Brandon Asylum

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Brandon Asylum
Established 1888
Opened 1891
Closed 2000
Current Status Preserved
Building Style Cottage Plan
Architect(s) Samuel Hooper (post-fire rebuild)
Location Brandon, MB
Alternate Names
  • Brandon Reformatory (original)
  • Brandon Asylum for the Insane
  • Brandon Hospital for Mental Diseases
  • Brandon Mental Health Centre


The Brandon Asylum for the Insane, now known as the Brandon Mental Health Centre, had a rather peculiar beginning. Originally, the site was chosen as a home for a Provincial Reformatory for boys. At a cost of about thirty-thousand dollars (a significant sum for the time), the Reformatory was constructed and in June, 1890, it was ready to accommodate misguided young lads. The first Governor of the Reformatory was John W. Sifton, father of Clifford Sifton, and he was assisted by a Chief Attendant and a Matron. This trio was later nicknamed the “Mulligan Guard” in reference to their first inmate, William Mulligan. “Billy” Mulligan was a nine year old youth who had been sentenced to five years in the Reformatory for stealing mail from one of her Majesty’s Royal Mail boxes. Billy had the distinct honour of being the first and only inmate of the Brandon Reformatory. No new young “criminals” were forthcoming, and at a cost of about three-thousand dollars per year, the “Mulligan Guard” watched over their single charge.

Perhaps as a face-saving measure, the provincial government quickly sought an alternate use for the new and virtually unused facility. In the spring of 1891, an Act was passed in the Legislature transforming the Brandon Reformatory to an Asylum for the Insane. The Asylum was opened in May and was placed under the direction of Dr. Gordon Bell with the former Chief Attendant and Matron staying on as staff. Billy Mulligan continued to serve his sentence at the Asylum, at least for another year or so, although his quarters were separate from the dormitories housing the lunatics. The first mental patients, twenty-nine men and women transferred from Selkirk Asylum and the Provincial Gaol, arrived in July, 1891, and the Brandon Asylum was in business.

Over the next two decades the institution grew from its modest beginning of twenty-nine patients. By 1910, the average daily patient population had exceeded six hundred individuals. The increase in patients necessitated several structural additions in the first twenty years and even with these, the overcrowding of the facility was a constant problem. Another regular source of anxiety for the staff and administrators was the water supply, which was considered inadequate to meet the daily needs of the institution, let alone that which would be required in case of an emergency such as a fire. This would be a matter of dire consequence in the latter part of 1910.

Disaster struck the Brandon Asylum on the bitterly cold and windy evening of Friday, 4 November 1910. At about twenty minutes after five o’clock the staff and patients of the Asylum, more than 700 people in all, were forced to flee the buildings into the piercing chill of the night when a fire broke out. The blaze, which started in the upper garret of the central building, was rumoured to have been set by a patient with matches. Although Asylum officials stated that the precise cause was not known, they believed it was the result of a live electrical wire in some work in the area where the blaze began. The alarm was raised in town, and the fire, which rapidly spread to the rooftop, acted like a beacon in the night. Within a short time, as many as a thousand Brandon residents had made the mile and half trek from the city by auto, carriage and foot to witness the drama and to render assistance if possible. Apparently, the first witnesses on the scene did not think that the entire facility was doomed to go up in smoke. One person on the scene felt that they had the fire under control for a time but the gale force winds soon took control. The fire-proof doors between the buildings and the brick partitions and tile floors of the latest addition (1905) proved to be of little use as the blaze was swept along the roof-top. Within an hour and a half, the conflagration had engulfed the entire structure and the fate of the Asylum buildings was sealed. The Brandon Fire Department brought up all its equipment from both halls but was unable to get a stream on the fire for almost an hour and a half.

After a fire in November 1910 destroyed the entire complex, construction began almost immediately on a replacement, designed by provincial architect Samuel Hooper. The massive, three-storey Parkland Building, capable of accommodating nearly 700 patients, opened in 1912. Other buildings on the site included a Superintendent’s Residence (1909), morgue (1913), laundry building, five one-storey wood frame cottages for employees, coal house (1914), power house (1912), and stores building. A working farm provided fresh produce. The 2½-storey Nurses’ Residence, now a provincially-designated historic site, was built between 1920 to 1923 on a design by architects Jordan and Over. It marked a departure from the centre’s earlier structures, which were more imposing and institutional in appearance. The interior is finished with oak woodwork, mosaic tiles, wrought iron staircases, and ornamental plasterwork. Designed to accommodate 75 nurses, it also contained a kitchen, dining room, staff quarters, and a training centre for mental nursing.

A second dormitory, the three-storey Receiving Unit and now the Valleyview Building, was constructed between 1920 and 1924 on a design by Jordan and Over. Opened in January 1925 and intended to house newly arrived patients, it consisted of three blocks connected by corridors. The northernmost block contained staff accommodations and laboratories. The central block contained kitchens and dining rooms on the lower level and an operating room, infirmary, and therapeutic rooms on the upper levels. The southernmost block housed female patients on the east wing and male patients on the west wing. A third dormitory building, the two-storey Women’s Pavilion (later known as the Pine Ridge Building) for elderly and chronic female patients, designed by Gilbert Parfitt, was built between 1931 and 1932 by the Brandon firm of Epton, Fulcher, and Beresford.

Further expansion occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. A Trades Building, designed by Gilbert Parfitt, was built between 1953 and 1954. New buildings at the farm included a workshop, milk house, pasteurizing house, and horse barn. A six-room Physician’s Residence was built in 1960 and a new laundry was built in 1961. The entire complex was connected to the Brandon sewage system in 1964. The centenary of the facility in 1991 was recognized by a plaque from the Manitoba Heritage Council and a commemorative monument near the Nurses’ Residence. There are two cemeteries on the grounds, containing the graves of people who died at the facility through the years. Burials between 1898 and 1925 were made in the south cemetery. Those after 1925 occurred in the north cemetery.

The facility was given its final name, the Brandon Mental Health Centre, in 1972. The Valleyview Building closed in 1992 and the rest of the buildings were closed by 1999. The former Nurses’ Residence is now home to the Assiniboine Community College’s Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts and the College has long-term plans for use of other buildings at the site.



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