Photographer puts Saanich’s early years into perspective

Annie Girling captured hundreds of images detailing life in the early 20th century in Saanich

Saanich was a new municipality when the Girling family arrived from England in 1912 and settled on the shores of Swan Lake.

George and Ellen Girling had made – and lost – a fortune in the construction industry in England, and like many immigrant families to Saanich in the years preceding the First World War, they were looking for an opportunity to start again.

Eight of the Girling children accompanied their parents to Canada.  Annie, the eldest, had studied photography at the City and Guilds of London Institute, receiving a first-class honours certificate in 1908.  Her mahogany-cased field camera was one of the prized possessions she brought with her to British Columbia.

The family purchased two lakefront acres on Ralph Street for $2,000. While her father and brothers cleared the land and constructed a house and barn, Annie recorded the family’s experience in the new environment.

Photography was a popular activity in the early 1900s and had been marketed directly to women since the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888. Advances in photographic technology had given rise to lighter, more portable cameras that could be used with little formal training.

Annie’s interest and skill in photography, however, ran much deeper and the Swan Lake property soon became her outdoor studio. She captured detailed images of birds’ nests and wildflowers and observed the changing seasons with interest.

As brush was cleared and burned in the fall, Annie captured images of the smoke rising through the silhouetted trees. She used the spring flooding of Swan Lake to capture reflections in the water and to record the perils of building too close to the shoreline. In winter she depicted scenes of skating and skiing on the frozen lake and in summer the sunflowers growing against the house.

Her siblings are featured with great tenderness in her photographs.

Her young sisters are pictured exploring nature, playing chess or posing with backdrops carefully arranged by Annie.  Photographs of her five brothers enjoying life at Swan Lake are replaced in 1914 with portraits in uniform as they joined other Saanich men on their way to Europe.

Two never returned and are commemorated on Saanich’s First World War honour roll, on display at Saanich Archives.

In the mid-1920s the Girlings moved to Finnerty Road where they converted an old schoolhouse to a family home.  It was here that Annie kept a darkroom and where her remarkable collection of more than 900 glass plate and film negatives – together with her camera equipment ­– was discovered in the 1970s, just prior to the demolition of the house. Through the efforts of Lindsay Lambert the collection was kept intact for 30 years and generously donated to Saanich Archives in 2008.

The original Girling property at Swan Lake now forms part of the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.  Descendants of the Girlings continue to live in Saanich.

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Caroline Duncan is the archivist at Saanich Archives. You can explore Saanich history online at


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