The Finlayson connection

By Danda Humphreys, February 2011

A burned-out brick façade reminds us of a former chief factor and mayor.

News of upcoming redevelopment in our historic Chinatown would bring a smile to the face of at least one long-ago civic personage if he were still around to hear it. Roderick Finlayson died almost 120 years ago, but his legacy will live on in a soon-to-be-revitalized Pandora Avenue building.

Born in Ross-shire, Scotland in 1837, Finlayson came to Canada at the age of 19. He almost immediately found work as an apprentice clerk with the Hudson’s Bay Company—the beginning of a lifetime of adventure. Before long, he was sent across Canada, to the Columbia District west of the Rocky Mountains. At Fort Nisqually, on Puget Sound, he met up with HBC veteran James Douglas. The two set sail on the Beaver, bound for Sitka and negotiations with the Russian American Company. Their route took them past Vancouver’s Island, as it was then called, and Finlayson would later remark, “I little thought that it would ultimately be my home.” 

In 1842, Finlayson’s life took an unexpected turn when he was posted to Fort Simpson (on the Nass River) and found himself in the company of Sarah, daughter of the fort’s Chief Factor, John Work, and his wife Josette. Finlayson was completely captivated by her, but had to leave her behind when in June 1843 he was transferred to the southern end of the same island he had sailed past just a few years earlier.

James Douglas, who was based at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, had chosen a location for a new trading post on our harbour’s east side. Now he was ready to return to the Columbia, leaving long-term HBC employee Charles Ross in charge of Fort Victoria’s construction, with Finlayson as second-in-command. Unfortunately Ross, already in poor health, was not long for this world. In the spring of 1844, he became very sick. He blamed “a rather merry Christmas and New Year,” but his symptoms continued to worsen, and after five days of terrible suffering, he died. Finlayson, who had ministered to him during those last agonizing hours, took command of the new fort. He was just 26 years old. 

By the time Douglas returned in 1849, the fort was a thriving trading centre, destined to be the HBC’s new northern headquarters with Douglas himself as Chief Factor. Finlayson stepped sideways to become chief accountant and first treasurer for the colonial government—and at long last was in a position to marry his beloved Sarah. The newlyweds celebrated their first New Year in their quarters at the fort. 

Some time later, Finlayson purchased a huge estate stretching from Rock Bay to Spring Ridge, and built a large home for his growing family in its centre. The Finlaysons’ seven daughters and four sons grew up in this roomy, rambling house with its meadows, orchards, formal gardens, carriage houses, stables, and a barn for the cow, near the intersection of Douglas and Bay streets—in those days, the outskirts of town. 

In 1850, Finlayson was appointed chief trader. In 1859, when Douglas cut his ties with the HBC, Finlayson became chief factor, and eventually retired from the company’s service in 1872 to concentrate on his farming and real estate interests. He was a member of the legislative assembly for many years, and was elected mayor of Victoria in 1878. An astute and successful businessman, he remained active until the day he died, suddenly, in January 1892 at the age of 74. The whole city mourned the man who many considered to be the true founder of Victoria. Sarah lived on in the family home for 14 years. Shortly after she died, in 1906, the beautiful old house disappeared in favour of commercial development, and a goodly chunk of Victoria’s history disappeared along with it.  

Ten years before his death, Finlayson had invested in two downtown buildings; one a commercial property at 1202 Wharf Street (now Hartwig Court); the other a two-storey brick and stone building at 528 Pandora Avenue. Chinatown’s population was booming. Wooden shacks built in the late 1850s were being replaced with more substantial structures, all connected by a network of alleys and inner courtyards. 

A mid-20th century slump was followed by a civic and private investment-funded revitalization that led to Chinatown’s 1996 designation as a National Historic District, and today the area is thriving again. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Finlayson’s building. A few years ago, fire destroyed all but its historic façade and parts of the retaining walls. But help is at hand. Anthem Properties plans a major new condominium development (“Union” with 133 units) that will incorporate Finlayson’s façade—a fitting tribute to the last surviving original member of Fort Victoria’s fur-trading team. 

Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s early European arrivals.