The establishment of a lunatic asylum for the treatment and care
of the mentally ill in Newfoundland dates from 1847. In that
year, a converted farmhouse was opened at St. John's by the
Newfoundland Government for the temporary accommodation of the
lunatics housed in the St. John's Hospital, until a much larger
facility could be built for them. (1) The decision to provide
this new facility climaxed several years of agitation by Dr.
Henry Hunt Stabb, (2) an advocate of a radical change in the
local treatment of lunacy. The mode of treatment favoured by the
English-born Stabb was that of moral therapy, which was in
general use in France and Great Britain, and which, beginning in
the 1830s, had been brought to British North America by European
As practiced by the disciples of the Frenchman, Philippe Pinel,
and the Englishman, William Tuke, who had pioneered the treatment
in the 1790s, moral therapists rejected the popular notion that
mental illness was incurable and that its subjects, especially
the more violent and criminal ones, required strict confinement
in their own and society's interest. What was needed, the
reformers argued, was a controlled environment, such as an
asylum, where a resident physician could closely observe the
behaviour of the patient and diagnose a cure. To be successful,
it was important that the asylum provide a relaxed atmosphere for
the restoration of the patient's health. This atmosphere could be
achieved in part by putting the patient to work, thereby
diverting him from concentration on his sickness. Religious
instruction and worship could also be used to influence the
patient's behaviour. Above all the asylum had to isolate the
patient from his previous environment and thus enable the
physician to have the greatest possible influence on him. (3)
Until the 1847 change, lunatics maintained on the government's
permanent pauper list were housed in St.John's either in the
Hospital or in private boarding houses. Before 1836 their living
quarters in the Hospital were close to the sick wards of the
general patients who, according to District Surgeon Edward
Kielley, had to endure the "rattling, scratching, jumping and
other incontrollable noise" of the mentally afflicted. There they
were chained to benches and walls with their food being passed
into them in tins tied to the end of long poles. In an 1836
report on the Hospital Kielley noted that one lunatic, a man
named McCabe, had lost almost all his fingers the previous winter
through frostbite. (4) The maintenance of the lunatics - they
usually numbered about seven - was provided for by the annual poor
vote of the legislature. To be placed in the Hospitals, the
lunatics, with no family or else family without the means to
support them, needed the approval of the Governor and the town's
stipendiary magistrates, the latter also serving as poor relief
commissioners. (5) The Hospital itself, which had been opened in
1814, was also dependent on funds from the general revenue and
was operated by a committee appointed by the Grand Jury for St.
In 1836 the legislature altered the administrative and financial
arrangements of the Hospital. This was to be achieved by a
general act establishing fishermen's hospitals in all the
electoral districts of the island. In practice only St. John's
would benefit from this legislation, since other centers lacked
buildings necessary to take advantage of the Act's provisions.
Under the 1836 "Act for the relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen,
Fishermen and other persons", management of the Hospital now
passed from the committee of the Grand Jury to a board of fifteen
directors, who were to be elected by a quadrennial vote among the
owners and masters of vessels registered et the port of
St.John's. In effect, this gave direct control to the major
merchants in St. John's since they owned most of the registered
The new directors chose from among their number a president and a
vice-president, who were to submit an annual financial statement
for the Hospital to the legislature. Finally, the Directors and
their successors were to hold the existing hospital and the land
on which it was situated in trust. For their part, the Hospital
Directors agreed to accept all pauper patients and lunatics the
Governor might wish admitted and to maintain them at the same
rate as that applied to sick and injured fishermen, who
themselves were to be assessed for their maintenance. Those to be
assessed included all fishermen, members of sealing ships, and
all seamen of registered Newfoundland vessels engaged in either
the local coastal trade and fisheries or the colony's foreign
With more funds now made available to them, in 1837 the Hospital
Directors tried to do something about the physical accommodation
of the lunatics placed under the care of their physician, Edward
Kielley, who was also district surgeon for St. John's with
responsibility to look after the medical needs of publicly
supported paupers and lunatics both in the Hospital and in the
town generally. In that year the Directors had a two-storey wing
added to the Hospital; here the lunatics, who were confined in
chains attached to the walls or benches, were housed in cells in
the basement and in a section of the second floor. (8)
Kielley's custody of the government patients in the Hospital was,
however, briefly interrupted by a supply act the legislature
passed in 1838, which provided for the appointment of four
district surgeons for St. John's but which contained a provision
prohibiting the town's gaol surgeon, Edward Kielley, from
occupying one of the four proposed positions. That Kielley was to
be denied in the future the right to be district surgeon - a
position which he had since April 1,1934 - owed much to the
animosity held towards him by William Carson, the town's most
prominent physician and leader of the Liberal Party which had a
majority in the House of Assembly. A Conservative, Kielley had a
monopoly of the available medical patronage in St. John's through
the offices of district surgeon, gaol surgeon and hospital
surgeon. Carson, who had been district surgeon from 1827 to 1834
and had lost this position to Kielley for political reasons, had
a great dislike for Kielley. (9) Nevertheless, Carson's change in
the medical attendance on the poor experienced another revision
in February, 1839, it having operated for only three months. (10)
The four district surgeons had been able to provide increased
service to the poor of St. John's, but within the Hospital itself
their work had been greatly hindered. Neither the Hospital
Directors nor Kielley, the Hospital's house surgeon, would
cooperate with them. The district surgeons had often found
themselves with little room for their patients and had been
unable to exercise any influence over the apothecary and his
assistant, who took care of the Hospital's patients. Again, they
had been unable to set up an out-patients clinic and had
frequently been refused access to the Hospital's surgical
instruments and operating room. The Hospital situation was
further confused by the fact that the Poor Relief Commissioners
had placed more patients in the Hospital than they could maintain
out of their 1838 legislative vote.
To end the acrimony Governor Sir Henry Prescott now accepted a
plan put forward by Hospital Board President Robert Job. Under
this arrangement the government patients currently in the
Hospital would be allowed to remain there in return for further
reimbursement from the colonial treasury; however, the system of
medical attendance in the institution would be changed so as to
exclude the four district surgeons. (11) These practitioners
continued their service to the poor outside the institution until
July 1, 1839, when the legislative vote supporting them ran out.
After that date one of their number, John Rochfort, was retained
in his office on a governor's warrant, but in 1842, when this
position was made permanent, it was given to William Carson's
son, Samuel. (12) The Hospital, then, remained the preserve of
Surgeon Kielley and its patients, including the lunatics housed
there, were rarely visited during the 1840s by other practitioners. (13)
Dr. Henry Hunt Stabb's initial contact with the lunatic patients
in the Hospital had come in 1838 when he was appointed one of the
four district surgeons for St. John's, one year after his
graduation from the University of Edinburgh at the age of 26.
(14) That Stabb had decided to come to St.John's, where he
practiced with the two Carsons, was undoubtedly influenced by his
family's long-established involvement there in the colony's fish
export trade. He took an immediate interest in the welfare of the
mentally ill and sought to introduce the moral treatment method
he had observed during his student days in Great Britain. On June
9, 1842, Stabb offered his services as a resident hospital
surgeon to the Board of Hospital Directors. Specifically, he
proposed to assist Kielley to ensure a more constant vigilance of
the patients, especially the lunatics. "For lunatics especially
can only be treated with a reasonable hope of success," he wrote,
"by a medical man residing with them, and under whose constant
care they ought to sleep, awake, eat, drink, and act." Besides
his great concern for the mentally ill, Stabb also proposed to
look after the other patients sent into the Hospital by the
government and to establish an out-patients clinic and a
mid-wifery ward. This offer he also brought to the attention of
Sir John Harvey. (15)
Governor Harvey was wholly in support of Stabb's views, noting
that it concurred with his own with regard to giving "increased
comfort and medical care for the unhappy Pauper Lunatics." To
this end, he decided to have Stabb's services made available to
Kielley. (16) Accordingly, on June 15 he approved a request from
the Hospital Directors for an increase in the allowance paid for
the maintenance of the lunatic patients housed in the Hospital;
again, on July 5 he strongly urged on the Directors Stabb's
proposition to be a resident hospital surgeon in order to assist
Kielley. In fact, the increased allowance made for Kielley's
salary was, the Directors were also informed, to make it possible
for them to hire Stabb. On this point a misunderstanding between
Harvey and Directors soon developed. In a July 23 letter to
Harvey, they disclaimed any knowledge of Stabb's intentions when
the latter had made his services available to Harvey. With the
Directors evidentally unwilling to make changes in the Hospital's
management that would not meet the approval of Kielley and his
staff there, the government took no further action to secure
Stabb's employment in the Hospital. (17) Nor were the Directors
willing to implement any other changes on the grounds that such
improvements would benefit patients sent in by the Governor.
What eventually persuaded the Directors to petition the
legislature for a change in the medical care of lunatic patients
was the overcrowding of the Hospital caused by Harvey's
continuing admission of mentally disturbed outport residents.
(18) In 1844 the Directors requested their Secretary, Ambrose
Shea, to look into the possibility of a separate building for the
lunatics and to suggest means for an improved mode of treatment,
which the "want of accommodation and means had hitherto rendered
unattainable." (19) Shea's report, which recommended the
introduction of moral therapy in a new building, was undoubtedly
influenced by Stabb. "The existing mode" of treatment, Shea
wrote, was not only unsuccessful but a "sad contrast to what
other countries present." In short, it reproached "every
principle of humanity." (20)
With this report in hand the Directors approached the government
in 1845 for a grant of £800 to construct the building Shea had
recommended and a further £100 for the salary of the medical
practitioner, who would reside there to care for the lunatics.
The following year legislation was passed granting these
requests, the amount to be raised for construction being
increased to 1,500 pounds. (21) Unlike the Hospital, however, the new
insitution was to be managed by the government itself. Thus the
Governor was given control of the construction funds, the
admission of patients, the making of rules and regulations for
the asylum's management, and the appointment of all medical staff
and servants. He was to carry out these duties through a board of
seven commissioners he was to appoint. (22)
In August, 1846, Stabb was appointed physician to the proposed
asylum and with a local architect immediately set about planning
the building. His salary was to commence when the asylum was
completed and occupied. (23) Stabb soon realized that the grant
for construction was insufficient and in January, 1847,
persuaded the legislature to vote a further 1,500 pounds. (24) To get
first-hand experience of recent work in moral treatment, Stabb
next offered to go to Europe at his own expense, if the colonial
government would agree to commence his salary from the date of
his appointment. The government agreed to this condition and
Stabb set out across the Atlantic. (25) His notes on what he
observed on his highly successful journey were later published in
the English Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental
His return home, however, was full of disappointment. He arrived
back in St. John's only to discover that the government had
decided to postpone the borrowing of the money it had allocated
for the construction of the new asylum until a more favourable
economic moment. (27) This delay was necessary because of the
distress in the colony resulting from the fire in June, 1846,
which destroyed much of St. John's and disrupted its commerce.
Having committed all his energies to his "long cherished object,"
Stabb remained undaunted and in October persuaded Governor
Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant to establish a provisional asylum in
a farmhouse that the government owned on the western outskirts of
the town and which had been used as a fever hospital during the
typhus epidemic earlier in the year. This farmhouse contained
enough beds and furniture for the accommodation of thirty
lunatics, he asserted, while the attached yard offered the
possibility of daily exercise. While realizing that moral
treatment could not be fully implemented in this setting, Stabb
nevertheless believed it would be a great improvement over the
existing hospital situation. LeMarchant agreed to this change
when Stabb convinced him that the cost of maintaining patients at
this proposed provisional asylum would not exceed the cost to the
colony of keeping them in the Hospital. (28)
Stabb received his first patients in November, when eleven
lunatics were transferred from the Hospital, (29) but he
subsequently faced many frustrations. To maintain himself Stabb
had to keep up his general practice in the town, finding whatever
time he could to instruct the staff who looked after the patients
in his absence. Again, he was unable, given the facilities
available, to effect any classification and separation of
patients other than on the basis of sex. With little funds
available, Stabb now had to serve both as a physician to the
provisional asylum and as its superintendent, his desire of
obtaining a qualified superintendent in Great Britain having had
to be abandoned. Besides providing for the medical and moral
treatment of the patients, he was responsible for the supervision
of every patient and the financial affairs of the asylum. Thus,
he had to take charge of overseeing the supply and proper cooking
of the food, the supply of clothing and bedding, and the personal
inspection of the state of cleanliness of every room and every
individual in the building. (30)
Besides not being able to devote his full professional time to
the asylum, Stabb's efforts to treat the mentally ill by moral
treatment was further complicated by overcrowding in the Hospital
following the issuing in May, 1849, of new poor relief
regulations. Alarmed by the increasing expense of maintaining
patients in the Hospital, Governor Le Marchant had all patients
in the Hospital well enough to leave discharged. In the past, the
Hospital Directors had kept patients there, although well enough
to leave, in order to collect the government allowance for their
maintenance. In the future, if such patients were not discharged
then they would become charges on the Hospital Directors rather
than the government. The new regulations applied also to those
lunatics still remaining in the Hospital and whom Stabb had not
placed in the provisional lunatic asylum. (31) Consequently,
these lunatics were transferred to the provisional asylum,
thereby bringing the number of patients Stabb was now attempting
to treat from 23 to 42. This problem was further complicated by
1852 by the deterioration of the asylum building into an
unsanitary, rat infested, fire hazard. (32)
Facing "every conceivable obstacle to success," Stabb turned once
more for help to the colonial government. This time he had better
luck, in 1852 the legislature approving the raising of 3,500 pounds for
the construction of a new facility, a sum that was supplemented
the following year by another 2,500 pounds. (33) On July 27, 1853,
Governor Ker Baillie Hamilton laid the cornerstone of the new
building, the central floor and one wing of which was opened in
December, 1854, to receive fifty patients from the provisional
asylum. (34) Three years later Stabb took up permanent residence
at the new asylum - now known as the Hospital for Mental Diseases -
where he was to remain until 1890 when he resigned because of
ill-health and old age. (35) Two years later on May 17, 1892,
Stabb died. Although no attempt since his death has been made to
commemorate his contributions to the care of the mentally ill in
Newfoundland, the Waterford Hospital, as it was officially named
in 1973, is a fitting monument in itself to his work.
1. Joyce Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands: Nursing in Newfoundland to 1934 (St. John's 1978), 17-23; Harvey Stalwick, "Full Circle Plus: Canadian Mental Health Policy in the 1860s and 1960s" (paper presented to the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association, 1971); and Henry M. Hurd, ed., The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada (Baltimore 1917), 332-33, 589-90.
2. Henry Hunt Stabb, born Torquay, England, 1812; physician and superintendent, St. John's Lunatic Asylum, 1846-90; died St. John's, May 17, 1892.
3. On the development of the moral therapy treatment, see Andrew T. Scull, Museums of Madness: The social organization of insanity in nineteenth century England (London 1979); Barbara G. Rosenbranz and Maris A. Vinovskis, "Sustaining 'the Flickering Flame of Life': Accountability and Culpability for Death in Ante-Bellum Massachusetts Asylums," in Susan Reverby and David Rosner, eds., Health Care in America: Essays in Social History (Philadelphia 1979), 155-82; David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston 1971), especially 109-54; and Daniel Francis, "The Development of the Lunatic Asylum in the Maritime Provinces," Acadiensis, vol. 6 (1977), 23-38.
4. Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, hereafter PANL, GN2/2, incoming correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, District Surgeon Edward Kielley to Colonial Secretary James Crowdy, September 17, 1836; and Stalwick, "Full Circle Plus," 11.
5. PANL, GN2/2, Stipendiary Magistrates to Crowdy, October 24, 1835, April 5, 1841.
6. The establishment of the Hosptial and its history to 1836 is discussed in Melvin Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921" (Ph.D. thesis, The University of Western Ontario, 1980), 91-9.
7. Ibid., 96-7. The 1836 Hospital Act is published in E. M. Archibald, Digest of the Laws of Newfoundland (1847), 211-13.
8. 1837 Throne Speech as reported in Gazette, July 4, 1837; and PANL, GN2/2, St. John's Medical Faculty to St. John's Poor Relief Commissioners, December 5, 1838.
9. Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921," 98-103.
10. Petition from John Rochfort, Samuel Carson, and Michael O'Dwyer, District Surgeons for St. John's, in Journal of the House of Assembly, hereafter JHA, July 12, 1839.
11. PANL, GN2/2, J.B. Bland to Crowdy, April 8, 15, 25, May 21,1839; Robert Job to Crowdy, January 15, 1839; St. John's District Surgeons to Crowdy, February 5, 1839; and John Rochfort to J.B. Bland, February 4, 1939. See also 1839 Throne Speech as reported in the Ledger, May 21, 1839.
12. PANL, GN2/2, John Rochfort to Governor Harvey, March 2, 1842; and Gazette, March 1, 1842.
13. "Evidence taken before the Select Committee on the St. John's Hospital,"JHA, 1851, Appendix, 190-200.
14. Baker, "The Government of St.John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921," 127.
15. PANL, GN2/2, Dr. Henry Hunt Stabb to Robert Job, June 9, 1842.
16. PANL, GN2/1, outgoing correspondence of the Colonial Secretary's Office, Crowdy to Robert Job, July 5, 1842.
17. Ibid. See also Crowdy to Thomas Bennett, June 15, 1842, August 1, 1842.
18. "Address of Directors of St. John's Hospital on the subject of increased accommodation for Pauper Lunatics," JHA, 1845, Appendix, 271-74; and PANL, GN2/2, Robert Job to Governor Harvey, February 17, 1845, and to Colonial Secretary's Office, January 26, 1846.
19. Ambrose Shea to Ledger, March 18, 1845.
20. "Address of Directors of St. John's Hospital on the subject of increased accommodation for Pauper Lunatics," 271-74. For Stabb's extended views on moral therapy, see, for instance, his "Report on the Lunatic Asylum," in JHA, 1848-49, Appendix, 446-66, and PANL, GN2/2, Stabb to Crowdy, August 18, 1847.
21. "Address of Directors of St. John's Hospital on the subject of increased accommodation for Pauper Lunatics," 271-74; Amalgamated Legislature Debates, April 18, 1845, in Times, April 23, 1845; and Times, April 25, 1846.
22. The 1846 Lunatic Asylum Act was printed in the Gazette, May 19, 1846.
23. PANL, GN2/2, Stabb to Crowdy, February 19, August 18, 1847; and GN2/1, Crowdy to Stabb, August 24, 1846.
24. The 1847 Lunatic Asylum Act was printed in the Gazette, February 2, 1847.
25. PANL, GN2/2, Stabb to Crowdy, February 19, 1847; GN2/1, Crowdy to Stabb, March 15, 1847; and GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, March 8, 1847.
26. Extracts from Stabb's article were published in the Westminister Review, vol. 49, 80-1.
27. 1849 Provisional Lunatic Asylum Report in JHA, 1850, Appendix, 150.
28. Ibid. See also PANL, GN2/2, Stabb to Crowdy, October 21, 1847.
29. 1856 Lunatic Asylum Report in JHA, 1850, Appendix, 519.
30. See the Annual Reports of the Provisional Lunatic Asylum in JHA, Appendix, for 1849-55; and PANL, GN2/2, letters to the Colonial Secretary's Office from Stabb for August 18, October 21, 1847, June 12, 1849, September 1, 1851, March 9, 1852.
31. Baker, "The Government of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1800-1921," 107-09.
32. Ibid., 130-31.
33. Statutes of Newfoundland, 15 Victoria, Cap. 5; 1852 Provisional Lunatic Asylum Report in JHA, 1853, Appendix, 172-80; and W.J.S. Donnelly, The Public Debt of Newfoundland, 1834-1900 (St. John's 1900), 7.
34. Times, July 30, 1853; and 1854 Provisional Lunatic Asylum Report in JHA, 1855, Appendix, 227-29.
35. PANL, GN9/1, Minute of Executive Council, July 10, 1857; and Nevitt, White Caps and Black Bands, 21.