1878 – BC

The Provincial Asylum for the Insane, 1878

black and white sketch of old asylum with central tower

New Westminster, B.C.      

Subsequent Names
Re-named Public Hospital for the Insane, 1897
Re-named Woodlands School, 1950, for people with developmental disabilities

The Site

aerial photos of large institution and body of water from a tilted angle
Aerial view of the Provincial Asylum, repurposed as Woodlands School, 1950

“Situated on a cleared slope overlooking the Fraser River, and taking in a magnificent panorama of mountain and stream, nothing could exceed the scenic beauty of the site selected.” T.J.W. Burgess, 1898

The Province of British Columbia constructed its first designated asylum in 1878, in New Westminster, the former capital of the mainland colony. It was well located in terms of growth expected in the future cities of New Westminster and Vancouver, and the farmlands of the Lower Fraser Valley. Travel to the asylum was easy for anyone in this Lower Mainland Region where the population still remains in excess of 50 % of the provincial population.

In the 1940s the former asylum in New Westminster was converted to a school for people with developmental disabilities. It was re-named “ Woodlands School” in 1950 and continued operation until closure in 1996.  At present (2008) most of the buildings and land have been sold and are undergoing new development. The immediate neighbour, the former B.C. Penitentiary, has been demolished and its site re-built with housing.

The adjoining sites selected for the 1878 asylum and the B.C. Penitentiary were on the sloping north bank of the Fraser River, on the eastern outskirts of New Westminster. The original area for the asylum was 15 acres, most of it an uncleared forest. It was later expanded to 100 acres. The scenic beauty of the site was outstanding until industrial development disfigured the river valley immediately below the grounds. In 1898 T.J.W. Burgess described the New Westminster site; South, east, and west windows of the hospital provided views of the river and the valley beyond.

Water was provided from a source also supplying the B.C. Penitentiary. Burgess noted that…..”The water supply was left extremely defective”, …. He quoted the superintendent;  “every pipe in the building is frozen, the well is about dry. Our supply of water at present consists of what we can dip up with buckets from a ditch at the back of the asylum yard.”

The recent discovery of unmarked graves and misplaced markers at the Woodlands site has aroused public indignation. In 2007 volunteers were retrieving and tracking headstones, and a memorial garden was initiated. This situation is not unusual; outcries have followed the discovery of abused burials at a number of North American asylums. In some cases marking stones have been taken and used face down as paving slabs.

Architectural and Service Details, 1878 building

Architect Unknown   
Contractor James Kennedy
Floor Area 1878 Approximately 39,000 sq. Ft. 1890, after additions, each of the three wings contained wards, 112 ft by 36 ft with central corridors 12-ft wide.  Assembly room was added to the upper level in 1889.
Height Two storeys at wings, three at centre block.
Description Monolithic, hybrid plan with late additions.
Occupancy Designed at 41 (1879) stage 1. Max in 1961 = 1436 in expanded and crowded buildings. Reduced to 890 in 1978.
Structural Brick walls, probably wood frame interior walls and roof supports, galvanized iron roofing.
Heating  Originally open fireplaces and stoves, inferior ventilation. Hot water installed, 1889, steam in 1899.
Lighting  Originally coal oil lamps, gaslight installed in 1889. Steam generated electricity installed in 1899.
Water Supply Originally a well and reservoir in the ravine, connected to the city system in 1892. Re-cycling of bath water ended in 1896. Piping froze within building, the late 1880s.
Plumbing Chamber pots replaced by w/cs in 1909.
Fire History None noted by Adolph. In the West, only the 1878 asylum in New Westminster started operations using heat from open fireplaces, and light from oil and gas lamps. In July 2008, the empty building was destroyed by fire. Arson was suspected. 

The asylum in New Westminster was constructed shortly after B.C. joined the Canadian Confederation. It provided open flame lighting and heating, no ventilation, and its water supply was inadequate for consumption, sanitation, and firefighting.  The construction and operation of the new building were controversial from the start. Under pressure to rectify very poor conditions at the Royal Hospital in Victoria, the provincial government had reluctantly undertaken construction of the new asylum.  According to Ferguson, the planning and construction of the New Westminster facility were “another comedy of errors.” He quotes Dr. W. Macnaughton Jones, first medical superintendent, shortly before the opening of the institution. “On the whole, the building, in its present state, seems to me a madhouse of former times, and not a modern hospital for patients affected with diseases of the brain. The place is gloomy in the extreme, the corridors narrow and somber, the windows high and unnecessarily barred, the ventilation defective, the water supply deficient, the apparatus for extinguishing fire of the worst kind and worst of all, the establishment exceedingly overcrowded…. the patients being herded together more like cattle than human beings.”  

Floor plan of the Provincial Asylum for the Insane, New Westminster, BC

The New Westminster site was 15 acres in 1878, on hillside and benchland.  Clearing began in 1861 with a “clearing bee” that included members of the Royal Engineers, stationed in Sapperton, now a suburb of New Westminster. An area 30 yards X 50 yds was cleared for a cricket pitch, then rolled by a chain gang from the neighbouring B.C. Penitentiary. The pitch became the site of the first building, followed by larger areas cleared for farm and gardens. The hospital was to be self-sufficient as far as possible. Later landscaping of the site provided ornamental planting and informal walks with river views. In 1909 an iron fence spanned the south front limit of the institution. 

Institutional Life

When the asylum opened in 1878, there were 41 patients in the building. The use of patients for labour was recommended in 1882 by Dr. Thomas McInnes, medical superintendent. He urged improvement of 4 acres in front of the building, for appearances and therapy. In 1883 work therapy began, involving farming, gardening, and construction of recreation facilities. Farming for hospital supply was undertaken, using patients for labour after 1885. Two pigs, some chickens, and one cow started the operation, but without a workhorse little could be done to clear additional forest land for gardens. In 1888 there were 80 patients who provided 8000 to 9000 days of work per year. Approximate annual production in those years included, in pounds; pork,10000; potatoes, 84000; cabbage,18000; apples,11000; eggs, 255 dozen. The garden and orchard provided corn, sprouts, artichokes, peaches, strawberries, walnuts, chestnuts, and other products.  In 1885 the single cow was providing milk. In 1890 the superintendent noted that he needed more cows and two workhorses.

 In 1904 a new farm-site was acquired, intended to supply the New Westminster and future Coquitlam hospitals. It was partially open, alluvial river bottom land at the junction of the Coquitlam and Fraser Rivers. Grassland was very rich and easily cleared. After the heavy forest at the hillside, sites were cleared, and soil prepared, it took little time for the moderate climate to create gardens, orchards, and landscapes for produce and display.  By 1910, production at New Westminster was supplemented by produce from 500 acres at the new farm that had been cleared, dyked and drained, and put under cultivation.

The heavily forested hillside hospital grounds at New Westminster and Coquitlam required loggers and stump blasters before ploughmen.  There is some confusion of dates in reports from the two institutions, (see notes on Coquitlam site). but the  story of loggers at this work applies at both hospitals According to Hurd, “In the spring of the following year, [1909], the clearing of land was begun in earnest…This work was accomplished by about 40 patients, many of whom were excellent axe-men… The temporary quarters were accordingly enlarged to accommodate 65 of the best working patients.”

According to Dr. Doherty, medical superintendent, “The manner in which our patients took hold of this work surprised me, one patient, alone, during one month, handling 17 tons of blasting powder.” Tall tales of logging in British Columbia appeared, referring to mad loggers from the northern coast and forests, one of them so strong that he ”would pull up a tree and throw it.” Reliance on patients for such dangerous work seems implausible, possibly indicating that workers were unemployed loggers in need of bed and board in the winter season, and often used for public projects.

In October 1885, The Colonist newspaper reported that patients at New Westminster were “enjoying” the work of clearing the grounds initiated by Dr. Bentley in that year. By 1888 Bentley attributed increased recoveries to outdoor life in clearing, maintenance, and gardening, all done by patients. Patients were segregated into male, female, and Chinese categories. Flowers grown by patients were displayed on the women’s wards, and the chief attendant (at a time of severe racism in B.C.) had provided a few plants and canaries for the pleasure of the Chinese patients. In 1885 outdoor work included construction of a tennis lawn, a summerhouse, and a cowshed, all built by patients.


In the 1880s a report of a visiting physician agreed with a report of 1883, and noted that outdoor recreation areas consisted of ….. “two bare hard yards with half a dozen benches – affording neither shelter from wet nor shade from the heat of the sun.” According to a Commission of Enquiry of 1894,  there were only two small exercise yards for approximately 150 patients. In 1920 Clarence Hincks noted that all patients at New Westminster were in “a beautiful park at the rear of the building.” He was pleased to add that due to the mild climate the New Westminster site could provide outdoor recreation for many months of the year, thus avoiding the depressing “airing courts”  found at other hospitals.  At the rear of the site there was a playing field. According to the pictorial history of the property, from 1935 -1940 there was an airing court, tennis court, and wading pool, with a nearby ”grove of beautiful walnut trees.” The park behind the buildings became a dumping ground for unwanted cats, and it had a high squirrel population. Both were fed and enjoyed by patients.

Personal gardens and shacks were permitted very early at the New Westminster hospital. Dr. Manchester, medical superintendent in 1899, wrote, “This man (patient # 210) has been here for more than thirteen years and seems to be quite well. He is able to be at large enough to have a chicken yard and cabins put up by himself just back of the asylum garden. He sells the eggs and pockets the proceeds.  He has been asked several times to take his leave but now with nice spring weather and work abundantly it was thought advisable to use strong persuasion and so he was discharged today.

After conversion of the asylum to a school for people with developmental problems, residents of Woodlands School were able to watch the May Day Festivals in Queens Park, just across the street. A few privileged residents were taken into the stands and treated to hot dogs and drinks. Whether this developed when the school was an asylum is not known. Woodlands was also well known for a Sports Day, with a demonstration of gymnastics, swimming events, and other athletics, and a Visitors Day featuring displays of class work.


Val Adolph. In the Context of its Time: A History of Woodlands, Victoria: Ministry of Social Services, Government of British Columbia, 1996.

T.J.W. Burgess. Presidential Address to the Royal Society of Canada, Transactions, Section IV, Geological and Biological Sciences, 1898.

Gerry Ferguson. “Control of the Insane in British Columbia, 1849-1878,” in Regulating Lives,  McLaren, Menzies and Chunn, eds. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.

C.M. Hincks. “Mental Hygiene Survey of the Province of British Columbia,” Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene, vol.2, no.1, 1920.

Henry M. Hurd. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1917.

Robert H. Thompson. A Summary of the Growth and Development of Mental Health Facilities and Services in British Columbia, 1850-1970. Victoria: Mental Health Branch, Department of Health Services and Hospital Insurance, 1970.