RIVERVIEW STORIES: Finding a family's history
Bill Bidewell slides a stack of papers out of a large brown envelope and starts flipping through the pages.
Admission records. Ward reports. Doctors’ notes. Clothing inventory. Medical certificate under the Mental Hospitals Act. Registration of Death.
Bidewell lifts one side of a bright yellow file folder; inside is a jumble of old sepia-toned photographs of varying sizes, documenting a young man’s arrival in Canada, a wedding, a family camping trip to Bowen Island.
These pages and pictures form the history of his wife’s family, a story he has carefully and diligently curated over a 20-year span. What he uncovered about her grandparents was “mind-boggling,” he said, and came as an upsetting surprise to both of them.
Irene Bidewell’s grandfather had been committed to what was then the Provincial Mental Hospital at Essondale after suffering a mental break. Believing herself to have been the cause of his decline, and failing in her own efforts to “cure” his condition, Irene’s grandmother later suffered her own break and was also committed to Essondale.
In separated wards far away from each other, and 14 years apart, husband and wife both died at the institution.
Bidewell’s search into his own family’s history started in the early 1980s with hours spent digging into government census records and at the genealogy centre located at the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints near his home in Kelowna.
Eventually, he turned to his wife and said, “What about your family?”
Irene knew little about them except that her grandfather had died at Essondale.
“Her mother had lived with us for eight years and never said anything about her parents,” Bidewell said. “There was no talk about family, period. You just didn’t talk about those things.”
Bidewell persevered, however, and in 2010 created a summary of his findings.
Irene Bidewell’s maternal grandparents were born in Kent, England — Caroline Julia Horton, known as Carrie, in December 1866 and Edward Spain in January 1867.
In 1887, Edward and his older brother Cyrus sailed for Canada but it was 1889 before Edward made it to Vancouver.
Carrie arrived in Canada in May 1891 and she and Edward were married on June 1 in Vancouver. They had two children — Lily (Irene’s mother) in September 1893, followed by Violet in October 1898.
Devout Christians, Edward and Carrie were active members of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, participating in services and leading Sunday school activities.
A change in church leadership in 1928 prompted a split in the close-knit community, however, and the Spains followed their minister to the new Metropolitan Tabernacle.
At about the same time, Edward was promoted to a supervisory position in his work at CP Rail. But what would be cause to celebrate for most people caused in Edward a crippling anxiety.
“Edward could be an eager and co-operative participant in most activities...[but] when it came to leadership, he was willing to give preference to others,” Bidewell wrote in his summary, noting that during their Atlantic crossing, Cyrus led the church services while Edward was “happy to assist with hymn books and distributing tracts.”
Edward felt like a failure in his new role at CP and his wife’s encouragement did little to bolster his spirits. He grew to hate work and had days where he was unable to get out of bed.
Their savings depleted and the couple was eventually forced to move in with their younger daughter and her family in Vancouver.
Edward’s condition worsened and on April 27, 1931, he was admitted to Essondale.
“He is very confused and little information can be gotten from him,” wrote a Dr. Minorgan. “His manner is very nervous. He has no idea of the nature of his present condition.”
Attitude — friendly.
Attention — difficult to gain.
Memory — poor.
Mental grasp — poor.
Emotional trend — unstable.
Propensity — delusions varied, confused.
“Keeps repeating over the same words,” wrote a Dr. George Petrie. “Either does not answer questions or does not answer them intelligently. Keeps stating that he is very wicked but has always lived a very upright life adhering to religious principles.”
“Other facts indicating insanity,” the medical certificate continued, include that “his wife and son-in-law stated that he asked to have his throat cut.”
CHANGE OF SCENERY
Two years later, little had changed for Edward and Carrie’s guilt was eating away at her.
She believed she had caused Edward’s mental breakdown after pushing him too hard to overcome his troubles at work, and decided a change of scenery would do her husband some good.
Carrie negotiated a six-month probationary release from Essondale for him and they travelled to Saskatchewan to live with their older daughter, Lily, and her husband, Oswald Smith. The experiment not only failed but caused Carrie to become depressed as well, and she too suffered a mental break.
Edward was re-admitted to Essondale on Nov. 18 with a diagnosis of “involutional melancholia,” and Carrie followed a month later.
“The patient is showing no improvement,” read the ward notes of Jan. 15, 1934. “She still refuses to speak and stands about the day room. She is mildly agitated. Her appetite is very poor and she is fed with difficulty.”
Caroline Spain died on Jan. 31, 1934. Cause of death was listed as “exhaustion of senile dementia.”
The weekly ward notes documenting Edward’s condition indicate a patient who was generally quiet but occasionally agitated. He talked to himself and worried excessively about his physical health.
Family and friends regularly visited but he would demand they take him home and refused to speak to them when they did not comply. Eventually, only his son-in-law Oswald Smith was able to endure the visits.
Edward died on Aug. 1, 1948 at the age of 81. Cause of death was listed as pneumonia, with a diagnosis of senile dementia.
SOLACE IN FAITH
Bidewell admits that he’s not an emotional person but that his wife was deeply upset to learn her grandparents’ fate. “It was disturbing at first because I had no idea that was the situation, and it’s so, so sad,” Irene Bidewell said in a quiet voice.
She was an infant the only time she met her grandmother and has a dim memory of meeting her grandfather on the lawn at Essondale and giving him a chocolate bar. “I was so disappointed because he didn’t eat it,” she recalled. “He put it in his pocket where it would get soft.”
But her husband’s research revealed Edward and Carrie spent years helping at the Baptist Sunday school and, as the Bidewells spent their careers as missionaries, Irene found solace in her grandparents’ steadfast faith.
“And he played the violin,” she added. “He was a beautiful violinist.”