The New Vista Women: Life Stories

The New Vista Women: Life Stories

These selected life stories of women residents of the New Vista Home between 1943 and 1947 are drawn from the Essondale/Riverview historical clinical files stored at the BC Archives in Victoria, and at Riverview Hospital (until its 2012 closure) and, subsequently, the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam.

A caveat for visitors to this exhibit:  It should be kept in mind that these accounts are far from comprehensive, and they present a version of patients’ lives that may be more representative of the perspectives of the professionals, authorities and staff compiling the records than the experiences of women themselves.  Information available about the women’s encounters with family, friends, doctors and officials outside the mental health establishment is often indirect and fragmented. While every effort has been made to faithfully recount these life stories, there are occasionally large gaps in the narratives. Further, details are modified where needed to safeguard identities and ensure confidentiality.

These limitations notwithstanding, the accounts of the New Vista women afford a rare and compelling glimpse into the world of gender, madness, the asylum and the community in British Columbia during the middle years of the 20th century.

Special thanks go to Sarah Cook, whose meticulous digital compilation of the clinical file materials stored at the BC Archives paved the way for the creation of this exhibit, and to Lanny Beckman and Megan Davies for their virtuoso editing of the text.

Life Story 2: Tilly P.

Born in Hong Kong in the mid-1880s, Tilly P. was the daughter of a sea captain who sailed the China seas, and a mother who died when Tilly was nine years old.  Tilly spent her childhood in a girls’ school and at 19 married Bertram, an accountant who had worked for a shipping company. The couple migrated to Vancouver around the end of World War I.  Childless, they spent nearly two decades in Vancouver under precarious financial circumstances before Bertram left for Hong Kong to seek a new position.  While en route he died suddenly of a heart attack, and Tilly was left alone in Vancouver with no resources and few prospects.

Over the next four years, Tilly survived on her savings, social relief benefits, and the proceeds from selling her jewelry. She also found occasional work assignments as a live-in housekeeper.  The incident that brought Tilly to Essondale in 1943 involved a dispute with the women in whose house she was residing. Tilly barricaded herself in her bedroom after her landlady told her to leave. The police were called and transported her to the Provincial Mental Home.  According to the hospital physicians, at the time of her admission Tilly was a “poorly nourished, orthopneic, small, wiry woman of late middle age [who was] paranoidal in her attitude, eccentric in her actions … talking incessantly … and lives more or less in the past.”  In addition to her altercation with her landlady, the file reports that “she has been going around to various city organizations and has been abusive in her conversation toward others.”  Informants at the Family Welfare Bureau and YWCA characterized Tilly as a bothersome and eccentric woman who harboured peculiar ideas and was a nuisance to those around her.  Her attending Essondale physician agreed, writing that: “she shows no insight into her condition and she blames everyone but herself for her difficulties.”

older man with strong features

On the wards of the East Lawn Chronic Women’s Building, however, Tilly settled quickly into the hospital routine.  While confined on the ward she kept herself busy, engaged with staff and patients, and showed good interest in her surroundings.  After a time Tilly became anxious to leave the institution and hoped to gain the assistance of Mr. Winch.  Just over a year into her confinement at Essondale, Winch did indeed intervene.  Tilly began taking leaves of absence to the New Vista home in the Fall of 1944.  In late winter the hospital authorities discharged Tilly on probation into Winch’s care.  “At the time of discharge,” reported Tilly’s attending physician, “she was quite pleasant and cooperative but she did not show good insight into the difficulties which led to her committal.”  Six months later, in the summer of 1945, Tilly was discharged in full.

But many years later Tilly was to experience one more encounter with the province’s mental health establishment.  In 1961, in her late 70s, Tilly arrived at the Crease Clinic on the Essondale grounds as a voluntary transfer patient from the Vancouver General Hospital.  Shortly thereafter, she was certified as a compulsory patient under the Mental Health Act and moved to one of the Essondale women’s wards at East Lawn.  At the time of her admission to VGH, Tilly had been living alone in Vancouver.  “This is an elderly female,” wrote the admitting Essondale physician, “who was brought to the hospital by the police because she was found wandering around and she seemed confused and disorientated.”  Agitated, depressed, malnourished, dehydrated, and unable to account for herself, Tilly was given a diagnosis of “chronic brain syndrome.” She was prescribed multivitamins, chloral-hydrate to assist with sleep, and 50 milligrams of the neuroleptic chlorpromazine four times daily. The dosage was quadrupled a few days later to a formidable 800 milligrams daily, after which Tilly was reported to be “quiet and more cooperative”. Like so many of her contemporaries, Tilly’s passivity on the wards was undoubtedly attributable to the massive dosages of neuroleptic drugs to which she was subjected, and which passed for treatment amid the newfound chemotherapeutic optimism of the 1950s and 1960s.

Only a month into her second hospitalization at Essondale, Tilly suffered a pulmonary edema and “cardiovascular accident” (stroke) while confined on the medical ward.  She was 77 years old.  The hospital gave Tilly an institutional burial conducted by a New Westminster funeral service.  In the clinical record there was no indication that anyone was in attendance other than the funeral service employees, most likely accompanied by a local minister and representative of the hospital.

Life Story 2: Lotte K.

Born in Germany in the final decade of the 19th century, Lotte K. arrived in Canada with her parents at age two.  The family settled first in Winnipeg, then in rural Saskatchewan.  From ages 13 to 20 Lotte earned her living as a housekeeper and waitress.  Subsequently she married and moved with her husband Anton to a rural area of BC where they took up farming.  The marriage produced no children.

Prior to her 1940 admission to Essondale, Lotte had suffered two “nervous breakdowns,” one of which resulted in a period of confinement at a hospital in the Kootenay region of BC where physicians described her as “abusive, suspicious, and over-talkative.”  Then in late winter of 1940 Anton’s own mental health deteriorated and doctors sent him to Essondale where he became an inpatient on one of the men’s wards.  The strain of contending with Anton’s circumstances, along with care-giving her 74-year-old mother, evidently took their toll, and following an altercation with her sister-in-law during a trip to Vancouver, Lotte found herself admitted to Ward X of Vancouver General Hospital.  The VGH physicians referred Lotte to Essondale in the early Fall of 1940.

Upon her arrival at Essondale, Lotte was characterized as a “restless, brooding, preoccupied [and] suspicious” patient who was “very confused” and “continuously moaning and groaning in a whining fashion.”  Additionally, according to the attending physicians, Lotte “expressed delusions of persecution.  She believes that we are about to kill her.  She takes a little interest in occupation work, and when visited by her husband appears quite fearful of him, and quite agitated when he leaves her.”  When interviewed by staff Lotte confided that “I worry all the time, always at night, about my husband and about everything. I get very sad.  I know there is something wrong with me, but I don’t want to stay in hospital. My sister-in-law put me in here. She doesn’t like me.”

Over the two or three months of Lotte’s confinement in the East Lawn Chronic Women’s Building, however, doctors and nurses began to observe a gradual improvement in her demeanour.  Lotte began engaging in occupational work, she helped out on the ward, she ate and slept well, and the ward notes described her as “generally quiet and cooperative, and friendly” though still “persecutory” regarding her husband.

woman working in a garden with a rake, old fashioned clothesBy February of 1944 Lotte had “brightened” considerably, and when Ernest Winch visited Lotte and inquired about her being released on probation, the medical authorities approved.  The probationary discharge occurred in early spring of that year.  As the attending physician recorded in the clinical file, “[i]t is understood that she will reside at Mr. Winch’s convalescent home in Kitsilano. When discharged she was quite pleasant, cooperative, and friendly.  She was very anxious to be given a trial on the outside.  She retains her persecutory ideas against her husband and she does not get along with her sister-in-law] in Vancouver.  Patient owns two diamond rings which were looked after by patient’s sister while patient was in this institution.  After considerable difficulty these rings were obtained from her sister and delivered to the patient at the time of her discharge.  Her physical condition was good.”

Six months later, in the autumn of 1944, with no further news of her progress having been received, the Essondale authorities discharged Lotte K. in full and struck her from the books.  Lotte’s final diagnosis on discharge was “Manic Depressive, Improved.”  There was no indication in the files of any further involvement with BC’s public asylum system.

Life Story 3: Winifred A.

Born in 1901, in a rural setting on the Canadian prairies, Winifred A. was the oldest of five children.  It was a decidedly unhappy home, with the parents constantly fighting until they eventually separated.  Her education was sporadic. She attained grade 5 level before she left school at age 15 and later took a business course.  Winifred married her husband Harry at age 20, and the couple had five children over the next eight years.

After moving to Vancouver, BC. and the birth of her fifth child, a son, whom she adamantly refused to nurture, Winifred was admitted for the first time to the Provincial Mental Hospital, Essondale. She was 30 years old. According to her husband, Winifred also began drinking, neglecting her housework, consorting with other men, and generally conducting herself in an erratic manner.  After eight months as an in-patient, she was released with a diagnosis of “manic depressive, recovered.” Evidently this was not Winifred’s first contact with mental health authorities – on her record was an admission to a prairie psychiatric institution, which had occurred a few months prior to her marriage.

Over the next several years Winifred’s life and relationships continued to spiral downward, and by the early 1940s her husband had left her.  Winifred then left Vancouver with her daughter Renata, and came to live in a shack on Vancouver Island.  Renata later reported that Winifred’s behaviour during this period was so volatile which included drinking heavily, accosting men on the street, flagging down cars on the highway, and shooting a pet squirrel, that police ultimately arrived and took her away to hospital.  Renata became a ward of the Victoria Children’s Aid Society, and husband Harry signed Winifred’s committal form to Essondale.  Admitting physicians noted that Winifred was voicing a series of notions – for example, that a police constable dressed as a woman was following her, that she was on the look-out for Germans, that her husband was trying to get rid of her – and they diagnosed her with “manic depressive psychosis.” Transferred to the Women’s Chronic Building at East Lawn, Winifred was initially described by staff as “talkative, flighty [and] continually demanding her release.” Over time her troubling ideas appeared to abate and her demeanour was described as being “always quite pleasant and friendly and [she] seems interested in others.”  For a time, while at Essondale, Winifred worked at the hospital’s activities centre, but after a disagreement over food she attempted to escape and was confined to the ward.  “She is a good worker,” allowed her attending physician, “as long as she has a variety of things to do.” Over the course of her confinement, Winifred was visited by four of her children, although her estranged daughter, Renata, sent an angry letter stating that she “has very little use for her [mother] and she is in the right place.”

two old fashioned women talking in a kitchen, one wearing a hat and coat and the other an apronIn 1943, after three years at East Lawn, Winifred was discharged on probation into the care of Ernest Winch.  “It is understood,” wrote her physician, “that Mr. Winch will be helping her in securing a job.  Patient expressed a wish that she be found a place to live apart from her daughter’s home.”  On granting probation, medical authorities considered Winifred to be completely recovered from the “manic” behaviour she had exhibited on admission.  The probationary period, however, was less than a complete success.  Winifred worked as a housekeeper at New Vista, but left following a disagreement with Miss Lowdon, the home administrator. A period of dislocation and concern followed. Six months later, in the spring of 1944, Winch requested a renewal of Winifred’s probation because he felt “she may have to be returned to the institution for further treatment as she was not getting along as well as she might.”  Yet another six-month probation renewal occurred in the autumn of that year while Winifred was working as a housekeeper to a divorced man with two children because “she had failed to report to Mr. Winch periodically as he wished her to do and as she had promised to do during her probationary period.  For this reason Mr. Winch feels as though she cannot, as yet, be trusted completely and he wished a further six months probationary period.” Finally, in the spring of 1945, having heard nothing further from or about Winifred, the Essondale authorities discharged her in full.

Yet Winifred’s entanglements with British Columbia’s mental health establishment scarcely ended there.  Following her abrupt departure from New Vista, Winifred lived for a year with her mother in Washington state, after which she returned to Vancouver and struck up a relationship with the man for whom she had worked briefly as a housekeeper. Moving to the Okanagan Valley, the couple broke up in the face of animosity from his family.  According to a later hospital report, in the wake of this break-up Winifred “led a nomadic existence, wandering around the smaller towns of the province, working as a kitchen worker, chamber-maid, etc., for short periods. … [T]here have been a number of relationships with men over this period and her family relationships have been quite unsatisfactory.  Her daughter stated that they have been quite unable to manage her.”  By the end of the 1940s, back in Vancouver, Winifred was moving erratically from one hotel room to another and as a means of survival took on some temporary laundry and domestic work, and sold newspapers on the streets.  Increasingly, however, her main sources of support were her children, along with the local Social Assistance and Family Welfare Bureaus.

Perhaps predictably, as the 1950s dawned Winifred found herself back at Essondale following a three-day confinement in the psychiatric unit of the Vancouver General Hospital.  After attempting to disrobe in front of a downtown hotel, Winifred had been brought to VHG by police. While living at the hotel Winifred had been drinking heavily and routinely soliciting her male co-residents for money and alcohol in return for sexual favours.  Evidently she was also in the habit of turning up at the post office, where her son worked, disturbing his colleagues and interfering with his work.

On the Essondale wards, Winifred was described as “overactive, excited [and] deluded.”  Interviewed by staff, she expressed the belief that she was being persecuted by a woman in Kamloops who was in cahoots with unnamed Vancouver underworld figures.  In response, hospital authorities branded Winifred with the label of “chronic paranoid psychosis” and prescribed a course of electroshock.  Within a few weeks, the attending physician was so impressed by the results of these interventions that he wrote: “[t]his patient’s excitement has come under control with E.C.T. and she is pleasant, quiet, and cooperative, and shows no gross psychotic features now.”  However, as the weekly electroshock “treatments” progressed, the clinical record reported that Winifred “continue[d] to be emotionally labile, somewhat histrionic and generally autistic and ineffective.”  Further, she reportedly incited conflict with co-patients, experiencing “difficulties with everyone in contact with her.”  More electroshocks followed – 33 in all (29 of which induced grand mal seizures) – ostensibly because, in the words of her psychiatrist, “She needs frequent E.C.T. to keep her in some sort of control.”

Seemingly becalmed by these weekly dosages of electricity, Winifred began taking weekend leaves of absence from Essondale in the late fall of that same year, followed by a Christmas leave from which she failed to return.  Social service follow-ups established that Winifred was still in Vancouver, living in a room with one of her sons; that she had spent a few weeks as a housekeeper on British Columbia’s central coast, and that she had sought relief benefits from the city’s social assistance office.  Interviewed by a social worker a few months after leaving hospital, Winifred continued to express odd ideas, but was generally well-spoken and to the worker seemed “fairly relaxed and self-assured.”  As the children did not respond to hospital officials’ invitations to sign probation documents on behalf of their mother, Winifred remained officially on leave from Essondale until authorities discharged her in full, nearly a year after her final departure from the institution.

From the few references to Winifred A.’s post-hospital life that populate her Essondale file, it appears that little changed in the ensuing years.  Correspondence occurring in the late 1950s with a representative of the Juvenile and Family Courts observed that Winifred – now sporting a new surname, having evidently re-married – was again migrating sporadically from one home to another in the Vancouver area, and was in the process of seeking social assistance.  At this juncture, as Winifred A. approached her 60th birthday, the trail goes cold.

Life Story 4: Olivia W.

Born in Vancouver in 1910, Olivia W. was placed in a boarding school run by a charitable organization at the age of eight after her mother died. Olivia’s father was disabled when she was two and lived in a convalescent home until he died more than 20 years later.  Finding conditions in Olivia’s school intolerable, her foster parents took Olivia into their own home, legally adopting her.  Olivia began having epileptic seizures as a child.  She remained in school only to grade eight, and while still in her teens she married a local man and bore a son.

Olivia’s first encounter with the psychiatric system occurred in the late 1930s, when she found herself admitted to the inpatient psychiatric ward at the Vancouver General Hospital.  Following her discharge from VGH, Olivia and her son stayed with her foster parents – her estranged husband having drowned two years earlier – and she subsequently moved in with friends, then to a rented room. Her mental condition steadily deteriorated and she remained in bed all day, drinking heavily (mostly gin and loganberry wine), although she maintained close contact with a number of friends who continued to give her support.  Local psychiatrist J.G. McKay diagnosed Olivia as being “feebleminded” and suffering from epilepsy with psychosis.  Her son became a ward of the Children’s Aid Society.

Now age 28, Olivia was admitted to the Provincial Mental Hospital at Essondale in the spring of 1938.  She had a relatively uneventful stay on the wards of the East Lawn Women’s Building, during which she scored 62 on a Binet IQ test which garnered a “moron” classification.  Olivia was discharged on “special probation” in care of her uncle in the late summer of that same year (probation involved a six-month conditional release from hospital, and special probation occurred when patients were released against the advice of physicians).  However, she bickered constantly with her uncle and aunt who considered her “troublesome” and “uncooperative.”  By autumn Olivia found herself re-admitted to Essondale, her probation having been revoked on the instigation of her uncle.

Over the first few months of her confinement Olivia was described as quiet and even tempered.  According to staff she worked capably in the kitchen and dining room. However, by the fourth year of her five-year hospitalization Olivia was showing signs of deterioration.  The ward notes of 1943 depicted her as “retarded, restless, apathetic, hypochondriacal and complaining … sit [ting] all day long in the dayroom doing nothing to occupy herself.”  In spring of that year, authorities presented her to the Eugenics Board of BC, who recommended her for a salpingectomy (tying of the fallopian tubes) under the province’s infamous Sterilization Act.  The surgery occurred in April.  The Supervisor of Psychiatric Social Work at Essondale, Josephine Kilburn, justified the intervention in the following terms:  “‘Problem: Patient is an epileptic of long standing. She married against her foster family’s wishes, and is considered incapable of caring for her child, who was made a ward of the Children’s Aid Society. There is some history of alcohol in connection with this patient. She makes many undesirable friends when out of the Hospital. … The relatives of this patient feel that they would like to give her a trial on the outside, but feel that they are not able to guard her against meeting and cohabiting with undesirable companions. Patient is not able to manage her own affairs or to care for her son, and would be a considerable responsibility if outside of the Hospital because of her epileptic seizures, her low mentality, her fondness for alcohol and her promiscuity.”

Several months after recuperating from the surgery, performed at VGH, Olivia was returned to Essondale where her general demeanour on the wards improved. By New Year’s of 1944 the attending physician found her “pleasant, cooperative, [and] working well in kitchen.”  By summer Ernest Winch had expressed his interest in sponsoring Olivia on a trial at New Vista.  Soon thereafter Olivia was granted two short-term leaves from the hospital, and after Labour Day, hospital authorities finally allowed her a six-month period of probation “into the care of Mr. Winch” to remain at New Vista as one of its residents.  Although no record remains of Olivia’s experiences while at New Vista, it appears that the stay was a successful one, as six months later Olivia received a complete discharge from the hospital.  No further contacts with the mental health establishment are on record.