Today Broadmead is an upper-class treed neighbourhood of fine homes and manicured lawns – but of course it wasn’t always that way.
Broadmead’s history comprises a varied mix of hard work, horses, rifles, religion, burial grounds, famous battles and war veterans, with an Emily Carr vision thrown in for good measure.
Back in the 1880s it was all simply wild forest land, an extension of Mount Douglas forest. Then Robert Rithet, a leading Victoria entrepreneur and one-time Victoria Mayor (1884-85,) purchased about 1,000 acres in the area, and decided to clear some of the land and farm it. Initially he called his property Dallas Farm and it included a hilly area which later became known as the Company Farm.
Rithet then advertised for a foreman to work for him and George McMorran from Ontario (later of McMorran’s Tea Rooms fame) applied for the position and won the job. He and his family moved into a small farmhouse on Company Hill and George worked for the Rithets for the next nine years, clearing well over three hundred acres of land during that period. The farm was soon producing grain and raising chickens.
Rithet’s real passion, however, centred around the breeding of prize horses and Dallas Farm was eventually renamed “Broadmead Farm,” in honour of one of his prize stallions by that name. Rithet even built a race track nearby where his horses could run in trials. Today, this is the Royal Oak Burial Park.
A somewhat lesser-known story about the Rithet farm concerns one particular horse that was somewhat temperamental, especially when traveling up the very narrow Company Hill on the farm while pulling a carriage behind it. Each time it approached the steep slope, it baulked at the challenge ahead causing something of a traffic jam for other horses or carriages behind. For this reason, that horse was renamed Company Hill.
An even earlier Broadmead/Royal Oak pioneer was John Heal who had acquired 50 acres in the 1860s. Two of his sons (Fred and Charlie) also bought land on West Saanich Road and another son, Harry, purchased the land adjoining his parents’ home known as Mount Pleasant Farm. This land was later sold to Rithet for the Race Track and later to the Royal Oak Burial Site. The Sisters of St. Anne also purchased some of the Heal property and used their acreage for growing vegetables for St. Joseph’s Hospital. Charlie Heal’s property later became Heal’s Rifle Range, perpetuating the family name in that area.
A Heal home on Royal Wood Place off Falaise Drive acted as the first Post Office in the Broadmead and Royal Oak area. That original house was demolished and a new one built in 1914. It still stands today at Royal Wood Place. In 1948 some of the Heal acreage was also sold to the Veterans Land Association and the property was sub-divided for houses to be built there for soldiers returning from the war. Streets were given the names of famous wartime battles such as Normandy Road. This War Veteran connection is in keeping with Broadmead Lodge on Chatterton Way, a landmark building since 1995 when it was officially opened to house seniors and war veterans from Tillicum Lodge and the Memorial Pavilion.
Chatterton Way itself is named after George Chatterton, an extraordinary man who settled in Saanich in 1945 and began working to help veterans returning from the war. He was also a Saanich Reeve from 1958-61.
Late in the 19th century, the Guinness family from Dublin purchased Rithet’s land and eventually developed much of it through a company known as Broadmead Farms. In 1995, descendants of brewer Arthur Guinness donated “42 hectares of unique wetlands to Saanich … and a four-kilometer perimeter trail was completed around the “Bog…”
Rithet’s Bog, as it came to be known, is very unique, being the only remaining bog of its type of the hundreds that once existed on Southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Its vegetation is particularly unusual and the surrounding fields provide “an important over-wintering area for waterfowl and a daytime resting area for gulls.” Environmentalist Freeman King noted back in 1964 that “… this is a very special area. There is no other piece of land in the lower part of Vancouver Island that has the same type of flora growth.”
Lastly, our brief history of Broadmead brings us full circle to the famous Victoria artist and author, Emily Carr. Today, if you visit Emily Carr Park in Broadmead, you will discover another intriguing piece of history concerning the history of the area which will soon be added to the sign in the Park. It will note that in the 1940s while Emily was visiting a friend in Vancouver, she had a vision to return immediately to the area of Mount Douglas because the forest there had something magical to tell her. She came back immediately and spent most of August of 1942 painting incredibly mystical works which, due to her imminent illness, proved to be her last works before her death in 1945.
Certainly there is much to learn about the history of the Broadmead area. Some is factual and fully documented; some purely speculative, such as rumours that once illegal whisky stills could be found hidden in the bushes and undergrowth. Unfortunately, despite extensive digging, these rumours cannot be substantiated in either police or archival records.
It’s fun to just imagine though – unless a reader happens to have some reliable information to prove the truth of such rumours?
BARA Bugle (Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter), Fall 2006 – Valerie Green