Recreating the empire on the Island
Special to the Midweek
Thousands of British soldiers, sailors, civil servants and others migrated to Vancouver Island from England, Scotland, China, India and other colonial outposts around the world.
Among them were nobles, generals, fishermen, admirals, hunters, cricketers, polo players and pukkha sahibs who left an indelible imprint on Victoria, Campbell River, Cowichan Valley, Comox Valley plus other Island communities.
In his book Imperial Vancouver Island, the author, a retired history professor, has summarized the biographies of 769 men and women who chose the Island as their new home.
To some, it was a veritable Shangri-La, a haven from the outside world. They are arranged in alphabetical order as the subtitle, Who Was Who 1850-1950, suggests.
Some are very short but others are longer stories of adventurous lives on the northwest frontier of India or in distant seas.
How could these British immigrants and their friends, seeking an ideal country in which to retire, resist the charms of Vancouver Island when they read such comments as those of Governor General Lord Lansdowne who visit Victoria in the autumn of 1885 and wrote to his mother, “If I had to live on this continent, I should pitch my tent here.” Bosher sprinkles his biographies with anecdotes of these lives.
In A Sportsman’s Eden (1888), Clive Phillipps-Wolley’s wife wrote a 10-page letter home describing Victoria, her Chinese servants, the many invitations to dances, picnics and tennis parties.
“If only my husband would give up the world and all its pomps and vanities, I would be only too glad to live out the rest of my life in this land of sunshine and sea-breezes,” she wrote.
It was whiffs of such enchantment that caused people like Robert Forian Bernard Lechmere Guppy of the Indian civil service to buy, site unseen, a property on the remote west coast of the Island where he rowed daily to his garden singing Greek songs he had learned at Oxford.
At some time in the late 1920s, Colonel Gerald Bassett Scott met an enterprising B.C. estate agent who was travelling around India talking enthusiastically about ranching opportunities in the Kootenays, the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island.
Colonel Scott was attracted to the Saanich Peninsula where he could live as a gentleman farmer.
A great many more Imperials arrived from India but others might be described as refugees from the freezing winters, baking-hot summers, blackflies and mosquitoes of continental Canada.
As Karl Baedeker observed in the last line of his reputable guide to Canada (1907), “Vancouver Island is almost free from the mosquito and the black fly, which are often troublesome on the mainland.”
As its reputation grew, the Island had perhaps more than a normal share of eccentric gentlemen.
Bosher goes on to describe Robert Aubrey Meade, a minor Scottish nobleman’s son who settled on a homestead at Cowichan Lake after trying to grow coffee in Ceylon.
He lived alone in his cabin, habitually drank champagne, disappeared periodically on some wild adventure and was called upon when distinguished visitors came by because he had the only evening dress in the district.
Bosher, meanwhile, was born in North Saanich where his father was a plant pathologist and bulb inspector with the Dominion Experimental Station. With a Ph.D from London University, he taught history at King’s College London, the University of British Columbia, Cornell University and York University in Toronto.