Early settlement of Mt. Newton Valley

Known to be the oldest church in BC still on its original site and having been in continuous use since it was built, St Stephen's Anglican Church was once an important center to a new and, for quite some time, isolated community.  It is now little known, few remembering or knowing it's history or significance to the area.

The history of Vancouver Island is very recent.  White settlement didn't start until the building of Fort Victoria, a fur trading outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1843.  Farms were needed to support the Fort and provide fresh produce.  One of the earliest settled in the area was Craigflower Farm, named after the farm in England owned by Andrew Colville, the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company.  Craigflower farm was one of the very first farming communities in all of Western Canada, and it was to this farm that an enterprising young Scotsman, William Thomson, found his way, via a rather eventful route, in 1854.

Originally an apprentice carpenter to a ship builder in Scotland, William left for the new world to seek his fortunes once gaining his journeyman's papers.  He landed in San Francisco in 1853 and then took ship to Vancouver Island on a small British brigantine later in the same year.  The ship was blown off course and eventually crashed ashore thanks to a drunk Captain.  All passengers and crew who survived, minus the Captain, were taken prisoner by the Nitinat First Nation Peoples for about 6 months before eventually being taken to Fort Victoria and traded back to the Hudson's Bay Company in exchange for blankets.

Craigflower Schoolhouse, built in 1854.  The Manor house was completed in 1856.  Photo courtesy of Historicplaces.ca

In 1852, Governor James Douglas, on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Co., bought 18,000 acres from the Coast Salish people and divided it into 100 acre plots that were to be sold to new settlers, as settlement of lower Vancouver Island was one of the aims of the Hudson's Bay Company as it shifted focus away from fur trading towards being a mercantile business.  The land was divided into two strips, one on either side of Mount Newton and came to be called North and South Saanich by the settlers.  "South" Saanich eventually became what is now Central Saanich.

It was at Craigflower Farm that William Thomson befriended another Scotsman, Aeneas McPhail who was a Hudson's Bay employee, originally a Factor out at Port Simpson, and is considered to be the first white man to have settled in the Mount Newton Valley, having claimed 177 acres for himself.  McPhail took William over an old Native trail to the Mount Newton Valley, where in 1855 William staked a neighbouring 200 acres for himself, paying the Hudson's Bay Company the sum of 14 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence for the title deed. 

At first building only a small log cabin, then later a large house, William named his farm "Bannockburn", and it still stands to this day.  William soon married 15 year old Margaret Dyer, step-daughter to Duncan Lidgate, another labourer William met at Craigflower Farm, and their second son, Alexander, is considered to be the first white child to be born in the Mount Newton Valley.

Bannockburn, the William Thomson home in Central Saanich, originally "South" Saanich. Photo dated 1887, and courtesy of BC Archives.

By 1862, with another 6 families settled in what is now Central Saanich, William Thomson deeded 5 acres to the Reverend George Hills, Bishop of BC, to build a church and school.  Since this area was still a complete wilderness at this time and there were no local sawmills, redwood timber was ordered from California.  It arrived in Fort Victoria and was taken overland by oxen to the Mount Newton Valley.  While waiting for the timber, the local settlers helped by clearing and leveling the land in preparation for building the church.  Once the timber arrived, it took 5 months to build and the first church service was held here in June of 1862.

St. Stephen's Church, Saanichton.  Photo courtesy of BC Archives.


For the first few years the church building doubled as a local school, but as the community continued to grow and more children were being born, it was eventually decided to build a separate building elsewhere.  Once again William Thomson provided some land and in 1866 the school house was built about a kilometre away from the church up on a slight hill on the land that is now Ravenhill Herb Farm.  Now, nothing remains of the original school building.

West Road School, Saanich. Photo dated to the early 1900s and courtesy of BC Archives.

Some of the first settler families that are buried in the churchyard are the Thomson family, the Durrance family, the Lidgate family, and the Michell family of Michell's Farm, still family run to this day out on Hwy 17 and Island View Rd. And though we looked hard, we could not find a grave for the McPhails.