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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

B.C.’s first ‘lunatic asylum’ was a disaster

British Columbia’s first pioneer mental health facility opened in Victoria in the spring of 1876 in a former quarantine hospital on the west shore of the Inner Harbour. Just three and a-half years later, the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ was rocked by scandal.

The superintendent admitted to wearing his patients’ socks but not their drawers!

The Victoria Colonist expressed its “pain, surprise and indignation” that evidence “injuriously affecting the characters of the superintendent and matron of that institution…that ought to be the most perfect in its management of any in the province…” had come to light after apparently being ignored by the previous government.

The matron, Mrs. Flora Ross, had complained of “a series of outrages [to quote the newspaper] that would have disgraced the veriest martinet that ever held authority”. Her charges included her having suffered “gross insults” from Supt. Edward A. Sharpe, failure to provide for the comfort of sick patients, and the lack of proper food. She said this state of affairs had had fatal results.

She also cited Sharpe’s drunkenness on the job, his wearing patients’ clothing and, on at least one occasion, his assaulting her in the presence of the other keepers!

Perhaps worse, Sharpe, sometimes with male guests, would drop into the female ward without knocking, often with the result that he caught her patients half-dressed.

But Mrs. Ross’ main charge to the provincial secretary dealt with the treatment of ailing patients. They were, she stated, often fed only bread soaked in hot water: “I wish to call your attention to the way the male patients, when ill, are treated. There has [sic] been several cases of illness; in every case the patient has died.

“Never in any single instance, have I ever known anything [to be] prepared for them while ill that would be considered suitable food for persons in their condition. They are given the same coarse food partaken of by the patients who are in good health, and I have often seen the dishes brought out of their rooms with their food untouched.”

Once, after she’d remonstrated with Sharpe over the feeding of a patient, he’d replied, “She is a pauper patient, and the government will not go to any expense on her account.”

Sharpe had some complaints of his own
He accused Mrs. Ross of “immorality and flagrant breaches of discipline”. Upon inquiries being made by the provincial secretary, however, he apologized to her in writing. His apology is short–but fascinating:

“Madam.–I very much regret the language I made use of on the 18th instant, especially saying that you had a dozen husbands[!] As it was said in passion, I therefore apologize, and request you will consider it as not said.”

His begrudging act of atonement prompted the provincial secretary to lift his suspension pending an inquiry. An inquiry which Sharpe had at first demanded, then had said was not necessary.

(The maligned Mrs. Ross, it might be mentioned, seems to have had trouble with men generally. The highly-respected Dr. J.S. Helmcken described her first husband as “an ignorant hoodlum who thought that an American should be boastful and a bully”.)

Far from being pacified by the government’s having allowed Sharpe to remain on the job, the Colonist expressed equal shock that Dr. John Ash, a reputable city physician, had apparently ignored Mrs. Ross’ complaints that medical standards at the lunatic asylum had deteriorated to the point that, “in every case the patient died”.

The newspaper also scathingly denounced the government’s handling of her charge that Sharpe had appropriated articles of the patients’ clothing. The superintendent had admitted to wearing their socks but denied having worn their drawers!

“Dead men tell no tales,” raged the Colonist
“Crazy men tell no tales, either–at least none that sensible beings like our ex-[provincial] ministers are bound to listen to. One shudders at the…thought of 30 or 40 fellow-beings suffering under the most fearful of all afflictions that can fall upon man, subjected to the treatment such as Mrs. Ross describes.

“And the blood of every individual in this community will boil with indignation when he learns that no investigation worthy of the name has ever been held into the management of the institution. A committee of the [Legislative Assembly] have now got the asylum under its notice, and we shall be much surprised if their report will not call for a moral reform.”

The inquiry, in fact, called for Supt. Sharpe’s dismissal for “theft, intoxication, quarreling and interfering”. In December of the following year, the Asylum, under the supervision of Dr. McNaughton Jones, faced the problem of overcrowding. Its accommodation, meant for 20 patients, had been stretched to handle 37.

New Westminster became the site of British Columbia’s second ‘lunatic asylum’
Unable to enlarge the building or to expand on land which the government didn’t own, the authorities moved the Asylum, lock, stock and inmates, to a 100-acre site in New Westminster. There, each of the $24,000 hospital’s four wards consisted of seven single rooms for patients, a day room and lavatory–but no water closet. These facilities were situated outside the building and required that patients be escorted to and fro by hospital attendants.

Another peculiarity of the wards was “the unusual height of the window sills from the floor, so no one could see out unless he stood on something as high as a table, which was a common way for patients to spend hours. This defect coupled with that of having heavy iron bars for window guards…made the ward[s] very gloomy, and they possessed no decorations, carpets nor curtains…”

Over the next seven years the asylum (no longer known as the Lunatic Asylum) was enlarged and renovated, among its improvements being a lowering of the window sills, but the bars remained. In 1892, this institution would also be subjected to intense public scrutiny and controversy.

Such was the difficult birth of mental hospitals–so-called lunatic asylums–and treatment of mental illness in British Columbia.

I leave it to readers to judge how far we’ve come in a century in our tax-funded mental health programs and facilities.




  1. With Mrs. Toad’s and my background in public health service we are well aware of the sordid tales of Riverview and associated facilities here in Canada. On one hand we were happy to hear of the closure of the facility, but on the other… where would all these people be placed? And would anyone care about their lives or experiences? With so many with so much these days, it’s baffling to think that we can turn our backs on a segment of society that needs us so very badly. This appears to have been the case for hundreds of years as your story here so blatantly points out. Great and thoughtful article, TW.

    • As someone said recently in the Victoria newspaper, would we treat our cancer victims this way? No, just our mentally ill. Ironically, after they moved the ‘lunatic asylum’ to the mainland in the 1890s, there were further scandals of abuse and neglect by staff. History–in this case, sadly–really does repeat itself. So sad. –TWP

  2. The lack of proper places to house our mentally ill family members when they don’t fit into the community appals me! I am working on these issues as we speak.

    • Isn’t sad that, a century later, mental health is a greater community problem than ever because those facilities we have are underfunded and therefore simply can’t meet the crisis. Progress? Hardly. Our only hope is pressure the various levels of government to move mental health up the priority scale and provide the help that’s so necessary but which, at the present time, is so scarce… Thank you for writing. –TWP

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