The admirals of Admirals Road

by Danda Humphreys, August 2010

A project to boost the profits of Craigflower Farm led to the name of Admirals Road.


With all the excitement around this year’s 100th anniversary of the Canadian Navy, it’s fun to figure out the origin of a few of Victoria’s navy-connected street names. Fisgard, Pandora, Herald, Pembroke, Discovery and Chatham are just a few that remind us of British Navy ships that sailed here in the early days. But who named Admirals Road? And why?

Today, Admirals Road crosses the Gorge, passes through the Songhees Indian Reserve, and ends just north of Saxe Point. Yesterday, it was just a simple trail leading from Kenneth McKenzie’s Craigflower Farm to the house he had built for the Royal Navy’s most important local personage.

Development of this port as a naval base started in the late 1840s because the Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron, operating out of Valparaiso since 1837, needed a northern base for supplying and repairing vessels. Between 1844 and 1846, Esquimalt Harbour was explored by Captain John Duntze on the frigate HMS Fisgard, and charted by Lieutenant Commander James Wood on HMS Pandora. 

Admittedly, Esquimalt had its disadvantages. It was a long way from the Navy’s South Pacific patrol area, and for seamen tempted to desert, it was distractingly close to the western US. But on the plus side, it had a sheltered harbour, healthy climate, ready access to timber, provisions and coal. And Chief Factor James Douglas welcomed the notion of a Navy presence, presuming—correctly—that it would serve to deter unfriendly First Nations. By 1865, an official Order-in-Council had authorized creation of a naval establishment. 

Kenneth McKenzie, who came to Esquimalt in 1853 to manage the Puget Sound Agricultural Company’s Craigflower Farm, had wasted no time in fostering friendships with Navy personnel. For one thing, they brought news and mail from the Old Country, providing a welcome link with “home.” For another, McKenzie found the Navy men good company, full of fun, and steady spenders. Before long, he was supplying Navy ships with provisions and Navy men with pretty young social companions—including his own eight daughters. 

When Naval activity at Esquimalt increased in 1854 with the outbreak of the Crimean War, a major problem surfaced. There were no hospital facilities on the northwest coast. Men wounded during the ill-fated British and French attack on the Russian port of Petropavlosk had to be transported to San Francisco for treatment. At the Navy’s request, James Douglas organized the construction of three wooden hospital huts on Duntze Head. In fact, the Russians deserted Petropavlosk. There was no second attack and no more wounded. The hospital huts housed only one patient—a sailor with scurvy—and were later used for theatrical productions.

McKenzie, meanwhile, had decided to make the most of his Navy connections by building a comfortable home on the harbour near the southwest corner of his property. His plan was simple: to add to his farm’s profits by renting the house to successive Navy admirals. 

“Maplebank”—called “Admiral’s House” while admirals and their families lived there—was surrounded by ancient maples. The house, grounds, paddocks and stables were enclosed within a white picket fence. Lawns and gardens sloped down to a small beach, the perfect setting for garden parties and croquet games. The trail down from Craigflower Farm, widened and named Admiral’s (note the apostrophe) Road, facilitated the passage of provision-laden wagons and prominent partygoers.

The first tenant of Maplebank was Rear-Admiral the Hon. Joseph Denman, FRS, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Station from 1864-66. Rear-Admiral The Hon. George Fowler Hastings, CB, and his family lived there from 1866-69. Both men are remembered in our city’s street names.

Eventually, inefficient farming practices caused McKenzie to lose his position as bailiff of Craigflower. He tried to sell Maplebank to the Admiralty, but negotiations fell through, and the house was taken over by the Hudson’s Bay Company. (It burned down in 1910, the same year the Canadian Navy took over the base.)

Meanwhile, not far from Maplebank, the barracks built to house Royal Engineers were taken over in 1862 by the Royal Navy. The 10 acres of land surrounding the barracks became the site of a new hospital, whose buildings formed the nucleus of what, in 1922, became HMCS Naden. At the start of World War II, the base expanded to become the principal Naval Training Centre for Western Canada, and in 1966 HMCS Naden became Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. 

During this centennial year, the Naval Museum and Dockyard are well worth a visit. Take a guided tour. While you’re there, take a look at present-day Admirals House, completed in 1885, and remember the enterprising farm bailiff who hoped to make a fortune from the first high-ranking Naval officers to dwell on Duntze Head. 

Danda Humphreys has written several books about people and places prominent in Victoria’s early days.

Copyright© 2010 Danda Humphreys