Elizabeth Fisher

This chapter of the Metchosin pioneers begins with mention of a man who never saw Canada and I am certain never heard of Metchosin. He was Sergeant Edward Morris and his name belongs here because he was the father of Elizabeth Fisher, a well-known pioneer of the district.

Evidently a courageous but self-willed young man, he enters our story by having eloped with his Scottish sweetheart who was to become Elizabeth’s mother. Later, he defied his father who had bought him a commission in the infantry and joined the 4th Dragoon Guards as a private. His reason for doing so has been lost in time but it was a decision with tragic results. When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, he left with his regiment with the rank of sergeant but was seriously wounded in the battle of Balaclava and died en route home. He was buried at sea. His medals and a sterling silver snuff-box presented by a “few friends” are still in the family.

His widow was left with a young daughter to educate which she did as a single parent. Education for girls was not very extensive at that time so the fact that young Elizabeth graduated as a teacher and taught for several years in England was proof of her mother’s advanced thinking. She also studied piano and took singing lessons as she had a rich and pleasing contralto voice. These qualifications were to be useful to her all her life.

William Fisher
William Fisher

When Elizabeth, known as Lizzie to family and friends, was twenty-four she met and married William Fisher of Blandford, Dorset. They would become my grandparents.

Like many young men of well-to-do families he was at a loose end after finishing school. He was a keen fisherman and an excellent shot but his chief interest was natural history and horticulture. Perhaps this interest was given direction by the booklets distributed at the London Exhibition in 1862, describing in glowing terms the opportunities awaiting anyone who ventured forth to British Columbia or Vancouver Island: “Gold mining, business prospects and land. Lots of land!”

It is said that nothing happens unless one first dreams but that dream has to have some concrete action to be fulfilled. On a golden September day in 1863, William and Elizabeth Fisher set out to make this dream come true.

From the deck of the full-rigged ship Speedwell they watched familiar landmarks disappear below the horizon. It was to be the last time that Elizabeth was to see the island of her youth and it would be six months before she set foot on the island of her maturity.

Their furniture, including among other things a huge mahogany canopied bed, Elizabeth’s rosewood piano and a marble clock which was so heavy that Captain Hicks, the skipper, must have welcomed it as ballast, were stored in the hold. Besides furniture, clothes for all seasons as well as bedding had to be packed-no wash and wear material in those days! The bulky dresses and coats, wool blankets and quilts and heavy linen sheets were packed in trunks. These were stored in their cabin, hopefully a drier place than the hold. They would experience freezing cold and tropical heat on the journey as their course lay around Cape Horn. In the latitude of South America, bitterly cold winds blew off the icebergs, and later as they crossed the Equator, the heat would be oppressive.

On January 15, 1864, Captain Hicks announced they would be putting into Honolulu, the capital of the Sandwich Islands, for provisions. They spent three days there and enjoyed their first real exercise since leaving England five months previously. “A Mr. Cording from Victoria came aboard,” wrote grandfather. “He gave a very poor account of it.”

After leaving Honolulu they were to experience more storms but at long last they sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Speedwell seemed reluctant to let the passengers go ashore without one last adventure so she ran aground on Brotchie Ledge off Ogden Point and had to be towed off by the Otter and piloted into Victoria Harbour.

No lush green lawns or green-domed Parliament buildings greeted the passengers. A row of red-painted, square wooden buildings called “The Birdcages” represented the Legislature; a smelly swamp resplendent with garbage was in the location of today’s impeccable Empress Hotel; plank sidewalks on stilts crisscrossed over slimy mud in winter and deep dust in summer.

A house was rented on Humboldt Street by my grandparents. Later they moved to James Bay. Elizabeth may have been terrified of a watery grave but once she had solid ground under her feet her zest for living returned and she was capable of facing up to this strange new world. And strange it must have been to eyes accustomed to the English countryside and English customs. But this was brash young Victoria. Boisterous gold miners staggered in and out of saloons, elegant gentlemen in morning coats and top hats either picked their way on foot amongst the debris of the streets or drove smartly groomed horses to their places of business.

On May 23rd, two months after arrival, my grandmother gave birth to my mother in the Woodworth nursing home on Courtney Street with Dr. Helmcken in attendance. They christened her Emily Elizabeth. Two years later her sister Edith Mary was born.

The Fishers thought it would be a better life for the children in the country so they left James Bay and bought a small farm at Glen Lake. Two sons, Henry Tice Lawrence and William Edward were added to the family.

In 1872 Elizabeth Fisher was to make good use of her teacher’s training when she accepted the position of teacher in the newly opened Metchosin School. She took Emily, aged eight, and Edith, aged six, with her as living quarters had been provided at the rear of the building. This little schoolhouse, preserved much as it was over 100 years ago, is now a museum and contains among other memorabilia a copy of grandmother’s teacher’s certificate dated December 1858, a white shawl which she brought out from England with her and a hand-embroidered swatch from her wedding dress. There are also photos of William and Elizabeth, the “Ferncliffe” orchard and the first Fisher home on the farm. The two little boys stayed with their father and Mrs. Morris at Glen Lake. Every Saturday morning grandfather saddled his horse and rode over the hills to take fresh provisions to his wife and daughters, returning late Sunday.

It seems that fate had planned all this, for across the road from the school, Section 2, 320 acres, was for sale. It was owned by Sir James Douglas and used as a summer retreat by his family, having been purchased from Edwin Kitson. Grandfather sold the Glen Lake farm and bought the entire acreage running from what is now Rocky Point Road to the sea. The eastern boundary ran straight between Witty’s farm from the sea to Happy Valley and Rocky Point Roads. The property on which the Community Hall now stands was donated by William Fisher.

With local help grandfather immediately began to develop “Ferncliffe” as the farm was to be called. The land was cleared by oxen; a barn, pigpens, sheep cribs and smokehouse were built; and the summer house on top of the hill was used for chickens and grain.

Later when Clydesdales replaced the oxen, he added a blacksmith shop including a blacksmith who not only shod the horses but hammered out iron rims for the wagons and buggies as well as making farm implements.

After the buildings were up grandfather planted his orchard with apples, pears, plums and cherries. The gnarled and lichen hung trees still bear fruit today.

Fisher Family, 1896
Fisher Family, 1896

In 1874 Annie Gertrude, the youngest Fisher child, was born at Ferncliffe. Although Metchosin was fairly isolated, life was not dull. Grandmother was often called to attend the sick and wounded as she was a born nurse. Babies born before a doctor could get there were safely delivered by this resourceful woman. Once when one of her pupils at the Metchosin school cut his thumb with an axe she promptly closed the wound with a hair from her head. This technique she had learned from an Indian woman when her own daughter Edith had fallen and gashed her forehead.

When the Fishers first lived in Metchosin, there were no roads -only extended deer trails used frequently by bear and cougar. Along these forest trails grandmother rode her horse into Victoria for staples, returning home with bulging saddlebags. I am sure the settlers, to say nothing of the cougar and bears, were treated to many an operatic aria as she rode along for singing was as natural to her as breathing. Her grandchildren have fond memories of the sound of her contralto voice as she went about her errands. A few years later when Emily and Edith were in their teens there was a wagon road. The girls drove into Victoria every week for French and music lessons staying overnight.

Ferncliff
Ferncliff

The Fishers loved to entertain and as their family was growing up a second and bigger house was built about 150 feet from the first. The ground floor of the old house was made into a large storeroom and I can remember the tantalizing fragrance of the place in the fall when the barrels of apples and pears stood in rows against the walls and hams as well as sides of bacon hung from the ceiling. Gobbling up honey from one hundred hives of bees, the honey extractor gave out its own aroma which seemed to blend all the rest into a mellowness never to be forgotten. The servants’ quarters were upstairs. Besides the outside help, granny had her Chinese cook and houseboy, Yu and Y. I think these must have been English adaptations of their real names but what’s in a name when you could cook like Yu!

In coming across part of an old guest book in the attic, I noted such names as Pooley, Loewen, Wootten, Innes, O’Reilly, Musgrave, Dunsmuir and Doering, indicating that travel was cornparatively quick and easy on the two roads out from Victoria. After one of Yu’s dinners, the guests would either dance, play games or have a musical evening. There were many talented people from all around Metchosin and so it was easy for them to make their own entertainment whether under twenty or over forty.

Elizabeth and William Fisher lived on for many years at “Ferncliffe” after their children had married. Many changes had taken place as more and more people settled in the district. The farm was reduced to forty acres and the William Head Road bisected what once had been their property. Yu and Y had gone and only Leon stayed to care for them.

This chapter of the pioneers of Metchosin would not be complete without mention of Leon. That he was born in China I know but in what province I have no idea. He came to Victoria at the age of fourteen and took the job of scullery boy under Yu at the Fishers. A few years later he went back to China to be married, then leaving his wife with her family he blithely returned to Victoria to resume his duties in the Fisher kitchen. In a few years he took another trip to China, this time to see his children. Leon stayed with the Fishers for many years, gradually assuming more and more responsibility as time went by. The old couple were “Ganny-Gampa” to him now and no son or daughter could have been more solicitous of their health and comfort.

One of my favourite pastimes as a little girl was to watch Leon iron sheets and tablecloths. He was better than a modern steam iron. Grasping a flat iron from the hot stove, he would fill his mouth with water and then with practised control direct the finest spray ahead of the iron as it slid over the surface of the article removing every tiny wrinkle.

When Leon figured I had been a good girl and had not pestered him too much he would make me my favourite treat. In the cool slate-floored dairy sat rows of milkpans containing scalded milk, each with its blanket of wrinkled cream, waiting to be skimmed for churning into butter or used for devonshire cream. Leon would cut a slice of homemade bread, smother it with clotted cream and top it with brown sugar. Then, with a big smile he would hand it to me. My mouth waters just recalling it.

William and Elizabeth Fisher celebrated their golden wedding on August 7, 1913. It was, according to the Colonist, probably the first event of the kind in the district!

Another five years of living at “Ferncliffe” was granted them but in 1918 Elizabeth died at the age of seventy-nine and was buried at St. Mary’s. William was buried there in 1924 at the age of eighty-four.

Their sons and daughters gave a memorial window to St. Mary’s in loving memory of their parents who had been so much a part of Metchosin life both in parish and community.

The bracing sea air of Metchosin had assured a long life and the zest for living for which these pioneers were noted.

“Requiescant in pace.”

Source: FootPrints Pioneer Families of the Metchosin District, Marion I. Helgesen editor