Better Babies of Saanich

…this island must stand without peer in babyhood.

Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan, The Daily Colonist September 9 1917
Better Babies Evelyn, Brian and Gerald Lytton at their Mount Tolmie home, 1919. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

During the First World War, there was a great loss of life overseas, plus a continuing loss of life at home through childbirth and childhood diseases. Added to this was the fact that many potential soldiers had been declared “not fit” for service due to poor physical development. In Saanich, the Garden City Women’s Institute and the Victorian Order of Nurses tried to resolve this issue by promoting access to maternity care and children’s health education. One popular way of promoting baby health was through “Better Babies” contests / clinics. Contemporary newspaper reports, meeting minutes and a mother’s diary provide a snapshot of Saanich’s Better Babies.

Claude and Ethel Lytton and Gerald, Evelyn and Brian, 1919. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

Ethel Lytton’s personal diary (donated to the Saanich Archives in 2019) gives us a first-hand look at some Saanich babies. Ethel Lytton lived on Connaught Avenue (now Ernest Avenue), Mount Tolmie. She kept an account of the births and development of her children during the First World War years.

July 5 1913 (Saturday) — “Our little son Gerald Bradshaw Lytton was born at 10.45 a.m.”

October 12 1913 — “Gerald fourteen weeks weighed seventeen pounds. Very fat and good humored.”

October 21 1914 — “Our dear baby girl Evelyn Margaret born at 8 a.m.” (Evelyn’s weight at two months was eleven pounds, at three months was thirteen pounds).

October 21 1915 — “Baby Evelyn’s first birthday. Crawls but does not walk, has 7 teeth.” (Note that Gerald Lytton walked at seventeen months.)

“It has been truly said that Victoria and surrounding country rank second to none in the world in natural advantages of health. There is never cold so severe as to make for discomfort in keeping the windows open day and night, while sleeping porches, properly protected from the rain, can be used the year round. The intense heat, in which many babies wilt and die in the middle and eastern parts of the continent, is unknown in Victoria, so that the statement will bear repetition, that for the rearing of children, Victoria is unrivalled…..”

Victoria Should Have Best Babies, Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan, The Daily Colonist July 22 1917

The Lytton children seemed to be benefitting from the Victoria area’s natural advantages of health. Ethel Lytton lived a comfortable life (her husband Leonard Claude Lytton was an accountant for the E&N Land department) and she was able to afford private nurses and to raise healthy sturdy children. But this was not the case for all local children. This was still a time when health care, indoor plumbing and knowledge about nutrition was not universal. Mothers were still dying in childbirth and babies were still dying of now-preventable diseases. Add to this the toll of the war on the youth of the nation!

…the normal woman, the thoughtful woman, cannot but deplore the awful waste of life at the present time, the waste abroad and at home, so perhaps that is why the movement for saving the nation’s babies is growing so rapidly.

Victoria Should Have Best Babies, Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan, The Daily Colonist July 22 1917

Mrs. Vangie Shaw MacLachlan, member of the Garden City Women’s Institute and president of the Saanich Branch, Victorian Order of Nurses, was “appalled at the daily, piteous wastage of life” in the war and the loss of young life at home. In wartime Saanich there were two problems: A declining birthrate and continuing infant mortality.

Here’s some information from The Annual Report of the Vital Statistics of British Columbia. Saanich births registered in 1914 were 222, in 1915 were 191, in 1916 were 150. [Saanich’s population in 1915 was 10,056]. Causes of death in 1916 for Saanich residents under 1 year old were: stillborn 1, premature 4, diptheria and croup 1, acute bronchitis 1, pneumonia 1, bronchopneumonia 2, scarlet fever 1. This statistic of 11 baby deaths in 150 babies may not seem high. But, Mrs. MacLachlan pointed out, “New Zealand, where the climate is not unlike that of Victoria…held the world’s records for healthy babies with its 4 deaths in every hundred, a record worth competing for.”

Infant mortality contributed to a “national disaster”, as Mrs. MacLachlan called it: “on the one hand, because numerous economic values are created without purpose and prematurely destroyed, and on the other, because the causes of the high rate of infant mortality affect the powers of resistance of the other infants, and weaken the strength of the nation in its next generation.” Something had to be done to help the mothers of Saanich to preserve life and have “Better Babies”. The first goal was getting public nurses into Saanich.

Does every mother in Victoria know that at a very moderate price she can have the services of a skilful and experienced nurse or that, if she is without means, she can have those services without money?

Home Nursing, Maria Lawson, The Daily Colonist March 3 1917

In Saanich, there was one maternity nurse licensed with the Province of British Columbia, Mrs. Louisa Bell of 536 Cloverdale Avenue. (Fourth Annual Report on Hospital Inspection, submitted to the Provincial Board of Health on January 8 1917). There were other maternity nurses in Victoria. Ethel Lytton had Nurse Catherine Cossar help her. She noted in her diary that after baby Evelyn’s 1914 birth, “Miss Cossar nursed me”. Miss Cossar returned for two months when Ethel’s second son was born, and later returned for her third son’s birth.

Nurse Cossar and the Lytton “babies”, 1923. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

What if you could not afford a private nurse?

Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan strongly supported Saanich women’s and children’s access to affordable public nursing through district nurses. She spearheaded the movement to get the Victorian Order of Nurses into Saanich. On November 14 1916, a delegation from Saanich Wards 4 and 7 met with Saanich Council to urge the organization of a Victorian Order of Nurses in those districts. Mrs. MacLachlan quoted a case of a mother sick in bed and a husband unable to pay the heavy fee for a nurse or doctor, and of the new born baby dying before many hours old. (“Want District Nurse in Saanich”, The Daily Colonist November 15 1916)

A meeting for the organization of a local branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses in Saanich was held in the Gorge Presbyterian Church on Tuesday December 5 1916. A programme of ten-minute talks was given, one by Mrs. A.E. McPhillips, “Benefit to the Community on Behalf of the Mothers and Babies”.

By early 1917, a branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses (V.O.N) had been established in Saanich Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan became the first president of the executive. The goal was now to get members (who would pay a nominal fee of $1 per year) and to run public education events. In Spring 1917, the V.O.N. decided “to hold meetings in the afternoons in the different schools of the district, to acquaint the mothers with the work of the nurse.” On April 27 1917, Nurse Stockton met with mothers at Tolmie School and on May 1 1917 she gave a short talk at the Craigflower School Parent-Teachers Association. The V.O.N. monthly report for May 1917 shows Nurse Stockton’s activity in child-related cases: 3 prenatal visits, 1 gynecological visit, 2 obstetric cases, 2 infants from obstetric cases, 5 child welfare visits.

Victorian Order of Nurses report, May 1917. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

In 1910, British Columbia made medical inspection of school children compulsory through the Schools Health Inspection Act. In 1911, school medical inspections started in Saanich. A few years later, there was a good sense of school children’s health and where to improve. In July 1914 Walter Bapty, the acting Secretary of the Provincial Board of Heath, noted: “It must be remembered that the greatest number of defects occur with the junior children, and a new lots of young children not previously examined come into the schools every year. Medical inspection should therefore commence at infancy and not merely after the child enters the school. From a public health point of view medical inspection of school children is only part of the whole, the whole being the care of the child from the cradle to adult life.”

A move to medical inspection of pre-school children came in August 11 1917, when the Garden City Women’s Institute held a Better Babies contest. There was a “two-fold” goal: “to educate the mother in the care of herself and her baby and to bring before the community the necessity of remedying many conditions dangerous to the lives of infants.”

Many attractive features have been arranged for the exhibition to be held under the auspices of the McKenzie Avenue branch of the Garden City Women’s Institute. The Better Babies contest, which has aroused such keen interest in the mothers of Saanich as well as Victoria, will no doubt prove the most popular feature.

Baby Contest Aim is to Raise Standard, The Daily Colonist August 11 1917

Here is how the Better Babies contest would run, explained by Mrs. V.S. Maclachlan in Victoria Should Have Best Babies, The Daily Colonist July 22 1917:

The two canvas tents supplied by the Department of Agriculture will be pitched on the tennis courts and so arranged as to afford a very pleasant playground for the babies while awaiting their turn, or as one of the tents will be screened off for rest and undressing rooms, those so desiring will have the choice of the rest room, but either will be as comfortable and restful as can be wished for.

The waiting room, or rest room, will have drinking water, with sanitary cups, suitable number of chairs, large and small, table for literature, table for nurse in charge, placed at the entrance, holding a tested clinical thermometer in a tumbler of antiseptic solution, a roll of cotton and a few wooden tongue depressors in a glass dish. The undressing room, which is screened off from the waiting room, will have toilet facilities, two or three chairs, and a table for large paper milliners bags, one of which is given to each mother for her child’s clothing. There will also be a stock of flannel squares to wrap around such children as are unprovided for, although each mother is requested to bring some such wrap.

The examination room, which is the second tent, will be light, airy, free from draughts, and well ventilated. No one is admitted to this tent, except the working force, the child to be examined and one or both parents. The examination tables, of which there will be ten, will be padded and protected by a fresh towel for each child. There will be a small table for filling out the records, facilities for washing the hands, an enamelled basin of antiseptic solution for the hands of the examiner, and one for toys, a supply of paper towels, and of wooden tongue depressors, the latter are broken immediately after use. There will be a supply of sheets and flannel squares for emergencies. Toys will be supplied for timid children. Measuring and weighing equipment will consist of standard scales and a measuring board. The physicians will give a physical examination with full report and explanation of the child’s condition to the mother, and detailed advice as to what she can do for the child.

A “Better Baby Conference” was held in Saanich on August 11 1917.

Here is how the Better Baby Show happened, described by Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan, Better Baby Show Proved Usefulness, The Daily Colonist September 9 1917:

If the sixty splendid babies examined at “Ambleside” on August 11, under the auspices of the Garden City Women’s Institute, are fair specimens of the babyhood of Vancouver Island, then this island must stand without peer in babyhood. As Greece in ancient days was famed for the physical perfection of its men and women, so Vancouver Island could be famed for the physical perfection of its babies.

The contest was opened by the Hon. J.D. MacLean, Minister of Education, who, in a few brief but fitting remarks, emphasized the importance of babies to the nation, dwelling upon general care necessary for raising them to healthy manhood and womanhood. One remark especially went home to the mothers. Don’t “show off” babies to admiring friends and relatives, for nothing is worse for the nervous system. The quieter babies are kept for the first year of their life, the better.

The medical examiners included two women physicians, especially interested in child welfare, Doctors Ryan and Cleland, Dr. Raynor, who was medical director, Doctors Keys, Hunter, Price. The two dentists were Doctors Lewis Hall and Tanner. The nurses were Victorian Order District Nurses Stockton, Norcross, Headington, ex-Victorian Mrs. Gregg, City Nurse Miss Grimmer, Miss Thom, and Nurses Wilkinson and O’Connell.

… as to the value of the contest, a number of mothers, those whose babies did not score high, have expressed their appreciation of the information received and their desire for further advice as to how to remedy defects. A number of nurses reported that minor defects were uncovered of which the mothers were unaware until that day. All the nurses commented upon the attitude of the mothers in the desire manifested for information. “What are the defects, if any, and what shall I do to remedy them?” was without exception the general inquiry, no interest being shown in prizes.

One of the direct results of this babies contest has been the awakening of a number of parents to the dangers of allowing the minor defects to remain unattended. One case was cited where an operation was necessary, and instead of taking the child to the hospital, the district nurse was engaged, who gave directions as to what was needed, and the following day, the district nurse assisted by the doctor, performed the operation most successfully. Then the following day the nurse attended the dressings, and continued to do until all danger was past.

[It’s probable that this “minor defect” was the need for a circumcision. Ethel Lytton wrote in her diary on December 10 1913, “Gerald circumcised by Dr. Denton Holmes.” Ethel’s sister Nance Bradshaw, Jubilee Hospital nurse, assisted.]

In Summer 1918, the Saanich Branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses decided to follow on the successes of the previous year and host a Better Baby Contest / Clinic. The minutes of the V.O.N. show an endearing level of enthusiasm by the members:

Tuesday August 6 1918 — The projected baby contest was next discussed and eventually it was moved by Mr. Edwardson seconded by Mrs. MacLachlan and carried that it take place in Tolmie School on the 14th of September, it being decided that Mrs. MacLachlan comprise the post of publicity committee, with power to add any member she desires for help, Mr. Carey and the secretary as finance committee, Mrs. Darbyshire for enrollment, and Mr. Edwardson for equipment. It was decided to charge an enrollment fee of 10 cents and an admission fee of 15 cents and refreshment to be provided free. Mrs. Edwardson kindly offering to attend to the task of securing crockery etc. and a meeting of the various members forming the committee to be held on Tuesday next week.

Tuesday August 20 1918 – special meeting to plan for baby clinic – The secretary reported having been in communication with [Saanich Medical Health Officer] Dr. Holmes as to his taking charge of the medical branch of work. On his declining, having informed Mrs. MacLachlan of the fact, also having written the school board for permission to use Tolmie School, without so far receiving a reply. Mrs. MacLachlan then reported having secured the services of [Victoria Medical Health Officer] Dr. Price, who had assented eagerly to give his service and secure additional medical assistance to carry out the examinations. Mr. Edwardson, who was responsible for equipment, went through the list of articles required and finding the only serious item to be scales, promised to give the same his attention. Mrs. Darbyshire, in charge of the refreshments, reported her willingness to undertake this branch of the work and the committee very gladly heaved a sigh of relief.

Tuesday September 3 1918 — The baby clinic was next discussed and final arrangements made, it being decided that on account of the very limited expenses involved, to drop the enrollment fee of 10 cents and admission of 15 cents.

This article describes the baby clinic success: “The Victorian Order of Nurses Baby Clinic held in Saanich, which is the first to be held in a schoolroom in this district, was a great success. The undertaking had as its headquarters the Tolmie School, the Tillicum and Garden City Women’s Institutes assisting the Victorian Order with the enterprise. Eighteen babies were given a careful medical examination by Dr. Price, the city health officer, and in most instances the scores were excellent, although none ranked as “perfect” babies. The benefits of such clinics became apparent, that of a child who attended the first clinic held last year at “Ambleside”. Its record at that time was low, but the mother was advised that the child would benefit by an operation. This was carried through, with the result that when the child came before the clinic again last Saturday it was awarded full marks for conditions of the flesh, bones, heart, lungs and general nutrition.” (Baby Clinic Success, The Daily Colonist September 19 1918)

Jumping forward a couple of years into the 1920s, and babies are even better in Saanich. The Twenty-Sixth Report of the Provincial Board of Health (1921-22) reported “All babies are followed up by the nurse who attended the confinement. We aim at watching these children all through the pre-school period.” In 1922-1923, there were three Well Baby clinics held at the Saanich Health Centre each month and 348 babies were registered. Here is a notice for an April 21 1922 Well Baby Clinic.

And here are the babies arriving at the clinic….being examined by the doctor….and “better” babies leaving… (photographs from the Twenty-Sixth Report of the Provincial Board of Health, July 1 1921 – June 30 1922)

Ethel Lytton’s diary. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

“Our second little son Brian Claude born Wednesday July 31st at 10 p.m.”

Ethel Lytton’s diary

Finally, let’s return to Ethel Lytton and her “Better Babies”. When Gerald was nearly 5 and Evelyn was nearly 4, a new baby brother arrived. This time Ethel’s pregnancy and the new baby were not as easy. “Our second little son Brian Claude born Wednesday July 31st [1918] at 10 p.m. Was in bed a month. Bad leg. Miss Cossar with me for two months. Then Miss Falkner for a month. Brian very wakeful baby. I had to take tonic and sleeping powders after the nurse left.” Brian weighed 12 lb in fall 1918, “Not as fat as other babies.” But Ethel later noted that “Brian walking at sixteen months, very strong and fat.”

Gerald, Evelyn and Brian Lytton. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

The goal of the Better Babies movement was, as Mrs. V. S. MacLachlan wrote in 1917, to “save as many [babies] as possible, that they may enjoy and appreciate the privileges and rights which our best and bravest are daily giving up their lives to secure to us and for them that come after us.” An unstated goal was to build stronger and healthier children, who, should war come again, would be more fit to fight. The Lytton children and many of the babies who had attended the Better Babies clinics grew up “strong and fat”. Twenty years later, war came again. This time, these men and women had benefitted from better education and nutrition and access to health care, all goals of the Better Baby movement. Here’s “Better Baby” Brian Lytton, now all grown up and in the air force.

Brian Lytton, 1939. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

This story is part of a wider research project on health and society in WWI era Saanich BC. For more on the topic of Saanich Victorian Order of Nurses, see A Motor Car for the Saanich Nurses.