The original urban farm
By Danda Humphreys
All the way-o from County Mayo, the Finnertys farmed Gordon Head.
The Finnerty family gravesite in Ross Bay Cemetery.
What’s the connection between an old apple tree, a stained-glass window in St Andrews Cathedral, and a plaque in a campus garden? Sure as Irish eyes are smilin’, it’s a family named Finnerty.
Michael Finnerty was born in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, in the 1830s. Some three decades later, the potato famine of the 1840s behind them, he and his brother John followed many of their countrymen to the land of opportunity—America. Then came the outbreak of the Civil War, and news of a gold find in a place called British Columbia. Like many others, the Finnertys gave up good jobs in favour of the uncertain but exciting life that awaited them on the West Coast.
In 1862 they arrived in Victoria, a city that for the second time in four years was serving as a gateway to mainland gold mines. Mike
was dismayed to learn that gold strikes were actually few and far between, and decided to earn his living some other way. Before long, he and John were on the largely uninhabited British Columbia mainland, working on the wagon road from Alexandria to Lillooet.
A year later, they were back in Victoria with money in their pockets and a yen to grow and sell their own produce. They bought land in Fernwood and established a market garden. John (who preferred the last name Fenerty) sold fruit and vegetables at his Island Vegetable Store in Waddington Alley. Before long, the brothers could afford to buy more land. They chose the heavily treed, still uninhabitable eastern part of Gordon Head.
The Finnerty acreage stretched from what is now the middle of the University of Victoria campus, along the present-day Saanich-Oak Bay boundary, up to Arbutus Cove, and across to Cadboro Bay. Mike was a big, jolly fellow who was not afraid of hard work. Slowly but surely he cleared the 300-acre area, planted an orchard, and opened up pastureland where his 50-strong herd of cattle could roam. He also cleared the trail that became Finnerty Road, and built Spring Bank Farm at the south end of the property.
John, meanwhile, had married a lovely young Irish lass called Hannah Cullinan. They already had four children, with a fifth on the way, when John contracted tuberculosis and died just after Christmas 1874, at the young age of 39. Hannah, left with five youngsters under the age of 10 and a huge market garden and farm to run, remarried two years later, and had three more children. She died suddenly on Christmas Day, 1883, just 38 years old. She was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, next to her first husband and her young son John, who had succumbed to “strangulation of the intestine” at the tender age of five.
Meanwhile Mike, still a bachelor, had decided it was time to find himself a bride. In 1880 he went to San Francisco, where he met and married Galway-born Mary Ann Casey. He brought her home to Spring Bank Farm, where they raised a daughter and two sons before moving to a home on Bank Street. Mary Ann died in 1911 at the age of 67. Mike stayed on alone at the family home.
The farming life had suited “Old Mike,” as he was fondly called. Not one to back down from a fight, he had often been embraced by the long arm of the law, but at 90 he could still jump a four-foot ditch. Never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, Mike maintained that he was well over 100 when he was probably still in his nineties. Eventually, however, time caught up with him. Just before Christmas, 1930, he passed away suddenly while visiting his son John’s home in Duncan. He got the last laugh—cemetery records stated that he was 101 when he died.
Few families can claim, like the Finnertys, to have farmed continuously in the Victoria area for almost 150 years. Mike and John’s legacy lives on. At Ross Bay Cemetery, the family headstone bears the words “Their Footsteps Echo Through Time.” At St Andrew’s Cathedral, a stained-glass window is dedicated to John’s memory. At Finnerty Gardens’ Henderson Road Gate, a plaque reads, “In memory of the Finnertys who once tilled this soil—John and Hannah, Michael and Mary Ann.” And in UVic’s Education Quadrangle, the now-gnarled branches of Spring Park Farm’s last surviving apple tree bear witness to the brothers from County Mayo, first farmers in east Gordon Head.
Special thanks to David Pollock, a direct descendant of John Patrick Fenerty (Finnerty), who recently updated my information about his pioneering ancestors.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s pioneer families. See www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the July 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.