New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Asylum in St. John, abt. 1830 to 1860

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The Asylum in Saint John, abt. 1830 to 1860

Lunatic asylum The New Brunswick Provincial Hospital

Once known as the Lunatic Asylum. Image from N.B. Museum, via the McCord Museum

Up until the mid-1830s, there was no institution in Saint John dedicated to the housing or treatment of people with mental conditions. Neither was there a proper understanding of these disorders, and sufferers were grouped under broad categories such as lunatics, maniacs, idiots, or imbeciles. These words will continue to be used in this blog posting without further explanation or excuse, because they come directly from the sources of the day.

People who needed to be confined for reasons of public safety could be sent to jail or to the alms house or workhouse upon the order of two Justices of the Peace. At the alms or work houses they would be kept with the ‘out of door’ people, that is with wards of the Parish who had no means of supporting themselves. ‘Out of doors’ implied people whose welfare requirements had to be served out of doors because they had no homes, i.e., ‘street people’. These patients were generally the pauper lunatics, and those of greater means were transported to the United States where there were more facilities for their care. The move from the jail to the alms and work houses was an improvement and was arranged through the efforts of George Peters who was the Superintendent of all of these institutions. Peters arranged for another move in 1836 when the unused cholera hospital was converted into a temporary lunatic asylum.

George Peters wrote a letter to the Commissioners of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in late 1836. This was curious enough, since there were Commissioners but hardly any asylum. In any case, he outlined that the conditions in the jail had been awful. He described maniacs, living naked and in filth, in cells with criminals of all sorts. This was not only unjust, but was also dangerous for the lunatics and criminals alike. Furthermore, such conditions did nothing to foster a cure for the mental disorders.

The temporary asylum in the old cholera hospital was better than anything that had preceded it, but was still thoroughly unsatisfactory. Peters tried his best to separate men from women, and dangerous inmates from the others, but the building was small; partitions were flimsy and hastily arranged; and a corridor served as the only common area.

The temporary asylum went into operation, and eight months later there had been 22 patients including maniacs, others with melancholia, and imbeciles. Six of these were idiots (epileptics, apparently), for whom there was little hope of recovery.

Most of these cases, with the exception of the idiots, were attributed to ‘sudden fright’ as a result of accidents and tragedies in the case of women. Overuse of alcohol was the primary cause of derangement for the men, and Peters noted that this would be “very likely in this country to keep a Lunatic Asylum well filled with patients.” Most of the patients were easily managed, but one of them had to be restrained to the wall with a chain. Peters regretted this necessity.

Admissions to the temporary asylum increased steadily. There had been 31 patients during 1836, and 14 of these remained at year’s end. By 1848 there were 92 patients carried over from the previous year, and 62 new ones for a total of 154. Ninety of these 154 remained at year’s end.

In 1836, the legislature considered proposals to build a permanent facility to replace the temporary asylum in the old cholera hospital and a plan to achieve this was ready by 1837. However, nothing was done and, by 1845, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island were considering construction of a single facility to serve all three colonies. This idea was apparently not well thought out, since the committee which was to study it required only one meeting to decide that it was impractical. The provincial asylum was then built, and patients were moved in during December of 1848. This was the facility in Fairville, West Saint John, which remained until recent years.

In 1858, a commission was set up to determine cost cutting measures for the lunatic asylum as well as for the penitentiary and a marine hospital and for the upkeep of lighthouses. The Commission was thorough in its investigation, and peered into every aspect of income and expenditure, details of facilities, staffing, staff performance, etc.

The Commission’s opinions of the staff were generally positive. There were concerns about the Chief Resident Officer, Dr. Waddell, however. He was also the Medical Superintendent and had to supervise other staff and handle the correspondence in addition to supervising the farming operation. The Commissioners praised his work and credited him with reducing costs, but feared that his efforts were unsustainable.

The stock of the farming operation in 1857 consisted of 2 horses, 8 cows, 3 heifers, 2 bulls, 3 sheep, 13 pigs, 24 geese, 39 hens, 7 turkeys, and 10 ducks, all on the Fairville property.

The Commission generally supported the asylum, and argued that there should be a central heating system and that the water supply should be improved, for example. Such recommendations were outside the scope of their mandate to cut costs, and they therefore argued that a proper heating system would actually save money, since they were presently buying loads of wood to feed stoves and fireplaces throughout the complex.

The mandate was to cut costs, and the Commission made several recommendations. Firstly, they noted that the keepers of the asylum had established bylaws to exclude idiots and people with delirium tremens. However, legislation allowed magistrates to determine who would be sent for confinement and many of the patients were not lunatics at all. The Commission therefore recommended legislation that idiots only be allowed in cases where they were a public danger. People with delirium tremens were self-made idiots and should be excluded altogether on the principle that they were not deserving of public sympathy. Further on the matter of admissibility, medical certificates proving insanity should be required in all cases, since the Magistrates’ judgments could not be trusted.

It was also recommended that the allotments of clothing be reduced, since the amount of clothing being provided was greater than that required by the asylum bylaws. And finally, anyone who could afford to pay for their keep should be required to do so.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Some of this history is unpleasant or even shocking, but I am reluctant to criticize the New Brunswick authorities for it since the conditions were likely typical for the time. The hospital in Fairville was modernized and expanded several times over the years and I believe that it became what we would call modern, albeit that it was an ancient maintenance headache. It was eventually demolished and replaced by a smaller and newer facility.

Countering this impression of modernity was a series of articles in The Standard, a Montreal newspaper, in 1945. These alleged poor conditions and standards of care. A Royal Commission was set up to investigate the claims, and it was determined that the disgruntled employees who had prompted the news coverage were unreliable witnesses. The hospital had coped admirably given the staff shortages during the war and, furthermore, some of the complainers had links to the CCF! It may be that neither the Commissioners nor the disgruntled employees were reliable witnesses, but it is too late to reinvestigate that matter now.

References: (Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are available from

  1. Peters, George P., Letter to the Commissioners of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, Saint John, November 28, 1836.
  2. Wark, David, et al., Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the Management of Several Public Institutions Receiving Provincial Aid, 1858.
  3. Baxter, J.B.M., et al., Abstract of Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry [into] the Provincial Hospital (1945).
  4. Hannay, James, History of New Brunswick, Saint John, 1909, V2, pp 62-64.

Written by johnwood1946

November 13, 2013 at 10:26 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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