What’s the history of the Brentwood College site?

How Mill Bay became home to B.C.’s first children’s hospital.

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Hi there, 

I’m Ali Pitargue. I am a recent grad of BCIT Journalism, and I’m interning remotely for The Discourse Cowichan this month. Maybe you caught my story last week about North Cowichan council declining to budget for another RCMP officer. Today, I’m very excited to answer a local history question submitted by one of our readers. Cowichan has been a fascinating place to learn about and I’m eager to share as much as I can.

A Brentwood College School graduate got in touch with us to ask for more information about the history of that property on Mill Bay’s shores.  

In the mid-20th century, the Brentwood College oceanside site served as a temporary home for children battling chronic and long-term illnesses. The Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children opened in 1927 by Malahat Beach — the first children’s health facility in British Columbia.  

To find out more, I reached out to the president of the Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society, Maureen Alexander.

How did the hospital come to be?

Tuberculosis and polio were rampant among children in the 1920s, and there were few supports available for children with complex medical needs, Alexander says. “If you had a child who was afflicted by this, basically there was nothing for them. You just had them at home and you kind of dealt with them as best as you could.”

Edith Scott, a stepmother to a 10 year-old with tuberculosis, played a key role in pushing for change. In 1922, she wrote to the B.C. Women’s Institute pleading for help for Polly, who was discharged from the hospital to make room for other patients with acute illnesses. Moved to help, Women’s Institute branches across B.C. began fundraising to build a long-term healthcare facility for children. 

The facility opened its doors in 1927, with Polly as one of the first patients. Polly went on to live a long and healthy life. 

Children and staff at the solarium. Photo provided by the Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society.

What was it like for the children?

The Mill Bay Historical Society has conducted interviews with patients who were admitted to the solarium. They revealed both happy and heartbreaking memories. Alexander remembers one woman’s story about coming to the solarium for treatment for scarlet fever.  

The woman remembered traveling to the facility when she was four years-old and immediately being quarantined for several weeks. “She said she could remember being — in her words — locked in a room and everything taken from her — all of her clothes, all her toys, all her blankets,” says Alexander. “They were all burned, because [solarium staff] feared contamination.”

Alexander says that the girl’s parents tried to visit once a month with toys and blankets, but they ended up in other children’s hands. “She said, ‘My mother would come in and she would see a lot of the children that didn’t have anybody or anything, so most of my things were that were brought for me were given to other children.’” 

Alexander also notes that other patients had positive experiences to share, not just for saving lives but also for the hospitality. The solarium regularly held activities for the children such as Christmas concerts and Boy Scout groups. “They would spend a lot of time going down to the beach,” said Alexander. “Some of the people were not from the Island so the ocean was a big draw.”

The solarium charged $6 per week of the child’s stay, notes Alexander. The facility rarely turned children away, though many families could not afford the fee, she says. Through those years, a large portion of the solarium’s funding came from donations. 

Outdoor activity was a key component of the children’s therapy. Photo provided by the Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society.

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What is the solarium’s legacy?

The facility moved to Gordon Head in 1958. Alexander says that the move was to bring the facility closer to specialists in Victoria. Three years later, Brentwood College bought the land as their new campus grounds after their original Brentwood Bay location burned down in 1948. 

And the Queen Alexandra Foundation, later renamed the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island, now boasts close to 100 years of serving Island children and families. Last year, the foundation announced a campaign to build Q̓ʷalayu House, a home away from home for families who come to Campbell River for medical care.

Want to learn more?

The New Heritage Museum, a partnership between historical societies of Mill Bay/Malahat, Bamberton and Cobble Hill, has an exhibit about the 1920s that includes information on the early years at the Queen Alexandra Solarium. The museum is in an old church building two minutes away from Brentwood College. It is currently closed to visitors due to COVID-19, and may open later this summer. 

In this meantime, this 1929 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal contains interesting historical information about the solarium. 

What else are you curious about? Send me an email. I’d be glad to hear from you. [end]

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