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

On July 22 1917, The Daily Colonist published an article by Saanich resident Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan of the Garden City Women’s Institute in which she extolled the virtues of Saanich and Victoria and their positive benefits for babies:

“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…..”

Wartime babies Gerald, Evelyn and Brian Lytton of Mount Tolmie, Saanich enjoyed their natural advantages. But this was not the case for all local children. It was a time when health care, indoor plumbing and knowledge about nutrition was not universal. Mothers were still dying in childbirth and babies and young children were still dying of now-preventable diseases. Compounding this loss of life were the ever-increasing daily war casualty lists in the Greater Victoria newspapers. Moreover, many potential soldiers had been declared “not fit” for service due to poor physical development.

In Saanich, the Women’s Institutes and the Victorian Order of Nurses (V.O.N.) tried to resolve these issues by getting Saanich mothers access to affordable maternity nurses and free infant check ups. A popular way of promoting baby health was through “Better Babies” contests. In the next few pages, we’ll look at a mother’s diary and baby photos, contemporary news items and V.O.N. meeting minutes to get a snapshot of Saanich’s infants and the people who were hoping to make them “Better Babies.”

Meet Ethel Lytton and her babies

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

Weighed seventeen pounds. Very fat and good humored.

Ethel Lytton’s Diary, October 12 1913

The personal diary of Saanich resident Ethel Bradshaw Lytton gives us a first-hand account of the births and development of her children during the World War One years. Ethel Bradshaw had been a secretary before marrying Leonard Claude Lytton, an accountant for the E&N Land department on September 17 1912. A month later, they settled into a comfortable life at “Oakdale” on Connaught Avenue, Mount Tolmie.

Ethel wrote in her diary, on July 5 1913, “Our little son Gerald Bradshaw Lytton was born at 10.45 a.m.” On October 12 1913, “Gerald fourteen weeks weighed seventeen pounds. Very fat and good humored.” A few months after the war began, “Our dear baby girl Evelyn Margaret born at 8 a.m. October 21 1914.” Evelyn’s weight at two months was eleven pounds, at three months was thirteen pounds. Ethel wrote on October 21 1915, “Baby Evelyn’s first birthday. Crawls but does not walk, has 7 teeth.”

Over the next couple of years, Ethel Lytton’s diary shows she was busy raising the babies, taking music lessons and going on camping holidays to Shawnigan Lake. Ethel, like every new parent today, filled her photo album with snapshots of babies Gerald and Evelyn. When the children were 5 and almost 4, a new brother arrived. “Our second little son Brian Claude born Wednesday July 31st [1918] at 10 p.m.” This time Ethel’s pregnancy and the new baby were not as easy. 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.”

Ethel Lytton’s diary notes Brian Claude Lytton’s birth on July 31 1918. Credit: Saanich Archives

Infant mortality and affordable maternity nursing

…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 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, diphtheria 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.

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). In Victoria, there were other maternity nurses like Catherine Cossar who helped Saanich resident Ethel Lytton 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 with Roger Lytton, 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 newborn 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”.

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

By early 1917, a branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses (V.O.N) had been established in Saanich. 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.

Saanich V.O.N. report for May 1917. Credit: Saanich Archives

The Better Babies Contest

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

Starting in 1911, all British Columbia school children had mandatory medical inspection. See The Health of the Saanich School Children. Soon, a picture of children’s health had emerged. 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.”

Medical inspection at infancy began in Saanich in 1917, when the Garden City Women’s Institute held a Better Babies contest. The goals: “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.” The Victorian Order of Nurses were fully behind this idea: “As child welfare is one of the most important branches of the Victorian Order work, the interest of the organization as a whole is very naturally with the ‘Better Baby’ movement.” (Victoria Daily Times July 9 1917)

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

Better Babies Contest 1917

The Better Baby contest was limited to not more than sixty babies from Greater Victoria. The recognized classes were 1 to 6 months; 7 to 12 months; 13 to 18 months; 19 to 24 months; 25 to 36 months. The special classes were: Babies attended at birth by a Victorian Order nurse; babies whose parents have Metropolitan Life insurance plans, and soldier’s babies. Every child had to be free from communicable disease, rash, sore throat, inflamed eyes etc., and must not have been recently exposed to contagious diseases. Parents were to fill out an application and send it to the chairman of the enrollment committee, and an appointment card was mailed to them.

The Better Babies contest was held on August 11 1917 in warm weather: “The barometer remains high and fine weather is general.” The venue was “Ambleside”, the home of the Roshers on Carey Road. Mothers riding the Cloverdale street car to the terminus on Douglas Street were met by jitneys that took them to the grounds. (Though one mother reportedly carried her seven month old baby over 10 miles!) Admission to the grounds was twenty-five cents for all but mothers and babies, who were admitted free of charge. This charge included refreshments (ice cream, tea and lemonade) served on the lawns during the afternoon.

There will be two canvas tents provided by the Department of Agriculture, in one of which will be ten padded examination tables, each in charge of a physician and trained nurse, while the second tent will be used as a rest room and undressing room. The outdoor advantages, with the rest-room will provide a very pleasant waiting accommodation for the “wee people” until their turn comes.

Babies Contest To Be Held August 11, Victoria Daily Times July 23 1917

The two canvas tents were pitched on the Rosher’s tennis courts. The restroom had 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 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 was screened off from the waiting room, had toilet facilities, two or three chairs, and a table for large paper milliners bags, one of which was given to each mother for her child’s clothing. The examination tent had ten padded tables protected with a towel for each child. There were facilities for washing the hands, an enamelled basin of antiseptic solution for the hands of the examiner, a supply of paper towels and wooden tongue depressors (the latter broken immediately after use). Measuring and weighing equipment consisted of standard scales and a measuring board.

The medical examiners included two women physicians, especially interested in child welfare, Doctors Helen Ryan and Dr. Annie McKenzie Cleland. Other examiners were City of Victoria Medical Health Officer Dr. A.G. Price; president of the Conservation of Life League Dr. Melbourne Raynor; local dentists; and Victorian Order Nurses from Saanich and Victoria.

The examination was on the basis of an official score card issued by the Better Canadian Babies Bureau of the Canadian Home Journal, and showed forty questions. The tests were under five headings (1) Mental and Developmental (2) measurements, weight, height, circumference, etc. (3) physical examination, hair, scalp, chest, back, arms, posture, feet, skin etc. (4) oral and dental (mouth, teeth) (5) eye, ear, nose and throat.

“The high average of baby health and physique could not have been better demonstrated than in the fact that six perfect cards were turned in after such an exhaustive test… [one perfect baby was Garden City resident Hazel Edith Nix]… while on the whole there was wonderful good temper and lack of excitement among the babies themselves despite the very high temperature which prevailed both in and out of doors.” (Victoria Daily Times Monday August 13 1917)

The contest left much to be desired as to arrangement and management, this due to inexperience. From an education standpoint it was a success.

Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan, The Daily Colonist September 9 1917

The baby contest had been very well planned on paper, but left much room for improvement! “On a future occasion there will be separate tents for each of the classes. The examiners and attendant nurses found themselves rather hampered for space in the limited dimensions of a single tent, but six o’clock saw the last baby through the line, the last card turned in.” (Victoria Daily Times August 13 1917) Mrs. V.S. MacLachlan later debriefed: “The day was hot, the equipment proved inadequate and there was considerable confusion, owing to the committee in charge. All these caused physical discomfort which was temporary and which the committee most sincerely regrets…” (The Daily Colonist September 9 1917)

Temporary discomfort but long-lasting value: “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.” (As the costs of the event were minimal, the organizers planned to use the proceeds of the event to publish literature to distribute among Saanich mothers). Mrs. MacLachlan noted: “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.”

There was one key result from this baby contest: The examiners found a child needed an operation. Instead of taking the child to the hospital [which would have been costly], the next day, the district nurse, assisted by the doctor, performed the operation most successfully. The following day, the nurse attended the dressings, and continued to do until all danger was past.

Better Baby Clinic of 1918

Arrangements are being made for the holding of a baby clinic. The entrants will include only babies born under the care of a Victorian Order nurse and it is expected that between fifteen and twenty babies will be examined.

Victorian Order of Nurses report August 1918

A year later, in September 1918, the Victorian Order of Nurses organized a ‘baby clinic’ for eighteen Saanich babies. The purpose of the event was educational: “It was clearly understood by all the mothers that the clinic was not in the way of a contest, but entirely a medical examination.” (Victoria Daily Times September 18 1918)

The clinic was held in a class room at Tolmie School. It appears that lessons were learned from the 1917 event and all ran smoothly: “It was clearly demonstrated by the comfort enjoyed by the mothers that the school room is eminently suitable for such affairs. The mother sat in the seat with the baby lying on the desk in front while she undressed him…When lying upon the measuring board or upon the scales there was scarcely any protest, only when it came to the little mouths being forced open for the necessary inspection was there any objection, and then it was but mild.” (Wondering about cleanliness and the school desks? See this comment: “Nor must the fact be overlooked that the help afforded by Mr. Wilson, janitor of Tolmie School was in no small measure instrumental.”)

Most of the babies scored high but none of the eighteen were perfect…

  • Baby Clifford Allan Roach (born 1918) from Strawberry Vale, who ranked the highest among the boys, lost two points for minor defects.
  • Baby Ruth Pringle (born 1918) from Colquitz lost one point, “but for this she would have reached perfection very early in life.”

“The fact that no baby scored perfect is encouraging because it clearly shows that mothers are appreciating the true object of the clinics, and it is the advice and instruction obtained that makes these clinics of such value to any community, they not being instituted to show off perfection or beauty.”

And what about the baby from 1917 who had needed the operation? “One child, who at the first clinic at “Ambleside” in 1917 ranked low, had undergone the operation recommended at that time and other advice acted upon, and on Saturday this child, for condition of flesh, bones, heart, lungs and general nutrition was given full marks. Many other babies in the community had benefitted from advice given at that first clinic.” (Victoria Daily Times September 18 1918)

Well Baby Clinics in the 1920s

Fourteen babies were examined at the well baby clinic held at the Saanich Health Centre yesterday afternoon. Dr. Bapty was in attendance.

Victoria Daily Times, October 22 1921

The Victorian Order of Nurses continued to provide maternity care, and reported to the Twenty-Sixth Report of the Provincial Board of Health (1921-22): “All babies are followed up by the nurse who attended the confinement. We aim at watching these children all through the pre-school period.”

Following from the success of the baby contest / clinic in 1917 and 1918, Saanich V.O.N. nurses began a formal clinic for mothers and babies. On October 7 1921, the first “Well Baby Clinic” was held in Saanich. Jitneys picked up mothers from local grocery stores and brought them to the Health Centre in Royal Oak.

Notice for an April 21 1922 Well Baby Clinic held in Saanich
Saanich mothers and babies arrive at the Well Baby Clinic. Twenty-Sixth Report of the Provincial Board of Health

Clinics were held every second Friday afternoon commencing at 2.30 p.m. By 1922-1923, there were 348 babies were registered. Clinics were also established at Cloverdale and Tolmie School. The examining physician was Dr. Walter Bapty, who in 1914 had stated: “Medical inspection should commence at infancy and not merely after the child enters the school.”

Dr. Bapty examines a baby at the Saanich Heath centre clinic. Twenty-Sixth Report of the Provincial Board of Health

The Future

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.”

How did the babies we met enjoy the privileges of the post-war era?

Baby Evelyn (“Eve”) Lytton, born in October 1914, enjoyed music, holidayed in California and became a legal stenographer. Baby Hazel Nix, Saanich’s “Perfect Score” baby of 1917, won the prize for best cookies at the annual Garden City show. Clif Roach, 1918’s almost perfect boy, was a baseball shortstop. Ruth Pringle, 1918’s almost perfect girl, was active in her local church and became a High School teacher in Kelowna.

An unstated goal of the “Better Baby” movement was to build stronger and healthier children, who, should war come again, would be more fit to fight. Twenty years later, there was war. 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, as a toddler in 1919 and in the air force in 1939.


This story is part of a look at community, health and education in World War One era Saanich B.C. Thank you to the Saanich Archives for making digital copies available of the Victorian Order of Nurses handwritten minutes. Read more about the Saanich V.O.N.’s work in A Motor Car for the Saanich Nurses and The Health of the Saanich School Children.

Thank you to Ethel Lytton’s descendants for donating her diary and photographs to the Saanich Archives in 2019. Lytton family photographs have been digitized and can be seen here.

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