me off my tea. His greying hair two months past a cut, whiskers sprouting on a bulging chin, he hacked up half a lung, sniffed, and said just, ‘Clive.’ I took that as an introduction. I additionally worried he had tuberculosis.
The food was abominable. The closest description of the soup I can give is that it was slimy, lukewarm water.
Jordy chuckled as I put down my spoon and focused on my slice of bread.
‘Truly green, you are,’ he jibed, stuffing his bread in the broth.
‘You get hungry enough for it,’ Clive assured me gruffly.
There was a commotion behind me. I looked around to see one of the older men, one of those that hadn’t moved from their sofas and armchairs to sit at tables, had toppled off his chair. A spasm made him jump where he lay, then he went limp but for his jaw, which was tightening and loosening in repetitive clenches. He stared straight up at the ceiling, unseeing.
If they’d even looked up, everyone else had gone back to their tea. Cautiously, I rose from my seat and went over to him. The attendants weren’t nearby. There was no one else helping him.
The man’s sunken cheeks were raw, as though the skin had peeled off them. With a feted stench, his opening mouth revealed a lot of absent teeth, and a few rotten stubs. He was perhaps in his sixties, but his skin was like paper and his hands were skin and bone, little sores and pustules dotted all over them and up to his neck. Parts of his badly balding scalp flaked.
I took his hand, looked to his staring face, unsure what to do. His mouth just gaped and closed like a fish out of water.
‘Leave him, mate,’ Clive said. He’d turned around in his chair and was giving me a hard look. ‘He’s not long for this world. Let him be.’
Let him be? The gaunt man had toppled onto a hard floor and was obviously having some kind of fit. Clive barked at me to come back.
Then an attendant was there. Glad for someone who might know something, I looked up at him. He barely glanced at me.
‘He’s an epileptic,’ the attendant snapped. ‘Just leave him.’
Reluctantly, I did. I saw them hoist the gaunt man off the floor later, to haul him to bed. His shirt had pulled up in the back. Horrible sores followed the visible line of his spine, festering and black. The man had soiled himself. It made me shudder.
And it made me look over, by the single bare bulb lighting our dormitory room, at young Herb. Was that the treatment an epileptic received here?
The lad had crawled himself in under his blanket and had it pulled tightly around him. There was no question why. I lay under my blanket myself, curled into a ball, once our door was locked and the light switched off. It wasn’t windy, but it was as though any warmth produced in the room was sucked out through the holes in the wall. The winter cold, while kept at bay by Australian sun, work, and many bodies packed into one mess room, was biting at night.
Across the room, Jordy was talking our ears off about what he planned to do this time he got out of the asylum. It didn’t take long for Clive to roll over in his bed, grab Jordy’s arm, and just about yank Jordy off his bed onto the floor.
‘Shut your bloody mouth!’ was Clive’s final word before he thumped back over and tugged up his blanket.
Through a rotted gap between weatherboard panels near my bed, I could see one of the attendants walk past to their cottage. Their cottage was brick and likely a lot warmer than our hovel. I caught a whiff of the smoke from a fireplace somewhere well before I fell asleep in the foul-smelling room, unhealthy men coughing and snoring around me.
Your dreams become vivid when you try to sleep while chilled to the core. After a day of new horrors, I dreamed of water sloshing onto the floor from the lip of a porcelain tub; dreamed of festering sores and a gaunt mouth groaning to the night. It made me jolt awake in the pitch dark, shivering in my bed.
There was groaning. Our dormitory had gone quiet, the snoring reduced to snuffles, but somewhere beyond the thin walls, someone was groaning out into the sleeping night. I shook in my bed. The best thing anyone could do was get away from this otherworldly hell as soon as possible. If I could personally declare my melancholia cured, I’d do it in an instant. It seemed utterly ludicrous the system kept us from suicide for the sake of locking us up here.
The door to our room was unlocked and shoved open before the sun had fully risen the next morning. It was near impossible to get out of bed. Bone cold, with the shouting of an attendant to get my arse up, I finally struggled out into the frigid morning and stumbled with the rest down a corridor to the bathroom. I’d hoped for a hot shower. Though there were tubs, so caked with grime they looked like a million murders had occurred there, I wasn’t on the list of men allowed a bath that day.
Instead, I found out why the men stank. We washed in cold water from the sink without soap, and dried with the same threadbare rag. I saw Clive washing his teeth with water and a finger. Jordy, me, and Herb followed suit. Even Jordy saw nothing to be bright and expansive about.
I paused at the bathroom door on my way out, shivering in thin, tattered cotton, and as pungent as the others. There was a door I hadn’t been by in my scrubbing the previous day.
‘No good,’ Jordy hissed to me as he passed. ‘Locked. Not allowed to go in. Think there’s a better bathroom in there.’
I understood why he thought that. I turned an ear closer to the door and heard what sounded like the sloshing of water in a tub.
I was grabbed by the back of my collar and shoved out the way of the bathroom door.
‘You think this bathroom’s a sight,’ Clive muttered to me, indicating the bathroom we’d used with grout caked with mould, immovable grime, and cracked sinks. ‘That one’s out of order,’ he said pointedly, nodding to the locked door.
Our shave, delivered, it seemed, once every few days, was done by an unsympathetic attendant with the same razor. He didn’t sharpen it between men. My face was shredded raw as I headed out for my first day in the boot-making workroom behind Ward D. My fingers were soon to follow, being rubbed to bleeding when I got back for the evening meal of sludge.
The days settled into the same pattern swiftly. The old epileptic died on the eighth day. I noticed as I was heading to the boot-makers that morning. I think the attendants had actually gotten him, dead, out of bed and propped him in his armchair, either not noticing or not caring. He was still there by evening.
Instead of noticing the dead man, the attendants’ focus that night was on an aggravated patient, sick of his food, who’d started shouting. It didn’t get the attendants to go over and calm him down. They stood watching from the side as the other inmates shifted away from the raving man.
‘Some fucking bullshit!’ the man screamed, and, shooting up out of his seat, hurled his bowl across the table.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake, Bernie!’ the patient who’d had to duck shouted back. ‘Pipe down ya drongo!’
And, on the next table over, a man I knew to be dumb started whining. His fork held in his fist, his lip between teeth that drew blood, he started slamming the fork into the back of his hand.
It was into this din that Herb, startled, tightened up. I’d stuck by him. Jordy was hard to stomach on the daily. For Herb, I felt some instinctive duty to the young lad. Herb’s eyes were fixed, wide, staring up and off to the side, his body going more rigid. I grabbed his shoulder and hung on to keep him from falling off the bench as his hands twisted tight and unnatural and his eyes rolled back.
Just keep him in his seat, I was thinking. He was having a fit, but I wouldn’t let him fall where they’d leave him shaking on the ground. Where they might trample on him.
It didn’t help. The clanging of an alert; angry men stampeding around us, attendants running in and patients dropping under sedation – the fork-stabbing man being tied up with bandages and strapped to a stretcher – in among that, Herb started convulsing.
I hauled him out of the mess room, his head banging my chin as I gripped him around the torso and dragged his jerking feet along the ground. I tumbled him into his bed, and spent the half hour after he’d roused from his fit pushing him back onto his bed every time, disorientated, he got up and stumbled about mumbling.
Herb woke, gasping, later that night from the groggy sleep he’d finally found. I was still awake, shivering as usual, listening to the growls of my stomach and the groaning that filled each and every night with an added sense of horror.
‘You’re all right,’ I whispered, my head turning to see Herb’s outline in the dark.
There was a muffled whimpering from Herb’s bed. I think he was crying. I turned away, willing sleep to come.
Both Herb and Jordy were slower to rise than I was the next morning. Herb eventually got up and made for the bathroom with his eyes on the floor. Jordy flew into a towering rage when the attendant resorted to removing him bodily from the bed. I didn’t see him for the rest of the day, and when he was back the next evening, he was slack-jawed and irritable, though going through the same motions as the rest of us without audible complaint.
Sometime in there, the attendants finally removed the dead man.
Herb had another fit at the boot-makers a couple days later. I was glad for the attendant’s lack of interest. I didn’t trust any of them to attend to the lad. I watched over him, helpless to do anything else as he convulsed on the dirty floor.
Herb had gotten, if possible, even thinner than he had been when we’d arrived. We all were, but it looked especially pronounced on the kid’s lanky frame. His lips were cracked and pale and his latest shave had left his cheeks speckled with inflamed spots. When his convulsing stopped, he went still and lifeless on the floor. He didn’t wake for a few minutes. After a few more, I grew worried. This fit had lasted longer than the previous.
I took his wrist and gave it a shake. It flopped about. His sleeve fell down. I stared at his wrist. Like the dead man, little red sores dotted his arm. There were no pustules though. It was probably bed bugs, though that meant so far I had just been lucky not to be bitten myself.
Herb did wake, eventually, and I kept the eye on him the attendants weren’t at he muttered about, picking up random things with his head bowed, until he recovered a sense of himself.
Time dragged by. A Sunday meant less work and, less tired, I was lying frozen and hungry in my bed again, unable to sleep. It seemed Herb had picked up a cold. He was coughing like a dying man in the bed next to me. It was a miserable addition to the moaning of the darkness.
I turned over and pinned my ears between my thin pillow, looking out through the rotted hole to the dark night outside. There I did manage to sleep finally, but my dreams were back to the macabre. I saw teeth falling out, heads lolling over the back of a tub, painful pustules on flaky flesh, and heard the groans of endless pain. Waking with a start, I was confronted with the shadow of a face mere inches from my own.
‘He’s still there,’ Herb breathed at me. ‘He’s still in there.’
‘What?’ I hissed back.
‘You know where,’ Herb whispered. Then he rolled over and started coughing again.
We were up earlier than usual the next morning to have time for our biweekly baths in water that was barely tepid. Having slept little, I stumbled along with my head pounding and a desperate wish for a warm sleep and a hot tea. If I ever got out of here, I promised myself, I’d either embrace modest conditions to the fullest or succeed at ending my life.
It took me a moment, in the dimness of a single lamp lighting the corridor, to realise I could still hear the moaning. The men started shuffling past me, going into the bathroom, myself drawn to a stop. Even Jordy slouched by, disinterested in the sound.
The locked door was before me, at the end of the corridor beside the bathroom. I edged forward and turned an ear to it. The moaning was faint against the sounds of men swearing as they stepped into cold tubs. But it was there.
I jumped as I heard new footsteps coming down the corridor. It was Herb, eyes on the ground and plodding. I stepped away and headed him into the bathroom. His words to me last night may have been nothing more my dream or a product of his confused mind after one of his fits. The moaning from the closed room was unnerving all the same.
We waited for tubs to become free. When it was our turn, whatever heat had been in the water was gone. I hissed as my foot encountered the icy two inches of water in the bottom of the grimy tub. Herb made only a low groan.
Like me, he was disinclined to sit in the grime. He’d hunkered down, his back to me, in his tub. I stared at his back. It was blooming, all down his spine, with purple and black bruises. The lad winced as he washed himself with a thin sliver of soap, being cautious around his wrists where the sores had gotten, by my guess in the dim light, even redder. The bathroom filled, a moment later, with the sounds of his coughing.
‘What’s the bruises down your back?’ I asked him quietly on our trudge down the hill to the boot-makers.
The boy started, and glanced briefly up at me. The bruises were covered now with his shapeless grey shirt, but he reached around himself almost unconsciously to rub his back.
‘I get lots of bruises,’ he whispered back, his eyes on the path ahead of us. ‘It’s hard not to with the fits.’
Yet there weren’t bruises elsewhere on his back, and his shoulder bones stuck out as much as his backbone. Like the dead man’s, the marks were only along his spine.
The next time Herb had a fit, I was smacked away from watching him by an attendant who cared more about how many boots I produced in the week. I went back to Herb the moment the attendant was distracted, and played dodgem for the better part of an hour, keeping Herb away from harm as he staggered and mumbled while I attempted to appear busy with leather uppers.
‘Never get out,’ I heard Herb mumble as I pressed him away from the shears. It wouldn’t do for him to topple over with those in his hand. ‘Never get out of here.’
‘We will,’ I reassured in a whisper. ‘We’ll have our assessments like everyone else, and when they find us sane we’ll be out.’
Herb stumbled and looked like he was going to fall backward. My eyes on the attendant, I steadied him with a hand and pushed him to lean on the workbench.
‘Seventy years,’ Herb hissed, and then groaned and leant his head into his hands, his knees buckling. He started coughing.
I started to think it wasn’t a cold Herb had, but more likely the tuberculosis I suspected had Clive wiping blood from his mouth after he coughed.
That, though, didn’t explain the sores growing angrier on Herb’s wrists. We’d filed ourselves into our dormitory for the night, but the attendant hadn’t come to lock us in and switch off the light yet. Herb had been scratching. He was holding a corner of his nightshirt to his wrist to stop the blood.
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
Clive looked over. Jordy roused himself from his stupor enough to raise his head to see. The older man next to him just yanked his blanket over his head.
Herb hesitated, then pushed up his sleeve, showing me the sores on his arm. I leaned closer. Some of them had developed pustules.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, and the disquiet was there in his voice. ‘And I’ve got…’
Herb hadn’t any socks. Few of us did. He pulled his foot out of his shoe and showed me the area around his big toe. The skin was blistered and mottled white and red, as though it had been burned. His toenail was peeling along one edge.
‘I’ve got it on the other foot as well,’ he said, looking up at me with young eyes. They looked scared. ‘But in different places.’
Trench foot? I wondered. But Herb said it was painful. His feet weren’t numb.
‘Get to see the doctor,’ I told him. ‘Ask the attendants.’
Clive caught me the next day on our trek down to the boot-makers.
‘He’s gone, mate,’ he muttered to me. ‘I know you care about the lad, but it isn’t worth worrying on it.’
I stopped on the track. I was angry. It was like what he’d said to me the first night, about leaving the dying man.
Having gone on past me, Clive stopped too and turned around. He cast a look about for the attendants, then hurried back to me.
‘For someone who’s not a doctor,’ I shot at him, in an undertone, ‘you think you know a lot.’
‘Been here longer than you,’ Clive muttered. He glanced around again, then pulled back his sleeve to show me his wrist. There was a scattering of reddened sores around it. ‘It gets most of us,’ he told me, meeting my eyes and staring me down. ‘Some faster than others. I’ve been here seven years and this’s all I’ve got. The lad’s going too fast.’ He dropped his sleeve to cover his wrist again. ‘It’s been seventy years of the same thing. Not one of ‘em going that fast has made it.’
If I’d come up with a question then, I didn’t get a chance to ask it. Clive hurried me on before the attendant up ahead looked back and noticed us lagging behind.
Herb’s fits were coming more frequently. It was the same attendant with us today who’d pushed me away from watching Herb last time. I lay the lad down when I noticed his gaze had gotten fixed and staring at a corner of the room, his face going blank, and darted between watching him and doing my work, my attention flitting from Herb to the attendant.
I was pretending to chop down uppers, my eyes flicking to a convulsing Herb, when there was a commotion up the workshop. I glanced over.
‘I’ll do it!’ Jordy cried, holding his leather-cutting shears to his throat. He was staring down the attendant, backing away. ‘I swear to you – you come closer and I’ll do it!’
Over Clive’s shoulder, I saw Jordy flick me a quick glance. He pulled the ghost of a smile before, going serious again, pressed the shears harder to his neck.
I dropped my own shears and pulled Herb across the floor, out of the way of whichever attendants heard the alarm. They came rushing in only minutes after that, running to wrestle the shears out of Jordy’s hand. Jordy put up a good fight, almost seeming to delight in it. They pulled him out strapped to a stretcher and he shot me a grin.
It meant I had the entire time before he came back to himself to watch young Herb. The distracted attendant didn’t pay me any attention, irritated and talking with a nurse outside, as I herded a disorientated Herb away from things he could hurt himself with and ensured he didn’t fall over.
Jordy was back in our dormitory the next day, drowsy but returned to inhumanly good spirits. Though I gave him a covert thanks, he shook it off and grinned at me, before starting on a long monologue about how sick the sedation had made him.
Whatever seventy year condition had plagued this place, I had to agree with Clive on one point: Herb was going too fast. As the days wore on, he seemed increasingly frail, struggling to get up in the cold mornings or stay on his feet in the workshop – eventually needing to be helped back up the hill in the evenings. A shave job had his cheeks raw, then peeling. That didn’t clear up, and it was like a sickly bloom on cheeks that had become sunken.
He fiddled with a tooth at the boot-makers one day. It pained him, and, having a look at it for him, I saw it had cracked in a black line down the middle. I had to stop him, the next day, from trying to yank it out with the shears. He didn’t put up much of a fight. He just leant on the worktop, his knees shivering under his weight, and stared down at the painful sores on his wrists. In the better light of the workshop, his hair, long past needing a cut, looked thin in places, like that of a man much older.
Our scheduled bath time, a week later, showed me Herb’s back once again. He fingered it as he washed. Angry red sores had appeared where the bruises had been. The one in the middle of his spine had grown blackened, like his flesh had died and rotted away, leaving a hole near down to the bone.
Whether Herb had or not, I asked the attendants for a doctor for him. They said one would come in a few weeks. There was a schedule, they said. Ward 7 got a doctor a few weeks from now. And they wouldn’t hear any more of it.
There came a morning when Herb didn’t get out of bed. He’d had a fit that night, Jordy and I plopping him back on his back every time he attempted to flop out of the bed. By the light of the single bulb in the morning, he looked on his deathbed. He was shivering where he lay, gaunt and ghostly pale but for where the sores burned angry red. His hair had thinned to the point where it looked like it was falling out in clumps.
Still, the doctors wouldn’t come. But the attendants didn’t force him to go to work that day. They stuck him in the mess room with the senile or drugged men, and ignored him. Then they dumped him back in his bed that night.
I lay awake beside him. Herb had started moaning, adding to the omnipresent groans that seemed, now, just a part of Ward 7 during the hours of dark. I feared to shut my eyes for the images of horror that had emerged from my dreams time and time again. And I feared for Herb.
‘Still here,’ Herb whispered into the night.
I looked over at him, just making out his shape in the dark.
‘He’s still here,’ the sick lad breathed. His breath had gone sour. I could smell it from where I was. ‘Stuck here, for seventy years… Will always be here… He’s causing it.’
And then he tightened into a new fit.
I’d gotten no sleep that night. Clive pulled me along in the morning when they got us up early for baths.
‘He’s going,’ Clive warned me, his voice low and serious. ‘Leave him.’
I struggled, but Clive shoved, his face grim.
It was dark, a single bulb lighting the corridor. And the attendants had moved elsewhere.
Before I’d decided on it, I’d broken into a run, tearing myself away from Clive. Not back to Herb, but down the corridor and, my shoulder braced, I slammed right into that locked door.
The groaning seemed to grow louder as I rammed it, then backed up and rammed again.
The door crunched open. And I stared in.
The floor was the grimiest I’d ever seen, as though dark muck had been oozing in towards the bath tub that sat in the middle of it. At the foot of the tub was what looked like several dusty old batteries: stacked disks in tall glass jars. By wires they were connected to the toes of the man in the tub.
He was lying on his back, wrists and feet up on the edges, his head tipped backward over the other side; long hair little more than wispy threads around scabbed skin. Though only about thirty, his face was sallow, but for his cheeks, which were sunken and red raw. Red, blistered sores blossomed all down his arms.
His head turned, rotating against the hard porcelain edge of the tub, and he looked at me with blank, staring eyes. His mouth fell open, showing rotted stubs of teeth, then clenched shut. His body tensing, he groaned out a sound of decades of immeasurable pain.
Over the lip of the tub, water spilled onto the floor below, turning the grime black.
Joe Masters had spent just under a year in the Ward 7. Herbert Jones, from his patient file, had died on the 25th of August, 1950, shortly after, whatever he’d said to Joe, his 17th birthday. Late winter, in Australia. His cause of death was listed as “tuberculosis”.
There’s precious little information about Ward 7, and no details about its demolition. Joe Masters wasn’t there when it was, having been discharged alive ten years earlier.
I’ve found nothing that would give me the name of the man in that locked bathroom, and I’ve checked the records back to the 1870s. He could have been any of the patients who were listed as deceased or released. I’ve found mentions of batteries being put to patients’ feet, however. Not in patient notes, they wouldn’t write it there, but in testimonies published in the papers in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
What happened to the man in the tub, as far as I can tell, is lost to history. Like most, though thanks to Joe Masters, not all of what happened in the Notorious Male Ward 7.
This story, while the main thread is fictional, is based on real places. Peat Island held many children abandoned by their families as a result of disability or illness.
The conditions patients lived in depicted in this story are pretty accurate to the conditions in Callan Park described by journalist Victor Douglas Valentine, who posed as a nursing attendant at the hospital between June 22nd and June 29th in 1948. Valentine was put on a working man’s ward, and as he describes stone rooms I doubt he was assigned to Ward 7, a timber structure.
While electro-shock therapy was slow to catch on at Callan Park, it was used to a small degree at this time, and that it wasn’t used more was considered a sign of not keeping up with modern treatments. Applying batteries to patients as a method of punishment, and, perhaps as some skewed sort of treatment, was practised before then. It was also considered a sign of the hospital being in the dark ages that they weren’t performing lobotomies.
“Insanity” at this time meant more things than we may think it to now. Late-stage syphilis was what put quite a few patients in Callan Park. At the time, epilepsy was considered asylum-worthy, as was dementia, mood disorders, and post-natal mental health concerns. The majority of patients in asylums – even many who were stuck there for decades – were not people with psychosis or violent disorders. There is some critique that some of them were there because they held unpopular opinions society thought intolerable then.
What’s written in the preamble about Callan Park is completely true.