Victoria June ‘15
Sorry for not writing sooner. It’s been a long time and things have been quite busy.
I have a confession to make right away – and don’t you tell my husband this! – I have a serious crush on another man! He is witty, intelligent, well read, level-headed, has a slightly teasing smile and a bumper hipster beard.
I just want to know everything there is to know about him: if he is a cat or a dog person, how he takes his tea, what his views on BC politics are, and what he really thought of Sir John A. Macdonald when they had dinner together at Prime Minister Mackenzie’s place in May of 1878.
I guess I haven’t yet mentioned that he has been dead for the last 137 years – a tiny fact that does not diminish my crush in the least.
I first came across Francis James Roscoe when I started volunteering at Ross Bay Villa here in Victoria, 14 years ago. He built the gothic revival home in 1865 and by 1999 it was in such bad shape that it was almost demolished. Luckily, the house was saved, and a passionate group of Villa volunteers has meticulously restored it to the time of its original inhabitants – the Roscoes. They lived at Ross Bay Villa from 1865 until Francis’ premature death in 1878.
By 1999, Roscoe had been erased from Victoria’s memory until three fellow researchers gathered information to back up the importance of saving Ross Bay Villa. They found some truly remarkable information on Francis Roscoe. Who knew that he had been elected a member of parliament for Victoria in 1874, when the Dominion of Canada was trying to backtrack on the Terms of Union with BC? Who knew that he did not stand for re-election in 1878 and Sir John A. Macdonald took his seat, allowing him to become prime minister once again? Not many is my guess!
The plan, right from the beginning of the restoration, was to use the building as a historic house museum: to show the garden, the exterior of the house and the interior (complete with furnishings) as it would have been during the Roscoes’ time. Now, we didn’t just want it to look like any 1860s place – we wanted it to be as authentic to the Roscoes as it could possibly be. That meant thorough analysis of the house as well as painstaking research. We needed to know everything there was to be known about the Roscoes: their ancestry, their backgrounds, their social standing, their interests and beliefs. That is how my obsession with Francis J. Roscoe started…
It began with late nights in front of the computer and on the Internet – after work, after the boys were in bed, and after there was finally some downtime. Because of Roscoe’s political career, a lot of information, such as his portrait photos and letters he had written, could be found on the National Archives of Canada website.
Many other nights (often until the early morning, I will admit) were spent creating a massive family tree on the Internet for both Mr and Mrs (insert eye-roll here) Roscoe, using census and church records. They were both connected to many prominent figures in British history, such as Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Gaskell and many others. Making each connection and being able to prove it was quite exciting.
Back when the local 1860s and 1870s paper, the Daily Colonist, was not yet online, I took every chance I got to go to the BC Archives. During my lunch breaks I would scour the newspaper on microfilm for any mention of Roscoe. Luckily there were many due to his involvement in the Volunteer Rifles and the Mechanic’s Literary Institute, as well as many other public engagements.
Finding just the smallest mention of his name was like hitting the jackpot. I documented everything I could find by compiling a chronological spreadsheet, and unearthing the next new insight into his life became somewhat addictive. After a point, lunchbreaks did not cut it anymore and – again, don’t tell my husband this! – I took time off work once in a while to spend it with Francis at the BC Archives. Soon I got to know Lance at the reception desk as well as the other staff in the reference room who patiently helped me over and over again to find my way through the vast collection.
The reference room has a very dignified and serious atmosphere and more than once have I had to suppress wild screams of: “I found it!”, “Everyone – this is amazing!” and “Oh my gosh – you’ll never believe this!”. I know other researchers feel the same about their findings when I see their grins and satisfied smiles.
Just a few weeks ago I had such a moment when I was sitting in front of a microfilm reader and found a letter of reference that Francis Roscoe had brought with him from England, when he first came to Victoria in 1862. It was addressed to Governor Sir James Douglas and was written on Roscoe’s behalf by the minister of colonies at Downing Street in London. That, I thought, was pretty neat.
I also found this in the Daily Colonist one day, which made me smile:
Another pretty interesting thing that happened (understatement of the year) is that I was able to make contact with a descendant of Francis and Letitia Roscoe. This was done with the help of some preliminary genealogical research carried out in the early years of the project by Dorothy Sweet and the aid of the Internet. Robin, the thirty-something descendant, provided some photographs of the family as well as (hold on tight) a diary!
Written by both Roscoes, the diary covers the years they lived at Ross Bay Villa. What more can one ask for? The research committee of Ross Bay Villa transcribed all 200 pages of the diary, allowing full insight into how the Roscoes spent their time and what they thought important to record. It is a fascinating read about dinner parties, holidays spent on Saltspring Island, servants, children’s picnics and travelling by train through the Wild West.
Although very informative, the Roscoe diary is neither very emotionally written (except for the time when daughter Maisie died) nor complete. From the accounts in the Daily Colonist I know the Roscoes attended balls and other festivities which are not given a single word in the diary.
Luckily other people spent much more time accounting for their days back then, so I thought I would compare the diaries of some Roscoe friends and acquaintances. Since the Roscoes appear to have moved amongst Victoria’s upper crust, I looked at several prominent Victoria figures whose diaries are held by the BC Archives. Peter O’Reilly’s diaries mention dinner parties with the Roscoes and Sarah Crease recorded calling on Mrs Roscoe on occasion. Edgar Crow Baker (an early Victoria entrepreneur and MP for Victoria after Sir John A. Macdonald’s term ended in 1882) wrote in his 1876 diary about losing his way en route to playing whist at the Roscoes’. Imagine finding that detail and not being able to break out in a loud cheer!
Baker’s diaries are a complete treasure trove and time capsule of 1870s life in Victoria. They make for fun reading since he not only meticulously wrote down his day-to-day business but also the troubles with the women in his family. (Spoiler alert: particularly the troubles with his sister-in-law Agnes, whom he mentions far more often than his wife and with whom he seems to have been more than entangled.)
If I ever exhaust my interest in Francis Roscoe I might start researching Edgar Crow Baker. Although I already know he won’t be able to live up to “my” Francis and, anyway, his beard is far less impressive!
Now you know why I’ve not had much time writing letters in the past few years. “But!… But!” you say. I know – the one thing that I haven’t gone into enough: Roscoe’s premature death mentioned only in passing. Well, you’ll either have to wait for the next letter or come to one of the tours at Ross Bay Villa (every Saturday at 2:00 pm sharp!).
Much love and all the best,