Brockville Asylum for the Insane

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Brockville Asylum for the Insane
Established 1891
Opened 1894
Current Status Active
Building Style Transition Plan
Location Brockville, ON
Alternate Names
  • Eastern Hospital for the Insane
  • Brockville Psychiatric Hospital
  • Brockville Mental Health Centre


The Brockville Psychiatric Hospital opened as the ‘Eastern Hospital for the Insane’ on a park-like setting overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The property, measuring 400 by 1,127 metres, was originally known as Pickens Point and extended from the Grand Trunk Railway on the north to the St. Lawrence River to the south. The cafeteria in the existing facility still retains the name ‘Pickens Point’, and is renowned for the high-quality, delicious meals offered to staff, clients and visitors alike. The hospital building was dominated by a seven-storey tower 128 feet high, and the foundation and detailed features were constructed using blue limestone quarried on the site, as well as “polished Bay of Fundy granite columns and arches of Gloucester stone from quarries in the Ottawa area.”

The patient population upon opening consisted of 73 individuals transferred to the site from Mimico, Ontario (near Orillia). Treatment ‘cottages’ were built on each side of the main building, three to the east for the women, three to the west for the men. Each cottage has 38 single rooms for patients as well as dormitories, day rooms, attendants’ rooms, storerooms, pantries, bathrooms, etc. At 12 feet wide with 12 foot high ceilings, the cottage corridors were large and airy. The original administrative/treatment/residential complex was designed as a single grouping of structures and embodied the architectural characteristics of a modified cottage hospital of the late 19th century. For the layout and design of the administration and main buildings, the Chief Architect reportedly utilized the plans and elevations of an existing operation, the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane at Middletown Connecticut, which had been erected in 1880-81.

In 1903 the School of Nursing opened with one student who was given a two-year course in nursing the mentally ill. This was one of Ontario’s first nursing programs to specialize in psychiatric care. Enrollment in the program continued to grow as more hospitals specializing in mental health care opened across the province and the need for qualified nurses grew. Early in the 20th century, the patient population expanded to over 800, with as many as 100 patients at work on the grounds daily. The facility housed a bakery, farm, garden, and a variety of shops, including a butchery, bakery, tailor, and carpenter. Patients were active contributors to these endeavors, as it was believed that “meaningful occupation was an important factor” in the successful treatment of disease. In keeping with the “moral philosophy of the time”, the Assembly Hall (now known as Centennial Hall) was built to accommodate various family activities, such as dances, concerts, church services, etc. These activities helped to reduce the sense of institutionalization and enrich the quality of life for patients. In 1910 The Eastern Ontario Lawn Bowling Association was formed, and the first tournament was held on hospital grounds. Thanks to years of diligent maintenance, the tournament site is still used today by patients and local lawn bowling associations.

By 1911 land purchases allowed the hospital to begin significant farming operations. “These were fully equipped farms, with barns, poultry barns, milking parlours for the hospital’s herd of prize Holstein’s, horse stables, machinery sheds and a number of houses” for the farm manager and staff. The farm operation was so impressive that it became the host site for the annual International Ploughing Match between 1925 and 1939. In 1915, a Reception Hospital opened to accommodate 30 male and 30 female patients. The building had four large verandas “where patients could be treated with nature’s own healers, fresh air and sunshine.” This later became the Mental Health Clinic in 1931, offering traveling clinical services to Brockville, Ottawa, Cornwall and other areas in southeastern Ontario.

In 1925 the system of hospital treatment expanded to include the use of hydrotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and vocational therapy. All of these methods are still used today, including electrotherapy with improved application methods, which are safe and very effective in the treatment of certain conditions. 1929 the Occupational Therapy Department officially opened in the south half of the grounds, now known as Centennial Hall, where female patients were occupied weaving textiles. Male patients spent their occupational therapy time working in more physical hospital industries, such as farming, renovations, and facility maintenance.

1931 the Mental Health Clinic opened, operating out of the building that now houses the Elmgrove Unit, an acute care and crisis outreach crisis program. At the time, the clinic was completely independent and offered a traveling clinic to serve Brockville, Ottawa, Cornwall and other Eastern Ontario areas. The hospital’s recreation therapy was extended the following year, allowing for 100 to 300 patients to take part in entertaining games of soccer, softball or badminton during the summer months. In winter, recreational therapists organized fresh air outings or sleigh rides for patients as an essential benefit to mental health. By 1938 the patient Canteen was established and continues to operate today. Also in the same year, the monumental seven-storey tower was torn down due to safety concerns. The services provided for patient care expanded to include on-site dentistry, pharmacology, X-rays and minor surgical operations.

World War II had a serious impact on the hospital. The number of patients continued to increase but there was a depletion of staff due to enlistments in the Armed Forces. This staff shortage resulted in the extension of staff work weeks from 48 hours to 70 hours to maintain minimum standards of care. Within a few years of the War’s end, the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital was home to over 1,000 patients, approximately 12 doctors and over 200 nursing staff. The facility had evolved into a completely self-sufficient operation, baking bread, growing food, producing textiles, dairy and meat products, as well as maintaining its own grounds.

In 1957 A time capsule in the form of a sealed copper box was placed in the cornerstone of a new addition at the west end of the hospital and remains a “buried treasure” for future generations. The box contained a set of 1957 coins, an invitation to the opening ceremony, historical sketches, copies of speeches, a list of distinguished guests, as well as other memorable items. The Social Work Department was established in 1958, eventually playing a leading role in providing a formal educational component to give patients the skills necessary to live more effectively in the community – a precursor to today’s rehabilitation programs. In 1959 the Psychology Department was established.

As elsewhere, the 60s were a decade of change. From an initial patient population of 208, the hospital grew to accommodate 1,600 patients by the end of the 60s, of which over 400 residents were francophone. A number of positive initiatives were initiated to improve quality of life: patients participated in the operation of the hospital by working in service areas appropriate to their medical condition and ability; recreational facilities expanded to include outdoor skating rinks, tennis, and volleyball. In addition, “remotivation” or group therapy was introduced to help stimulate greater interest patient surroundings. This new approach helped to maintain the high quality of hospital facilities and services and, more importantly, provide the first vocational rehabilitation program for patients.

In 1960 the Ottawa Branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association opened at Chez Lorraine, a donation “store” allowing patients to obtain used clothing given to hospital. Chez Lorraine still operates, thanks to patient – now more commonly referred to as ‘client’ – volunteers. The next year the Residential Unit opened to accommodate people well enough to enter community life, but lacking the necessary family or social supports to do so. 1967, The hospital terminated its farming operations and farm staff were reassigned. That same year, the Rehabilitation Department opened and the Canadian Mental Health Act was passed. Under the new Act in 1969, the facility was renamed the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital, more commonly known simply as ‘BPH’

By 1970 the last class of nurses in the School of Nursing graduated and the courses were transferred to St. Lawrence College. During its 68 years of operation, 654 students, including 44 males, graduated. The same year, the operating room closed. A new Physiotherapy Department in 1977 included a hydrotherapy room with a whirlpool, wax baths and hot pack treatment. Infra-red heat treatment, electrical simulation and muscle testing was also done and the treatment room was used for special therapies such as manual manipulations and chest physiotherapy. A medium security forensic unit with 40 beds and a unit for developmentally challenged adults opened.

The campus continues to undergo transition but the need for specialized and dedicated mental health remains a priority and a requirement in the mental health care system. The prime considerations in patient care from 1894 to the present have remained patient dignity and support for recovery. The size of the Brockville property has decreased to 52 acres, and the farm and gardens, bakery and butcher shop are no longer operational. The current patient population consists of 200 inpatients and 1,200 outpatients, many of whom at one time required lengthy and intensive hospitalization.

The approach to patient care has now shifted from a largely inpatient care model to one where the majority of patients receive treatment in the community. This community treatment model was pioneered at the former Brockville Psychiatric Hospital and is now used widely throughout the province and across the country. Though slated for closure in 1999, the ongoing need for mental health services has meant that the Brockville Mental Health Centre continues to operate as an accredited psychiatric teaching facility, affiliated with the University of Ottawa and Queen's University. The campus provides forensic psychiatry treatment for 100 Ontario Correctional inmates, and 59 long-term care forensic patients. It also provides a wide range of inpatient and outpatient services to approximately 1,300 patients in Eastern Ontario.