Woodwynn Farm

By Danda Humphreys, July 2010

A therapeutic community sows seeds of hope on farmland “pre-empted” by a Scottish settler.

One year since the Creating Homefulness Society took over Woodwynn Farm, it’s my guess that Angus McPhail, that area’s first white settler, would approve of the modern-day venture playing out on his former property.

Like so many other pioneers in these parts, McPhail was a long way from home. Born on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, he had signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in May 1837. Sailing on the Prince Rupert from
Stromness to York Factory the following month, McPhail spent a year in the Red River District. In 1838, he was transferred to the Columbia Department, and served at Fort Langley. While there, he married a Cree woman, who died while giving birth to his daughter, Anne. 

In 1846, McPhail was transferred to Fort Victoria. He operated a dairy south-east of the fort, not far from the foot of present-day Blanshard Street, and produced a steady supply of milk and butter for the best part of the next decade.

In June 1851, McPhail married again. In 1855, having made a name for himself as an efficient, productive herdsman, he left the HBC and the hustle and bustle of the fort and moved his family north into the area called Sanetch, or Saanich as it’s known today.

In February 1852, the First Nations had surrendered “entirely and forever” the areas called North and South Saanich to James Douglas, agent for the HBC. There is no official record of the total price paid. The Mount Newton area was provisionally surveyed soon after the purchase, but was still virtually undisturbed three years later when Angus McPhail arrived. 

McPhail staked out 170 acres on Saanich Inlet, near the west end of Mount Newton. It was the perfect place for a farm. Fewer trees covered Mount Newton’s gentle lower slopes. The soil in the hollow below was rich and fertile. The ground was well irrigated. And it was peaceful. His only neighbours were the First Nations on the reserve to the south, and the wild animals who roamed the densely-wooded hillside to the north.

Mount Newton Cross Road had not yet been created, and the winding horse-trail (eventually West Saanich Road) leading north from Royal Oak didn’t permit wagons to pass. Supplies for Bay Farm, as he named it, had to be floated around the peninsula by sea, a journey of four days from Fort Victoria to the little cove just west of McPhail’s place. He didn’t mind the inconvenience. It was still the best place to build a home. 

An energetic axe-man and builder, McPhail felled trees, hand-hewed and grooved squared logs, and cut shingles for his seven-metre by 10-metre cabin. It was here that Marie, his second daughter, was born in 1859. Shortly afterward, he received pre-emption papers for his property, and took ownership of all the land he’d staked out four years before.

Not long afterwards, McPhail sold part of his property to Peter Lind, who in 1864 built a hotel on the southwest corner of Mount Newton Cross Road and West Saanich Road, and started a ferry service to Salt Spring Island, Cowichan and Chemainus. (The hotel changed hands several times and was demolished more than a century ago.)

McPhail sold the rest of his property to Alphonse Verdier, who had recently married 16-year-old Anne McPhail. Less than a year later, McPhail’s second wife died. He left the area and apparently worked in Cowichan, where it’s reported his younger daughter, Marie, was cared for by the Sisters of St Ann. Moving back to Saanich in the early 1870s, McPhail apparently worked with George Stelly, whose farm was also eventually purchased by McPhail’s son-in-law. In 1875, Marie McPhail married Frank Gravelle, the son of another former HBC man. 

McPhails’ whereabouts during the next few years are not known, but it’s reported that he ended his days at the Old Men’s Home in Victoria, which was situated conveniently—but perhaps with little thought for the implications—on the north-west corner of Ross Bay Cemetery. 

In March 1884, McPhail died at the age of 75 and was buried, with George Stelly’s son as sole mourner, in the cemetery’s Roman Catholic section, close to the water. In 1911, when Dallas Road and the Ross Bay sea wall were constructed, his grave was relocated to higher ground.

Angus McPhail is remembered by his descendants and by the Saanich Pioneer Society, whose log cabin museum contains relics, records and reminders of those early Mount Newton days. Bay Farm was eventually bought by the Woodward family and became Woodwynn Farm. On that site today—thanks largely to the Create Homefulness Society’s Richard Leblanc and many volunteers—a therapeutic community for the homeless is blossoming. 

Angus McPhail, pioneer of this community, would likely appreciate the seeds of hope being sown on his land.

Danda Humphreys enjoys making connections between new ventures and this area’s olden-day pioneers. www.dandahumphreys.com