Bilston Creek Farm

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Blinkhorn Farmhouse, first settler's dwelling in Metchosin.

Blinkhorn Farmhouse, first settler’s dwelling in Metchosin.

Bilston Creek Farm was 385 acres in size when established in 1853 and was the first colonial settlement of Metchosin. The farm is mentioned in the Census of Vancouver Island 1855. We know from this record that the farm in 1855 has two acres of improved farmland, horse, two dwellings, one store or shop. The farm had a population of two female children under age of five, one female child between ages of ten and fifteen, and one female and one male between ages of twenty and forty.

The farm would eventually be sold to J. Yates in 1856 and R. Burnaby, who in 1863 sold it to C.T. Woods and Selim Franklin. John Witty purchased the farm in 1867 and it has remained within the family to the present.

The following is an excerpt from the diary of Martha Cheney Ella 1853-1856. It reveals the hardships and pleasures the new settlers found in Metchosin.

Thomas Blinkhorn was born on May 3, 1806, at Sawtry, Huntingdonshire. From 1837 to 1849 he engaged in stock-raising in Australia and was credited with being instrumental in rescuing Captain Sir John Franklin from almost certain death when he had become lost in the bush. Captain Cooper contacted him in England and persuaded him to assume charge of the farm that he proposed to establish on Vancouver Island. In this connection the comment of the Honourable Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, who had visited Vancouver Island during the winter of 1852-1853, when giving evidence before the Select Committee on the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1857 is interesting: … he (Captain Cooper) was in partnership with a farmer, Mr. Blinkhorn (sic), who was by far the most energetic settler on the island; he was a man who had been in Australia for several years, and afterwards came back to England, and then went out with Mr. Cooper to the island. … Blinkhorn had married Anne Beeton, of Great Gidding, Huntingdonshire, and she accompanied her husband to Vancouver Island. In March 1853, Governor Douglas appointed Blinkhorn as Magistrate and Justice of the Peace for the “District of Metchosin and twenty miles around.”‘

Perhaps the brightest and most excited of the passengers on the Tory was Martha Beeton Cheney, niece of Mrs. Blinkhorn, then a young girl in her mid-teens. She had kept the passengers in good spirits during the long voyage and was a general favourite. She had good cheer in time of storm, and when the vessel lay becalmed, she fished with the male passengers, and no doubt brought tea to the ladies as they lay prostrate in their bunks when the waves thudded against the Tory as if her very timbers would fall apart. Little did she know then that for more than sixty years she would live in Victoria, that she would marry a gallant sea captain, and know sorrow and joy in this new world as the mother of pioneers.

Martha Cheney kept a diary. Some days she was so busy that she had to ignore it and then, when she had a few minutes, make several back entries. It is the only diary by any woman on Vancouver Island in the pre-gold rush period that has yet come to light. Only portions of the diary have survived, for it was written in a simple blue-lined scribbler. The earlier surviving portion, which she entitled “The Second Volume”, covers the period September 16, 1853, to March 31, 1854. Then occurs a lapse of several months. The second portion commences with a mutilated entry for January 1, 1855, and continues to November 25, 1856. Both portions were presented to the Provincial Archives by her last surviving son, Henry Reece Ella, a short time before his death on October 30, 1941.

The diary gives a delightful, vivacious picture of early life in this part of Vancouver Island, viewed through the eyes of a young woman filled with the joy of adventure in a rugged land. In its pages we see that the young women of her time could dance until 4 o’clock in the morning at the Governor’s Ball at the fort or on the quarterdeck of a British man-of-war and spend the next day ironing. Theirs was the happy faculty of combining a bright social life with hard domestic cares, the duties of wifehood and motherhood. How these women found the time to lead so full a life is something difficult to understand today, for in those earlier days a kitchen did not resemble a hospital operating room as does the modern North American kitchen today.

Captain Cooper took up land at Metchosin, and it was there that Thomas Blinkhorn and his wife settled. Martha Cheney lived with them in the rambling farmhouse and helped with the chores. Everyone was welcome at the Blinkhorn home. “A houseful of company”, wrote Martha more than once in her diary, for in effect the home became the halfway house to Sooke. The friends of the Tory were often there – those old shipmates that always had so much to talk about that darkness, even in summer, came before they realized it. Then there was nothing to do but spend the night and start back in the morning, strengthened by a huge farm breakfast that Martha had helped her aunt to prepare.

We get a clear idea of Martha Cheney’s girlhood at the Metchosin farm from entries in her diary: “I had a ride with uncle around the plain…. I had to churn and make up the butter … Ironing all day…. We set the goose on five eggs…. Went to a dancing party on board the Trincomalee, kept up until four o’clock in the morning.” She was a belle of the period, blushing with the coyest of the maidens behind their fans, yet how capable she was as well. It is no wonder that she was destined to become one of Victoria’s most gracious hostesses, equally at home in the drawing room of Government House or presiding over the wonderful aromas of preserves and fresh bread in her own kitchen. She was a typical Vancouver Island woman of her time, and she led a full life.

Martha Cheney was not out of her teens when romance came her way. When she first met Henry Bailey Ella is not known today. He had been born on Tower Hill, London, in 1826 and went to sea at the early age of 14. He first came to Victoria in 1851 as chief officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chartered barque Norman Morison and sailed for some years between Victoria and England. Undoubtedly, he may have been a guest at the Blinkhorn home, although there is no record of this, for the first mention of him in the diary was on January 7, 1855. In the intervening period he had been in command of the Recovery, and later he became a pilot on the coast and in this capacity assisted Captain G. H. Richards, R.N., in his surveys in H.M.S. Plumper and H.M.S. Hecate in the years 1858 to 1862.

On July 19, 1855, Martha Cheney and Henry Ella were married. We may well imagine the day – the farmhouse at Metchosin wrapped with excitement after days of preparation. What baking must have gone on in the big kitchen, how juicy and tender the hams from the farm must have been, how rich the preserves. Tables were spread under the apple trees, and soon the guests began to arrive – even the Governor himself, as well as old shipmates from the Tory. The young folk in all probability rode out by horseback and arrived at the farmhouse gates in a swirl of dust; the older people may have paddled out by canoe and picked their way up over the rocks and the meadows from the beach where they had landed.

The next year Thomas Blinkhorn died. “I trust he has gone to rest, Poor Uncle,” wrote Martha Ella in her diary on October 13, 1856. Soon there was an auction at the farm – “A dreadful wet day, the Stock sold remarkably well, altogether it was a good sale” – and Mrs. Blinkhorn with Captain and Mrs. Ella moved into town (Victoria).

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