The Irvine family at Rose Bank Farm in Saanich in 1892 Photo courtesy of Saanich Archives

Saanich 150 years ago: ‘Nothing but Indians & wilderness’

“Nothing but Indians &wilderness.”

That is how Jack Irvine described the Greater Victoria area in his memoirs when his parents John and Jessie Irvine arrived in 1851 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Fort Victoria.

The couple had come to Scotland to make a new life for themselves, and the memoirs of their youngest son born in 1861 and recorded in the early 1940s ofter a glimpse at Saanich150 years ago.

While not yet a part of Canada, the sociology of Saanich’s small European population reflected larger prevailing trends. Most were likely of Anglo-Saxon ancestry, most likely belonged to a Protestant denomination, and most were likely making their living off land as farmers, based on the available records.

Consider the Irvines. Employment with HBC eventually earned them enough to purchase 100 acres of land for $570 in 1857 near Cedar Hill. The family named their new home Rose Bank Farm for the wild roses found growing there and they eventually owned more than 300 acres.

In his memoirs, Jack speaks of working on the farm two or three years before Confederation when he was not even 10 years old. “This was about the year 1869, 1870, [and] by the time I had to be a man [and] do quite a few jobs on the farm, such as milking cows, feeding sheep, cleaning up cow sheds,” he wrote.

What might sound like a hardscrabble life to modern ears was likely the norm for most of the residents of European descent who were living in the Saanich area. However, it is not clear how many actually lived in now modern-day Saanich.

Population records – like most records from this period – are sparse, if not non-existent. Saanich Archives identify 13 property owners in 1858. UBC historian Margaret Ormsby pegs the entire European-born population on Vancouver Island in the early 1850s at around 1,000, with First Nations totalling around 30,000.

It started to grow in the late 1850s, when the discovery of gold in the interior of the mainland colony of British Columbia attracted fortune seekers from around the world, with many but not all coming from the United States.

This gold rush turned Victoria into a transit centre for fortune seekers arriving by ship from San Francisco before travelling to the mainland, thereby changing the whole appearance of Victoria. Every boat arriving in Victoria brought in the words of Ormsby “an indescribable array of Polish Jews, Italian fishermen, French cooks, jobbers, speculators of every kind, land agents, auctioneers, hangers on at auctions, bummers, bankrupts and brokers of every description.” Many of them needed housing, food and room to do business, with predictable results for the urban form of Victoria. Countless new buildings appeared in the span of weeks as Victoria experienced its first but hardly last real estate boom.

“Land values rose: the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned the water frontage and all the good building sites near the harbour, raised the price of town lots from $75 to $1,500 and $3,000 and even higher,” Ormsby writes.

As it did more than 150 years later, high real estate prices in downtown Victoria also impacted Saanich, as the colonial government of Vancouver Island sold off lots, albeit it at a lower price than HBC.

Victoria’s boom during this period likely benefited Saanich farmers like the Irvines, but their general economic existence was likely tenuous against the backdrop of certain realities. They included difficulties getting their products to market in the absence of an effective overland transportation system and tensions with First Nations, who as Jack Irvine said, often received “the dirty end of the stick” when it came to trading with the economically and politically powerful HBC.

Finally, the thrilling days of the late 1850s had turned sour in the 1860s as an economic depression rocked both the colony of Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, a development that eventually led to their merger into the united colony of British Columbia in 1866, one year before Confederation.

It would take another four years for Saanich to join Canada as part of British Columbia and the available records suggest that event did not stir residents, an understandable development.

While the late 1860s and early 1870s witnessed the widespread introduction and use of familiar transportation and communication technologies such as railways and telephones as part of the second industrial revolution, Saanich residents of the period likely had other concerns.

And most residents of European descent likely did not think of themselves as Canadians in any case, but rather as loyal British subjects, their allegiances directed towards the British empire, unless they belonged to those who favoured British Columbia joining the United States.

Few records, physical or otherwise, remain from the Saanich of 1867. But those that do connect present with past generations, including the Irvines.

The present location of St. Luke’s Church built in 1887 is also the location where the original St. Luke’s Church built in 1862 stood. The Irvines lived near the church and Jack Irvine describes attending school there. A curtain hung in the middle of it “allowed it to be used as a school,” he recalled. “[That] was my first experience of school days, some of the kids walked to this school from five to six miles.”

Other area children would have attended the Craigflower School House, completed in 1855.

It – along with the accompanying Craigflower Manor on the View Royal side of the Gorge Waterway – have since become National Historic Sites of Canada.

Finally, subsequent generations of Irvines shaped Saanich until the 1990s by living on the original site of Rose Bank Farm. Some still live in Saanich today.

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