“Ideal Society” Planned in Early Victoria

By Janis Ringuette

Beacon Hill Park was set aside in 1850 as part of a British government plan to establish an “ideal society” in the new colony of Vancouver Island.

The “ideal society” envisioned by upper-class government and business leaders mirrored their own. An elite group of landowners would hold social and political power while a labourer class did the work. The goal was to transplant the English class system to colonies around the world.

To achieve that goal, the British government adopted the colonization theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Already in place in New Zealand and South Australia, the “Wakefield System” set high land prices and other restrictions designed to exclude lower classes from owning land.

London ordered James Douglas, Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, to divide Victoria area land into large 300 acre tracts for private sale at one pound per acre. No land sale could be less than 20 acres. For every 100 acres purchased, buyers were required to bring five single male labourers or three married couples from England to Vancouver Island and to support them while they worked the land.

The land division formula also required public spaces be set aside for churches, schools, hospitals and parks. These “Public Reserves” would provide infrastructure for an ordered, proper society. For every eight square miles sold to private buyers, one square mile was reserved for the use of Anglican clergy and a second square mile reserved for church and churchyard, schools, and “other public purposes.” Beacon Hill Park was set aside as a “Park Reserve” under the “other public purposes” category. The “Victoria and Esquimalt Districts 1858, Public Reserves and Company Farms” map below shows the rough boundaries sketched out for Public Reserves and Company Farms prior to accurate surveys. (Map provided courtesy of B.C. historian Richard S. Mackie, author of Trading Beyond the Mountains and other books.)

1858 -Victoria Public Reserves

High land prices set in Victoria were in stark contrast to land policy south of the border. To attract settlers to the Oregon Territory, the United States government offered free land to homesteaders. James Douglas consistently advocated a similar free land policy on Vancouver Island. In 1848, he had proposed “a free grant of 200 or 300 acres be made to each family...”

The British government emphatically rejected a free land policy on the grounds it attracted “rabble” and “riffraff.” In a letter from London dated December 17, 1849, HBC official Archibald Barclay explained to Douglas that strict land policies would prevent “the ingress of squatters, paupers and land speculators.” As a further safeguard against uncouth Americans, only British citizens could own land in the colony of Vancouver Island.

Barclay reminded Douglas: “The object...should be...to transfer to the new country whatever is most valuable and most approved in the institutions of the old, so that Society may, as far as possible, consist of the same classes, united together by the same ties and having the same relative duties to perform in the one country as in the other.”

The intent was, as British Columbia historian Richard S. Mackie explained, to “force ordinary immigrants to engage in wage-labour and form a landless pool of immigrant labour... Capitalists and other well-to-do immigrants would constitute the colonial elite...”

Hudson’s Bay Company men in Victoria knew the land policies imposed by London were impractical and unworkable. John Work deplored the “extravagant terms...especially when land can be had on the opposite side of the straits from the Yankees at l/3 the price and even for nothing.” John Tod said, “I wonder if people will be such fools as to take land on the terms proposed.” Dr. J. S. Helmcken called the Wakefield System “a blunder--a theory.” As they predicted, few English gentlemen chose to purchase distant wilderness land sight unseen.

There was one group to whom Douglas could sell land: former and current Company employees. Douglas bent the rules in every way possible to encourage them to buy large tracts. He allowed colleagues to pay by installment; he ignored the impossible requirement to import English labourers; he directed HBC surveyor J. D. Pemberton to charge only for arable acres and to deduct a “liberal allowance for rock and swamp.”

The map below, titled “Private landowners, Victoria 1858,” reveals the result: the largest Victoria landowners were middle-class Hudson’s Bay Company employees, not the upper-class “gentlemen” hoped for by the British government. (Map courtesy of Richard S. Mackie.)

1858 - Victoria Property-holders

One feature of the “Wakefield System” was successfully transplanted to the colony: political power was tied to ownership of land on Vancouver Island, as it was in Britain. When the first seven member Vancouver Island Assembly was elected in 1856, only males owning 300 acres or more were eligible to run for office. Voting was restricted to males owning at least twenty acres. As a result, elite landowners--mostly Company officers--became members of the Colonial government and Founding Fathers of the City of Victoria.

James Douglas secured London’s official recognition of Beacon Hill as a public park before he retired, thereby thwarting the plans of his successor and son-in-law, A. G. Dallas. Dallas strongly favoured retaining all Beacon Hill Park land as Company property and selling it for profit.

Douglas deserves credit for insuring most of the Park was preserved. However, his actions were not entirely altruistic. Douglas had already sold a large portion of the Park to himself by August, 1852. The map above shows about twenty-four acres of the northeast corner of the Park included in the Douglas personal estate, Fairfield Farm.

Victorians enjoy the area today because public park land was a valued component of the British government’s 19th century social engineering experiment. More than 150 years later, the City website describes this shared asset as “the crowning jewel in Victoria’s park system.”