Southern Ontario Heritage Sites

"Malden Lunatic Asylum" Inmate Labour, Amherstburg, Ontario, on the Detroit River, 1859-1870. Research, writing, and photos by Geoffrey Reaume.

1861 Malden Asylum Laundry and Bakery

1861 Malden Asylum Laundry and Bakery - Built in 1861 by insane asylum inmate labourers as a laundry and bakery at "Malden Lunatic Asylum", Amherstburg, Ontario.

Built by asylum labourers, it was the site of a great deal of psychiatric patients' labour history throughout the 1860s, after it was built as inmates toiled in the laundry and bakery. Today it is the Interpretive Centre and museum for the Fort Malden National Historic Site. A pamphlet guide to the site notes this structure was built by asylum patients and that the overall fort was once an insane asylum. Otherwise, there are no public details at this museum on the history of this site as an insane asylum from 1859-1870 or who constructed the building that houses the main exhibits for this historic site.

1819 Malden Lunatic Asylum Infirmiry

1819 Military Barracks, repaired and used as "Malden Lunatic Asylum" Infirmary, 1859-70. Amherstburg, Ontario

Built in 1819 by troops at Fort Malden, Amherstburg. Originally a barracks, it was worked on by unpaid patient labourers during the 1859-1870 period during which time the building was used as the Malden Asylum infirmary, or hospital. Inmates re-built the roof and repaired the inside of the 1819 building during the asylum period at Malden. Today, people can tour the inside of the building as a 19th century military barracks, without any public marker to indicate it was once an insane asylum infirmary where patients lived and died.

Due to overcrowding at the "Provincial Lunatic Asylum", Toronto, another asylum was opened in 1859 in Amherstburg, Ontario, on the Detroit River, not far from Windsor. This location was chosen as it was no longer being used as a military fort by the British colonial authorities. It could also be set up as an asylum in relatively short time for the increasing numbers of people who were being confined from the southwestern part of the province. Though scarcely remembered now, the men and women who were confined in "Malden Lunatic Asylum" left behind physical evidence of their existence that deserves greater public recognition today.

As would occur elsewhere, when new asylums were opened in 19th century Ontario, the first inmates were insane asylum patients who toiled for no pay to help prepare the place for later occupation by more inmates. (During this same period, provincial prison inmates were paid for their labour, though only a pittance.)

Twenty male inmate labourers were transferred from the asylum in Toronto on July 14, 1859, to Amherstburg. Once there, they toiled to get the buildings and grounds ready for later transferrals of asylum patients from Toronto. By December 1859, 146 male and female insane asylum inmates were confined in this former military fort on the Detroit River.

During the eleven years of its operation, the "Malden Lunatic Asylum", was the site of an enormous amount of unpaid labour by male and female inmates. Their work ranged from cooking and washing to sewing and mending, to constructing and repairing buildings to making breakwalls along the river to prevent soil erosion, to even making wine from left over grapes in the mid-1860s.

To give an example of the immense amount of unpaid farm labour done by patients in this one, now forgotten asylum, the Annual Report for this institution for October 1868 to October 1869 states that inmate farm labourers worked the equivalent of 2000 days at 6 hours per day during the previous year. Reports during the 1860s reveal the enormous tally of farm and garden produce cultivated by asylum inmates on sixty acres of farm land attached to this asylum. For example, the report for 1861 mentions the cultivation of 11 tons of hays, 100 bushels of oats, 200 bushels of green corn, 2000 heads of lettuce, 1100 heads of cabbage and 900 bushels of potatoes, among other items. All of this work made the asylum completely self-sufficient in food and saved the provincial operators a great deal of money– due to the unpaid labour of Malden Asylum inmates.

There were 243 inmates in the Amherstburg asylum, nearly evenly divided between males and females, by the fall of 1869. The following year, they would be transferred to a new asylum in London, Ontario at which time Malden Asylum was closed.

Their labour, as well as their lives, need to be acknowledged at the present-day Fort Malden National Historic Site where there is no public display providing details about the asylum inmates who once lived, worked and died there.

Above are photos taken in 2003 of two currently existing parts of this historical site that are physical examples of the hidden history of unpaid insane asylum labour in Ontario. How many other such "unknown" sites exist out there?

Note: Historical information about the "Malden Lunatic Asylum" is from Annual Reports 1859-70, Sessional Papers, Archives of Ontario, Toronto.