Patient Built Wall Plaque Project

In December 2006 a temporary plaque (with much of PSAT’s suggested wording) went up on the Queen Street site of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto where construction is taking place. This plaque, one of a number that is proposed for this site, is located at the northwest corner of the CAMH grounds. It reads:

Heritage Wall

"These patient-built walls are a testament to the abilities of the people whose unpaid labour was central to the operation of asylums in the province of Ontario during the 19th and 20th centuries. The surviving walls will be repaired as part of the redevelopment project.

"Men and women patients did immense amounts of work on this site after the asylum first opened in 1850. Men worked outdoors on construction, maintenance and farm work, including building and repairing many of the structures in which they were confined. Women worked primarily inside, doing the sewing, knitting and laundry for the asylum, while also working as domestic servants in both the nurses’ and doctors’ residences."

Suggested plaques along the Queen Street Wall

The full text of all eight suggested plaques that PSAT would like to have permanently placed along the Queen Street wall are printed below. This wording was written and edited by members of Psychiatric Survivor Archives, Toronto and approved by members of PSAT in August 2005. Use it for your own self-directed wall tour in memory of the people who lived, worked and died at 999 Queen Street West.

Plaque 1) Memorial Wall Dedicated to Patient Labourers. NOTE: It would be good if there would be a map at the Queen and Shaw site showing the location of all the historical markers for people who want to do a self-guided tour. A smaller map on every plaque could indicate viewer’s location relative to other plaques.

These patient-built walls are a testament to the abilities of the people whose unpaid labour was central to the operation of asylums in the province of Ontario during the 19th and 20th centuries. The surviving walls were designated as historic structures worthy of preservation by the City of Toronto in 1997 under authority of the Ontario Heritage Act.

Men and women patients did immense amounts of work on this site after the asylum first opened in 1850. Men worked outdoors on construction, maintenance and farm work, including building and repairing many of the structures in which they were confined, and tending to the grounds. Women worked primarily inside, doing the sewing, knitting and laundry for the asylum, while also working as domestic servants in both the nurses’ and doctors’ residences not far from this spot. Both men and women also worked in their own sex-segregated wards doing domestic chores such as cleaning, washing and scrubbing floors. Both sexes worked in the male (west side) and female (east side) infirmaries, where they helped to care for their fellow patients who were sick and dying.

All of these types of patients’ labour were known as “work therapy” or “moral therapy,” originally promoted by asylum authorities as a humane way of getting patients engaged in light leisure and labour activities alongside staff. The intent was to provide patients with meaningful activity during their stay and, in some cases, to provide them with work skills to help find employment upon discharge. However, many patients already had such skills prior to entering the asylum, and in fact these skills were used during their stay to maintain the internal operation of the facility. Moreover, their work here very often was not “light” at all, and the patients were never paid for it prior to the 1960s.

As the asylum was overcrowded within a few years of opening, work as therapy gave way to work intended to save the provincial government money through unpaid patient labour. The walls which still stand today are historical monuments to the exploited labour of all psychiatric patients who lived, worked and died on these grounds since 1850.

Plaque 2) Mid-Shaw Street wall, at an open section, visible from both the street and the park sides. Psychiatric patient labourers built this eastern boundary wall along Shaw Street in 1888–89, after asylum property to the east was sold. The earlier perimeter walls had to be taken down and rebuilt where they are today. (NOTE: It would also be good to have a map showing the full length of the wall, where it has been torn down and where it still stands. Insert map of wall locations and changes over the years. Use current street map as a faded background to the “more visible” wall diagrams. Orient the plaque so that a person faces south while reading)

(It would also be good to have a map showing the full length of the wall, where it has been torn down and where it still stands. Insert map of wall locations and changes over the years. Use current street map as a faded background to the “more visible” wall diagrams. Orient the plaque so that a person faces south while reading)

On this site, from 1850-1998, the provincial government operated a facility called at various times, the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (to 1871), Asylum for the Insane, Toronto (1871-1907), Hospital for the Insane, Toronto (1907-19), Ontario Hospital, Toronto (1919-66) and Queen Street Mental Health Centre (1966-98). The history of these names reflects the changing history of terminology and concepts around mental health treatment in the province of Ontario and the western world more generally over a century and a half. The 19th-century asylum buildings, other than the two Workshop Buildings still abutting the South Wall, were controversially demolished by the provincial government between 1970 and 1976. In 1979, the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital re-merged with the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. The facility was merged with three others and re-named the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in 1998 after the province divested itself of direct operating and funding support.

3) 1860 South Wall, Bricked-in Windows, Patient Escapes and Etchings

While a boundary wall was not included by architect John Howard in his original design for the asylum, by 1852 a wooden structure had been constructed around the perimeter. In 1860, this was replaced by a brick wall built by unpaid patient labourers. This southern section of the 1860 wall is the oldest existing part of the former Asylum for the Insane, Toronto, as well as the oldest physical example of psychiatric patients’ labour in Ontario. It offers clear evidence of the skills of the men who built it.

Along this wall are three windows that were bricked up sometime during the late 19th century; a windowsill can still be seen under one of them. These blocked windows symbolize the loss of freedom that compelled some patients to attempt an escape. Patients at times escaped from this back area of the asylum, climbing over the wall, in order to make their way to the railway tracks that lay behind this property. Men had more of an opportunity to escape than women, since males were put to work outside far more than females, and men’s clothes made escape easier than did the long, cumbersome dresses worn by women. Patients were also known to escape near the front gates of the asylum. Along the south and east walls, look closely and in a few places you will see some etchings carved into the walls by patients. These walls tell many-sided stories about patients of the past.

4) “Women Patient Labourers in the Asylum” – by the location of the old laundry building near the present-day physical plant and nursery school

Near this location stood the asylum laundry, in which women labourers did most of the unpaid work. Supervising nurses would walk them over from the wards, which were located close to the laundry. Patients like Mathilda K., Alice G., Josie B., and Mary A. worked for years in the laundry under difficult conditions. They did an enormous amount of work, cleaning all of the asylum’s clothing and linen. In 1905 alone, 409,868 items passed through the laundry, where 34 patients worked that year. Women patients also did all of the sewing, knitting and mending for the asylum. In 1905, 8,649 items were repaired, 6,862 items were made, and a further 6,685 pieces were cut by female labourers in the sewing room and on the wards. One woman, Audrey B., worked for over thirty years in the sewing room, where she was considered an expert sewer. Although their labour was crucial to the operation of the asylum, none of these women patients were compensated for their work.

5) “West Workshop and Patients’ Labour Creativity” (future home of CAMH Archives)

This building was constructed in 1889 by male patient labourers for use as a workshop by staff and patients. One patient, Winston O., confined at Queen Street from 1877 until his death in 1934, made wheelbarrows and a snowplow at this workshop. He also constructed violins, which he played for other patients on the ward. In 1912, Winston built a car with a horn, which he drove around the asylum grounds. His creativity was mirrored in different ways by other patients. Mabel I., a patient from 1870 until her death in 1918, worked for years in the asylum laundry. She was known to design her own clothes from material she had collected; they were described as “most elaborate, fit for a museum.” The skills of patients like Winston O. and Mabel I. are an indication of the creativity of the men and women who have lived on these grounds since 1850.
This former workshop has been restored as a storage facility for the CAMH Archives.

6) Southwest portion of wall re “The Asylum Coal Gang”

Coal was an essential fuel for the asylum. A “coal gang,” made up of male patients supervised by staff, hauled coal to a nearby wood and coal shed, 140 feet by 40 feet, built by patient labourers in 1889; it no longer exists. Between 1929 and 1940 an opening was created in the wall at the extreme southwest corner of the grounds to permit delivery of coal by railway.

7) Farm gate infill along west wall re “Agricultural Labourers at the Asylum” (near the present day garden)

This opening was a gate through which male patient workers were taken by staff to work the asylum farmland to the west, and the garden and orchard to the south and east, in the 1870s and 1880s. As well, horse-drawn conveyances used this gate to carry harvested crops back to the asylum. Agricultural work was a major part of asylum life from the 1850s until the late 1880s, by which time most of the farmland had been sold. Male patients, along with staff, worked during these years producing food for the livestock and, to a less successful degree, for the overall asylum human population. Crops included vegetables, potatoes and fruits such as grapes and apples. Women were not allowed to do farm and garden work until 1918, when an acre of land was reserved for their use. The areas outside these walls where many houses are now located were once abundant with wetlands—these were drained by male patient agricultural labourers. As with other types of labour, patients were not paid for their agricultural work.

8) Suggested Text re “Western Wall and Farmyard Area” (northwestern section near Queen Street)

This section of the boundary wall was built in 1888–89 by unpaid male patient labourers, under the supervision of staff, along the new western perimeter of the former Asylum for the Insane, Toronto. Just prior to this, more westerly portions of the asylum property had been sold for private development, and the grounds were reduced to 26 acres from the original 50. Patients then had to dismantle 1,600 feet of the earlier boundary walls and reconstruct them in their present location. Notice the remains of the wall fronting Queen Street. Small rectangular flat footings, regularly bordering the south side of the sidewalk are evidence of support buttresses for the original wall.
Until 1912 a barnyard was located in this northwestern portion of the grounds, where for many years patients worked along with staff tending the farm animals. Here too was located a mortuary, where autopsies were done on patients. During the late 1800s and early 1900s the remains of patients were kept here until they were either claimed by families or buried in indigent graves in different cemeteries in Toronto, such as Mount Pleasant and Prospect Cemetery.