Medical Services in Victoria before the First World War

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Along with a number of smaller medical facilities, Victoria had two main hospitals at the onset of the First World: St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Provincial Royal Jubilee Hospital. St. Joseph’s, opened in 1876, was operated by the Sisters of St. Ann under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Victoria.[1] The hospital ran without regular funding from the province or the municipality, instead relying on labour from the sisters and nursing students as well as private funding.[2] Some of the original St. Joseph’s buildings have since been converted to apartments and still stand across from St. Ann’s Academy on Humbolt Street.[3]

In 1890, the government-supported Victoria Royal Hospital, a small wooden building on the Songhees reserve, was replaced by the Provincial Royal Jubilee Hospital (RJH). Since 1890, the Royal Jubilee Hospital has been expanded and improved, but still stands at its original location at the intersection of Richmond and Bay streets.[4]

In 1891, the Royal Jubilee Hospital School of Nursing became the first nursing school in the province. Nursing candidates traveled from all over British Columbia to be educated in Victoria. Between 1892 and 1983, 3247 nurses graduated from the school. Though the RJH School of Nursing closed in 1983, the RJH Alumnae Association has continued to be active, coordinating the restoration of the Pemberton Memorial Chapel that still serves patients of the hospital.[5]

Wartime and Post-war Medical Services in Victoria

As war consumed Europe, Victorians continued to need medical care at home. St. Joseph’s and the Provincial Royal Jubilee Hospital cared for common injuries and periodic outbreaks of disease throughout the war years. In 1916, for example, 14 Sisters of St. Ann and one gardener died of typhoid fever contracted from patients at St. Joseph’s.[6] During the war years, all levels of government began to focus on the importance of healthcare by improving medical facilities. In Victoria, local and provincial governments also began to focus on the health dangers of improperly stored food; Saanich passed bylaws regarding the storage of milk, and in 1916 provincial legislation required that all eggs be stamped with their method of storage and place of origin.[7]

By the end of the war, donations to the Royal Jubilee Hospital facilitated improvements to provide better care. In 1897, the Pemberton Operating Room was completed using a donation provided in memory of J.D. Pemberton, who was a pioneer land surveyor and prominent Victorian.[8] By 1916, a new maternity ward, a children’s ward, and a larger tuberculosis ward were added following ten years of fundraising.[9] By 1913, many in the city had recognized the need for a larger addition due to the growth of Victoria’s population. Donations from the Women’s Auxiliary, the board of directors, Oak Bay Municipality, the City of Victoria, and the provincial government were collected before the outbreak of war, but construction was postponed until 1919 because of the lack of labour and building materials. The new wing, completed in 1925, added 175 beds to the hospital.[10]

St. Joseph’s also improved its facilities during the war. In an effort to avoid the necessity of transferring surgical patients to the Royal Jubilee Hospital, the head of the radiology department pushed for new equipment to keep up to date with technological advancements. The hospital purchased radiology equipment only 20 years after the invention of the X-ray.[11]

Many Canadian social services were legislated into existence during and following the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the 1910s and 1920s, Canadians had to rely on family, funds created for war services (The Navy League of Canada, for example), or petition their municipal government for financial assistance.[12] During and immediately after the First World War, the municipalities of Greater Victoria (at the time only Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Saanich, and Victoria were incorporated) were charged with caring for those who could not pay for medical services. Convalescent homes for returning soldiers were paid for by the municipalities with funding from the provincial government. One such home was located in the newly renovated Craigdarroch Castle, which opened as a federally funded military hospital in September of 1919. Another was Resthaven, a sanatorium built in 1912 that was subsequently purchased by the provincial government to become Vancouver Island’s first military hospital.[13]

Post-war Victoria also faced by a medical emergency. Spanish influenza was a growing concern in the last year of the war, and reached its height as the armistice was signed. In 1918, 32.6% of all death claims against life-insurance companies listed cause of death as influenza.[14] The number of deaths in Victoria are unknown, but was likely a high proportion of the population despite attempts to halt the spread of the disease. By 5 November 1918, 196 cases had been reported in Saanich alone.[15] A number of isolation hospitals were established to keep flu cases away from other patients, though the flu spread rapidly through communities in Greater Victoria. In the fall of 1918, the municipalities banned assembly, including church meetings, school classes, and other social gatherings. The ban was lifted in mid-November but schools were closed again in December when a second wave of cases occurred.[16]  On 10 November 1918, Fairfield resident Eva Scott wrote to her son Matt, that “this Plague is causing us all to realize that there are more troubles than war upon earth and in life, we are in the midst of death… young wives, young mothers, girls, men and boys have died from it, even doctors and nurses have fallen victims with the rest.”[17]

Learn more about the Red Cross in Victoria

By Ashley Forseille

[1] Darlene Southwell, Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St. Ann in Health Care in British Columbia (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2011)  37-42.

[2] Southwell, Caring and Compassion, 63.

[3] These buildings were a 1908 addition to the original building. Southwell, Caring and Compassion, 259.

[4] Liz Koolman, “History of the Royal Jubilee Hospital,” 4 January 2012, 2-3. (accessed 1 July 2012)

[5] Koolman, “History of the Royal Jubilee Hospital,” 4.

[6] Southwell, Caring and Compassion, 64.

[7] Saanich Municipal Archives, Clerks letters, box 6, file 4, “health.”

[8] Koolman, “History of the Royal Jubilee Hospital,” 6.

[9] Koolman, “History of the Royal Jubilee Hospital,” 8. The new tuberculousis ward was requested by the Saanich Council and opened on 27 June 1917, , Saanich Municipal Archives, Clerks Letters, Box 8, file 1, “health,” 1917. Donations were made to the maternity ward by the Women’s Auxiliary, the Council of Women, and Lord Strathcona.

[10] Koolman, “History of the Royal Jubilee Hospital,” 9. (accessed 1 July 2012)

[11] Southwell, Caring and Compassion, 63

[12] Saanich Municipal Archives, Clerks letters.

[13] Central Saanich Archives, Log Cabin Pioneer Society, Saanich B.C.

[14] Southwell, Caring and Compassion, 64

[15] Saanich Municipal Archives, Clerks letters, box 9, file 6, “health,” 1918.

[16] The ban was lifted in Victoria before being lifted in Saanich. Saanich Municipal Archives, Clerk’s letters, box 11, file 9, “war,” 1918. British Colonist, 10 Dec 1918, 7.

[17] Eva Scott to Matt Scott, 10 November 1918, personal collection of Megan Scott.


British Colonist.

Duffus, Maureen. Battlefront Nurses: The Canadian Army Medical Corps in England, France and Salonika, 1914-1919. Toronto: Town and Gown Press, 2009.

Great Canadian War Project. (accessed 2 July 2013).

Koolman, Liz. “History of the Royal Jubilee Hospital,” 4 January 2012 (accessed 1 July 2012).

Central Saanich Archives, Log Cabin Pioneer Society, Saanich B.C.

Personal collection of Megan Scott. Victoria, B.C.

Royal Jubilee Hospital School of Nursing Archives. Victoria, B.C.

Saanich Archives. Victoria, B.C.

Southwell, Darlene. Caring and Compassion: A History of the Sisters of St. Ann in Health Care in British Columbia. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2011.

Archival Sources:

BC Archives

Sisters of St. Ann’s Archives

Royal Jubilee Hospital School of Nursing Archives