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  • Writer's pictureSaanich Pioneer Society

Spencer Family of Brentwood Bay: A Story Captured in Forgotten Photo Negatives

Updated: May 18, 2021

In archives, we often start out doing one task and end up working on a completely unexpected project. Several months ago while sorting and filing documents, we came across a rather random 1992 form from the Provincial Archives. It seemed that nearly thirty years ago, they had transferred an extensive collection of photo negatives (along with a handful of prints) to the Saanich Pioneer Society. According to the form, the images related to a Mr. Spencer of Brentwood Bay. No other information was provided.

In a fortuitous coincidence, our Digitization Technician just recently finished scanning a large set of negatives. It took some time to sort out that these were the very same ones referred to on the form, but soon we put two and two together! The next challenge? No captions. Although we had the transfer form, it hadn't come with any caption information or identifications of any kind other than the reference to the Spencer family of Brentwood Bay. So the big question was, who were the people in these images? The same man, woman, girl and boy appeared regularly.

Family on beach.
Spencer family photo on beach (SPS Archives F650Ph #166)

After much research, we were finally able to put names to faces and the story we found in the negatives is one of family and farm, love and loss.

Man with cat on lap.
Albert Henry Spencer with cat on lap (SPS Archives F650Ph #71)

Albert Henry Spencer was born on May 25, 1876 in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. According to his obituary, he moved to Alberta in 1916 and ranched until 1929, when he and his family moved to Brentwood Bay. They settled on a nearly 10 acre property on Verdier Avenue -- listed on the 1951 Central Saanich Assessor's and Collector's Roll as South Saanich District, Section 10R1&2W, Plan 1188, Lot D, Verdier & Stelly's, 9.79 Acres, Farm.

Ledger page
Assessor's and Collector's Roll 1950s, entry for Spencer property (Saanich Pioneer Society Archives)
Marguerite Sylvie Spencer and daughter in front of family house on Verdier Ave (SPS Archives F650Ph #158)
Hay stacks.
Albert Henry Spencer beside hay stacks on Verdier Ave farm (SPS Archives F650Ph #148)

Albert's wife Marguerite Sylvie (nee Destrube) was born in London, England on July 24, 1882. During the First World War, she worked for the Red Cross, Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD); her fiance, family friend Arthur Fleming, was Killed in Action at the front. When she returned to Canada, she married Albert and together they ran a store in Alberta before moving to Vancouver Island with their children Marguerite and Ernest Albert. To learn more about Marguerite Sylvie and the Destrube family, visit the University of Victoria Libraries "Victoria to Vimy" online exhibit.

Screen shot of photo album page.
Victoria to Vimy: The First World War Collections at the University of Victoria Libraries.
Woman, children, and puppies.
Marguerite Sylvie Spencer, her two children, and two puppies outside (SPS Archives F650Ph #155)
Children playing in the snow.
Siblings Ernest Henry and Marguerite Spencer playing in the snow (SPS Archives F650Ph #2)

But tragedy would strike a few years later. In February 1936, the area went through a cold snap accompanied by a dump of snow. Those who are familiar with Brentwood know that Verdier Avenue is quite steep leading down to the ferry dock; back in 1936, it was a perfect sledding hill. The Daily Colonist reported on the fatality that marked the first snowfall of the year:

Ten-year old Ernest Albert Spencer, son of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Spencer, Verdier Avenue, Brentwood, was instantly killed shortly before 11 o'clock yesterday morning. Albert and his sister Margaret, twelve years old, were sleigh-riding on Verdier Avenue hill and police believe they became frightened when they saw the automobile behind them and both rolled from the sled, Margaret to the right side of the road and [Ernest] Albert to the left.

The vehicle had been driven by Edward Clayards of Bowker Avenue, who, according to the newspaper account, tried to avoid the boy. It was believed the front bumper of the car struck Ernest on the head, causing instant death. A subsequent inquest ruled the death accidental.

Headline: Fatality at Brentwood Marks First Snowfall

Headline: Fatality Marks First Snowfall
Daily Colonist, February 6, 1936
Headline: Find Death of Boy Accidental
Daily Colonist, February 11, 1936
Boy driving toy car with goat riding at back.
Ernest Albert Spencer in toy car with goat (SPS Archives F650Ph #156)

Despite what must have been a devastating loss for the Spencer family, they carried on. Albert Henry served for twelve years as People's Warden at St. Stephen's. The Daily Colonist published a poem he wrote for the Parish's 70th anniversary in 1932. He and Marguerite later retired, selling the Verdier property and moving to 941 Joan Crescent in Victoria, where they would spend the remainder of their lives. Albert served as a Sidesman at Christ Church Cathedral for nineteen years after leaving the Saanich Peninsula.

View of mountains, water, and trees.
View from Spencer property on Verdier Ave (SPS Archives F650Ph #113)
Poem entitled "Pioneers" by Albert Spencer.
Daily Colonist, May 29, 1932.

Marguerite Sylvie and her daughter took an extended trip abroad, spending nearly a year in France, a summer in England, and time in various other countries. The Daily Colonist reported their return in May 1938.

Headline: "Back From Abroad".
Daily Colonist, May 10, 1938.
Women on deck of a ship.
Marguerite Sylvie Spencer, daughter Marguerite on a ship (SPS Archives F650Ph #163)

Daughter Marguerite, also known as Margaret, went on to earn a Master's Degree in Art from the University of California, Berkeley in January 1952. There she met John M. Heslep, who received his Ph.D. from the school in 1950. Dr. Heslep was a "radiological chemist for civil defense and consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission at the University of California, Los Angeles." The couple married on July 1, 1952 at St. Stephen's, Saanichton, but returned to California to live. They had one daughter, Rehana.

Three women outside a building.
Marguerite Spencer and friends at the University of Berkeley, California, 1940s (SPS Archives F650Ph #1)
Woman wearing graduation cap and gown.
Marguerite Spencer graduation photo, University of Berkeley, California (SPS Archives F650Ph #128)
Headline: "To Reside in California After Marriage".
Daily Colonist, June 1, 1952
A bride on her wedding day.
Marguerite Spencer Heslep on her wedding day, 1952 (SPS Archives F650Ph #41)

Albert Henry Spencer died on April 11, 1963 in Victoria. His death certificate lists his occupation as Retired Farmer. Marguerite Sylvie would follow ten years later, passing away at Gorge Road Hospital in 1973 at the age of 91. Daughter Marguerite remained a California resident and died there in 1982.

We're honoured to preserve and share the Spencer family story, no longer forgotten.

Snow in field.
Snowy field, Spencer family property on Verdier Avenue (SPS Archives F650Ph #28)
Man on front porch.
Albert Henry Spencer on front porch of his Verdier Avenue house (SPS Archives F650Ph #63)

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