The Remarkable Life of a Woman Born in the Colonial Era of the Pacific Northwest, Who Overcame Misogyny and Racism Directed at Her Métis Background to Devote Her Life to Nursing and Caring for Others
III. The Early Asylum Years:
I. From Childhood to Marriage
II. The San Juan Island Years
IV. The New Westminster Years
Flora returned to Victoria following her divorce from Paul K. Hubbs, Jr. in September 1866, though the exact date of her return is uncertain. Entries in the journal kept by Robert Firth, the San Juan Island neighbor who had acquired Bellevue Farm, record dates on which he assisted Flora with tasks she was unable to carry out alone. The entries appear from shortly after Flora’s separation from Hubbs through to mid-July 1866, but the surviving portions of Firth’s diary end in early August.
An entry in Rev. Edward Cridge’s diary in May 1868 records that Flora told him how she had lost her confirmation papers “about” two years earlier in a boat swamping. Unless these were papers that she carried with her at all times, it might suggest a problematic move from San Juan Island to Victoria later in 1866, perhaps after the divorce was finalized in September. The Christchurch baptismal records include a record that appears to claim that a “Flora Aurelia Ross” was baptized on San Juan Island by Rev. J. Reynard on November 13, 1867. There are many reasons why this entry is unlikely to mean what it might suggest, including handwritten notations on a copy in the B.C. Archives’ records that suggest this pertains to a different family (the names Charles, Flora and Ross were extremely common at this time), and the unlikelihood that Flora wouldn’t already have been baptized like each of her siblings, yet somehow have completed confirmation in Rev. Cridge’s church.
Whatever date marked her return to Victoria, there were references in Cridge’s diary throughout 1868 to Flora performing “work.” Unfortunately, Cridge never specifies whether the “work” that Flora performed was work for the church, fundraising or other administrative work for the hospital or women’s infirmary, nursing work of some kind, or some form of domestic work for the Cridge household.
Flora’s certain return to the field of nursing happened in late 1870, following a tumultuous year in the Colony of British Columbia's care for the mentally ill. Until late 1869, Victoria’s experience with mentally ill individuals who required care had been limited to male patients. If the colony was unable to ship the patient back to their home country, or to an asylum in the U.S., then the colony’s solution was to house each patient in the town’s medieval gaol (or jail) where they were cared for by an inmate; usually an inmate too ill to participate in the daily chain gang. In 1867-68, Flora’s elder brother Francis routinely performed this role during his two-year incarceration (of a five-year sentence) with his youngest brother, William, for highway robbery.
In December 1869, two sisters, Margaret and Jane Mills, both exhibited signs of mental illness. In keeping with tradition, the two sisters were confined to a cell in the police barracks, above the gaol. They were initially cared for by their own sister, Catherine. Their stay was temporary, and they returned home about one month after their initial incarceration. However, upon a relapse, all three sisters were kept at the barracks at various times in late 1870.
Flora Amelia Ross, circa 1872-74, Victoria
Image F-05218 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
In December 1870, Flora was engaged to care for the female patients held at the gaol, which were reported at the time to be four women, including a Mrs. Michaels. It is likely that in addition to her nursing background, her Hudson's Bay Company family connections were helpful in obtaining the position. Dr. J.S. Helmcken was the official surgeon for the town gaol, and a longtime friend of the Ross family. Helmcken would have known Flora since she had been a child, and a student at the HBC’s school in Fort Victoria in the early 1850s. The families remained close, and Helmcken’s son, an attorney, was an executor of Flora’s estate.
In July of 1872, under much pressure to build a proper hospital for the mentally ill, the newly formed provincial government announced that the former Royal Hospital would become the new “insane asylum.” The hospital had been built in 1859 on land appropriated from the Songhees reserve on the west side of Victoria harbor, and was far from sufficient for its new purpose. But Flora and her patients, along with all male patients under the care of Superintendent E.A. Sharpe, moved into the new asylum in October of 1872.
In addition to moving her patients into the new asylum, letters from later years demonstrate that Flora’s son, Charles, lived with her at the small, crowded hospital; all of ten years old when they would have moved into their new home.
Charles Ross, circa 1872-74, est. age 10-12
Image I-68058 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
The relationship between Flora and her superintendent deteriorated substantially in 1874 when Sharpe informed Flora that she was being dismissed so that he could give her job to his new wife. That announcement launched a two-year dispute that received substantial coverage in Victoria newspapers, as their respective letters to governmental officials, as well as letters from colleagues in support of Flora, laid out their respective complaints.
In one such letter to the Provincial Secretary, Flora wrote:
Sir, I would respectfully ask what authority the Superintendent of this Asylum is to exercise over me, as after the receipt of your letter mentioned above, he acted in a manner quite unbecoming his position here, as Superintendent, addressing me in loud, angry tones; telling me I was never to open the front door; that I was to confine myself to the patient’s room, and not to leave it without his permission; that he would not allow ladies to visit me; that the most of them were half breeds, and that he did not want Indians going up stairs; that he had power to turn me out of the Asylum that day month [sic]. He ordered me to send my boy out of the Asylum, and on my asking permission to go and make arrangements with some one to take the child in, was peremptorily refused, telling me if I went out of the Asylum I should be locked out, and not allowed to come in again. He called his two assistants – Mr. Goode and Mr. Milligan – told them he was going to town, and if I left the Asylum during his absence, they were not to allow me to come in again. All this was said in the presence of the employes [sic] and in hearing of my patients, some of whom are quite sane enough to comprehend the situation, thereby lessening my influence over them, by hearing Mr. Sharpe addressing me in tones of such disrespect.
Isabella Mainville Ross, circa 1870-74
Image F-01280 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
See Letter of October 14, 1874, published in the Daily British Colonist, April 28, 1876, p. 3.
The dispute simmered throughout 1875, after Sharpe had been suspended during an investigation, and was then reinstated in late January 1875 in what appears to have had more to do with favor for local elections than any conclusions reached in the investigation.
By August 1875, Sharpe’s own assistant was reporting him to the provincial government in a letter in which he accused Sharpe of appropriating government property. Among the allegations made against Sharpe was the claim that Sharpe was stealing the patients’ socks and underwear when he was drunk, and wearing them (it appears to be a reference to laundered socks and underwear). The following month, Flora and several of her colleagues sent coordinated letters to the government complaining about Sharpe’s violent outbursts. He was replaced by the Provincial Government shortly thereafter. The entire dispute demonstrates a theme that ran throughout Flora’s twenty-seven year term as Matron of the asylum; of a competent and responsible Matron whose services were held up as a standard that the supervisors on the men’s side of the institution should attempted to follow, but seemed incapable of achieving. Flora outlasted many male superintendents during her time.
In the midst of the dispute with Sharpe, a provincial commission recommended in June 1875 that the asylum be moved to New Westminster, on the mainland. That same month, the government began to accept bids for construction of the new facility.
The first Provincial Asylum for the Insane, circa 1875-78
Image C-08843 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives