Royal Columbian still growing after 150 years

The version of Royal Columbian Hospital constructed in 1889. - RCH Foundation
The version of Royal Columbian Hospital constructed in 1889.
— image credit: RCH Foundation

Amongst the mud, shops and shacks of New Westminster during the city’s embryonic stages, Royal Columbian Hospital was born on Oct. 7, 1862.

There was no place in the colony of British Columbia to serve the medical needs of those that couldn’t afford to be treated by a doctor at home. Hospitals, 150 years ago, were for the “indigent,” those with little money and no family or friends to take care of them.

Local leaders went to other communities in the colony, such as Lytton and Yale, seeking contributions, says local historian Dale Miller, who has spent the year doing a 150th anniversary blog chronicling Royal Columbian’s past (

The result was a two-ward, 30-bed facility at what is now Agnes and Fourth streets. In those days, Royal meant public, and Columbian referred to the colony.

The patients were all men.

It’s not that women were excluded, it just wasn’t practical.

There weren’t medically trained nurses around in those days. Patients were taken care of by men who didn’t know how to deal with medication. They were hired to feed and take care of the patients. Treatment was carried out by doctors, says Miller.

So with the hospital full of single sailors, miners and lumberjacks looking for a clean, warm place to recover from their illnesses, and male employees, it didn’t make sense for women to go there.

“That wasn’t somewhere you’re going to put your wife, or if you were a woman that’s not a place where you wanted to be,” says Miller.

A quarter century later it was already too small and too old. In 1889, RCH moved to a “more modern” facility on East Columbia near where the current hospital sits. It held 80 beds and took $25,000 to build compared to the $3,394 it took to complete the original RCH. And this one had a separate ward for female patients.

Since most New Westminster residents lived downtown there was an outcry the new hospital was too far away. But that dissipated after a streetcar line was opened, and it attracted more doctors and patients.

“FIrst thing you know it’s filled, that’s the nature of the beast,” says Miller.

The biggest leap forward, she says, came in 1901 when RCH joined forces with the women’s hospital on Third Avenue and started a nursing school.

“You have bodies to take care of people,” says Miller. “It really begins to snowball.”

In December 1912, the cornerstone for a new hospital was laid that eventually opened in 1914, costing $143,000 and able to serve 170 patients, only a quarter of what it can today. Part of that cornerstone is still in the foyer of RCH.

Another wing was built in 1950 (which was replaced in 1992) and in 1978 the current health care centre was constructed.

“By the time the health care centre is built, it’s really quite an imposing place,” says Miller.

In 1964, Royal Columbian was declared a regional hospital for particular health needs. It became much more specialized with patients needing higher levels of medical treatment sent there. One of those specialties was trauma because its location made sense. Not only is New Westminster in the centre of the Lower Mainland, the hospital is just a few blocks from a freeway exit.

“Then, as is now, we are the hub, so with all the traffic problems they land here,” says Miller.

In June of this year, the provincial government announced it has approved proceeding with plans for a redevelopment of RCH which could cost $750 million or more.

“It will probably be as big a change as we’ve seen before. So in 10 years we’ll probably be talking about how in 2012 they made as big a change as they ever made before,” says Miller.

The hospital has been celebrating its sesquicentennial with public events throughout 2012, but will have a non-public event next Friday to mark the anniversary.

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