Labour Strife at Craigflower Farm
(condensed from Craigflower Country)
As Fort Victoria doctor John Helmcken noted in his reminiscences, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, the agricultural arm of the Hudson’s Bay Company, “bought all these lands and spent a heap of money in developing them, but [they] proved a failure.”
Craigflower was one of these Company farms. At its most productive the 900-acre farm carved out of the forest had carpenter’s shops, blacksmith shops, a steam sawmill, flour mill, brick kiln and slaughterhouse, and was a major part of the life of the colony for 13 years, but it never made money for the Company.
In the early days of Fort Victoria large subsidized farms appeared to be the answer for both the British Government, who declared Vancouver Island a Colony in 1849, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose chief fur trader was also governor of the Colony. Both wanted the little settlement to be self-sufficient and profitable for different reasons. To oversimplify, the fur trade company wanted profits for its shareholders, and the Colonial office wanted Britishers of the right sort to settle the land before American settlers rushed across the 49th parallel.
The Company already had the Puget Sound Agricultural Company prepared to establish four large farms like those already prospering elsewhere in its Columbia Department (now British Columbia and Washington State). Britain had its new theories of colonization which proposed sending out gentlemen to run large farming estates and eager labourers to work for them. (Convicts hadn’t worked out too well elsewhere. Company farms had different problems.)
There were numerous reasons for the failure. Uncleared and unfenced land chosen for the farms was covered with giant-size trees, rocks and swamps. Correspondence to and from Company directors in London and Government records are filled with examples of mismanagement and labour troubles at all the farms. But one major problem at Craigflower appears to have been the hot tempered bailiff. Kenneth McKenzie was not a generous employer, and the establishment was plagued with labour trouble from his arrival in January, 1853.
An entry in McKenzie’s journal for April 21, 1853, lists absentees including one of the land stewards “absent with complaints to Mr. Douglas about food.”
A later entry suggests the complaints were not unfounded: “Old cow received from [Chief Factor John] Work and [given] out as follows: Anderson, 20 pounds beef, Lidgate 14, Hume 11, Deans 10 …” and to other workmen’s families, while superior meat from a young bullock was “reserved for young men and my own family.”
Workers were still punished with imprisonment for disobedience or insubordination. In May George Deans, a carpenter, “refused order for work, and very insolent at same time struck work,” McKenzie wrote. Annie Deans wrote home to Scotland indignant about her Geordie’s time “in the chokie.”
McKenzie’s most violent reaction to insubordination is mentioned in an intriguing one-liner in the diary of Craigflower carpenter Robert Melrose: “Mr. McKenzie shot up Bartleman’s Castle.” The ‘castle’ was Peter Bartleman’s blacksmith shop on Craigflower property where he did work for other customers in his spare time. After a dispute over Bartleman’s use of scarce coal for non-company work, McKenzie exploded and destroyed the moonlighting blacksmith’s premises. He demanded that Bartleman be deported back to England. Douglas refused – skilled labour was hard to find – and Bartleman was free to set up shop on James Cooper’s land up the hill from Craigflower.
Nevertheless McKenzie was considered the most competent of the gentlemen farmers. He worked hard at Craigflower until the Company gave up on its money-losing farm in 1865 and forced the family out of the house they loved. They moved to McKenzie’s large sheep farm at Lakehill, which included Christmas Hill and extended south to the present McKenzie Avenue.
Kenneth died in 1874 at the age of 63. Mrs. McKenzie died at Lakehill in 1897.
Also see Agnes McKenzie’s Craigflower Dream House and The British Empire Connection
Back to Excerpts & Reviews OR Craigflower Country
Home | Books, Excerpts & Reviews | Find Books | About the Author | Talks & Articles
Vancouver Island History | Victoria Families | Women's History | Suggested Reading