The London Psychiatric Hospital is located on Highbury Avenue in London, Ontario. It consists of 23 buildings including the Chapel of Hope church, horse stable and infirmary building. Mental health practices are ever advancing, but for some former patients of this facility the methods used in this hospital were nothing short of torture.
The original facility was called The London Asylum for the Insane. In 1932 the name was changed to the Ontario Hospital for the Mentally Ill. In 1968 it was again renamed the London Psychiatric Hospital (LPH). And in 2001 the final name change was St. Joseph’s Regional Mental Health Care London.
Chapel of Hope
The Chapel of Hope is located behind the main hospital building. Thousands of people have been married inside this scenic chapel, which became the property of Infrastructure Ontario after the hospital ceased operations.
Before the chapel was built, religious services were held in the general recreation facilities which was up three flights of stairs. This raised concerns about the elderly not being able to attend. In 1884 the church was constructed in a Gothic Revival style. The labour was provided by patients. The church was part of a plan by Superintendent Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to create a beautiful grounds to help improve patients mental health. He petitioned Public Works Ontario to build the chapel. Both Protestant and Catholic services were held at the church.
Interestingly, the chapel was built with both a Roman Catholic and Protestant alter at opposite ends of the church. The pews were designed so that they could face either direction. When the Protestant congregation needed more space to worship, the church became Catholic.
The stained glass windows combine images of religion with images of the Asylum which at the time reflected religions role in moral therapy.
In 1970, the Chapel was renamed the Chapel of Hope and various rejuvenation projects were undertaken to restore the inside of the Chapel to its former glory.
In it’s last years of use, weddings were booked by volunteers. The church had room for approximately 200 guests. You can no longer book weddings but the new property owner may resume the practice.
Photo by Jarod (Atlas Obscura)
The horse stable was built in 1894, ten years after the construction of the church. It features distinct ventilation cupolas on the roof. Today the structure is in poor condition.
Photos courtesy of Dave Summer
The two-storey recreation hall was built around 1920. It features gable ends and on each side of the building are two small wings that jut outward, with pedimented gables. The windows are set in semi-curcular brick panels.
The recreation hall was used for recreational activities for patients as well as for staging performances. The public was invited to attend these performances. There was a swimming pool but it was filled in long ago.
London Insane Asylum
The London Insane Asylum opened in November of 1870 and was the first of its kind in Ontario. At the time of the 1871 census, only five areas of Ontario had enough of a population to be considered a city. They were London, Kingston, Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton.
The London Insane Asylum was built at a cost of $100,000 to house patients from other facilities that had undergone restructuring and amalgamated their facilities. Some of the patients arrived from areas including Orillia and Malden (near Windsor).
The London Insane Asylum opened with a capacity of 500 beds which were instantly filled.
There were two Superintendents of the facility – Henry Landor (1870 to 1877) and Richard Maurice Bucke (1877-1902).
Mental health practices up until this time were questionable, often horrific by today’s standards. It was believed that a patients mental state could be re-balanced through physical shock, whipping, burning and physical restraint.
Dr. Bucke, the second Superintendent of the hospital discontinued the use of alcohol and spirits for patients by 1879 and by 1883 discontinued the use of restraints. Instead he created an open door policy allowing patients to roam the hospital freely.
The 19th century saw more humane approaches to treatment of people with mental health issues. One such approach was that of Moral Therapy. Moral Therapy focused on improving care but also looked at teaching social norms and work habits. To help patients integrate back into society they also worked in some capacity at the facility. Men would work the gardens while women would learn to sew.
The long-term outlook was just that – long term. Once incarcerated, almost 50 per cent remained in the institution for more than ten years.
Hysteria and Masturbation
Bucke believed that in some cases of insanity, surgery could provide a cure. He began with a procedure to inhibit masturbation. This involved inserting a silver wire ring into the foreskin making it impossible to masturbate without injury or pain. In 1877 he performed this procedure 21 times but in the end conceded that the behaviour was more likely a symptom than a cause.
He didn’t perform any further surgeries until 18 years later.
Female hysteria was a diagnosis for women who exhibited anxiety, fainted, nervousness, sexual desire, irritability or sexually forward behaviour. Some families would commit their daughter to an asylum in order to save their family’s reputation.
Bucke adopted the popular Victorian idea that the female reproductive organs were connected to emotional and physical well-being, and were thus the most likely cause of mental illness. By removing the affected organ, by curing the body you could cure the mind.
Between 1895 and 1901, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke performed over 200 surgeries on female patients in an effort to cure their hysteria. This included 12 removals of “diseased” ovaries and tubes, 21 for minor uterine diseased and 8 for vaginal lesions. Critics called his actions the “mutilation of helpless lunatics.” (J.Hillhouse)
These were times where insanity was a simple diagnosis that could be applied to any socially unacceptable behaviour including masturbation, depression or senility. Dr. Bucke trusted that insanity could be treated and even cured by surgery. He treated masturbation by “wiring” male patients to stop the habit. Wiring was the process by which a silver wire ring was surgically inserted through the foreskin, making it impossible to masturbate without pain or injury.
Dr. Bucke along with other superintendents rallied to have the title of their institution changed from asylum to hospital. This was to reflect the role of the physician rather than one of being custodial – which asylum suggested.
These operations were largely discontinued after Bucke’s death in 1902. In February 1902 it’s alleged that he paused to gaze at the stars one winter’s night and lost his balance, and died from the resulting head injury.
In 1924 additions to the property allowed for up to 1,200 patients.
By the 1930’s there were almost 1,700 patients.
The infirmary building is what most people today call the asylum when referring to this location.
The Infirmary Building was used to house patients needing intensive medical observation and treatment. It’s three stoies high with a basement. A central skylight provided light for the operating theatre. Why was it called a theatre? An upper area allowed people to observe the operations taking place.
On each side of the central structure are two storey wings connected to the central block. Each of the wings have a centrally located cupola on the roof. Each wing had sunporches which were replaced in 1945.
Each wing housed patient beds with 4 single rooms, 4 dormitory rooms, a dining room, a day room and a sun porch.
In 1963 the Ontario Hospital London was demolished and replaced with the London Psychiatric Hospital (LPH). It was a time of forward changes to mental health care. The Infirmary Building still remains to this day.
Regional Mental Health Care (RMHC)
In 2001 the name of the facility was changed to Regional Mental Health Care. This is the present day building that you’ll pass on Highbury. A portion of the building is still in use as a laboratory while the remainder is deserted. The windows have been boarded up but signs of vandalism indicate people have been able to get inside.
The London police ERT team has been known to patrol the grounds.
On September 28, 2014 St. Joseph’s held a mental health care legacy event. About 6,000 people attended the event to mark the closure of the mental health care site. Horse-drawn carriage rides were offered. The last patients left November 2014 for Parkwood Institute.
In January of 2019 it was announced that Old Oak Properties had purchased the 160-acre property from the province for $17 million dollars. The plan is to build over 3,000 homes including townhouses and mid and highrise towers including seniors and student residences. The development is estimated to take between 10 to 15 years.
Today don’t be surprised if you find people walking their dogs. The forested roads that Superintendent Bucke sought to create a peaceful environment, still lives on. There is an assortment of wildlife to be found. It’s a nice place to go for a walk. Stories vary on whether security or police will ask you to leave. I’ve waved to security as they drove past me. I’ve driven past the London Police. Nobody has ever told me to leave.
All research by TWP (not just cut and pasted)
More photos can be found here