Attendants and Working Conditions

Attendant key and whistle, circa 1950. RMHCL

Attendant key and whistle, circa 1950. RMHCL
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Attendants   |   Duties and Hierarchy   |   Training

Attendants faced difficult working conditions, long hours, and low wages. While married attendants could live offsite, single attendants could not. Unmarried attendants instead, were entitled to leave the Asylum every second night in the summer from 7:00 until 10:00 pm and in the winter until 9:00 pm. Generally attendants, were granted every second Sunday off and one day every six weeks.

Due to the nature of the position, the London Asylum found it difficult to recruit and maintain its attendant staff. Higher wages that could be obtained in the city often lured staff of all positions from the Asylum. However, the sting of losing attendant staff was seen to be a greater tragedy than most. Attendants were recognized by the Superintendents as playing a valuable role in the treatment of patients. Due to their close contact with patients, attendants could be called on by the medical staff to assist with patient assessments, and due to this important relationship with patients the Asylum was dedicated to retaining its attendants. Medical Superintendant, Dr. Henry Landor was especially dedicated to keeping turn over rates low among attendants. In his 1874 Annual Report, he commented on the need for wage increases among attendants and discusses the importance of their role to the success of the Asylum. In this report, Dr. Landor stated, "Attendants add to the percentage of cures, and thus soon repay the Government the additional present cost. There is no increase of maintenance charges more readily justifiable than efficient payment of attendants." In order to combat this problem, superintendants would often attempt to increase attendant wages. This posed a challenge as the London Asylum was under a tight budget from the Ontario Government. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, Asylums were under the direction of Prisons and Public Charities and any requests for wage increases had to be submitted to the Inspector of Prisons and Public Charities for approval. This process was often long and coupled with frequent rejections.

Turnover rates were generally higher among female than male attendants, a trend typical of the time, for women were not expected to remain in the workplace on a permanent basis. Dr. Landor's 1874 Annual Report expressed such concerns: "the female attendants have, been more frequently changed than in any other year in my recollection. This is due to the rate of wages, being much below the rate obtainable in the city. The consequence is, that we are obliged to take girls little more than children, and to place patients under the charge of those who would be far better in some other occupation." Retaining male attendant staff at the asylum was also a challenge. For example, Dr. William John Robinson, Superintendent, wrote a letter, "Re: Wage Increase to the Inspector of Prisons and Public Charities" asking for a wage increase for a male Attendant at the Asylum, his work was described as, "by far the most important of any connected with the male patients in the institution. I would again bring his case to your notice for an increase."