Who was Cowichan’s Margaret Moss?

The Margaret Moss Health Centre on Canada Avenue turned 100 this year. It was named after Cowichan Station’s Margaret Moss. (Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)
Margaret Moss with her husband Claude at Cowichan Station in the 1920s, where they had their home. (Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)
Margaret Moss circa the 1920s. (Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)

By Carolyn Prellwitz

Announcement of the establishment of the Cowichan Health Centre in Duncan was reported on the front page of the Sept. 16, 1920 Cowichan Leader newspaper. It also reported that the executive committee of the Cowichan Electoral District Health Centre had elected Mrs. Margaret Moss as its first president at a meeting held Aug. 27 in the Cowichan Women’s Institute rooms in the Agricultural Hall in Duncan.

Who was this newly elected president?

Born 1871 in Gillrigg, Parish of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, Maggy Johnstone, as she was known then, worked as a teacher between 1891 and 1901. During the Boer War she was selected by the British Colonial office to work among the women and children in the concentration camps in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and was later put in charge of educational services there. It was likely here that Margaret met Major Claude Moss, then serving as the deputy assistant adjutant general of the Orange River Colony. They married Dec. 24, 1903 at the Presbyterian Church in Bloemfontein. On her husband’s retirement from the army in 1908 the couple came to Vancouver Island to settle and live in Cowichan Station in a house they called ‘Tempe’.

It was not long before Margaret got involved in her new community. She was instrumental in organizing the Cowichan Branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society in 1914. The outbreak of the First World War that same year saw her husband answering Lord Kitchener’s call for the services of retired officers. He returned immediately to England and served from Dec. 14, 1914 to May 19, 1919, first in England, and later France and Austria.

Margaret followed her husband to England in 1915. There she supervised the Soldier’s Home in Whitchurch, Shropshire and became a member of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, a charity providing items for comfort for the troops.

When the Women’s Corps was formed, Margaret took training and in February 1918 was appointed a Principal with the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the Portsmouth division. She transferred to the Women’s Royal Air Force in November 1918 where she was appointed Assistant Commandant on staff in London with 11,000 women under her command. For her military services she was awarded an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) and personally thanked by King George V at a Buckingham Palace investiture in April 1919.

After discharge, both Margaret and her husband, now with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, returned to their home in Cowichan Station where they again immersed themselves in local community service. It was Claude who drafted the constitution of the Cowichan Health Centre and Margaret who became its first president.

At the start the Cowichan Health Centre area of coverage extended from Chemainus to Shawnigan Lake with two registered nurses on staff. The first Health Centre was located on First Street as of November 1920. In June 1922 it moved to the upstairs of the Baron Block on Station Street, in January 1927 to an eight-roomed house on Government Street and then in 1931 to what is today known as the Green Door House on Ingram Street.

Nineteen twenty-four was a banner year for the centre as Margaret approached every school board in the Cowichan Valley — there was no overall school district at that time — with a health scheme which would provide nursing service at the rate of $1 a year per student. Fifteen school boards signed on! Further, the provincial board of health printed its first annual report of the Cowichan Health Centre with the cover photo featuring the centre’s office at the Baron Block with two official cars and two nurses standing by for action!

Margaret’s husband, Claude, died very suddenly at their home at ‘Tempe’, Cowichan Station on Jan. 20, 1930.

Margaret Moss served as president of the Cowichan Health Centre from 1920-1935. In 1931 she gave a lengthy report to the annual general meeting of the centre about the 11 years of good service provided by the centre to children and homes in the district, reminding attendees that the first rural dental clinic in B.C. was inaugurated by the Cowichan Health Centre in 1923. She also commented on how the affiliation of the centre with the nursing programme at UBC since 1921 saw many nursing students doing their field work experience in Cowichan.

A social afternoon was held April 2, 1932 in honour of Margaret. A large, framed photograph inscribed “Margaret Moss, O.B.E., Founder of Cowichan Health Centre, President, 1920-1932” had been hung in the office of the Health Centre. A copy of the same photograph was presented at the tea to Margaret with the inscription: “Presented to Mrs. Moss by Cowichan Health Centre Committee. In Loving Appreciation.”

In September 1935 Margaret, now a widow of five years and in declining health, sold her home and returned to Scotland to reside with her brothers and sisters. A farewell tea was given her by the executive of the Cowichan Health Centre for her many years of public service to the district and at which time it was announced that a brass plate would be installed in the Centre to read: “In memory of Margaret Moss, President, 1920-1935, and Robie Whidden, Secretary, 1920-1927.”

Margaret died Aug. 20, 1937 in Dumfries, Scotland. The announcement of her death in the Cowichan Leader concluded with the following: “To charming personality there was added, in Mrs. Moss, extraordinary organizing ability and exceptional gifts of administration. She leaves here a splendid record of brave, wise and unselfish service. Her example challenges, and lives.” That record of service included not only the Cowichan Health Service but also the Cowichan Red Cross Society, Cowichan Station School Board, South Cowichan Girl Guides, South Cowichan Women’s Institute, the I.O.D.E. and Queen Alexandra Solarium.

The transfer of the Cowichan Health Centre to the Vancouver Island Health Unit of the B.C. Department of Health occurred on Sept. 1, 1946. Margaret Moss, O.B.E., was acknowledged again at that time as the founder who conceived the idea of establishing a health centre in Duncan under a plan formulated by Dr. H. E. Young of the B.C. Department of Public Health to continue the activities of the Red Cross which were abandoned after the First World War.

As a final tribute in her honour, the brand-new health centre building at 675 Canada Ave. was named the Margaret Moss Centre when it opened April 4, 1961.

Carolyn Prellwitz is a volunteer archivist at the Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives.

Footnote: The Cowichan Valley Museum Archives, located on the 3rd floor of Duncan City Hall, is currently closed to the public due to COVID19. However, the four volunteer archivists continue to work at the archives and are still available to respond to questions from the public and news media about people, places and events related to the history of the Cowichan Valley as well as to receive donations in the form of photos, letters, maps, scrapbooks, albums, documents, etc. related to the Cowichan Valley to add to the collection. To contact the archives, email cvma@shaw.ca or cvmuseum.archives@shaw.ca

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