Here in Kingston at 8 Gable Lane are the remnants of the Rockwood Asylum. Overlooking beautiful Lake Ontario, the asylum was built to bring relief to mentally ill people who were often cast into gaols, almshouses, or left to wander the streets. In the 19th century, what constituted a mentally ill person was someone who seemed different then the normal. If these odd behaviours became a burden to family or friends, you were often cast out with no support. These citizens would find themselves in gaols or sent to asylums like Rockwood.
Originally called the Rockwood Insane Asylum, the building designed by William Coverdale was a place with bedrooms measuring three by three metres, which would allow for a single bed and wardrobe. While originally designated as cells, the newly named dormitories in Coverdale’s plans were built with the hope of curing people.
As the asylum was being constructed, male patients would be moved in and occupy the livable parts of the new medical facility. Women patients would stay in the converted horse stables until full completion of the building in 1868. At the time of its construction, Rockwood was not designed to be proactive in treatment for the incoming patients.
Dr. William George Metcalf became the superintendent of Rockwood in 1878. Following up on previous plans for improvement, Metcalf would make Rockwood an advanced place for mental health care. He oversaw fourteen attendants and almost four hundred patients. Under the leadership of Metcalf, patients and the staff lived together in a remote community at the waterfront. Set far in from the main road, isolated from the growing city of Kingston, Rockwood would be a sanctuary.
To Metcalf the patients of Rockwood were human beings, not criminals. Radical new ideas in the field of mental health were being adopted by Metcalf and put into practice for the treatment of Rockwood patients. Cottages were built so long-term care patients could see themselves at home and not in an institution. Abusive practices were curtailed, and attendants who were cruel to the patients or compromised therapy would be removed.
Occupational therapy, a set list of work, and routine enabled the patients to build self esteem, improve their mood, and reduce the amount of brooding that would have affected so many. To the outsider looking in at Rockwood, they would see an institution designed to house the dangerous degenerates that were not fit for decent society. On the inside it was place of refuge and care. Rockwood was a home to those in need, led by a doctor who saw these patients as people.
New bedding was brought in, rooms would be painted with pleasant colours, and comfortable furniture and décor was purchased. To Dr. Metcalf, the residents of Rockwood deserved to be treated for their needs, and not punished. Tin cups and spoons would be replaced with appropriate cutlery and dishware.
Led by a caring physician who saw the need for an assistant superintendent, Metcalf brought in Dr. Charles Clarke, a like-minded medical practitioner. Together they treated the illnesses of the patients to the best of their abilities. They brought a calm to a world that was populated with people who were far from peace.
The serenity of this community at the lake was shattered in 1885. Dr. Metcalf was attacked by a patient named Patrick Maloney. Stabbing Metcalf in the stomach, Maloney would be disarmed and charged for his crime, while Metcalf would die a few days later. Dr. Clarke, who witnessed the attack and disarmed Maloney, would stay on at Rockwood as the new superintendent to carry on the positive work that Metcalf had begun.
It is here in 1898, that a distant relative of mine, Sarah Gowsell of Foxboro, would enter.
Born August 6, 1869, Sarah would be 29 years old when she came to the doors of Rockwood. The daughter of Thomas and Susannah, Sarah was the third of four children. From the tiny town north of Belleville to the cold stone building housing people with mental health needs, Sarah came alone. Whether she came willingly or at the direction of her parents, no one is certain in the family. Hopefully her stay at Rockwood brought her comfort. At least she got to go home.
Here in Kingston at 8 Gable Lane, abandoned and surrounded by a high fence, is a portal to the medical past. It was in these walls at Rockwood Asylum that people with needs – disturbed and deviant as they were called then – came for help and sought refuge in the stone walls. Tragedies and triumph happened on the grounds. People smiled and laughed, played games and enjoyed the day. Led by men like Metcalf and Clarke, people with psychiatric needs found a place that didn’t look down upon them as being subhuman, but rather treated them as humans. Some may have left in a better state, but many patients would only leave the asylum upon their death. To the many who died at Rockwood, their bodies unclaimed, would be buried in a pauper’s grave at Cataraqui Cemetery .
My relative Sarah made it home to Foxboro and died February 10, 1912. She would never be cured of her ailments, but perhaps for one moment, maybe a week or two at a time, she found reprieve like the other patients. Sarah probably sat on the beautiful grounds of the Rockwood Asylum, here in Kingston at 8 Gable Lane, and felt comforted by the sound of the water as it crashed on the rocks at the shore.
Bill Gowsell was born and raised in Kingston. With an interest in history, food, wine, and all things Disney, Bill has been writing for the last eight years on a variety of topics. During the summers he can be found at the family cottage north of Kingston, or at the bottom of Lake Ontario… scuba diving.
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