Robert Burrell

robert burell                             Robert Burrell                                                      

Probably like me, you are surprised to discover, many of the locals in Nanaimo and even Cedar have never heard of DeCourcy Island. Imagine if you will, how they must have thought, if at all, about DeCourcy in 1873. As evidenced in the documents I have found, many thought….” Mudge, Gabriola, DeCourcy… All the same place, those islands out there….” They use the names interchangeably.

The Government of Canada passed the Dominion Lands Act in 1872. It provided the legal authority under which the Crown granted lands to individuals, colonization companies, the Hudson’s Bay Company, railway construction, municipalities and religious groups. The act devised specific homestead policies to encourage the settlement of the West. Any man or woman (if she was the sole head of the family) over the age of 21 was eligible for a grant for a 165-acre plot of land. Policy varied over time but most eligible homesteaders who paid a $10 administrative fee were given three years to build a residence and clear at least 30 acres for farming. Once the authorities decided progress had been made, the settler received patent for ownership of the land.

The first land grant for DeCourcy Island was issued to Robert Burrell on the 27th of October 1873. I don’t know how he found DeCourcy. I like to think he was on a sternwheeler returning from Barkerville, travelling from New Westminster to Victoria with a stop in Nanaimo. I picture him passing through Dodd’s Narrows and thinking much like many of us… “I’d like to live there…. Own my own land, build a little house, maybe get me some sheep and have a good life away from the hustle bustle of city life.”

Everything I can find out about Mr. Burrell indicates he was a good guy. A man who anticipated that Barkerville, during the wild and crazy days of the gold rush was vulnerable to fire. The kind of man who would chase a thief, 678 miles to recover stolen

money for his bank. His nautical skills perhaps could have been better, but everyone seems to have liked and respected him.

Burrell was from Glasgow. He first appears in ??? historical records in the Victoria City directory as he rose through the administration of the Bank of British North America. There are records of mine claims in Barkerville during the Cariboo Gold Rush when he was posted as the Manager of the Bank.

I found an example of Burrell’s correspondence with the daughter of Kenneth McKenzie, the Manager of Craigflower farm in the BC Archives. Burrell’s love I suspect was unrequited by McKenzie’s daughter Dorothea (Dottie) while his friendship with her sister continued. At that time, he was the Manager of the Barkerville branch of The Bank of British North America.




Bank of British North America                                                                                    Barkerville July 22, 1865

My dear Miss McKenzie,

I received your kind long letter of 1st and I assure you that I have to thank you for it very much indeed as I thought from your long silence that I had some way or other offended you all and felt very melancholy on the subject. I hope you will like your new residence—it is a beautiful situation and you will be quite near the strawberries and at the same time I can sense you will very much regret leaving Craigflower after the many happy days you have passed there.

I was very much shocked to hear of poor Simpsons death, he looked so strong and healthy while in Vancouver. I often envied his lot but certainly never expected his career would have been cut off so suddenly. It must have been a sad blow to his parents—the last letter I had from him was dated Glasgow—he was then on his way to the highlands on a pedestrian excursion.

I see you keep the run of all our old naval friends. I wonder if D. Turnbull saw my young brother in Glasgow. I sent him that small nugget day pin I used to wear by Turnbull but have not yet heard its fate, do thank Mr. Blair for me for the large bundle of papers he was so kind as to send me they are really a great treat and I feel deeply indebted to him. I would have written to him on this occasion, but it is so late tonight and I have to be up at five o’clock tomorrow morning with a heavy day’s work before me that I do not feel equal to the task.

This is Sunday night and on the opposite side of the street there are no less than three hurdy Gurdy or dancing houses in full blast. Two of them are occupied by German dancing girls—four in each and the third by squaws.

Just now the “Silver Lakes Varsovianna” is ringing in my ears and the noise and music is carried on every night till four sometimes six in the morning. If I am at all out of sorts I find it quite impossible to sleep. The “King of the Cannibal Islands” has just struck out—fancy such a place—

There are two or three places of worship on the creek but they ae all closed—There has not been a clergyman on the creek of any denomination since last year and I really think they are better away as they could do no good.

I was delighted to see in the papers that Mrs. Watson had another little girl. I hope she is as strong and healthy as your namesake. Remember me kindly to her and Mr. Watson the first time you see them. I often think of the jolly times we used to have.

This is a frightful place for a soft man like me. I feel this want of ladies’ society so much and our dear old pal romping Dottie of course. I have forgiven her and would have written her long ago had it not been for your long silence. Who is her beau now? I suppose Goody is growing like a poplar. I expect to find a great change in her by the time I get back to V.I. I am doing very well for the Bank this year my shipment of dust tomorrow is very large. I am almost afraid too large and will be very glad to hear of its safe arrival at Victoria.

How is Burley? Does he like the bank yet or does he still wish his time was up. I hear from Lawson that he is improving very much, and I received last mail a copy of our account written by him which was got up in a very businesslike and creditable manner.

It has been raining dreadfully all day, but the rain is good for mining— There goes “Lucy Long” – and I like it better than the hot days which oppress me very much. I think after the severe winter one experienced how it would be quite dangerous to go to a tropical climate. I board now at the French Hotel at Richfield and walk up and down about half a mile oft twice sometimes three times a day – “Sultans Polka” and the ‘Edinburg Quadrilles”- for at the same time from the White __________ and often stay up there all evening playing quoits or whist. What a frightful din. I must stop.

With my kindest regards to Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie not forgetting the youngsters.

Yours very Sincerely,

 Robert Burrell


Isobel Bescoby mentions Burrell in her book Society in Cariboo during the Gold Rush (P 199)

There was apparently no thought of organized protection against fire. Individual miners and storekeepers may have equipped themselves with leather fire-buckets. By 1867, having already suffered a depletion of their material goods, a few Caribooites under Robert Burrell and John Buie, fire wardens, collected $676 in aid of Barkerville fire brigade. Most of the inhabitants, however, felt that Cariboo was a charmed community, protected by God against fire and all other dangers, and therefore no precautions against destruction by fire were taken in that year. A little over a year later, on September 16, 1868, the whole “metropolis of Cariboo was destroyed by a fire originating in a saloon where a “hurdy” dancing girl was ironing.


In 1871, Burrell had moved back to Victoria and was the interim Manager of the Bank of British North America. An article appeared in the Victoria British Colonist on November 28, 1871 (page 3) which tells a remarkable tale.


Forgery and Successful Pursuit

Robt. Burrell, Esq, of the Bank of British North America, returned from a trip to Idaho yesterday. The trip was made under the following extraordinary of circumstances. About six weeks ago James Huarey stole a check on the Bank of British North America for $1600 from W. C. Anderson at Yale, forged Anderson’s endorsement and was paid the amount at the Bank in this city. On discovery of the fraud the Bank obtained an extradition warrant from our Government. In the meantime, Huarey had taken flight to the United States. Mr. Burrell, of the Bank of B.N.A., went in pursuit with the warrant and overtook the rogue at Salmon River, Idaho. Finding, to take proper legal steps to bring Huarey back to British Columbia, it would be necessary to go to Boise City which would involve a great deal of time and cause a heavy expense which the Government would scarcely refund, Mr. Burrell thought it best to take back the $1600 with $300 additional for expenses, and leave the swindler to escape unwhipt of justice as he might.


Every Clint Eastwood movie I have every watched prompts my imagination as to how Burrell convinced Huarey to repay the money with a 300.00 fee for his trouble, no less. He must have been quite the guy…


In 1873 Burrell left the bank and applied for the land grant on DeCourcy Island. He brought with him 100 sheep to start his farm. A long career with the Bank and years living through the Cariboo Gold Rush could not have been very profitable. The sheep were bought on account with a butcher in Victoria. It was announced in the Victoria British Colonist, Burrell drowned while rowing from Nanaimo harbour to DeCourcy Island just three months after moving here.



December 21, 1873 (page 3)

Reported Drowning. The star Emma arrived from Nanaimo yesterday morning bringing intelligence of the supposed drowning of Mr. Robert Burrell, near Nanaimo last Wednesday night. Mr. Burrell had established a stock ranch on DeCourcy Island, about 8 miles from Nanaimo, and started in a small row boat for home on Wednesday about 1 o’clock. On Friday morning several articles which Mr. Burrell is known to have had in the boat were found on the beach about 1 1/2 miles from town. From this it is feared that the boat was capsized, and Mr. Burrell drowned on Wednesday night. An Indian woman who lives near the point thinks she heard some person shouting that evening. When the Emma sailed a party had gone to DeCourcy Island to ascertain if the missing man had reached there. Mr. Burrell is well known and liked throughout the Province. He was for a long time Manager of the Bank of British North America’s business on William Creek.


Burrell died without a will. When his estate was probate essentially the sheep were returned to the butcher and there were no other assets.



Supreme Court of British Columbia in Probate

Re: the goods of Robert Burrell deceased

I Thomas L. Fawcett of Nanaimo British Columbia Government agent make oath and say

That Robert Burrell of Mudge Island left Nanaimo on the 17th of Dec. last about 4 o’clock pm in a small white -hall boat for the purpose of going to Mudge Island a distance of about 10 miles from Nanaimo. I saw him a short time before he started.

On Friday the 19th of December Mr. Marcius Ros, the person with whom the said Robert Burrell was living came to me to tell me that the said Robert Burrell had not arrived at home and he further informed me that he had seen the mast and sail of the boat and a bag of provisions, letters and papers belonging to the said Robert Burrell, which had been washed on shore at Jacks Point, and the next day he came to Nanaimo and informed me that he had found the boat in which the said Robert Burrell left Nanaimo, bottom upwards.

And I firmly believe that the said Robert Burrell was drowned between the dates of the 17th and 18th December altho his body has not yet been discovered. The said Robert Burrell had 100 sheep on an island which require immediate attention.

Sworn before me at Nanaimo this 8th day of January 1874.

____________- B Spalding





















In the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Probate

Re the goods of Robert Burrell deceased intestate

I John Stafford of Government Street, Victoria, Butcher make oath and say

That Robert Burrell late of Gabriola Island is firstly and truly indebted to me in the sum of four hundred seventy-two dollars for some sheep sold by me to him and which were to be paid for on arrival at his farm. The said sheep were each up from Victoria on the first day of December last.

That to the best of my knowledge information and belief the value of the estate to be administered by me is under the value of the Five hundred dollars.

That I will file a true account of the effects of the said deceased on or before the 24th day of April 1874 and a true account of my administration ship of this on or before the twelfth day of January 1875.

I will pay the debts of the deceased as far as the property extends and the law binds.

John Stafford

Sworn at the city of Victoria the 12th day of January AD 1874 before me


___________________S. Jackson



















In probate in the goods of Robert Burrell Deceased Intestate Affidavit of John Stafford

In the Supreme Court of British Columbia

Know all _________ by these ____ that we John Safford of the City of Victoria Province of British Columbia, Butcher, Joseph Levy of the said city, restaurant keeper and Thomas Shadbolt of the said city, druggist are held and firmly bound with Charles Edward Pooley Registrar of the Supreme Court of British Columbia (or to the Registrar for the time being of the said Court in the sum of one thousand dollars for which payment well and truly to be made to the said Charles Edward Pooley or to such Registrar for the time being we do ________- each of us doth bind ourselves and each of us and the heirs executors and administrators of us and each of us jointly and severally firmly by these ________ sealed with our seals and dated the 12th day of January AD 1874.

Whereas by order of this court of the 12th day of January AD 1874 it is ordered that letters of administration of the personal estate effects and credits of Robert Burrell of Gabriola Island deceased be granted to the said John Stafford on his giving security for the due administration thereof and whereas the said John Stafford hath sworn that to the _______________ best of his knowledge information and belief the said personal estate effects and credits are under the value of five hundred dollars.

Now the conditions of the above written John Stafford shall exhibit unto this to wit a true and perfect inventory of all the personal estate effects and credits of the deceased which shall come into his possession or of any other person by his order for his use on or before the 12 day of April AD1874 and shall well and duly administer the same according to law and render to this a court a true and just account of his administration ship, on or before the 12th day of January AD 1875. There this bond shall be said and of none effect but otherwise shall remain in full force

Signed sealed and delivered by the above

John Stafford

Joseph Levy and Thomas Shadbolt in the presence of E.W. Harrison at- Victoria. B.C



William Minter Flewett arrived on DeCourcy with his preemption certificate from the Canadian Government in 1881. The second European to own the 320- acre property. He arrived, to what his family called “The Ranch” with his third wife, Martha, and his youngest daughter, Mary Helen. He was forty-nine and lived here for thirty years.

An engineer by trade, Flewett worked at Bulkley’s Harwood mine when he first arrived on the West Coast from the Maritimes in 1875.      In Jan Petersen’s book Black Diamond City, Nanaimo, the Victorian Era, Flewett is mentioned on page 91.

William Flewett oversaw the tramway. He saw an opportunity of using the tramway to communicate with staff at the base, so he installed a wire on the trestle of the tramway then ran it all the way down to the harbour. This became Nanaimo’s first telegraph line.

In 1879, Flewett ran a ferry service from Nanaimo to Departure Bay, on his fifteen- passenger, 28 foot steam launch named Nellie.

Nanaimo Free Press – Gabriola Edition January – July 1879

Steam Ferry             Nanaimo & Departure Bay

“NELLIE”   Will leave the public landing, Nanaimo, for Departure Bay, carrying freight and passengers every day, as follows:

At 8 o’clock a.m. and 4 o’clock pm., returning at 10am and 5:30 p.m.

Persons wishing the use of the steam-launch for picnics, etc. can obtain full particulars on application to Wm Flewett, on board, or at Renwick & Co. and Glasgow House.


Flewett had arrived in Canada from Shoreditch, London, England in 1853. Arriving in Nova Scotia, he met and married his first wife Sarah Lipsett Browne. In the 1861 census he was living in New Brunswick and he was listed as an engineer. William and Sarah had six children between 1854 and 1864, five daughters and a son who died in infancy. In the 1871 census Sarah was listed as of “unsound mind” in a St. John hospital. Flewett sent his daughters off to boarding school in Boston and married his second wife Rebecca.

When Flewett arrived in Nanaimo in 1873, he arrived without Rebecca. Four of his daughters joined him there. Three of them, aged 21, 20 and 15 were married by 1875 to local miners. His daughter, Mary Helen was 17 and still at home when he married wife number three, Martha Fisser. She had just arrived from Holland.

It was Martha and Mary who joined William when he first arrived on the Nellie to DeCourcy Island. They would have landed at the souhwest side of the island in 1881. Walking inland he would have come across a flooded valley with a willow swamp where the sheep now graze. The fields east of where we now see the greenhouse would have both been flooded. Where the orchard is, would have been a thick old growth fir forest. He would have realized, with the swamp drained, he could have a fertile field rich with peat moss.

He built a temporary house facing the swamp and dug a well 60 feet east of it. In an attempt to lower the water level he dug a drainage ditch going toward the ocean where the main gate is now located.

Eventually he blasted out the rock ditch and drained the swamp completely. Four of his son- in- laws were miners and presumably knew how to blow things up and were able to help him. According to our John, it wasn’t done particularly well, just drill and blast but they got the depth right. Flewett was then left with a two foot  layer of top soil over two feet of peat moss followed by blue clay. Flewett began to raise his sheep. He cleared the land to the west of his temporary house for the big farmhouse which stood until March, 2009. The orchard was planted in front of the farmhouse to where we now see the chicken house.

In 1882, Flewett made application to purchase the remaining acreage of DeCourcy and the island to the south which he named Flewett’s Island, now known as Ruxton. Boat Harbour at the time he called Flewett Harbour. Only its entrance point and one of the roads on DeCourcy retain the name Flewett.

The British Columbia Gazette September 15, 1882

Notice is hereby given that, at the expiration of 60 days from this date, I shall apply to the Chief Commissioner of Lands and works for permission to purchase about 100 acres more or less of pastoral lands, said lands being balance of DeCourcy Island. (upon which I reside), situated on Trincomalie Channel, Nanaimo District. William M Flewett

DeCourcy Island, Nanaimo


Shortly after purchasing the entire island, Flewett put it up for sale. It could have been that his anticipated  discovery of a coal seam here became unlikely, or perhaps he didn’t take the news of his nineteen-year-old daughters elopement with a fifty-three-year-old man very well. After a flurry of scandalous articles published in the local paper, a for sale advertisement appeared. Although he placed the ad early in 1883, William and Martha remained farming on the island for at least twenty-eight more years.

Nanaimo Free Press     January 10, 1883       NOTICE

I hereby give notice that, as my daughter, Helen, has left home without my consent and contrary to my express wishes. I hereby caution parties not to trust her on my account, as I will not be responsible for her debts.

W.M. Flewett Nanaimo, December 29th, 1882



Nanaimo Free Press     February 21, 1883      MARRIED

In this city, on the 17th instant, by the Rev. B. Chappell, Mr. Thomas R. Jones of Wellington to Mary Helen Flewett of Nanaimo.




Nanaimo Free Press    February 21, 1883        MARRIAGE OF MINORS

Editor Free Press – an incident occurred on Saturday last of so great concern to the community at large that I would respectfully crave a short space in your columns to draw the attention of your readers to the matter in question.

I was asked to solemnize the marriage of a couple, one of whom (the bride) I found to be not of legal age as required by the Marriage Act, viz:21 years of age. Moreover, the father’s consent had not been obtained, nor any notification sent him of her intended marriage.

The Act most distinctly states that any minister, clergyman, or registrar, knowingly marrying either party under 21 without the knowledge or consent of parent or guardian, if such exist, subjects him to a liability of being prosecuted for felony. And, it also as clearly implies that it is the solemn duty of each minister to satisfy himself on the point before proceeding to celebrate the marriage.

I asked for time to refer the question to the father and found I could receive his reply before eight in the evening, to which hour the affair, by general consent, was postponed.

In the meantime, unknown to me, application was made by the parties to the acting minister of the Methodist Church (Mr. Chappel) who, I find, was not informed of the previous application to me, and the marriage took place at the Temperance Hotel while I was waiting for the reply, which reached me through a friend, who had given himself great trouble to oblige me, at 7:30 p.m.

I regret exceedingly to find, on inquiry, that it is a common occurrence for persons to be married in violation of the plain and direct prohibition of the Act, which was intended to give parents full protection against the clandestine actions of their children. Who thus, by the connivance of those in whom the public trust and who ought to stand, as it were, in loco parentis, set all authority at defiance.

It is high time such proceedings came to an end. The marriage license was never intended to sustain such irregularities and whoever lends himself to defeat the efforts of those who would seek to maintain what conduces so materially to the safety and welfare of the commonwealth deserves the reprobation of every good citizen amongst us.

I have reason to believe that the resident clergy of this town, representing different congregations, will set their faces against any further attempt to override the law. And, I can only say for myself, in my capacity as Rector of St. Paul’s that whether I suffer pecuniary loss or not, all marriages celebrated by me must be above board, as it were, and the parties applying must be legally entitled to claim my good office before I consent to make them, in the sight of God and man, indissolubly one, and to give them that marriage benediction which was never intended to be bestowed on the children of disobedience.

I am, Yours et.,   J.B. Good, Rector of St. Paul’s



Nanaimo Free Press       Gabriola Edition January – February,1883


A cultivated farm on DeCourcy Island, south of the “Rapids” is offered for sale on reasonable terms, together with the stock and farming implements. Possession can be given at any time. Title perfect. Particulars can be obtained by applying to W.M. Flewett on the premises.

P.S. Also, a steam launch, 28 feet long, 6 feet, 6 inches beam, and draws 2 feet, 6 inches of water.



Nanaimo Free Press – Gabriola Edition July – August 1885

July 29         The Clam in its Rocky Home

Mr. W. M. Flewett of the DeCourcey islands, has furnished the FREE PRESS with a wonderful and rare curiosity in the shape of a clam embedded in a piece of sandstone, the piece has been broken off the sandstone rocks at the water’s edge where Mr. Flewett has just completed a substantial wharf.

The clam, which is about 2 inches in length by over an inch in diameter, is embedded in the solid rock and obtained its food by means of a small hole, an eighth of an inch in diameter, through which the salt water would flow into the clam’s inner chamber.

The question for experts to decide is how the clam got into the solid rock and lived in its narrow cell. This is not one of the many petrifactions found on this coast but is evidently their natural home and mode of life, for they can be found in the rocks of DeCourcy Island, which is situated about 10 miles south of Nanaimo, in large numbers.

The walls of the cells and passage are worn as smooth as the finest glass.

Any person desirous of inspecting this natural curiosity can do so by calling at this office.


While in the continuing construction phase of their life on DeCourcy island, William built what we all knew as the original farm house, and the root cellar we know as Flewett House. A story is told of a boat lowered off the Amelia at DeCourcy. It was caught in the paddle wheel and smashed to pieces. Perhaps that incident precipitated the building of a new wharf in1885. While constructing the wharf he came across a Piddock – A small clam which can burrow into shale or sandstone.

Nanaimo Free Press                  Gabriola Edition June 1889         June 21


Mr. W.M. Flewett, of DeCourcey Island, arrived in town today with a large assortment of produce from his splendid gardens on that beautiful Isle of the Sea. In addition to his usual assortment of produce, he brought up, and laid on “ye editor’s” table, a quantity of cherries of the Yellow Spanish variety that for size, flavor and lusciousness capped the climax of anything we have hitherto seen in the shape of cherries.

Mr. Flewett says the continued dry spell is beginning to tell on his gardens, and a shower of rain would be gladly welcomed by the parched earth of the sun-burnt vegetation.

He says the crows are playing sad havoc with his fruit, and for clear audaciousness he never saw the like. He has been put to wits end to save his crop from these “black robbers,” and says that the old yarn that crows can smell powder is exploded. He says they know, as well as any human being, what the intention of a man is who has a gun in his hands. For, just as soon as he appeared with a gun in his hands, the “black sentinel” would give the danger signal, and their “cawships” were at once out of reach.

Necessity, however, is the mother of invention, and Mr. Flewett, seeing that the crows took no notice of his moving about while he had no gun, adopted the plan of secreting the laden gun in the bed of strawberries, and the crows would hop on to it and over it in search of the luscious fruits. Mr. Flewett would then walk up to the gun and quickly raising it, fire and kill the crows. This is a wrinkle for the farmers.


Flewett raised sheep and sold his mutton at the Nanaimo Farmers Market. He was a proud gardener and often took specimens to the Nanaimo Newspaper office as evidence of his successes. Despite the heat and crows he was able to produce bushels of yellow Spanish cherries and 20 oz apples.


Nanaimo Free Press, August 30, 1889

Fine Peaches

Mr. W.M. Flewett, of the DeCourcey Group of islands laid on our table several large and luscious peaches. For flavor, they are fully equal to the famous peaches grown in the gardens of New York state. This fruit is a good indication of an excellent location and the horticultural skill of Mr. Flewett.


Nanaimo Free Press, October 20, 1888

Magnificent Fruit!  The DeCourcey Garden of Eden

The numerous specimens of fruit sent to this office during the present season are a sure and certain indication of the adaptability of the soil and climate of Vancouver and adjacent islands to grow magnificent fruit.

Mr. Wm. M. Flewett of the main DeCourcey island, about ten miles distant from Nanaimo, has left at this office a beautiful red apple weighing, when picked, twenty ounces. It is from a graft only three years old. The cutting was obtained from an orchard at Plumper Pass, about twenty-five miles south.

Mr. Flewett does not know the name of the apple but believes the parent tree came from Australia. The apple is from the first tree he ever grafted, and he feels justly proud of the fruit of his skill and labor


The census continued in 1911 to list William as a farmer on DeCourcy Island. Amazingly, under occupation for Martha on the census form, also living on DeCourcy, it states she had none. I rather doubt her life was that of an idle gentle woman reclining in the sun popping cherries into her mouth.  When Flewett died at eighty- two years old on July 16, 1914, his address was listed as Five Acres, a residential district in Nanaimo. Martha died seven months later, on February 16, 1915.

The Daily Colonist 7/17/1914     Nanaimo July 16   Old Resident Dead

The death occurred last evening of William Flewett a native of London England. Aged eighty-two years and for forty years a resident of this district. Despite his advanced years, Mr. Flewett had been enjoying the best of health and retired last night feeling hale and hearty but two hours later passed away peacefully. Death being due to heart failure at the home of his daughter Mrs. James Malpas, Five Acres. 

The Island remained on the market for thirteen years after William and Martha died. It was eventually sold by his executor in 1927 for $10,000 to the Brother XII cult.



























The Wyss Story