The Pendray House

By Danda Humphreys, September 2010

William Pendray’s James Bay home is a reminder of early industries that thrived on—and polluted—our Inner Harbour.

During the summer, thousands of cruise ship passengers arriving at Ogden Point head straight for the downtown area. There are many ways to get there, including bus, horse-drawn trolley, limousine or pedi-cab. Those who choose Shanks’ Pony often get their first view of our Inner Harbour from Pendray Street at the western end of Belleville, named for a businessman who, over a century ago, had a home and a business nearby.

By that time, William Joseph Pendray was a long way from his birthplace in Cornwall, England. Born in 1845, he journeyed to California in the 1860s. Realizing that he would never make his fortune there, he travelled, via Victoria, to the Cariboo goldfields on the British Columbia mainland. A few years later, after a trip home to England, he returned to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This time he was here to stay.

The Victoria of 1875 was very different to the small town he had first seen more than a decade before. It was now more than three decades since the Hudson’s Bay Company had established a fur-trading post here, and many years since the last Fort Victoria buildings had been demolished. The city was now the capital of British Columbia. It was a magnet for commercial enterprises, many funded by the proceeds of gold finds. 

All along Government Street, businesses flourished. Merchants provided for all the citizens’ needs, except one—the wherewithal to keep clean. Pendray saw an opportunity. In 1879, he decided to relieve Victorians of the responsibility of importing soap by making his own, and selling it on the spot. 

By 1883, Pendray’s White Swan soap plant was using 3000 pounds of tallow per week to make 10,000 pounds of different types of cleansers. His soap-works at Humboldt and Douglas streets, on the northern edge of the James Bay mudflats, produced everything the modern Victoria housewife could need. Unfortunately it also created an unsavoury scum that coated the waters of James Bay, floated out under the James Bay Bridge with the ebbing tide, and contributed to the stench that sickened local residents. 

A few years earlier, Pendray had married Amelia Jane Carthew, who was also from Cornwall. They took up residence in a cottage on Douglas Street, and had four sons. One—Carl—eventually became Victoria’s 33rd mayor.

Wearying of the downtown hustle and bustle, the Pendrays built a new home on the far side of James Bay. The Queen Anne-style “Loretto Hall,” completed in 1897, boasted a three-storey, many-sided tower that afforded magnificent views of the harbour and the new stone legislative buildings. Outside, there was a tennis court, an electric fountain, and gardens featuring Pendray’s latest hobby—topiary. Trees and shrubs were trimmed into striking, sometimes rather grotesque shapes that formed the focus for many a family’s Sunday afternoon walk.

Pendray’s downtown site was acquired by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which replaced the smelly James Bay mudflats with the beautiful new Empress Hotel. By then, Pendray’s new plant was already up and running. Just two blocks away from his new home, it housed the former soap works and a recently acquired operation—the British American Paint Company, known as BAPCO, which manufactured paint, shellac, and varnish. Once again, the Pendray plant’s by-products fouled the already-murky waters of the Inner Harbour. 

The Pendray boys joined their father in his business, and the stage seemed set for long-lasting success. But in 1909, the family’s happiness was shattered when oldest son Ernest was thrown from a horse-drawn buggy on Belleville Street and killed, almost on his parent’s doorstep. Three years later, W.J. too was gone, the victim of a freak accident at his Laurel Point plant. 

Amelia lived on at Loretto Hall until her own death, at the age of 87, in 1937. The soap works was bought by Lever Brothers and moved to Vancouver. In 1974, BAPCO was taken over by Canadian Industries Limited and moved to Surrey, BC. Today, the former industrial area is the site of condominiums and The Inn at Laurel Point, and on the Saanich Peninsula, the Pendray name is synonymous with farming. 

Only the carefully restored house and garden at 309 Belleville—now the Gatsby Mansion Inn and Restaurant—reminds us of the first generation of Pendrays who made their home in James Bay. Next time you walk by, check out what remains of the topiary. Few recognizable forms exist today, but with a little imagination you can still find my favourite, on the Belleville Street side of the property. The hunched-over shape of a big green bear, sitting on the grass with its head resting on its paws, continues to intrigue passers-by, including those on their way to and from the cruise ships at Ogden Point.  

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