The Queen Alexandra archives: The dedicated women behind the Queen Alexandra Solarium’s creation
This story is part of a series that celebrates the legacy of the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health, paying tribute to the origins of Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island and the work we do today.
In the mid 1920s, Vancouver Island wasn’t an easy place to live if you had children needing specialized health care. In fact, at that time there wasn’t a single facility in the entire province dedicated to caring for the health needs of children. As a result, children with challenges like polio, clubfoot, or tuberculosis couldn’t easily access the care they desperately needed.
But, at a time in history when women were far from equal to men, it was pockets of women across British Columbia who pioneered change and fought for access to health care for Island children.
Various Women’s Institute branches across BC rallied together and the result was the creation of the Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children, an institution that would later become the Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health. But not only did this group of dedicated women help with the facility’s creation, the groups also fundraised for the facility years after its opening, and they continue to offer support to the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island today.
Ruth Fenner is a member of the Somenos Women’s Institute and the Somenos Women’s Institute historian, as well as the historian for the BC Women’s Institute. We spoke with her to hear stories of the important legacy the Women’s Institute branches play in providing Island kids access to the health care they need, as well as this special relationship between the Women’s Institute branches and the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island.
The women who fought to get BC’s first children’s hospital built
This story of dedicated Island women begins in 1922 with Edith Scott. Edith was step-mother to Polly Scott, and she loved Polly like she was her own daughter. When Polly was 10 years old, she had gone to her school on Hornby Island as she always did. But later that day, Edith saw her crawling home, slowly, on her hands and knees, across the field. Polly was in so much pain that she couldn’t walk.
“Polly got injured on the playground, and was subsequently diagnosed with tubercular spine,” explains Ruth.
At the time, no hospital in BC had a responsibility to care for children, so Edith appealed to the Women’s Institutes across BC for their help so her step-daughter could get the health care she needed. According to Ruth, Edith had almost exhausted all other possibilities for help when she wrote to Mrs V.S. MacLachlan, who at that time was the Secretary-Treasurer of the BC Women’s Institutes. Mrs MacLachlan then spoke to members of the Central Park Women’s Institute in Vancouver and gained their support — she requested that the members work together to help not only Polly, but all children with health challenges in the province.
Members of Women’s Institute branches across the province began their fundraising efforts, and with an additional donation from King George and Queen Mary, the Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children came to be in Mill Bay. The Solarium accepted its first patient in 1927.
Polly was one of the Solarium’s first patients in 1927, and she went on to live a normal, successful life.
“Polly was someone who [as a child] had been funded by the public. But she then became a contributor to the public — and it was because she got medical treatment when she needed it,” says Ruth.
“I admire those women who had guts to fight for something.”
Fundraising and support from Women’s Institutes across the province
The group of dedicated, philanthropic women in the Women’s Institutes didn’t just fight for the Solarium — they supported it and ensured it would continue to offer essential health services to children.
According to Ruth, fundraising commonly included quilt-making, raffles, dances, and bake sales.
“During the Depression, the Women’s Institute branches held a lot of dances because [they could get involvement from] the community. Even the musicians at times took less than their regular fee,” says Ruth. “The focus was on the hospital, and everybody was behind it.”
In the earlier days, the Women’s Institute branches didn’t just raise money — they also donated essential items. From 1927 up until the late 1940s, the Women’s Institute branches also donated fresh vegetables, fruit, eggs, and other food items. In those early days and then well past the 1940s, the women also donated cozy items for the children.
“They were quite a group of quilters, sewers, and knitters. At that time, the Women’s Institutes across the province sewed clothing for the children who stayed at the Queen Alexandra Hospital,” says Ruth. “The women sewed pyjamas, dresses, pants, shirts, knitted socks.”
In fact, that was Ruth’s first introduction to the Queen Alexandra Hospital for Children was as a sewer from a remote setting — she lived in Dawson Creek and was a member of the West Saskatoon Women’s Institute branch when she made items for children at the hospital in the late 1960s!
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of the fundraising by the Women’s Institutes was financial, rather than in-kind donations. And the branches continue to offer generous financial support to the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island today.
Continued support from the Women’s Institutes branches
Ruth and her husband, Leonard, retired to Duncan in 1989. That’s when Ruth transferred from the West Saskatoon Women’s Institute branch to the Somenos Women’s Institute, a branch that has donated to support the facility since the branch’s inception in 1936.
Ruth says the Women’s Institutes will continue to offer support to the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island, and not just because of their legacy of involvement.
“When Mrs Adelaide Hoodless formed the first Women’s Institute in 1897, which was in Ontario, it was to help families, children, and work for better food and health situations. And the women have never lost sight of that,” says Ruth. “As long as there are children in need, we should be there.”
Island kids, youth, and families continue to need your support today, as Polly and Edith Scott did back in the 1920s. Join us as champions for the health of every Island family by giving to the area of greatest need!