October 18, 1900
Walking past the “Lunatic Asylum” (now known as the Waterford Hospital) citizens were gladdened that officials were “endeavoring to get a water supply to the building’ but upon closer inspection they were not so happy to discover that it was the “poor unfortunate inmates” of the hospital that were doing the work!!
The lot of the ‘lunatics” in the early 19th century was not a happy one. They were often confined to basements, attics and jails under the most wretched conditions and it was only with the founding of the St. John‘s public hospital in 1813 that a separate ward was established for them.
With the opening of the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ on Waterford Bridge Road, St. John’s in 1854 as the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases it was thought that the lot of the lunatics would improve. “A friend of the Lunatics” in October 1900 was not so confident that advances had been made. In a letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram he wrote that he was walking past the hospital and “was troubled to find that its poor unfortunate inmates, are compelled to dig from early morning till late at night, endeavoring to get a water supply to the building.”
He was so appalled at the situation that he demanded “that the Board of Works institute an enquiry into the management of the Lunatic Asylum.”
He wrote “Is it fair to the inmates of that institution to have them wading in water, digging over half a mile for this supply. I say it is not, and the person in charge ought to be brought to account for his conduct.”
The initiatives that were coming under criticism were likely instituted by Dr. Lawrence Keegan who believed that having the patients working was a positive and effective form of occupational therapy, he felt that some patients did benefit from working especially the able-bodied. Keegan who had been on tour of asylums in Great Britain, England, Scotland and Ireland in 1899 and had consulted with British experts that saw value in physical work.
The ‘friend of the Lunatics’ concluded his letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram:
“We have an engineer who is competent to improve the method of said water supply. Why should the doctor (Lawrence Keegan) be consulted, he is not there for that purpose. Let him attend to the strawberry beds and try to help the revenue in that way, but leave the water supply to Mr. (Hubert C.) Burchell, (Newfoundland Government Engineer from 1884 to 1905) who I am certain, who is not in favor of employing lunatics to take the bread from the mouths of taxpayers.”
The practice was soon discontinued, the new administrator of the Asylum, Dr. James Sinclair Tait believed that this type of occupational therapy was ineffective and fiscally unsound and had such new initiatives cancelled.
Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online data base – https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections use key words – lunatic and Waterford.
Recommended Reading: Out of Mind, Out of Sight by Patricia O’Brien: A History of the Waterford Hospital. St. John’s: Breakwater Books; 1989.
Old Word: Middle English: from Old French lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna ‘moon’ (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity)