They Had Built Their Homes in a Wilderness … and Now They Planned for Their Children’s Future


By John Windsor

Page 10/11—The Daily Colonist, Sunday, April 29, 1963

“The district’s growing up,” John Slugget told his neighbor, George Stellys.

“Why, there must be all of a dozen farms in a five-mile area. What we need here is a school of our own.”

The other nodded gravely. It was more than a quarter of a century since he had left his native Switzerland, crossed the American plains with their hostile Indian trails, and landed at the tiny settlement known as Fort Victoria.

There had been some big changes, both in the little town, and in the surrounding districts since those old days when he had started the first Victoria water company, a horse, a wagon, and several barrels filled with water at Spring Ridge sold, door to door, by the pail full, to pioneer citizens.

Now there were a lot of people coming to find a new life on this island at the fringe of civilization, coming around the Horn on the long voyage from Europe, or crossing the continent on the new American railroads from the east. John Sluggett, who had left his native Devon to settle in Ontario, had come this way, and cut out a small farm in the wilderness, on which to settle his wife and growing family.

“Yes,” agreed Stellys, “you’re right, John. We should have a school. There are youngsters growing up out here who have never seen the inside of a classroom, and it’s time that something was done. If you’ll put up a piece of land, I’ll match it.”

The year was 1879, and the area centred on what is now called Brentwood was largely primeval forest, interspersed with occasional patches of open ground, cleared, after prodigious toil by men, women and children, who were determined to wrest a living from this new land. In their homes—the frame construction of the better established, or the primitive log cabin of the new arrival, with a clay floor and a rough stone fireplace for heating and cooling—there was little of comfort or luxury, but a wealth of hospitality and community feeling, for these pioneers knew that only by working together could they win a better life for themselves and their families.

THAT FALL after the harvest was in, John Sluggett began to visit his neighbors, all the way from Prospect Lake to Mount Newton, following the narrow forest trails that joined these isolated homesteads. There would be a, meal—-stew, if times were good, simmered in an iron pot over the open fire, and dark, homemade bread. Then, after the few dishes were cleared from the board table, Sluggett would state his purpose.

A school. The idea met with a mixed reception.

“The whole area’s getting overpopulated.” grumbled one. “I’m moving up island to get away from the crowd.”

“Edication,” snorted another. “I never, had none, and it ain’t hurt me. A boy don’t need a lot of book laming to handle a plough.”

However, most of the families he talked with were impressed by the idea, even enthusiastic about a local school where their children could be educated. By the time he had visited all his neighbors, Mr. Sluggett was sure of community support for what would have to be a community venture, and with this knowledge came action.

FOUR TRUSTEES, W. Butler, W. Thomson, L. Hagan and J. Sluggett, were elected, and volunteers called for to clear a small area of the newly donated land where the school would stand. With residents so few and so scattered, the work would not have proceeded very quickly, but by late spring the ground was cleared, and the lumber, carted out along the rough wagon trail from Victoria, lay waiting.

There are no records on the exact details of construction, hut it is reasonable to suppose that it would have been a community effort, and that every farm family in the area participated. Probably a day was appointed and early in the morning, while the grass was still wet with dew, heavy farm wagons, each carrying its quota of excited youngsters, converged on the site. The men and older boys, with a certain amount of joking, would have rolled tip their sleeves and begun to work, while the wives took the precious opportunity to exchange news and gossip while they prepared an outsize picnic lunch. No doubt the small children, in the intervals between their play, looked with some awe, and possibly a little apprehension at the structure being erected for their reception.

Teachers, good teachers, were not plentiful in the new colony, and the school trustees were fortunate to obtain the services of Miss C. McNaughton for what, at the time, must have been considered the very good salary of $50 a month.

Again, we must rely on the imagination, but we can picture her as a rather small lady, determined to ‘have no nonsense from her pupils, and she would need all her firmness, for the class ranged all the way from five-and-six-year-olds like little Fred Sluggett. up to husky young giants of 17 or 18. some of whom had never before had the opportunity of any schooling. On one occasion one of the Verdier boys, all of whom towered over six feet, was caught at some misbehavior and sent out to cut a switch for his own punishment. Returning after a time, he called through the door, “Shall I bring the switch in. Miss McNaughton?”

“Certainly,” replied the teacher. Nonchalantly the young man strolled into the classroom carrying a fair-sized tree across his broad shoulder.

There were about 40 children, coming from near and far, when the small backwoods school opened in the fall of 1880. but, according to the report of an inspector who rode out from Victoria to visit the new establishment, the average attendance was only half that number. This was due, not so much to sickness, but because children were an economic asset on a frontier farm, and were often needed to help with ploughing. clearing, harvesting, or some of the other multitude of chores.

Among those first students, to mention but a few were four Butlers, four Thomsons, five Verdiers, two Hagans, three Durrances, and two Sluggetts, names which are still well known today in roads and other geographic features throughout the district. The families, too, remain.

During its first years, the West Saanich school, with its plain board tables and rough benches, had no grades, no formal curriculum, and best of all, from . the students’ point of view, no report cards. This lack, however, was more than made up for by the custom which grew up of having the teacher visit and have dinner at various pupils’ homes. One might hazard a guess that more than one young gentleman had a rendezvous in the woodshed with an irate father after the latter had received a personal report on his assorted misdeeds from the teacher.

WHILE SCHOLASTIC activity with pencil and slate took up a considerable portion of the school day, there was time for other activities. At first the building was close hemmed by trees and some of the older boys used to bring axes, shovels and crowbars, to work during the lunch break at felling trees and uprooting stumps so as to clear and level an area where they might play ball. Many of the games played then, such as tag or run-sheep-run, are still popular on a modern schoolground, but there were others which would certainly give today’s teachers and parents nervous prostration. Shotguns were often carried to school, and these were used, during the recess periods, for an unusual game in the adjoining woods One boy, the hunter, would stalk another, his quarry, in an effort to catch him fair and square with a charge of white berries—–occasionally, it is said, mixed with the odd piece of gravel to add a certain zest to the sport.

Miss McNaughton, and succeeding teachers, usually boarded at the Sluggett home, which was close to the school, but after class on Friday it was their habit to ride into Victoria to enjoy the benefits of civilization, returning again on Sunday night. One however, G. A. Watson, varied this routine, preferring to walk rather than ride the 15 miles there and back. One Friday afternoon a frog was slipped into this gentleman’s pocket, not to be discovered until he reached town. When classes recommenced the following Monday, he had his turn, whopping 10 of’ the boys he caught laughing about the joke.

  1. H. Bates was another teacher who might be said to have left his mark on the young people of the area. His first day at the West Saanich school was none too successful, as the pupils took advantage of his newness to create a considerable commotion. The next morning, however, when he arrived for class there was a long, heavy leather strap hanging ominously from his belt. While it may have been coincidence, behaviour was noticeably improved.

PRACTICAL JOKES added savour to the toil of pioneer existence, and all too frequently, the teacher was the victim of these pranks. Fred Sluggett, one of the smallest and youngest members of the original class, seems to have been a master in this art. One morning, arriving very early, he found a real treasure in the form of a very long grass snake, which he used, with great advantage, to scare all the girls. Then, before classes started, it was comfortably bedded down in Miss McNaughton’s desk. When the good lady discovered it, some little time later, her horror was only outweighed by her anger, and she determined to find the culprit. Almost every boy in the room was questioned at length, but all denied the charge. Only innocent little Fred, so industriously working at’ his slate, remained unsuspected and unquestioned, and as a result the mystery remained unsolved.

A word should be said about the early school trustees, who gave much time and labor to keeping the torch of learning alight in West Saanich. Early maintenance budgets, were extremely small, a matter of some $15 a year, to cover all cleaning and repairs. Of this, the children were paid $6 for handling the janitor services, while a further $8 was spent on a twice-yearly cleaning of the building. This left about $1 for repairs, and, on one occasion when two windows were broken during the summer vacation, and there was no money for their replacement, the school was in imminent danger of remaining closed for the fall term. ‘Two of the trustees stepped into the breach and paid for the new windows, out of their own pockets, but they had to wait for a long time, more, than six months, before they received the 25 cents apiece each had expended.

A decade went by, and then another, and the area changed from a pioneer land into a settled rural countryside. The West Saanich Road turned from a ‘dirt track into a graveled road to Victoria. Forest footpaths became, in their turn, lanes, while the forest itself retreated before the swing of axe blades, to make way for fields and gardens. In the early years of this century, the establishment of the cement plant, and later of an electric power station, brought many new families to  what is now known as Brentwood Bay and Todd Inlet, and many new children to the little, one-roomed schoolhouse. As has happened in more recent times, there was serious overcrowding, and in 1902 the community leaders of that day called for and got public approval to build a new school, still one roomed. but larger, and better able to cope with the influx of pupils.

The class of 1886 at Brentwood School, front row Includes: Gertrude Thomson, Grace Thomson, Margaret Graham, Punch Verdier, Donald Greig; second row ‘includes Rose Sluggett, Hannah Graham, Gladys Butler, Margaret Graham, Bruce Graham, Jack Brooks; back row includes Dora Butler, Bob Thomson, Dick Christmas, Hugh Thomson.

BY MODERN STANDARDS it was primitive, with outhouses, and a pump in the yard, while the heating came from a pot-bellied stove, ‘kept supplied with wood by the children, but we can be sure that the residents of that period viewed it with considerable pride, as sure evidence of the growth of their community.

A student during those years, was Chris Paul who followed the Bartleman brothers as one of the first of the, native Indian people to be welcomed by the school, which today is proud to list a number of Indian boys and girls among its pupils.

“I still remember,” recalls Norman Parsell, who makes his home in Saanich, “a Christmas picture that Chris Paul drew on the ,blackboard, somewhere around 1906. It was a wonderful drawing, the work of a real artist.”

A dozen years after the new school had opened, there was again overcrowding, and the original building. which stood in the grounds, had to be pressed into service is an auxiliary classroom, until a second room was approved and added to the schoolhouse. This was during the First World War. And during that, terrible war, the pupils worked to make their contribution to the cause. A large kitchen- garden was laid out and tended, with the proceeds from the sale of vegetables going to the Red Cross. Another venture was the raising of two young pigs, donated by Larry Hagan. Mash and slops were collected by the children and cooked on the classroom stove by the teacher, Miss Clarissa Bissett. Under this diet, the animals grew sleek and fat. Finally, one was raffled, the other sold, with all the ‘money, once again going to the Red Cross.

THE YEARS OF PEACE that followed this war were almost a golden age in the story of the school, according to the nostalgic memories of many former students. Most of these memories, it must be admitted, are concerned not so much with the classroom as with the extracurricular activities. The district was sports minded and therefore there was a well-rounded sports program, which included •badminton, tennis, baseball, and rounders, together with: a very active interschool basketball league.’

‘”We used to go to the games to cheer the team, and our star player, Claud Creed,” reminisced one lady, recalling her student days. Another star was Claud Sluggett who went on from the playing yields of Brentwood to help the Victoria Blue Ribbons win the Dominion basketball championship.

Other memories come flooding back, of classes held out under the trees on drowsy summer afternoons, of the inter-school sports day, held in conjunction with Saanichton Fair, of the Christmas and Easter concerts, and most pleasant of all the yearly picnic over at Sandy Beach, with excited boatloads of children being ferried across the water by Captains Woodward and Richardson. Then there was the Halloween when the teachers having heard the boys planning to purloin the school gate carefully hid it away themselves. On the following thy the lads were sternly accused of the misdemeanor and, despite their vehement denials, were made to stay, and search for the missing ‘property after school, much to the secret amusement of their instructors.

Depression—the great depression of the 30s —had cast its black shadow across the land, and its effects were felt even by so small a unit as the West Saanich School. Jobs were scarce in the district and year after year more families were forced to move away in search of employment. Enrollment in the school dropped until by 1938 there were scarcely 30 pupils left and serious consideration was being given to closing its doors and sending the students elsewhere. To Mrs. Charles Douglas, herself the mother of small children, this seemed a retrograde idea, and she determined to oppose it strongly.

HER FIRST MOVE was to call a meeting of Interested parents, to present the problem and’ seek a solution. From this meeting developed The Parent-Teacher Association, which today’ plays an active role in the area.

Authorities abandoned all thought of closing the school.

The Second World War, which saw many a former pupil serving in the armed forces, brought at least one unusual experience to the. school. One of its pupils was “bombed.”

The day was bright and sunny and Freddy Kockett, whistling cheerfully, was swinging aboard his bicycle homeward bound. Overhead a plane, its engines roaring, came in low on a practice bombing mission over the Thomson marshes. Maybe something went wrong with the mechanism, or maybe the pilot was one of those men who just can’t resist. a moving target, but at any rate the bike was suddenly struck by a small bag of flour which burst, covering the ground, the machine, and a very startled Freddie with its contents.          

Peace brought a. population influx’ to Brentwood. an influx which, after 16 -years, shows no sign of abating. It also brought in the immediate postwar period, a new teacher for the school, Miss Lilian McIntyre, and a new principal, Ernest Hatch, two devoted educators who have since given many years of service .to this community and its children.

Conditions were far from satisfactory at this time. Enrollment increased to about. 150, far beyond the capacity of a two-room school, and emergency stop-gap measures had to be taken. A small army hut was erected on the grounds as a third classroom, while the Women’s Institute Hail, across the main highway, acted as a fourth. Later in 1950, the original pioneer building had once again to be pressed into service over a two-year period, and during this time it had the distinction of being ,’the oldest building in the province, erected as a school and still in use for that same function.

During one, winter, snow and bitterly ‘cold weather forced the schools’ closure for a three-day period.

Then, when the thaw set in, the basement was flooded to several feet.’ It meant another closing, of the doors.

  1. W. Hatch, the principal, wrote at the time: “We feel that the old school, alter more than. 70 years’ service, should be pastured out, .and a new building take over.”

Many parents and other people felt the same way, and after an exhaustive door-to-door, campaign, to give the facts, a bylaw was passed to purchase new land on Wallace Drive, and erect a modern, four-room schoolhouse.

It was a happy moment for all ‘ concerned when on a May afternoon in 1951 “Uncle” Bob Sluggett, a member of the original pioneer class that entered the school, turned over the first sod, to begin construction.

In September of the following year classes began in the bright new structure, known as the Brentwood School. It was designed to allow for addition, and this was fortunate because only four years after its erection, two new classrooms, together with a large activity room, had to be added to meet the population growth.

During this past year, with nine teachers and-more than 300 pupils, it has become necessary, not only to add two further classrooms, but also to turn the activity room into a third. In this transition from a small, pioneer school-house, into the modern, nine-classroom structure of today, we can trace the development of the, whole district, from frontier Outpost to modern community.