Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lunatics and Asylums

This photo was taken June 18, 1932 by Frank Leonard. It shows the colony farm at Essondale/Riverview. Compliments of the Vancouver Public Library archives

I told you a bit about Riverview hospital on Monday but since then I have found a PDF file, which is much more detailed so I am going to explore the history of Riverview/Essondale and the treatment of the mentally ill in B.C.

The first recorded case of insanity in British Columbia was in 1850. The jailhouse doctor, Dr. J.S. Helmcken, reported he was attacked by a young Scottish prisoner. The attack was violent and unprovoked. The immigrant was sent back to his native land where he apparently regained his mental health.

At that time, there was nothing in place to help the mentally ill. Although Victoria was B.C's largest settlement at the time, the insane were either locked up or shipped out to the nearest asylum, which was in San Francisco.

In 1872, the Victoria Asylum opened. It had seven staff members and seven patients. The patients' treatment was quite crude. They were restrained using leg irons and manacles and the asylum had a room padded with straw. A year after it opened, Dr. I.W. Powell, the province's Medical Superintendent, described the hospital as "wretched and insufficient".

Victoria Asylum, AkA the Royal Hospital, in 1872. This cottage was formerly Victoria's quarantine hospital. Photo from BC Mental Health website.

In 1873, the Insane Asylum Act, stated that a "lunatic" should be committed to an asylum only with the certificates of two medical practitioners who examined the person in the presence of another.

By 1877, the Victoria Asylum housed 37 patients and didn't have room to grow. The province decided to move the treatment of the mentally ill to a hospital on the mainland and in 1878, the first building of the Asylum for the Insane in New Westminster opened. It didn't take long for the 28 rooms to be filled. But more patients were sent to the asylum so dayrooms, hallways and bathrooms were used as sleeping rooms.

In the mid-1880s, work therapy was introduced. Men did construction work, gardening and maintenance while the women did sewing and gardening.

By the turn of the century, the Public Hospital for the Insane, housed 310 patients. To relieve the overcrowding, 48 male patients were sent to a jail in Vernon that later became Dellview hospital.

Asylum for the Insane in the 1890s. Photo taken by the Bailey Bros, compliments of the Vancouver Public Library

In 1904, the BC Government purchased 1,000 acres of land where the Coquitlam and Fraser rivers meet as the site for the new hospital for the mentally ill. Half of the area was rich, alluvial soil so this would be the Colony Farm. The other half, upland on Mount Coquitlam, was perfect for buildings.

Medical Superintendent, Dr. G.H. Manchester, planned that the farm would provide work for the patients and help support the hospital.

"The uses to which the Farm Colony shall be put at once are the production of all necessary vegetables for the hospital, fodder for the horses and hogs, all dairy products by the maintenance of a large dairy herd and the supply of fuel for the bakery and for the boilers in the summer. One year later, in 1905, patient workers started clearing land and erecting buildings at the Colony Farm site."

Care for the mentally ill had improved somewhat. The use of restraint was diminishing, herbal tonics and desiccated thyroids (a powder made from dried pig and cow glands) was found to be a useful therapy, and lifestyles were found to be helpful in treating insanity. A healthy supply of good food with regular living habits with long hours of rest and employment. The causes of insanity were thought to be heredity, intemperance, syphilis and masturbation.

Thanks to the PDF, Riverview, A Legacy of Care & Compassion for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill


  1. Syphilis did have a way of warping the mind. And before there was a cure those people died. Great report.

    1. Stay tuned Lee. This is a fascinating part of the history of this area and I will be writing on it for a couple of weeks yet. Even found old photos.