Before the Asylum

Before the Asylum |  Asylum Design |  The Kirkbride Plan |  Challenges

Purpose-built curative asylums were not created in Ontario until the mid-19th century, and the London Asylum for the Insane was not opened until 1870. Asylums had existed since the Middle Ages in Europe, mostly in the form of a few private hospices, but these institutions were solely custodial. There was no medical therapy, nor a sense of curing those with mental illness.

When Upper Canada, now modern-day Ontario, was formed in 1791, the government did not institute any form of poor relief, such as the famed English Poor Law, which dated back to the 16th century. This Poor Law traditionally helped support those with mental illness, among others, and without it Upper Canada was left without a provincial system for those in need. People with mental illness lived with family, on the streets or were housed in jails up until the 20th century.

The 1837 House of Industry Act created workhouses to provide relief for people who could not support themselves, but in reality these institutions were generally impoverished and offered little in terms of employment. This system was not new; England had had tax-supported poorhouses for two centuries and the United States had adopted the idea during the same period as Canada.

The population of these workhouses was quite varied, and included orphans, the unemployed, alcoholics, and people with mental illness. This environment was in no way conducive to helping those with mental illness, and Canada soon began to follow both England and the United States in building asylums.