Storms, high winds and heavy seas had pursued the Hudson's Bay Company's barque, Norman Morison, on her voyage from London to Fort Victoria. Hurricanes had met them las they rounded Cape Horn. Two babies had been born and two children and one man had been buried at sea. After five long, weary months, they had sighted Cape Flattery and the shores of Vancouver Island. Twice the ship almost struck the rocks and twice she was driven out to sea. At long last, with a change of wind to a light westerly, she sailed slowly but steadily up the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the last leg of her voyage. On January 16th, 1853, Captain D. D.Wishart brought his heavily laden ship safely to anchor in the shelter of the Royal Roads. Among the overcrowded passengers aboard the Norman Morison were Thomas James Skinner, an Englishman who had been in the service of the East India Company, his wife and five small children, and Kenneth Mackenzie, a Scot, with his wife and five children. These men had been appointed as bailiffs in charge of the two unopened Puget Sound Agricultural Company's farms in Esquimalt. With them came the twenty-five families of carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, laborers and servants, to be employed on the farms. The heads of the Skinner and Mackenzie families were not prepared for the chilly reception they received at the Fort.
Officials of the Agricultural Company in London had told them that they would find comfortable houses waiting for them and cottages for their men. They found instead that no preparations had been made to house the fifty odd persons suddenly added to the population. The only vacant accommodation in the Fort was a large loft without partitions of any sort. The Mackenzies and others were crowded into this loft. An empty shack was found for the Skinner family on Kanaka Road (Humboldt Street). Indians cleaned it out before they could move in, using fir boughs for brooms. Blankets were hung up to divide the shack into two rooms, one for the family of seven, the other for their three servants. One of the maids who had disdainfully refused a proposal of marriage by the ship's cook on the voyage out, cried herself sick the first night. The next day she gladly exchanged her prospects in this grim, new land for her only chance of a passage home in the Norman Morison. Mrs. Skinner was made of sterner stuff. She made the best of things, refusing to dwell too much on the comfort of her old home in Essex. In this miserable shack, a month after they landed, another baby was born, a lovely, healthy girl whom they named Constance. Work was promptly commenced on the Constance Cove Farm. With Indians to clear the land, Mr. Skinner soon had construction started on the home that was to see so many happy days. The house was built on a sunny, southern slope overlooking the little bay in Esquimalt Harbor, later to be known as Skinner's Cove. Today, Skinner's Cove is completely filled by the Dominion Graving Dock.
The giant oak trees, still to be seen scattered over the parklike slope where the old house stood, suggested the name that the Skinners gave to their new home, "Oaklands." It was a widespread, twin-gabled, one-storied structure, solidly built, homelike and charming. Its shuttered windows opened wide to the fresh air and sunshine. There was room and to spare for the large family. Mrs. Skinner planted a lovely garden around the house, enclosed in a trellis fence, where all her beloved English flowers flourished. When the Skinners first moved into "Oaklands" dense forest surrounded them. Their nearest neighbors were the Mackenzies, living at Craigflower Farm. The houses were two miles apart through a forest trail. Just off the trail, on the shores of the harbor, midway between the two farms, lay the ancient Indian village of Chachimutupusas. Although almost deserted for the new Songhees village on Victoria Harbor, there was always a chance of meeting Indians on the trail and Indians were strange and frightening to Mrs. Skinner at this time. A terrifying incident had given her reason . to be nervous. Haidas were employed to clear the land on Constance Cove Farm instead of the friendlier, more easy-going Songhees, possibly because of the greater strength and vigor of the northern Indians. The Haidas came frequently from the Queen Charlotte Islands to Fort Victoria to trade. They were fierce and untamed and were often the cause of trouble with the other Indians. One day Mrs. Skinner was alone in the house. The children were playing outside with a Songhees Indian girl to look after them. It was payday for the Haidas. They paddled around to the Fort in their great Haida canoes to demand their pay in blankets, the commodity always used by the Hudson's Bay Company to pay the Indians. The stock of blankets at the trading post was exhausted and the Haidas were told to come back another day. Suspecting a plot to defraud them of their pay, they paddled angrily back to Skinner's Cove, landed and held a council-of-war.
They blamed Mr. Skinner and planned revenge. They would kidnap the Skinner children. Fortunately the Indian nursemaid heard them. She collected the children and ran with them into the house. Breathlessly she told their mother of the danger. Without a moment's hesitation Mrs. Skinner stripped blankets from their own beds and gathered some trinkets and clothing. Taking the Indian girl with her to act as interpreter and warning the children to bolt the doors and windows, she hurried down to the shore. She told the angry Haidas that she had brought them presents, some of her own blankets and other gifts. She explained to them that they would be paid in full when more blankets arrived at the Fort. The fierce faces of the Haidas relaxed then broke into smiles. They gathered around her and called her their "very good friend." The courage and quick · action of this pioneer woman had averted a tragedy.
With what amazement and awe would the Skinner children have gazed down from their home on the hillside at the vast bulk of the greatest passenger liner afloat today, the Queen Elizabeth, as she lay in the Dominion Graving Dock, in February, 1942, while Yarrows workmen swarmed over her, rapidly converting the luxury liner into a giant troop carrier. Her precipitous bow towered over the very spot where they used to play on the beach at the head of Skinner's Cove, and over the place where the angry Haidas held their council-of-war. The large six hundred acre farm was gradually cleared and the forest around "Oaklands" replaced by open fields. Constance Cove Farm lay between Viewfield and Craigflower Farms, sharing a common boundary with ·each. It had a long waterfrontage on the Gorge or Victoria Arm, from Selkirk Water to the boathouse cove in the present Gorge Park. Its common boundary with Craigflower ran from the Gorge to the middle of Skinner's Cove in Esquimalt Harbor. Although the waterfrontage of the farm on Esquimalt Harbor was narrow, from Skinner's Cove to Pilgrim Cove, it was convenient and sheltered and had more than one good landing place.
When the farms came into full production, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company built two large storage warehouses of solid masonry on the north shore of Skinner's Cove. Here the Hudson's Bay Company's trading vessels and Russian ships would load wheat, flour, beef, bacon, butter and other produce from the farms, much of it for Sitka. These warehouses had to be torn down in 1924 to clear' the ground for the construction of the Dominion Graving Dock. Constance Cove Farm took in a strip of the present grounds of H.M.C.S. Naden. Its boundary ran from the southerly point of Pilgrim Cove, the site of the naval jetty, to Admirals Road near the main entrance to Naden. There it swung southeast to run straight to the point near the top of the hill on Old Esquimalt Road where it met the Viewfield line. Its boundaries enclosed today's fairways of the Gorge Vale Golf Course and the pleasant, grassy slopes encircling the Naval Cemetery, also the marshlands known as Skinner's Bottom. Many a merry skating party was held in the good old days on Skinner's Bottom when the fields flooded and froze over in the wintertime.
Today a village of Wartime Houses covers these flats, built in 1940, for the families of workers at Yarrows shipyards. Good crops of wheat, barley, potatoes and turnips were harvested on Constance Cove Farm in its second year. There were fewer sheep but more cattle than on Viewfield and Colwood Farms. According to Governor Douglas' report, it was the only farm producing butter in 1854. The same report listed nine dwelling houses at Constance Cove, with a population of 34, including 16 children and 18 adults. When, as a result of the Crimean War, naval activity increased at Esquimalt, the Puget Sound Agricultural Company's farms were in a strategic position to supply all the farm produce that the naval ships required. A news item in an old copy of "The British Colonist" mentioned that Thomas J. Skinner had obtained the contract to supply beef to H.M. fleet at Esquimalt. The hospitable doors of the Skinners' home were always open to the officers whose ships were lying at anchor in Constance Cove.
These were gay, happy days at "Oaklands." Life in the Skinner household was never dull. Mr. Skinner was a fine host with a keen sense of humor, while Mrs. Skinner was lively, quick-witted and clever. They were often guests at dinners and dances aboard visiting warships, including H.M.S. Monarch, flagship of Rear-Admiral Henry William Bruce, which had arrived at Esquimalt in August, 1855, from Petropavlovski and Sitka. A frequent visitor at "Oaklands" was Lieutenant Commander the Honorable Horace Douglas Lascelles, seventh son of the Earl of Harewood. Commander Lascelles came to this station as 1st Lieutenant of H.M.S. Topaz e. The following year, 1861, he was appointed to the command of H.M. gunboat Forward, one of the small naval ships that made history on this coast. Commander Lascelles evidently found life in this colony pleasant, for upon his retirement from the Navy he returned to live in Esquimalt. He had invested in Victoria real estate and Nanaimo coal mines. H e was buried in the Naval Cemetery, that peaceful God's acre that was once a field of Constance Cove Farm. The Skinners and the Langfords became great friends and often exchanged visits either by boat across Esquimalt Harbor or on horseback over the trails.
On all four farms there were good riding horses, sent with other stock from the Company's farm at Fort Nisqually, famous for the horses bred there for the fur brigades. The Skinner children all had their ponies. They were taught to ride on a horse that had belonged to the famous outlaw, Ned McGowan, a roan with a broad white stripe on his nose, very gentle but full of spirit. The children named him "Ned McGowan" after the former owner, a notorious character of Fraser River Gold Rush fame. The Skinners had nine children. The four elder ones were boys, born at West Thoroclc, Essex, Ambrose William, Robert James, Francis George Gordon and Ernest Meeson. The third son, Francis, died two years before they left England when only six years old. Two girls were born in England, Annie Louise and Mary. Constance Langford was the baby who arrived at Fort Victoria. Two more girls were born at Oaklands," Ada Jane Bruce and Emily and were christened on board naval ships.
Ada Jane Bruce was christened in Admiral Bruce's flagship, H.M.S. Monarch, with Captain Langford and Mrs. Langford as her godparents. Emily, who was christened aboard H.M.S. Satellite, had Captain Prevost as her godfather. The eldest daughter, Annie, married a naval officer, John Bremner, R.N., in 1865, after the family had moved from "Oaklands" to the Cowichan Valley. She was just sixteen when she married and went back with her husband to live in England. When they met he was Assistant Paymaster at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Esquimalt. Later he became Fleet Paymaster. Mr. Skinner took a lively interest in public affairs. In 1854, the year following his arrival, he was appointed Justice of the Peace for the Peninsula. In those days the land almost surrounded by the waters of Esquimalt Harbor, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Victoria Harbor and the Gorge, was known as "The Peninsula."
When elections were held for the first Legislative Assembly, Thomas J. Skinner and Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken were elected to represent the electoral district of Esquimalt and Metchosin. Mr. Skinner remained in charge of Constance Cove Farm while it was under the direction of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. When that company ceased to exist and its assets were taken over by the Hudson's Bay Company, he was forced to leave the farm and home that he had created and that the whole family had grown to love. In 1865 they moved to Quamichan Lake in the Cowichan Valley. The Langfords and the Skinners, the two English families on the four Esquimalt farms, were among the first to create the distinctive English atmosphere, the quiet, unhurried way of living still to be found on this southern tip of Vancouver Island.
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