Month: October 2018

The Rough Road of Mental Health Care

Dates to remember:

1872 – British Columbia opened its first Asylum for the Insane in Victoria. Built on the Songhees reserve, it held 16 patients admitted for “disorders, nervous trouble, masturbation, injury to the head, intemperance, fright, (or) ‘unknown.’”

1878 – With the Victoria facility overcrowded and shadowed by scandal, the BC Provincial Lunatic Asylum was built on 100 acres of Crown land in New Westminster at a cost of $24,000. It eventually became known as Woodlands Hospital for the Insane and later, the BC Public Hospital for the Insane.

1892 – Woodlands Asylum connected to city water mains. Resident population – 135.

1896 – Clean bathing water available for each patient. Resident population – 171.

1930 – Patient per capita costs estimated at 72 cents per day. Resident population – 500+.

1940 – BC’s Mental Hospital Act amended to delete all mention of “lunatic” and “insane.”

1961 -Resident population  1,436 the highest recorded.

1982 – Government announces Woodlands to be closed. Resident population – approximately 900.

1999 – Government relinquishes any interest in the property for major health purposes, and the site reverts to surplus status

2003 – Government apologizes to former residents of Woodlands for any mental, physical or sexual abuse. Many hearings, inquiries, and a class action lawsuit follow over the rates and times of compensation until:

October 8, 2018 – British Columbia’s Minister of Health, Adrian Dix, announced: “This year, the BC government moved to finally do the right thing to extend compensation to Woodlands’ survivors denied redress for the abuse they suffered.”

Jane Dyson, former executive director of Disability Allowance BC, said she was thrilled that “after all these years of being told no, our Province is saying yes to the survivors of Woodlands.”

Time for rejoicing indeed – but with a great wave of sadness for the early victims of what our ancestors thought appropriate treatment for those who were mentally frail, and who died before public conscience could demand humanity and reform.

An example from Ken Scott’s research on the BC Public Hospital for the Insane: “In nineteenth-century British Columbia, both the medical community and the local public believed strongly in the importance of separating insane patients by gender. In 1869, two middle-class sisters, both school teachers, had been deemed insane. These ‘insane ladies’ were noisy and physically violent, and one refused to wear any clothing. They were kept locked in a bare brick cell in the Victoria city jail with only male staff supervision.

This challenge to Victorian respectability drew public attention to the severe lack of local psychiatric facilities. Eventually, a third sister, who was of sound mind, was permitted full-time access to the jail to care for her siblings. She wrote to the newspaper appealing to public respectability and arguing for gender-segregated facilities for the insane: ‘Men should be appointed to look after men – women to look after women. The cells for men and women should be in separate parts of the building … Men and women of Victoria, let us not rest until the evil is remedied.”

It took a while but “the evil was remedied” as were many others with the passage of time and flutters of conscience. But the road for mental health patients was rough as the records of “hitting, kicking, grabbing by the hair and dragging, very cold showers and very hot baths resulting in burns to the skin, extended isolation, wearing shackles and belt leash” demonstrate.

More disturbing than Scott’s grim picture of humanity at its worst are the comments from former Ombudsperson Dulcie McCallum who conducted an independent review of Woodlands’ care. She was careful to stress that while many Woodlands workers were honourable and dedicated, “there was a code of silence among many employees including those who were not engaged in abusive behaviour.”

The good guys disapproved of what some colleagues were doing, but balked at being a whistleblower and branded as “a snitch.”

We have come a long way since 1872 but it seems to me we all have a bit of that reluctance in our make-up which suggests that, while we can rejoice at the forward progress made as a society, we still have some old and nasty shibboleths to shake off before we get it right.


In Some Corner of a Foreign Field

It was on February 22, 1779, that Captain Charles Clerke of His Majesty’s Sloop Discovery committed the remains of fellow Captain James Cook of HMS Resolution “to the deep with all the attention and honour we could possibly pay in this part of the world.”

Ships Master Thomas Edgar tells us that, at five in the afternoon, Cook’s Resolution and the Discovery “hoisted ensigns and pendants half staff up and crossed over yards. At three quarters past the hour, Resolution tolled her bell and fired 10 four pounders, half minute guns, and committed the bones of Captain Cook to the deep.”

Fifteen minutes later, both ships “at 6 p.m. squared yards.” Most of the officers on board the two vessels presumed they would be setting course for home – that the third great voyage of Cook, the one that put the West and Northwest Coast of Canada and much of the Pacific Ocean on the maps of the world, was over after three years of discovering and charting new lands.

The officers were wrong. Captain Clerke, who had assumed command of the expedition and the Resolution after the assassination of Cook in Hawaii, said he understood the anxiety to get home after so long at sea, but felt it would be a betrayal of Cook’s plan to search northern waters once more for a dreamed-of northwest passage before heading home. He was determined, he said, to complete Cook’s plan even though he was seriously ill. His two ship fleet sailed north.

On August 17, 1779, while sailing the Bering Strait off the coast of Kamchatka just five days before his death, Clerke sat down to write a simple will and last testament. He was 38, ravaged by tuberculosis; reduced, according to his shipmates’ diaries, “to almost an absolute skeleton” of the man who had sailed them from the far side of the world.

He must have been feeling a million miles from home when he wrote: “In the name of God, Amen, I Charles Clerke (Captain) of His Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, having been long in a state of straighten (cct) and not knowing how soon it may please God to remove me from this life, I hereby make this my last will and testament that all my just and lawful debts be paid and which are as follows … ” The list was not long and basically contained the same beneficiaries as his first will, a will made by most early sailors before they launched on voyages of discovery expected to last for years, and from which there was always the danger of no return.

One bequest is a testimony to Captain Clerke’s character. “To my dear brother and friend Sir John Clerke, Captain in His Majesties (cct) Navy, 10 Guineas.” A generous gesture considering he’d once done hard time for brother John. Another brother didn’t fare nearly as well: “To my brother Joseph Clerke of Ipswich, Attorney at Law, one Guinea.”

No reasons were given for the difference, but, history tells us when Charles Clerke was posted to Captaincy of Resolution, he was in debtors’ prison serving time for brother John who had failed to pay back a loan. Charles had been his guarantor. Some historians suggest lawyer-brother Joseph, with only a guinea from his brother’s estate, had been lacking in family loyalty at the time and that it had taken intervention by friends who paid the bills to gain release for Charles in time for him to race to the coast and take command of HMS Discovery.

Unfortunately, he carried with him the early seeds of tuberculosis picked up during his grim incarceration in the notorious Fleet Prison. That wasn’t known when he finally sailed with Captain Cook who was in command of HMS Resolution and overall commander of the expedition.

It would be October 4, 1780, before the two ships returned to the Royal Navy yards in Deptford, England – four years, three months, and two days after they left. Both ships had lost their captain.

Cook’s remains had been “committed to the deep” off Hawaii; Clerke had sailed north to die and be buried – as requested – on land.

His grave was originally near the village of Paratunka on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 1918, his remains were moved to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. A Royal Navy memorial stone and a Russian tribute remind the world that: “This officer made several trips to the opening of new lands.” In his short life span, Clerke had circumnavigated the globe twice and came close to completing a third.

The home of his birth, Brook Farm, Braintree Road, Wethersfield, Essex, England, still exists today as a bed and breakfast establishment of high repute. However, it makes only modest reference to its most famous resident who joined the Royal Navy at age 13, and 10 years later sailed on HMS Dolphin on his first circumnavigation – an unsuccessful search for Terra Australis Incognito – Australia.

In Wethersfield, there’s a wall plate in St Mary’s Church listing Clerke family accomplishments and, almost in passing, the contributions of Charles. In New Zealand’s Government House there hangs a portrait painting of Clerke with a Maori chief. But that’s about all we have as memorial tributes.

Captain Cook continues to command centre stage for Northwest and Pacific discoveries – and no one can deny the wonders of his perseverance, his discoveries, charts, diaries, maps, and descriptions of worlds once unknown. He is remembered each year and rightly praised for great achievements on the anniversary of his brutal death on a Hawaiian beach on the 14th of February, 1779.

I try to remember Captain Clerke from time to time. He’s not as high as Cook on the honour and memorial charts, although he did two circumnavigations of the globe and was second in command of the third when he died so far from home. I remember him and his lonely grave in a remote corner of Siberia with its bleak Royal Navy reminder that Captain Clerke also made “several trips” to open up new lands.

Rupert Brook penned better and longer lasting words than I for those who, worthy of higher honours, die and lie in far away and oft-forgotten places.

“If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”


I think Captain Clerke, a quiet hero, would be happy to be so remembered in a small patch of Russian soil  “for  ever England.”