Saanich Pioneer Society
The Downey Family
Updated: May 8
In the past few months, we've digitized two albums from our holdings; both came with little information, other than being attributed to the Downey family. We decided to do some digging and see if we could put together their story.
John James Downey was born in Limerick, Ireland in 1834. Drawn by the prospect of making a fortune in the California gold rush, he left his country in 1857 or 1858, travelling by way of the Panama Isthmus. Soon he made his way to British Columbia, settling in the Cariboo. The claim he staked there turned out to be successful and one of the richest in the district. During his eight years in the region, he became prominent in provincial mining circles.
In 1866, he returned to Ireland, married Margaret Ingram on February 8, and then they made their way back to Victoria. Leaving his new bride at their cottage on what is now Belleville Street, Downey returned to the gold fields in the Interior for a year or so.
Meanwhile, Margaret was lonely and homesick. According to their daughter, Helen Dallain, "When he returned in the autumn, [Margaret] persuaded him to hire a horse and buggy for the day, taking a basket lunch and driving into the country on a homeseeking trip." At the end of the Peninsula, the view of Saanich Inlet convinced them to buy an extensive farm: the western half initially, from Thomas B. Shaw, and the eastern half a few years later from the Coles family. The Downey property was called Sidmonton Farm, and John and Margaret would remain there for over forty years.
William Towner built his cottage on the West Road and with his neighbor, James Downey, went into the hop growing business, sending to England for his hop sets. They cultivated, cut hundreds of hop poles, and planted their roots. Towner’s oast houses, the first to be built in B.C., were built in 1871 and were located at the comer of Downey and West Roads, Deep Cove. They were a landmark in that part of Saanich for many years and, most unfortunately, were demolished about 1948. Daily Colonist, 3 June 1973
Like a number of their neighbours, the Downey's ventured into hop growing. Beginning with three acres, they later expanded to fourteen, mainly of the "Pacific" variety.
Daughter Helen described the hop fields in detail, (quoted in "Turning Fraser River riches into the gold of Peninsula hops" by Brad Morrison, Beachcomber, April 1997):
When we arrived it looked a beautiful picture, graceful vines trailing from pole to pole with clusters of pale green hops hanging down.
Of course we knew nothing of all the hard work of cutting all those poles, planting and cultivating. Hops are horrid scratchy vines to come in close contact with. The hop kiln was built where the old farmhouse had stood, and for help at hop-picking time about 40 or 50 Kanakas were hired from a settlement on one of the islands.
They were a noisy, boisterous crowd, but good pickers and that was what they were hired for. They came, men women and children with all their worldly goods...and camped on the beach.
There were large boxes for the hops and as the pickers were ready for them, poles were taken from the ground and laid across the box and the blooms stripped into the box until it was full.
For a few years it yielded quite a good harvest though a troublesome one, for gradually pests infested the vines so that they needed constant spraying.
One year, grasshoppers cleaned off the vines and clusters, leaving nothing but the stems and veins of the leaves.
They had other setbacks, too, which lessened the profits and finally early one morning while the process of drying was going on the kiln became overheated and fire broke out destroying building and contents. It was a great blow and loss for my parents.
Father did not rebuild.
Downey sold the farm in 1911 and retired to 1468 Begbie Street in Victoria. The farm was surveyed, subdivided, and sold as waterfront and two-acre blocks. John and Margaret Downey had eight children: James Thomas (1867), Anne, [John] Henry, Marianne (Mrs. Dallain), Sarah (Mrs. Gordon), Belle (Mrs. Davie), [David] Allan, and Louisa (Mrs. Warren). At the time of John Sr.'s death in 1915, he had five grandchildren. His obituary states that he was one of the first members of the A.O.U.W. Lodge. He was also one of the initial members of the Saanich School Board in 1871 and later the North Saanich School District, and served on the managing committee of the Saanich Agricultural Exhibition.
James (John) Thomas lived in Cranbrook, B.C. [John] Henry and Alan lived in Deep Cove. Sarah moved to Grand Prairie, Alberta; and Helen and Belle resided in Victoria.
John Henry Downey married Marian Edith Camp on 3 January 1906 at St. Stephen's Church, Saanichton. Marian's parents were the proprietors of the Prairie Inn. Sadly, Marian died in 1911 at age 28 at Kamloops, likely of tuberculosis. He remarried five years later. Ethel Rose Blomfield, 12 years his junior, lived at 676 Battery Street, Victoria.
James Thomas moved to Cranbrook, where he married Nellie Kelsey in October 1910. They had two children: Louise (1904) and Allan Ingram (1910). During the First World War, he enlisted in Cranbrook on September 18, 1916 at the age of 47. His occupation at the time was woods foreman. John served with the 242nd Battalion. He was discharged on November 22, 1918 in Victoria by reason of “Medical unfitness in consequence of being Over Age for General service”. He was 50 years old. His character was noted as being “Very good.” John Thomas Downey died in Kamloops on November 19, 1946 at age 79. He was buried in the Pleasant Street Cemetery in Kamloops. His occupation before his death was retired farmer. (Service information courtesy of Saanich Archives.)
Anne (or Annie), a nurse, never married. After a long illness, she died at age 45 on October 23, 1913 at 1468 Pandora Avenue, (likely a new address for the Begbie home to which her parents retired).
David Allan, who remained in North Saanich, married Lucy Alice Mellor at Holy Trinity Church in November 1915.
We are still working on identifying people and places in these albums. If you have any information or images of the Downey family that might help, please reach out.