Craigflower - The British Empire Connection
(Based on a talk at a ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Craigflower house, May 6, 2006)
The historic significance of this treasure of a Vancouver Island colonial house encompasses the mid-19th century theories of colonization favoured by Queen Victoria’s government in the 1840s.
The Craigflower Farm community is mainly associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company now, but the house and the Kenneth McKenzie family are part of the larger scene of the mid 19th century, - Think British Empire – during the period of rapid expansion around the world.
In the 1830s and 1840s, - only about half a century after the Cook and Vancouver Pacific expeditions, - Britain was setting up colonies in Australia and New Zealand, and looking seriously at the west coast of North America. There was much discussion how best to populate its new colonies. In distinctively British ways, of course.
Transporting convicts to Australia was one colonization scheme that didn’t turn out too well, so the Colonial office in London was looking at other ways to spread the British influence far and wide.
One of these, the Wakefield system, became flavour of the decade in the 1840s.
Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a bit of a rascal, began theorizing about the penal system and colonization during the three years he spent in Newgate prison, for running off with a fifteen-year-old heiress. His writings – and his aggressive self promotion – caught on with the highest levels of the British government.
By 1838, properly rehabilitated, Wakefield was in Canada with Lord Durham, and contributed to Durham’s influential report on the state of British North America – recommending self government.
By 1849, when the Colony of Vancouver Island came into existence, Wakefield had written The Art of Colonization, which became a major influence on the settlement of our Island.
To oversimplify, Wakefield’s theories: He proposed a system not unlike the social system in Britain at the time: Rich gentlemen landowners would pay five pounds an acre for vast tract of lands, go out to the colonies with their own labourers, millers, butchers, bakers - and perhaps even candlestick makers – and their families - to set up self-sufficient communities. (It was hoped that Colonies would not be a drain on British taxpayers.)
There was some urgency to populate the wilderness colony with Britons before the U.S. could take over the whole Pacific coast north to Alaska. Remember the 54-40 or fight slogan? And free land for American settlers? Fortunately, establishment of the 49th parallel boundary in 1846 was a deterrent.
Independent settlers in Britain, however, were not lining up to purchase a minimum of 100 acres at £1 per acre - and pay passage for themselves their families, their workmen and their families, to come to an unknown colony on the other side of the world. Maps, surveys, descriptions of the land, were not easily available for this land of the fur trade beyond the Rocky Mountains.
Enticements such as being able to “enjoy the rights of fishing all sorts of fish in the seas, bays and inlets around Vancouver Island” and “the privilege of working any coal mine on his land, on payment of a royalty of two shillings and sixpence per ton” didn’t work.
Enter the Hudson’s Bay Company, as agents in charge of the newly formed Colony of Vancouver’s Island, famously leased to the Company for 10 shillings a year.
They already had a fur trade establishment, Fort Victoria, and were familiar with the country. They would be at least to hold the fort, so to speak, against Americans to the south and the Russians to the north. (The Royal Navy might be called on to help – though its Pacific Base was rather far away in the south Pacific at Valparaiso.)
The Colonial office and the HBC directors came to an arrangement. Part of the deal was the Company’s commitment to encourage settlers – even if they had to lure them out as employees of the Company, passage paid for gentry, workmen and all their families, on the Company’s sailing ships.
Chief Factor James Douglas did his conscientious best. He tried to warn the authorities in London that farming on Vancouver Island would not be profitable for several years, - the land was covered with forests, much of it rocky, all unfenced, and not a bit like the cultivated farms of The Old Country.
Of the four locations chosen by Douglas for this undertaking, Craigflower, under the direction of the energetic Kenneth McKenzie, was the most successful – for the first 10 years of its existence.
It was indeed a model community much as the Wakefield system proposed. McKenzie directed the whole establishment, including the building of this House – a very superior house indeed for Victoria in the days when the only other two-story dwelling was that of Governor Douglas himself.
Life was as it should be, at least for the management class in a thoroughly British society that grew around Fort Victoria.
Then the Fraser River gold rush happened - and transformed the neat little village a few hundred European settlers, as hundreds of hopeful miners passed through. The later Mainland colony of British Columbia had no time for orderly colonization à la Wakefield system.
Victoria became a city in 1861, - and Craigflower farm was no longer profitable for the HBC. Kenneth and Agnes McKenzie and several of their eight children moved to their own home at a former HBC sheep farm at Christmas Hill.
But the house survived in many incarnations.
E.C. Holden and his wife were first to recognize resort potential for the site.
In 1868 he advertised for boarders and summer visitors at “One of the most beautiful and picturesque spots in the Colony – fishing, hunting, bathing, boating and every other rural recreation … Croquet, Swings, Quoits and a convenient landing for boating parties. Refreshments of all kinds except Wines Ales and Spirits … at all hours.”
The house was then leased to farming families like the Parkers and Pidcocks for many years. By the 1920s, H. E. Newton leased it as a nature sanctuary and a summer camp for young ladies. Then the HBC took it back again to turn it into staff club house.
The Company finally sold the house and land to John Christie. He and his family lived in the house, but leased parts for a service station and motel, in the present parking lot, and Big Ben’s Burgers until the 1960s.- the worst indignities of its century and a half. Christie also demolished the crumbling remains of the old buildings across the road to build the waterside Craigflower Motel.
Jean and Gerald Thompson, who lived in the house in the 1960s, were first to open it to the public, and deserve credit for their years of stewardship.
The provincial government acquired it, restored it under architect Peter Cotton to as close as possible to the McKenzie era.
And now, this house, built on this site for a farm bailiff, as part of the British Empire’s orderly colonization efforts, is a national historic site.
Also see Agnes McKenzie’s Craigflower Dream House and Labour Strife at Craigflower Farm
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