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Ghosts of the past – The St Thomas Psychiatric Hospital

February 2020

On Elgin County Road 4, south of St. Thomas, Ontario, sits a complex of vacant, inter-connected Queenston Limestone, Art Deco buildings, done in a Pavilion Plan style, on a 650-acre property. This is the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital.

Opened in April 1939 as the Ontario Hospital – St. Thomas, the facility already had around 1100 patients by September 1939, when the Department of National Defence took over the hospital grounds for use by the Royal Canadian Air Force for their Technical Training School, a merger of two existing schools, one located at RCAF Station Camp Borden and the other at RCAF Station Trenton.

The patients were relocated to other facilities across the province and for the duration of World War II, the RCAF school trained airframe and aero-engine mechanics, instrument makers, fabric workers, electricians, sheet metal workers, carpenters, propeller specialists, safety equipment workers, parachute riggers, and fright engineers.

The St. Thomas facility also had a Detention Barracks and a second school. the Equipment and Accounting Training School, which opened in February 1940.

Several temporary buildings were constructed on the hospital grounds for use by RCAF trainees.

As the war was winding down in early 1945, some of the courses were transferred to the nearby RCAF Station Aylmer.

By the time the Technical Training School closed on 30 April 1945, around 50, 000 personnel had trained at the school.

The Canadian Army used some of the maintenance hangars briefly before the property was returned to the Ontario Government and reverted to being a psychiatric hospital in November 1945.

All of the temporary wartime buildings were demolished.

Once called “the most advanced in the Dominion” by its Superintendent Dr. Lynch, the hospital pioneered many innovative approaches to patient health and well-being, one being the establishment of a 463 acre farm that provided staff and patients with the means and opportunity to participate in food production for the entire hospital.

By April 1958, hospital admissions peaked at around 2300 patients.

Beginning in the 1970s, the hospital saw significant changes, including the introduction of a forensic mental health program in 1976, and the transformation of mental health treatment from an institutionalized model that saw some patients confined for years, to a de-institutionalized, community living-based support model for those deemed suitable. With the assistance of psychotropic drugs developed in the late 1950s, this new model of de-institutionalize patient care with appropriate community placements continues to this day. 

In January 2001, St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, Ontario, took over governance of the St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital, as a part of the reorganization of mental health care ordered by the Health Care Restructuring Commission (HSRC) in 1997.

A new hospital facility was built on the north-end of the St. Thomas property in 2013, allowing for the closure of the old hospital and with it, another link to the unfortunate history of psychiatric care in Ontario; a past that included physical and sexual abuse of patients whom were referred to as “imbeciles,” “lunatics” and “idiots.”

While some would tend to believe the buildings are infested with a ghostly presence, they certainly hold the dark memories of the former residents, some of whom were abandoned by their families years previously and spent their final days confined within the walls.

The former nurses’ residence on County Road 4, directly across from the hospital, is still in use as the administration offices for the Municipality of Central Elgin. It was previously used as the administration offices for Elgin County, dating back to 1985. A pedestrian tunnel still connects the building to the hospital.

The buildings, some of which were used by other Ontario Government ministries, have been sitting vacant and slowly deteriorating for years, while the government continues to look for a buyer. The buildings have become quite popular with Urban Explorers, despite the fact that the buildings are secured and the Elgin County Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police is located on the southern edge of the property.

The former hospital has also become a popular location for film and television shoots. Amazon Prime TV filmed season two of their show “The Boys” and a portion of the CBS Film production “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” produced by Guillermo Del Toro, was filmed at the hospital.

Sources: https://www.freaktography.com/urban-exploring-the-abandoned-st-thomas-psychiatric-hospital, https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/committee/381/soci/rep/report1/repintnov04vol1part3-e.htm, https://www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/en/st-thomas/elgin-county-archives, http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php/St._Thomas_Psychiatric_Centre, https://london.ctvnews.ca/former-psychiatric-hospital-should-hold-appeal-for-developers-1.4356620, https://www.stthomastoday.ca/2019/09/23/15791/, https://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/06/07/ugly_secret_of_ontario_psychiatric_hospitals_wont_stay_hidden_goar.html

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/ghosts-of-the-past-the-st-thomas-psychiatric-hospital/

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