It was a cold November day in 1850 when John and Jessie Irvine departed Orkney on a steamer bound for London. The four-day passage was the beginning of a six-month journey that would take them to Vancouver Island aboard the Tory.
Recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a labourer for the newly established Colony of Vancouver Island, John Irvine had entered into a five-year contract at 20 pounds per year with the promise of land upon completion.
For Scottish emigrants like the Irvines, Vancouver Island was one of many possible destinations and HBC recruiters faced competition from colonies elsewhere in the Empire, including Australia. During the fur-trade the HBC had looked to Scotland – particularly Orkney – for its labour supply. Orkneymen were known for their hard work and James Douglas had once described them as ‘the most orderly, faithful and honest men in the company’s employ’.
The Irvines travelled in steerage on the Tory together with other company servants. In comparative comfort as a cabin passenger, HBC officer William John MacDonald from the Isle of Skye noted that the steerage passengers included 90 labouring men and families bound for the colony as settlers. MacDonald also wrote of other passengers: “Miss Cameron, fresh from school, a niece of Mr. Douglas, was on board, and W.H. Newton, one of the Langford party, who married the eldest daughter of John Todd chief trader.”
Among the few possessions carried by John Irvine was a handwritten extract from the baptism register in Westray documenting his birth. In addition to her own record of birth, Jessie carried a letter from Reverend Thomas Aitchison of Cross and Burness parish in Orkney stating she was 29 years old, had lived in the parish since birth, and was of good character.
The Tory arrived in Fort Victoria in May 1851 and in September of that year the Irvine’s son William was born at the fort. During his contract with the HBC, John Irvine worked as a labourer on several of the company’s farms, including Craigflower. At the end of his five-year term, he renewed his contract and by 1857 had sufficient savings to purchase 100 acres of land for $570 on Victoria Section 41 in the Cedar Hill district.
The family named their new home Rose Bank Farm for the wild roses found growing there. Over the years they continued to add to their property, eventually owning more than 300 acres. One of the Irvine daughters, Christina, became a teacher at age 16 and taught the Muir children at Sooke. The youngest Irvine son, John Jr. (known as Jack), wrote his reminiscences later in life, a copy of which can be viewed at Saanich Archives.
Irvine descendants continued to live on the original site of Rose Bank Farm until the late 1990s and still live in Saanich today. Family records – including photographs and letters – have been generously donated by the family to Saanich Archives for preservation and form an important part of the historical record of the municipality.
Caroline Duncan is the archivist at Saanich Archives. You can explore Saanich history online at saanicharchives.ca.