A Motor Car for the Saanich Nurses

A Ford car, now so familiar to the majority of the South Saanich people, was presented to the branch by the headquarters of the Victorian Order of Nurses at Ottawa a year ago, thus solving to some degree the problem of transportation for the nurses.

The Daily Colonist October 18 1918

The Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada was established in 1897 to provide visiting nursing services to areas without medical facilities at a nominal fee (or no fee for those who could not pay). In December 1916, the Municipality of Saanich, who had no hospitals, established a branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses. By Spring 1917 the Saanich branch was a going concern. Nurses were busy attending maternity cases, visiting mothers and babies and inspecting school children. But they were also dealing with the wide scale – and rural nature – of the municipality.

Detail from a 1915 map of Saanich. Yellow marking shows the Municipal Hall in Royal Oak. Blue marking shows the schools that Saanich Victorian Order nurses visited for school medical inspections. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

Some idea of the big work in which the two Victorian Order nurses in Saanich can be gathered when it is understood that their district extends from Craigflower School in the west to Gordon Head on the east and from the Victoria City boundaries on the south right out to Saanichton. The Willows district is included.

The Daily Colonist November 16 1917

The Municipality of Saanich was “a district which has no parallel in British Columbia…”, according to 1919 Reeve-elect Charles B. Jones. The area near the City of Victoria boundary, (Wards 2, 7 and southern parts of Ward 4) “…an urban overflow of the city congregated in the most diverse physical conditions” had a population of over 4,000 and 5 schools. But there were few paved streets, and infrastructure like lighting and sewers were an ongoing issue for local ratepayers. The rest of the municipality was decidedly rural, hosting the fertile strawberry farms of Gordon Head and Keatings. Road conditions were not good and residents lived some distance apart.

In the 1910s, many residents used trains to get to the rural parts of the Saanich peninsula. The Victoria and Sidney [V&S] Railway ran past Keatings. In 1913, the B.C. Electric Interurban Railway opened, and ran tram cars to Sluggetts [Brentwood Bay] and Deep Cove. In May 1917, the B.C. Electric Railway Co. gave the Saanich nurses a $700 grant and gave the nurses free passes on the interurban line.

The Daily Colonist June 17 1913

“The rumble of the trolley will awaken the echoes over the hills and dales of a delightful section of country heretofore denied adequate transportation facilities.”

The Daily Colonist June 17 1913
With limited cars and rough roads, the BC Electric Interurban Railway provided a much-needed link between downtown Victoria and rural Saanich. Victorian Order Nurses had free passes to ride the rails to do their work. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

A free pass on the interurban railway was a step in getting the V.O.N. nurses to more rural parts of Saanich, but it didn’t entirely solve the problem of how to get around after hours when the trains didn’t run, or to areas that were not directly served by the trains.

At the beginning of November 1917, the Saanich V.O.N. board of management realized that “some special effort would have to be made with a view to securing some sort of conveyance to take the nurses over the very wide field they have to cover. A horse and buggy, however, was the best that could even remotely be aspired to, and up to date the board had not seen their way to securing this conveyance permanently.” (The Daily Colonist November 16 1917)

Typical transportation on Douglas Street, Saanich, even in 1918. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

Superintendent of the Victorian Order of Nurses Mrs. J. Charlotte Hanington wanted to address this issue. Mrs. Hanington is quoted in The Daily Colonist on August 23 1917: “The question of transportation, Mrs. Hanington believes, must be solved before the lonely woman is reached. A nurse cannot go where there are no roads. To some extent it is possible to meet the difficulty by supplying the nurse with a car. In this connection Mrs. Hanington again referred to Burnaby. Here roads were good and one woman with a runabout could do so much or more than two without one. Even in Victoria a car would more than pay for the expenditure in the saving of time and effort on the part of the nurses….”

Mrs. J. Charlotte Hanington of Victoria became the V.O.N. Superintendent in Summer 1917. Photo credit: The Victorian Order of Nurses for Canada 50th Anniversary 1897-1947, John Murray Gibbon

Ottawa November 10 1917

At the last meeting of the board of the Victorian Order I asked that a small Ford roadster be placed in your district for the use of your two nurses. This car is our property, but for your use. It will be turned over to you ready for service. You are to provide a shelter for it, and will be required to keep it in repair and pay for its upkeep.

I felt ever since my return that your nurses spent most of their valuable time going from house to house than on the good mothers and babies of Saanich. Also in your district the car can be used the year round. The board is very anxious as far as lies in its power to give help and encouragement to all its branches.

Saanich has shown great pluck and enterprise in attempting to maintain two nurses, and we feel that this little car will be a great help to them in extending their services to all in need of them. Especially did we feel the necessity of some way for them to get about at night, and our blessings go with them.

I am asking Mr. Bullen to select the car and have the name put on it, and the nurses are to be taught to run it. With your two nurses and this car I hope you will have much comfort and help this Winter and that no one will have to go without the ministrations of a nurse.

Wishing you success and with kind regards,

Very sincerely, (signed) J. Charlotte Hanington, Chief Superintendent V.O.N. for Canada.


The V.O.N.’s car was probably similar to this 1910s “roadster” car owned by Mileva Todd of Gordon Head. Note the right-hand drive (B.C. changed sides of the road in July 1920). The car would have been cranked by hand to start it. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

There are no photos of the V.O.N.’s “Ford Roadster” but it was no doubt a typical Model T / “Tin Lizzie” type car. This image above of Mileva Todd’s wartime era car gives a good idea. Note — Mileva Todd, the owner of the car above, actually didn’t know how to drive –- she let her teen-aged niece Dorothy drive her about the neighbourhood (without a license!) Dorothy was one of a new generation of women, like the V.O.N. nurses, learning how to drive in the wartime era.

As to the cost of the car, these classified ads in The Daily Colonist for a Ford Roadster give an idea of “used” car prices: 1912 Ford Roadster for sale in perfect running order “Will take $185 if sold at once” (January 23 1916), Ford Roadster Model 16 $350 (September 7 1917), 1916 Ford Roadster for sale, tires nearly new $350 (February 2 1918)

In January 1918, Saanich Council gave Saanich V.O.N. $20 in connection to the car. They were to pay Mr. Dempster of Dupplin Road Garage money for repairs ($20) and a monthly fee of $5 for care and cleaning of the car. Here’s the location of Dupplin Road Garage from a contemporary Fire Insurance Plan. (Note – Patrick W. Dempster, motor mechanic, was also Chairman of Ward 2 and a Saanich Police Commissioner)

Dupplin Road Garage in grey on a 1911 Fire Insurance Map. Photo credit: University of Victoria Fire Insurance Plans

Dupplin Road Garage was to get lots of business in connection to the V.O.N.’s Ford Roadster. In May 1918, it was recommended that shock absorbers be fitted to the car. At the June 4 1918 V.O.N. meeting, it was reported that the car had suffered a relapse – one of the hubs had given away, in addition to which the engine needed overhauling, which was estimated to cost $20. On July 2 1918, Mr. Carey reported that since the last meeting, he had inspected the car and recommended that repairs be made and the car overhauled, “same costing about $40.”

No surprise about the shock absorbers or the engine overhaul – the roadster was going over some rough terrain. This snapshot of West Saanich Road near the Observatory gives an idea of the kind of roads the V.O.N. car would be dealing with in rural Saanich.

Walking along present-day Ralph Street near Swan Lake in the 1910s. Photo by Annie Girling. Photo credit: Saanich Archives
Typical roads of rural Saanich in the wartime years. This photo was taken on the West Saanich Road near the Observatory. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

Very few roads in Saanich were paved at this time. Saanich Council minutes circa 1918 make many references to road work such as rocking and gravelling. These are Council Minutes from October 29 1918.

Saanich Council minutes October 29 1918. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

The Saanich V.O.N. also needed to make the car’s “House”, as it is termed in the minutes. Mr. Carey offered use of a site for the garage and offered to supply the nails. Mr. Owens offered to see the building erected. The Secretary, Mr. Clegg, was to write to Saanich Council soliciting their assistance as far as materials were concerned. On August 6 1918, it was reported that Saanich Council agreed to grant the V.O.N. money to build a garage. “The matter of the garage to be left over until September.” (At sometime during Fall 1918, Mr. Carey and Mr. Owens, being too busy to build the garage, hired a ‘returned man’ to do this for $18).

In Spring 1918, the V.O.N. car got a lot of mileage with its visits to patients and school inspections all over Saanich. The Nurses Report for June 1918 noted 225 visits and 100 school children inspected. The nurses had clearly been feeling stretched with the school visits and in July 1918 made a schedule that the urban schools would receive visits every 4 weeks, the rural schools every 6 weeks. (The July 1918 minutes also note “The desirability of adding a transportation cost to visits of 15 cents in any part of South Saanich.)

The V.O.N. car was also used to carry babies. On September 14 1918, Miss Kate Abbott (whose mother boarded the V.O.N. nurses) used the car to run Saanich mothers and babies to the V.O.N.’s Better Baby Clinic: “The “jitney service” under the skilled driver Miss Abbott attended to the safe conduct of the mothers and babies and to her skill and kindly interest are due the thanks of both committee and the mothers.” (Victoria Daily Times September 18 1918)

In October 1918, the influenza epidemic arrived in Saanich. Immediately, the V.O.N. car was travelling all over Saanich. The V.O.N. nurses were seeing around 32 cases a day. “In order that the nurses should lose not the least time in getting from case to case, Miss [Kate] Abbott was in readiness with the car practically day and night…” (Victoria Daily Times November 14 1918). Saanich Police Chief James Dryden also drove nurses in the police car. See his comment from a letter dated November 5 1918 (1 month after the epidemic started): “The car used by the Police Department has travelled over 1100 miles in the work”. This gives us an idea of the mileage that the V.O.N.’s Ford Car may have got!

The nurses used the car to deliver food to sick families. Mrs. Darbyshire (vice president of the V.O.N. Branch) set up a soup kitchen in her home. “From Mrs. Darbyshire’s two gallons have been sent out daily, the procedure being that the nurses have called for the huge cans, and on their rounds have left the welcome food at the homes where it was most needed.” (Victoria Daily Times November 14 1918) The V.O.N. (and their car’s) work was vital to Saanich’s war against influenza. Police Chief Dryden wrote: “if the Victorian Order of Nurses had not taken the situation in hand, situations in Saanich would have been deplorable.”

The “unceasing labors” of V.O.N. Nurse Jessie Forshaw made her a ready victim of the “flu”. Though the case was not serious, her heart became weak. The doctor forbade her to use the car — in other words, she would strain her heart by starting the car by hand crank. V.O.N. Secretary Mr. Clegg wired Ottawa for help to install a self-starter for the car and to install shock absorbers (mentioned back in May 1918 but still not installed). V.O.N. Superintendent Mrs. Hanington agreed that H.Q. would bear the cost of the self-starter, and to forward the bill to Ottawa. Mr. Clegg also instructed the Ford garage to install the shock absorbers (“which were authorized a long time ago”). At the March 28 1919 meeting, a letter was read from the Board of Governors in Ottawa, advising that the amount of $150 for the self-starter for the car was enclosed.

As 1919 got underway, the Ford Roadster continued to be a success. Saanich V.O.N. nurses were kept as busy as ever with their school visits. At the June 11 1919 meeting, “The advisability of buying another car for the use of the nurses to ease the work among the school children was discussed.” The July 18 1919 meeting minutes note “As the work of the nurses of the order has increased so much in this district, the necessity of a new car was suggested.” On February 16 1920, the Saanich V.O.N. Branch held its annual meeting. The treasurer’s statement showed that the Branch now had two cars — “Assets, 2 motors $1,200”. They definitely needed those two cars! See this overview from Nurse (now Superintendent) Jessie Forshaw’s report of cases from 1919:

The Daily Colonist February 17 1920

A couple of years later, the nurses were even more busy! “Besides working at the [baby] clinics, the three nurses are always on call to any part of the municipality and are provided with two cars to speed them on their way. They look after chronic and other cases unsuitable for general hospital, continue treatment of patients discharged from hospitals, attend cases where removal would entail breaking up of the home, care for mothers during pregnancy, assist the doctor at birth, give post natal care and follow up the child until school age.” (The Daily Colonist November 24 1921)

The two Ford cars were approximating about 2,000 miles a month but couldn’t keep up pace with demand. See this comment from the Saanich nurses in the Twenty-Sixth Report of the Provincial Board of Health (1921-22): “The two [cars] at present are not adequate to our present needs, and will certainly not meet our future work and needs if a proper public health programme is to be carried out.” By 1923-24, the nurses reported: “We have an additional nurse on the staff this year and we hope to purchase another Ford car.”

Fast forward to the 1930s, and here are the four Saanich district nurses and their three cars.

By the 1930s, Saanich district nurses had three cars. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

This story is part of a look at community, health and education in World War One era Saanich B.C. Thank you to Saanich Archives for making available the handwritten minute book of the Saanich Branch, Victorian Order of Nurses. Learn more about the V.O.N. nurses’ work with infant care in Better Babies of Saanich and learn more about school nursing work in The Health of the Saanich School Children.

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