From the Archives: Quarantine in the 1890s

Jenny Seeman

This photo in the archives' Dunsmuir collection is not the Dunsmuirs under quarantine, but friends of theirs. The sign on the fence reads:

“Scarlet Fever- This house quarantined until Oct. 31 by order of George Duncan.”

There was a small outbreak of scarlet fever in the fall of 1895, the possible timing of this photo. At the time, the city health officer, Dr. George H. Duncan, was praised for his swift action to contain the outbreak of contagious disease.

The women pictured are five of the six daughters of Joseph and Eva Loewen, who lived in a home called Rockwood on the Gorge waterway. They were not far from the Dunsmuirs, who in 1895 were living at their grand home on the Gorge, Burleith. The Loewen and Dunsmuir children were friends and often played together on sports teams and performed in local concerts, several of them being accomplished musicians.

The Loewens sold Rockwood in 1908 and the house soon became associated with scarlet of a different kind. The new owner, Estella Carroll, was better known locally as “the Rockwood Madam” where she operated a house of ill-repute. The Dunsmuirs by this time were living at Government House and awaiting completion of their new home at Hatley Park.

Of course, Scarlet Fever was not the only disease that needed containing in Victoria’s history. In 1918, the Spanish Flu also caused the widespread closure of public spaces to slow the spread of the epidemic. The Dunsmuirs and the Loewens did what they could to help. Laura Dunsmuir gave donations of cash as well as broths and soups to the Friendly Help Society, and Martha Loewen, by this time married and known as Lady Barnard, also gave cash and large quantities of fruit. The Friendly Help Society was a local organisation of women who tasked themselves with supporting underprivileged and needy people in the Victoria area. Laura and James Dunsmuir gave frequent donations to the Red Cross, who were busy aiding troops as well as Influenza patients. Laura Dunsmuir and her daughter Byrdie Audain were also members of the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire (IODE) and during the flu epidemic, the various local chapters worked very hard to bring relief to those in hospitals with the illness as well as those convalescing at home. They cooked meals, mended clothes, and gave food and money where needed. It is reassuring to know that in challenging times, people have always found ways to help each other.

Take a look at the online archives of Victoria’s Daily Colonist newspaper for reports of epidemics and quarantines that have affected the local population in times gone by.