Built as a modest family home on acreage on the Gorge waterway in Victoria, Point Ellice House had many additions over the years. Even today, some mistake it for a private bed and breakfast.
By Tom Hawthorn
The historic Point Ellice House can be found on Pleasant Street. A surrounding heritage garden showcases roses and lilacs and hollyhocks. The grounds offer two leafy acres of bucolic pleasures, an oasis set amid the hubbub of a bustling city.
The aged Italianate-style house was to get some needed repairs over the summer. The plan was to fix woodwork before an overdue paint job gave the home a refreshed appearance in time for a 150th anniversary celebration to be held later this month.
It will take some doing to ensure this historic gem survives to mark its 160th birthday.
Point Ellice House is one of the best-kept secrets in the capital district. Some assume it is a private bed and breakfast. In fact, volunteers labour hard to keep the national historic site in prime condition. For a tourist city offering no shortage of attractions, the home and gardens are too often overlooked. The spectacular 55 acres of the Butchart Gardens are far larger and more fantastic; Craigdarroch Castle offers a hint of turn-of-the-century life in a fairy-tale setting just a short uphill stroll from downtown.
A more modest venture, Point Ellice House charges just $6 admission, including an audio tour. A full luncheon tea with soup, savories, and sweets served in the garden costs $25. The tea includes a tour. Such prices are on the low end.
Page through the guestbook and the comments are filled with praise: “Lovely”; “Beautiful as always”; “I like that it feels lived in, not museumified.” But the most telling statement is: “I’ve lived here all my life and I never visited.”
More than three in four visitors come from outside the country, attracted by favourable online notices and websites extolling one of the continent’s largest collections of Victoriana. Locals seem reluctant to visit. The house suffers as a destination in part because it is surrounded by industrial lands and such neighbours as a gravel retailer, a window-making factory, and an auto upholsterer. The drive along nearby Bay Street offers little promise of a return to a time when Queen Victoria’s namesake city was a far-off outpost in an empire covering much of the globe.
Built in 1861, the original waterfront cottage was purchased by Peter O’Reilly for $2,500 in 1867, the same year in which four British colonies on the other side of the continent joined a Confederation to be called Canada. Born in Ireland, O’Reilly came to British Columbia as a stipendiary magistrate at Fort Langley, later serving as a gold commissioner in the Cariboo.
In Victoria, he married Caroline Trutch, the sister of the man who became the province’s first lieutenant-governor. Their graceful home on the banks of the Gorge waterway was expanded over the years. A number of outbuildings were also built. Tennis and croquet were played on the expansive lawns. Although O’Reilly originally opposed British Columbia joining Confederation, he later changed his position and, in the summer of 1886, invited Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his wife to the house for a gala party.
The O’Reilly home became a gathering place for the city’s social elite, as well as a favourite destination for young Royal Navy officers stationed at the nearby base at Esquimalt. One of the lures was the vivacious presence of young Kathleen O’Reilly, among whose suitors could be counted Robert Scott, later to gain worldwide fame as an explorer whose exploits were depicted in the movie, Scott of the Antarctic.
The house remained in family hands until the third generation sold it to the province in 1975. With the home came thousands of household items — a harp, tea services, writing desks, board games, kitchen utensils, silk taffeta neckties, porcelain foot warmers.
The house is owned by the provincial government and managed by the non-profit Point Ellice House Preservation Society. A big birthday party will be held on August 21 when singers and dancers will perform on the lawns. An old-fashioned egg-and-spoon race will be conducted for children. Visitors will be able to consult with experts in gardening and military history.
If the industrial surroundings seem off-putting for a visit, here’s a suggestion. Hop on a harbour ferry downtown and ride to the Point Ellice House dock along the harbour waters. These, too, were once despoiled by industry, but have since been reclaimed. Here’s hoping an historic house survives as a refuge and a reminder of the city’s earliest days.
A tea party on the expansive lawns, as shown in an undated photograph from the BC Archives (H-06661). The home featured grass tennis courts and a lawn for croquet. It now boasts a glorious garden.