In 2001, after living in a motorhome for two years, my wife, Toshie, and I decided to put down roots in Victoria and start a bed and breakfast. Toshie thought that buying a house in James Bay would best suit our needs. I grew up in Victoria but had rarely ventured there because Victoria's oldest residential neighbourhood was, to my mind, a musty remnant of the past with an air of seediness and downward mobility. At best it was 'funky' due its abundance of old character homes and previous habitation by hippies. Fortunately Toshie trusted her business instincts and advocated for what turned out to be the right house.
It stood run down and neglected on a corner lot at 235 Government Street. The grass in the front yard was long and thick. I chose my steps carefully as I approached, casting looks of disapproval at an array of shoes that had been tossed from the front porch some time ago. The leaves on the bud-less rhododendrons were withered. The house was entombed in stucco – more disapprobation. The second-floor windows didn't match and the shingles on the roof were crusty. But a quick walk-through, confirmed for Toshie that her intuition was correct. This was the right house. Its rooms were relatively large and it had some attractive features such as a granite fireplace, French doors, and stained glass to name a few. There was also enough room to live and work.
We bought it in June of that year. Parking the motorhome in the back yard heralded the end of our travels and we began a new chapter in our lives.
The house had been well built but needed renovation. I was nervous about facing the work without the requisite skills but an experienced friend came to my rescue.
During renovations we came across a piece of door casing with the words 'Parfitt Bros Chaves Job' scrawled on its backside. We'd never heard of the Parfitt Brothers, nor the Chaves but, to us, this was a handwritten message from the past and a relic that we put aside for safe keeping. One year after we bought the house, renovations were complete and we opened for business.
The history of the house and neighbourhood was not on our minds when we had bought the property but the land title, 'Lot 1, Section 1 Beckley Farm,' offered a clue as to what it might be. From it I learned that Beckley Farm was one of several owned and operated in the colonial era by the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) fur-trading post at Fort Victoria. The HBC sold off the farms when Victoria outgrew the fort. They sold the Beckley lands in 1863. Our home is the second to stand on its site, the first being built in 1879.
A year after moving in, our neighbour, Bill Lynch, visited us bearing a copy of Camus Chronicles, a history of the neighbourhood. To our delight, 'Bernice Chave' and '235 Government Street' were there on the page in black and white. Our interest was piqued. We searched the internet for more information on the Chaves but turned up little.
New leads appeared as time passed, though. In 2012 I was motivated to have the land-title search done. I thought I might find past neighbour and land owner Richard Carr on the list but instead was presented with unfamiliar names like Colonel Moody, Bishop Hills, and Rowland Wignall Fawcett.
As it turned out, early past owners were either well-known colonists or related to others who were. The least well-known of these, Rowland Wignall Fawcett, a wall-paper hanger and father of nine, became, along with his friends and family, the centrepiece of my history project.
Rowland's younger brother, Edgar, is a well-known pioneer chronicler of Victoria's past. I borrowed liberally from his Some Reminiscences of Old Victoria, one of the most complete and detailed accounts of early Victoria. Keeping it in the family, I also quoted from Reminiscences of an Octogenarian by Rowland and Edgar's cousin, once removed, Eleanor Constance Fellows. Through her writing, Mrs. Fellows, a free-spirited woman who lived in Victoria between 1860 and 1866, offers a valuable point of view of what it was like to live in Victoria in its formative years. Other diaries and reminiscences I drew from include those by Emily Carr, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, and Bishop George Hills.
It was Edgar, not Rowland, with whom I got most acquainted, not only from reading his Reminiscences but also from letters he'd written to Rowland while the latter was in England in 1864-5. Edgar's letters show him to have been an enthusiastic young man looking forward rather than backward and working hard at getting the most from life. These letters, and others written to Rowland by two of his best friends and his father, Thomas, give us a picture of the lives of these men and post-gold rush Victoria when commerce and trade were on the wain and times were uncertain.
There are no extant letters written by Rowland so I always seemed to be following behind him at a distance, picking up his trail here and there and wondering what he was up to. Is he improving himself and avoiding the selfish pursuit of pleasure as he was admonished to do by his father? We can't be certain but, at least by the time the letters end in June 1865, we've learned that he has found himself a 'help-mate' named Emma. She and Rowland would build what must have been their dream home on what was then farm land in James Bay. While the letters are interesting in themselves, it is hoped that the experience of reading them is made more meaningful by their being presented against a backdrop of some stitched-together history of old Victoria.
Most past owners who lived in the mid- to late-20th century will remain unknown due to a lack of biographical material. I made the most of scattered bits and pieces I came across on the internet and archives such as some old letters, an obituary, and a marriage license. When searching people and places on The British Colonist website I usually came across adjacent items that would take hold of my imagination. I found space for a few I couldn't part with, so there are a few digressions.