Changed and Changing Countryside

Connell takes a nostalgic look back at the built and natural landscapes of Victoria and Saanich as they were during his first years on the West Coast in the early 1900s, with a focus on the region around Cedar Hill Cross Road and the Shelbourne Valley.


From the Victoria Colonist, August 20th, 1939-

“Believe it or not”, as Ripley says, Victoria has greatly changed in the past 30 or 40 years. Sometimes when I am down town a breath of the old days comes over me. The modern traffic disappears, the modern buildings fade away. Here and there I see a horse hitched to a buggy and tied to a telephone pole, and down Yates Street is a line of express waggons waiting their turn in the wholesale quarters. The old iron Church of Saint John rises austerely on the Douglas Street horizon and Government Street crosses the old wooden bridge and ends abruptly in Lover’s Lane. The street cars swing down Johnson Street where there is a long busy block of stores and the only theatre is the Royal Victoria, entered from Douglas Street. Adjoining it and facing View Street is the solemn Driard Hotel. Across Douglas Street and near the south east corner of Yates is the city’s earliest theater, but I see it as Hardaker’s auction room where its Yorkshire occupant carried on business for many years. Up Fort Street, Harmony Hall still stands, only a ghost of its old self. Here comes a wedding party gaily riding on hacks, the drivers in top hat and he of the bridal one with his whip tied with white favors. The SS Charmer awaits them on Wharf Street. The tide runs in over the mud flats where the Empress now stands, right up to the old cabins below the Reformed Episcopal Church, and old Christ Church looks out over the water. And so the dream of the past goes on till a stop-and-go signal brings me to consciousness of present realities. I wish the Historical Society would give us a “Guide to Old Victoria”.

A colorized panoramic photo of old Victoria showing the pre-fill James Bay mudflats in the foreground with “old Christ Church” on the hill.




Mountains Remain

But it is the countryside I am chiefly thinking of as I write today. The general features of the landscape, of course, remain unchanged and despite “improvements”. Neither Mount Douglas or Mount Tolmie show in the distance any alteration or modification in their form. Even the lowlands retain under their streets and houses some slight traces of their old character. Nevertheless, it is difficult to go anywhere in the neighbouring municipality of Saanich without being reminded of the more rural conditions of the first decade of the century.

I came to the little rectory at Mount Tolmie in October, 1901, just as a lovely autumn was passing into a mild winter. After nearly 14 years on the Prairies the new countryside filled me with wonder. There were still standing pieces of virgin forest within a short distance of our new home, and after the years among poplar bluffs with occasional spruces or a tamarack swamp the great firs struck me with awe. On the other hand, the outcrops of rock brought back memories of the Old Land and especially of the hills and “laws” of Renfrewshire. But it was the spring that peculiarly delighted me with its coming so different from that on the great plains- less spectacular and yet so attractive.

This colorized image of Cedar Hill Cross Road crossing the Shelbourne valley in 1900 shows the area as Connell would have seen it when he first arrived in Victoria. At centre is St. Luke’s Anglican church where he was vicar from 1901-08. Saanich Archives image.




In Open Fields

Just over the top of the road above the little church and almost opposite the old school a path led into open fields bordered by woods of fir, oak and maple. On the east side rose Oak Hill. The fields were part of the Tolmie property and farmed by the late Henry King. The woods were too open to be called forest and this openness, by allowing the sunshine to break in between the trees, freely resulted in a great abundance of wild flowers. Although in close proximity to the school and thus a favourite haunt of children in spring, there was certainly no scarcity of flowers. A rude path, recognizable rather by certain landmarks of rock and tree than by its own clear course, ran through the woods and over a rocky ridge making a shortcut for pedestrians between Cloverdale and the church. It stands out in my memory because along it’s uncertain way I came to know my first Vancouver Island wild flowers. There the white Fawn Lily and the Lady’s Slipper grew, and there I first saw in wonderful profusion the toothwort, or Pretty Maids, so daintily fresh with their sweet-scented four-petalled flowers, white tinged with purple. Then on the rocks here I first saw Blue-Eyed Mary, Dwarf Mimulus and Sea Blush, while where the trail met the road the Prairie scene came back when I saw the aspen poplar near a little bridge. The woods were at times marked with the paper “scent” of paperchasers who in those days gave zest to their horseback riding by this form of hunt.

The Distant Hills

Along the Cedar Hill Cross Road west there was, as there still are, fine views of the distant hills and especially of the Malahat. But what I miss now are the beautiful fields of waving green or of clover with their natural hedges of native shrubs following the ditches. It was on the east side of one of these hedges near Blenkinsop Road that I saw about 8 o’clock one May morning a cougar on the prowl. I had two companions with me in the rig and as we were all three quite new to the country the site of the animal at a comparatively close distance was interesting and gratifying. In those days we called the animal a “panther” and I have often wondered how the more technically correct name came in. The animals were common about the Cedar Hill district at that time. My old friend, Henry King, went out for the cows one evening in the fields between his farm and the Irvine one, and getting over one of the old-fashioned snake fences almost lit on the top of a cougar. The animal went up a small tree and remained there under the watchful eye of the dog until Jack Irvine was brought and shot it.

Jack “Long Gun” Irvine (left) was one of the first settlers born at the colony of Vancouver Island in 1860. His family settled at Rosebank Farm near the corner of Cedar Hill Road and what is today McKenzie Ave. He was a notorious cougar hunter. Saanich Archives image.



The westward road ran at that time through a very fine piece of dense forest. In the daytime it was a dark leaf shadowed canyon, very grateful in the heat of summer, and at night it was a place of thick darkness where you trusted to your horse to keep the middle of the narrow road. I once tried it on a bicycle without a light, and in the pitchy blackness missed the track, fell off, lost my glasses, and spent some time and a box of matches in recovering them. Beyond the wood was a right-angled turn in the road and here stood the Nicholson home, a substantial red brick house, long since pulled down. It was occupied by two brothers, one a widower, the other a bachelor, and with one or other of them I used to have many a chat at the wood pile. They were connected with much of the early road building on the Island and had plenty of tales to tell of their experiences. A third brother was a well-known schoolmaster. They were Irishman and, if I remember aright, came from far-famed Killarney.


Some Blue Lillies

At the back of the rectory was a small field broken by bold ledges of rock and falling away at the north east corner to a little triangular piece of arable land bordered at its base by the Cedar Hill Road. Among the common flowers that grew in this pasture field, which was then only sprinkled by broom, was one that is rare nowadays. It is sometimes called Brodiaea douglasii, sometimes Hookera grandiflora, but it is now styled with apparently more propriety Tritileia grandiflora. It is a strikingly handsome plant of the lily family, resembling a small scale the African lily or agapanthus. The blue flowers are gathered in a loose cluster at the summit of the stem which may be from a foot to a foot and a half high. Some years ago I came across it in some quantity at the Quarantine Station, William Head, but in building a new office the soil from the excavation was piled several feet deep over the blue lily patch.

Triteleia grandiflora/ Large-flower Triteleia/ Wild Hyacinth.

Another little flower that flourished in the grass near the tiny hayfield was a pure white and sweet scented violet which had undoubtedly escaped from a garden and established itself in this rather shady and moist nook.

By the upper part of the pasture field you came out eventually on the long gravel ridge that extends south from Mount Douglas. I used to travel this route on foot frequently, sometimes with my two older sons and sometimes by myself, gun on shoulder, for it was a famous place for quail. It was a rough, broken stretch with scattered oaks of all sizes from the smallest shrub up. You could dip into an alder-bordered bottom down which you looked across the farmlands with Mount Tolmie rising above, very impressive in height when thus viewed across the valley.

Mount Tolmie from the Shelbourne Valley c1930. Saanich Archives image.

You could tramp along among rocks and broom or you could work your way through wet swales where the balsam firs rose above thickets of wild rose and willow. Where the long train of gravel is definitely met with I found on one of these expeditions the remains of an ancient oak. Unfortunately, I have long since lost its diameter – it was but a dead stump about four or 5 feet high – but I do remember that it was greatly larger than any oak I had seen at that time. A few years ago I struggled over this old line of march and came out at the greenhouses on Glendinning Road where a road to Mount Douglas turns off, but the character of the ridge at almost wholly changed and it was with the greatest difficulty that I could realize it was what I had known so familiarly in bygone days. Usually our first visit at Mount Douglas was made to the mine on its west side and the miner’s cabin, and this partly at least because it lay naturally at the end of the course we took. In those days you could get quite easily to the end of the shaft but we always had a faint suspicion we might find a panther in its depths, a suspicion born partly of my ignorance of the animals and partly of faint memories drawn from various long-since-read books of adventure. The gold mine got greater interest from a mild gold rush of those days in the valley when I believe some claims were staked and when certainly a vertical shaft was sunk on what is now Glendinning Road and was then the approach to a farm.


Place of Worship

In those days there stood by the road, a few hundred feet north of St. Luke’s Church, an old clapboard building of ecclesiastical design with some of the original whitewash still clinging to the walls. This was the first place of worship in the district, erected in the early days of Bishop Hills– in the 1860s, to be more exact. It originally stood where the present church is and was moved on its erection to the place where I knew it. It was still occasionally used. I recall one cold winter morning when a strong north wind was blowing and the church chimney most decidedly refused to draw. As a consequence the building was so filled with smoke that it oozed out along the eaves as if it were on fire. The congregation went to the elder building in despair. The chief drawback of this pioneer place of worship was that it had become very thoroughly saturated with the odour of bats. A large colony of these little animals had established itself between the ceiling and the roof and had been in undisputed possession for I know not how many years. High up in the west gable was a small opening, it’s edges stained black by the summer long daily procession of hundreds of bats year after year. It used to fascinate my boys and myself to watch in the evening the punctual emergence at dusk of the little flying creatures as they came out on their aerial hunt. The other day I read an interesting plea in an English paper for the preservation of bats in church roofs and towers there. Perhaps the more solid construction of the ancient churches of the Old Land tends to isolate the odor; it certainly spoiled the popularity of St. Luke’s old schoolhouse. After my time it was sold for a trifle and removed, but I’ve always regretted the loss of the historic building associated as it was with the pioneer families of the valley.


Names Then Unknown

I have already mentioned Oak Hill, the rocky eminence on the opposite side of the road to the Mount Tolmie schoolhouse and the parish hall of St. Luke’s. This used to be one of my favourite spots, easily accessible and yet giving a very fine view of the valley of Bowker Creek – I was ignorant of the stream’s name in those days – and of the Olympics. Away to the north was the Malahat, then untraversed by road and so mysterious a country as was also the region of the Sooke Hills except in the immediate neighbourhood of Goldstream.

The landscape looking northwest from Mount Tolmie with Little Saanich Mountain in the distance, c1920. Saanich Archives image.

I used to examine the rocks of which I knew next to nothing and I remember the delight with which I came across a piece of white quartz containing a large fragment of black tourmaline which I identified by its curious triangular cross-section. It was a piece of glacial debris from some distant spot, probably in the Coast Range, and greatly proud of it I was. The large firs that still stand there recall the plague of oak caterpillars we suffered from in two consecutive years somewhere about 1904. These loopers were in vast numbers, enveloping the oaks in veils of white web, covering sidewalks with their crawling bodies, and even making their way into houses. We had our water stored in a tank outside and on its moist sides you couldn’t put your finger between the smooth gray green bodies. They stripped the oaks of foliage, they stripped fruit trees in the orchards, and when neither tree nor shrub was left they climbed Oak Hill and attacked the needles of the firs. One or two large trees died from the complete destruction of their green matter. Where the oaks hung their branches across the road as they did in many places the traveller in waggon wheel buggy carried with him an unpleasant cargo of stowaways. It was a ticklish time in more senses than one.


A Road Unchanged

As I ramble around the Mount Tolmie, Cedar Hill or Cadboro Bay districts today I find only one piece of road that is almost if not wholly unchanged. This is between the descent from Mount Tolmie and the golf links. It was along there in the shadow of the balsam firs that I first saw the trillium in flower and it still persists in places. The trees are old enough for them to make their further growth comparatively imperceptible to the observer below. Buildings by the cleared fields within have fallen down, gone up in smoke, or otherwise disappeared. But the woods remain unchanged. Even the cattle that browse in the grassy openings seem as if they are immortal.

“A Restful Corner on the Edge of Town” by Robert Connell

Such a state of things will not last forever, of course, but it is pleasant to those who remember the older order to find something in details, as well as in the general, that links us to the past. Wordsworth suggests it in his lines:

But there’s a tree, of many, one
a single field which I have looked upon.
Both of them speak of something that has gone.
The pansy at my feet,
Doth the same tale repeat.


Change must come and population must spread. The agricultural must give way to the suburban. The horse has disappeared from the road and is on his way to extinction on the farm. A generation is growing up that connects milk with a can rather than a cow. Let us take pleasure in such old-fashioned things and ways as are still with us. After all Nature is there still and we can find consolation in her when machines fail us.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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