What would it have been like, I found myself wondering, to be a young urban child taken from home and family in England and plunked in to the middle of a lonely rural setting at Cowichan Station near Duncan? I can only guess at the emotions of the 329 youngsters who arrived at the Fairbridge Farm School between 1935 and 1951. Little of that era remains, but what is left stirs the senses and piques the curiousity.
As is not uncommon during our travels on Vancouver Island we stumbled upon the old 1,000 acre farm thanks to a chance comment made by someone we had been talking to about an entirely different subject. We were heading in the general direction of Fairbridge in any event, so decided to take a little detour and check it out.
The Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm (formerly Pemberlea Farm) was established with the idea of assisting underprivileged children from England to grow up in a healthy environment, learn a trade and make a new and better life for themselves in Canada. Boys were taught mixed farming skills while the few girls were taught household proficiency, with an eye to them becoming domestics at maturity.
The home farm consisted of a cluster of cottages, outbuildings and a chapel, which served as the heart of the community. The children lived in the cottages with house mothers and, in addition to their schooling were expected to help with various chores such as chopping and piling firewood and kitchen duties.
The farm came under a fair bit of fire during its 16 year existence. Government rules and the involvement of child welfare advocates often made things difficult for the administrators of the plan, and by 1951 Fairbridge had said farewell to the last of its students.
The farm sat vacant for many years save for the presence of a caretaker. The buildings were intermittently used as housing for immigrants and a dairy company took over the farming operation when the farm school closed.
In 1975 a real estate developer purchased the property. Refurbishment of some of the original buildings got under way, converting them to private homes on a bare land strata. A total of 39 homes now sit on the original ‘village’ site, surrounded by the rural loveliness that has always been synonymous with the Cowichan Valley.
There is a cairn at the entrance to a stunningly beautiful farmscape that commemorates the Fairbridge Farm School – it was the first indication that told us we were in the right area. We back-tracked to the housing development and meandered along a quiet road where we discovered charming heritage buildings lovingly restored. Many of them have signs at the edge of the property signifying the original use of the building and the year that it was constructed.
One of the most impressive restorations is the Fairbridge Chapel, now overseen by the Fairbridge Chapel Heritage Society. Situated in a secluded spot in the community, the chapel no doubt offered comfort to any of the youngsters who were feeling homesick or uncertain about their new lives.
In the end, the Fairbridge Farm School was deemed not to be the best solution to assisting underprivileged youngsters. But its heritage and history live on, bringing an intriguing glimpse into the past of the Cowichan Valley.
Further information on Fairbridge Farm School can be found at two websites:
For those wishing to see the ‘real thing’, the loop road that encircles the strata site is located at the junction of Koksilah Road and Fairbridge Drive. A leisurely drive or stroll will take you past many of the historic buildings and the chapel.