By Danda Humphreys
The art of doing business.
David Spencer's former property “Llan Derwen” on Moss Street was the home of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 2007.
What’s the connection between a beautiful mansion in Rockland, a humble church in James Bay, and a small town in Wales? A man whose name is largely forgotten, but whose legacy lives on through his children’s generosity. For it was they who—long after his death—generously allowed the family home to become the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Patriarch David Spencer was a Glamorgan boy who was in his early 20s when he sailed from Liverpool in 1862. In the newly incorporated city of Victoria, where grizzled gold-miners mingled with society matrons and middle-class folks from the Old Country, Spencer found his niche. The city had stores, saloons and brothels galore, theatres, newspapers and much, much more. But there were few places where a fellow could sit quietly and catch up with the news of the day.
By the fall of 1864, “Spencer’s Bookstore and Reading Room” was open for business. Here, people could gain access to books and all the latest newspapers. The monthly fee —$1—was cheap at twice the price for people thirsty for news and knowledge of happenings back home.
Business was brisk. Before long, Spencer had expanded his business to include a stationery store, and by 1873 he had opened a dry-goods store at the corner of Fort and Douglas streets, which sold exclusive dry goods imported from England.
Within a decade, Spencer’s business was bulging at the seams. He expanded it across a city block, with frontage on two streets. If you entered from Broad Street and kept walking, you could end up on Government Street without ever leaving Spencer’s property.
Victorians were aghast. “This store is too big for our small city!” they said. But Spencer ignored them. He extended his frontage along Broad and Government streets, and imported kitchenware, appliances, furni- ture, china, clothes, shoes...The day of the department store had dawned.
At the end of each working day, Spencer hurried home to his wife, Emma, and the family that seemed to be growing as fast as his business. The Spencers had married at the Methodist Church at Broad and Pandora streets (now the home of A-Channel News) in 1867. Their first child, born within the year, was quickly followed by 12 more. No doubt about it, the Spencers needed more space.
In the mid-1870s, they moved to the south side of the Inner Harbour. Soon afterwards, Spencer built a huge house at the south end of the wooden bridge that once spanned James Bay (from which the community took its name). The house stood behind where the Carillon is today. Spencer protected it from the cold winter winds by planting a row of tall trees, then named it after them—“The Poplars.”
It was perfectly placed. At the end of each day, the younger children took turns peeking through the branches, watching for their father’s distinguished, top-hatted figure to start walking briskly across the bridge, so their mother could have dinner on the table the minute he walked through the door.
The Spencers had been active at the Pandora Street church from the start. Now, they turned their attention to their new community. Spencer was instrumental in establishing a Methodist Church, which stands to this day (now as a United Church) near the site of their first James Bay home, at the corner of Menzies and Michigan streets. True music-loving Welshman that he was, Spencer started and conducted the church’s first choir.
Early in the 1900s, the senior Spencers moved to a beautiful mansion on Moss Street called “Gyppeswyck” —the old English spelling of a town called Ipswich. Spencer re-named the property “Llan Derwen,” which in Welsh means “under the oaks.” He died there in 1920, at the age of 82. Emma outlived him by 14 years.
The five Spencer sons had followed their father into the family business, and eventually there were eight Spencer stores in BC and one in Alberta. After David’s death, “Mr. Will” managed the Victoria store. When he died, in 1946, his sister, the redoubtable “Miss Sara,” took over. “Mr. Chris” stayed in Vancouver, where in 1948 he witnessed the end of an era, when “David Spencer’s Ltd.” became the property of the T. Eaton Co.
Victoria’s main Art Gallery, housed in an addition to “Llan Derwen,” has been in the news again recently. There’s talk of a downtown satellite gallery, which would make at least some of the AGGV’s splendid collection more accessible to visitors. Fittingly, if plans go ahead, the new gallery won’t be far from where “The Poplars” once stood. The Spencer siblings would be proud.
Danda will never forget the thrill of having her first book launched in the stately splendour of the Spencers’ former home. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the March 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.