This interesting story from the Islander magazine, a Daily Colonist
insert from September 1, 1991 provides an interesting
backgrounder about Craigflower schoolhouse.
Craigflower Is Way Back to School by John Adams.
The year 1931 is very special in the annals of British Columbia’s Heritage Conservation as it marked the Diamond Jubilee of British
Columbia’s union with Canada. And to help mark the occasion The Native Sons and Native Daughters of British Columbia in posts throughout the southwestern corner of the province set about to reserve landmark structures that served as links with the pre-Confederation era. During 1931, amid local fanfare, these structures were opened as historical museums, the very first in BC: the Bastion in the Nanaimo, the last surviving building of Fort Langley, the old Hastings Mill Store in Vancouver, and Craigflower Schoolhouse in Victoria.
Now, 60 years later, is a good time to reflect on how far the study of history and the preservation of the artifacts that illustrate our recent past have progressed in the interval.
Although the provincial museum was founded in 1886 and a handful of other museums in centres such as Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Kamloops and Kelowna opened their doors in the decades that followed, all of them paid scant attention to what we now call “history”. Instead they dealt exclusively with natural history and with the ethnography of the native peoples of the province. The story of European contact and the subsequent social, economic and political changes that took place in British Columbia were simply not covered. Placed in this light, therefore, those first four history museums in 1931 were quite revolutionary.
Craigflower Schoolhouse was one of the first to be officially opened that year, on June 27, 1931. The event marked the culmination of four years of hard work. As early as 1925 the importance of the old structure had been recognized by the BC Historical Association. But it wasn’t until two years later that the Native Sons and Native Daughters manage to obtain a 20 year lease on the building from Saanich. Initial stabilization followed, new cement foundations, repairs to the siding, a new coat of whitewash, and a new roof. In 1930 a funding drive to raise $6000 for the restoration work was initiated, to which the provincial government contributed $500.
While the building was being prepared for its new role, some of the Native Daughters were busy behind the scenes tracking down all they could find that pertained to the old schoolhouse and to the settlers from the Craigflower district. Margaret Beckwith was to serve as volunteer curator and many years later recalled her visits to some of the descendants of the old families. What she and her colleagues were able to collect quite likely was considered rubbish by some of those who donated it. Nevertheless, they collected wisely and today the Native Daughters Collection is one of the finest examples of early colonial materials from British Columbia.
Imagine the excitement of paying a visit to 80-year-old Miss Goody McKenzie, the last surviving child of Kenneth and Agnes McKenzie, founders of Craigflower Farm! Luckily, her family’s home and barn at Lake Hill Farm proved to be a treasure trove for Mrs. Beckwith. Modern day museum curators would turn green with envy at the chance for a similar opportunity to collect such objects as an oxen yoke used in clearing the land at Craigflower in the 1850s, a branding iron marked “KM” to mark Kenneth McKenzie’s livestock and books with original graffiti and doodles still in the margins, one even with an inscription from Gov. James Douglas on the flyleaf which the McKenzie children had used in the old schoolhouse. Among the more functional relics of farm life even came a few real oddities, like a backgammon board that folds up to become the leather board cover of The History of China! Thus from the attics and trunks of Goodie McKenzie and others came the materials for the displays at the old schoolhouse.
Back in 1931, nobody in British Columbia was very aware of museological principles, least of all as they might be applied to historical exhibits. Conservation and collections management, todays sophisticated aspects of running even the smallest community museums, were then unknown here. Nevertheless, the “cabinet of curiosities” produced by the Native Daughters had considerable charm and certainly appealed to those who enjoyed browsing through documents, photographs and artifacts from a bygone age. Visitors weren’t bombarded by electronic media then, but had the opportunity to read old fashioned, hand-written labels and to chat with friendly, knowledgeable volunteers who staffed the museum.
Why had the Native Sons and Native Daughters chosen Craigflower Schoolhouse as a project in the first place? Because even then, it was the oldest standing school building in British Columbia. Although it wasn’t the first to have been built, the few earlier ones (such as the original log Central School in Victoria and the Nanaimo’s Colonial School) had long since been demolished. The old school at Craigflower had also served as a church and a community hall to the nearby settlers and so it had a special significance to many people, not just former pupils.
The very fact that Craigflower Schoolhouse exists at all may surprise some, but it is interesting to note that education was given a high priority by our forbearers. The Colony of Vancouver Island was only five years old when construction of the Schoolhouse began, but Gov. Douglas had determined as early as 1851 that the children of the “labouring and poorer classes” in the colony should receive “a good sound English education and nothing more.” To help achieve his goals, school reserves were set aside in several parts of the colony and the cost of building the schools and paying the teachers the princely sum of £50 per year was borne by the colonial government. On Vancouver Island, schools were built before churches or any other kind of civic or community buildings.
We’re fortunate that the construction of the schoolhouse was well recorded for prosperity. One account was by Robert Melrose, self-styled chronicler of the Craigflower settlement. Here are a few excerpts to from his diary now preserved by the BC Archives and Records Service.
August 24, 1854 – Gordon (Halcrow) and his Gang commenced to build a School and Schoolhouse
September 23, 1854 – Schoolhouse frame erected, all company in general notoriously Drunk,
February 23, 1855 – Schoolmaster removed to his new house.
March 8, 1855 – “Major Thompkins” bell hung at end of school.
Other written records about the Craigflower settlement are also in the Archives, among them lists and cost of materials used in the construction and furnishing of the schoolhouse. From them we learn that the land was cleared by native Indians, that French-Canadians did much of the construction, that the lumber was sawn in the steam-powered sawmill at Craigflower, and that the grand total of the work came to £416/13/4.
From 1931 to 1974, the Native Sons Post No. 1 and the Native Daughters Post No. 3 operated Craigflower Schoolhouse as a museum. During most of this time volunteers provided the sole means of doing all the work, from keeping the frame structure in repair to dusting the exhibits, to giving tours. Live-in caretakers occupied a lean-to addition at the rear of the building and latterly they were responsible for providing security and for keeping the museum open to the public.
Anyone who visited the schoolhouse during the tenancy of the last caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Gerry Clark, will vividly remember Mr. Clarke’s lessons in the history of the British Empire and his demonstration of adding pounds, shillings and pence. It’s a strange quirk of fate that the Clarks happened to be both the first and last tenants of Craigflower Schoolhouse, since the first teacher back in 1855 was Charles Clarke, sent out from England specifically for the position. He and his wife and their children occupied the teacherage, a spacious suite of rooms above the school room, which they were expected to share with student borders from outlying districts such as Burnside.
By 1974, the old schoolhouse needed considerable restoration which the Native Sons and Daughters would have had difficulty paying fo,r giving the oldest school building a new lease on life. Planned and paid for by the provincial government, foundations were renewed, the structure was strengthened where needed, wiring, plumbing, heating, and other services were upgraded, and some additions were removed.
Finally in 1983, the work was complete and during the Royal Visit in March that year, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II and H.R.H. Prince Philip visited the schoolhouse where representatives of the Native Sons and Daughters, the provincial government and students from the new Craigflower School were presented to them. While the Queen unveiled a plaque to commemorate the event the school bell rang out once again, exactly 123 years to the day when it first called children from the farm to class.
Craigflower Schoolhouse currently is administered by the Heritage Properties Branch of the Ministry of municipal affairs, recreation and culture. Community involvement is part of its mandate. Thus in recent years school classes during the winter have taken part in special school programs in the restored classroom. Using a technique called “Theatre-in Education” professional actors and actresses employed by the Victoria Rediscovery Society have brought the past to life for thousands of schoolchildren who have assumed the identities of actual boys and girls known to have attended Craigflower School in the 1850s.
This summer to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee, the Canadiana Costume Society mounted a fascinating exhibit “Clothing in the old school house”, depicting the era around 1911 when the last classes were held there.
If you visit the schoolhouse don’t miss seeing the upstairs where the “Native Daughters’ Gallery” presents some of the more intriguing relics gathered from the original Craigflower settlers’ families 60 years ago. And just across the bridge is Craigflower Farmhouse where more colonial history is presented daily.