The Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-Minded, Orillia, 1876

Asylum for Idiots, Orillia. The clock tower was removed in early 1900s after a fire in the institution.

Photo: Courtesy Archives of Ontario.

The Influence of Britain and Germany

British Training Schools.
Dr John Langmuir, Inspector for Prisons, Asylums and Public Charities for Ontario in the late nineteenth century, urged the government to establish an asylum solely for mental defectives based on the successful Training Schools in Great Britain.

Germany. . . auxiliary classes.
Germany provided the most humane treatment and education for feeble-minded children in Europe, far ahead of Britain and the U.S. Germany set a standard for the education and specialized treatment of the feeble-minded in the nineteenth century. A segregated school was planned in Leipzig, supported by German scientists and physicians (Versammlung der deutschen Naturforscher und Arzte). However, parents protested against the education of their feeble-minded children in separate buildings. Officials therefore kept a large percentage of these pupils in regular classes. Special classes integrated in ordinary schools were later established by authorities and supported by the parents. In 1867, the school board of Dresden had begun an Auxiliary Class (Hilfsklasse) for sixteen children.

In Toronto, Inspector W.T. Chapman, speaking on intellectual backwardness to the Ontario Educational Association in 1908, discussed the Auxiliary Classes in Germany and suggested similar classes for mentally defective children in Ontario.

The Original Ideal of the Orillia Institution

The Asylum for Idiots opened primarily as a custodial institution with the promise of a Training School for juvenile Idiots. Jobs were available to local residents. The Orillia Times exulted: “It is as healthy as it is beautiful.”

Class in the Idiot Asylum, 1900. Photo courtesy of Archives of Ontario.

The original ideal of providing an institution only for mental defectives was positive and humane in intention at the outset, and the government did not intend to permanently segregate all the feeble-minded.

The purpose was to educate and train those ‘educable’ youngsters to their ability and then return them home to their families or community. Only those who were most disabled or feeble were kept on as custodial cases.

Dr Alexander Beaton, first superintendent of the Orillia Asylum at his desk in his office in the Administrative Building c. early 1900s.  Photo courtesy of CAMH Archives.

The first 35 residents consisted of mentally retarded people from the London Idiot Adult Asylum and those in the provincial jails. The asylum was soon filled and overcrowded. By 1879, boys were sleeping two to a bed.  Dr Alexander Beaton, the first superintendent, began using his own resources, teaching reading, writing, gymnastics to the educable ones in a small school. Eventually by the 1880s the school had eight teachers. Funding was the lowest in North America, he complained.

This ideal was sabotaged in the early 1900s by the eugenicists and political parties such as the Patrons of Industry who strongly opposed “wasting” tax-payers’ money on educating the “feeble-minded”. They wanted people with intellectual handicaps – the ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘epileptics’, ‘morons’, and so-called ‘feeble-minded’ – to be segregated and confined to the institution for life, called “custodial” care. 

“Custodial” was a term that meant “for life”.  And many did spend their entire lives in the wards and grounds of the institution right up to the 1980s and to the closure of Orillia in 2009.

Class Differences:
The poorer classes tended to send their children to Orillia, while the well-off who could afford it sent their retarded offspring to the New York State Idiot Asylum which had better facilities and funding.

Attitudes were to change at the beginning of the twentieth century, brought on by an era of eugenics in the early 1900s and by the long-term effects of the Industrial Revolution.