Lieutenant Edmund Hope Verney, Royal Navy

From the Lap of Luxury

Edmund Verney was born into privilege in 1838. His family's grand estate at Claydon House, which was to be his one day, was a typical English aristocratic country home at the time, encompassing villages and farms from whose rents the family gained their comfortable income. Edmund's father Sir Harry Verney was, however, a staunch Liberal MP. It is due to regular correspondence between Edmund and Sir Harry that today we enjoy such highly detailed knowledge about Verney's time on Vancouver Island. [note]

To The Edge of the World

When Edmund Verney came to Vancouver Island to command HMS Grappler, he was to display the same tendencies as his father, involving himself heavily in organizations and causes which he believed progressive enough to be worthy of his attention. No doubt this great activity was responsible for the many friends he made on Vancouver Island, among whom the McKenzies of Craigflower are especially notable.

The Royal Navy had used Esquimalt as a base since 1848, but only in the four years before Verney's arrival in 1862 had it developed a complete naval infrastructure. The Grappler's duties during its assignment to the twin colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island were certainly what we might expect from Imperial duty of a small ship at a far-flung post: assisting and ferrying settlers, patrolling for smugglers, and participating in police actions, especially against First Nations peoples suspected of crimes or harassment of European settlers. [note]

Building a Moral Empire

Verney's liberal sentiments do seem to have influenced him while carrying out these tasks. Despite a somewhat incongruous distaste for the local First Nations (an attitude which seems to have waned during his time on the coast, even leading him to criticize the government for failing to honour promises to them), he does not seem to have ever fired his ship's guns in action and indeed was thankful to have missed the bombardment of a First Nations village on Kuper Island in the Gulf Islands.[note] Later in life, he became critical of aspects of the British imperial project and apparently attended an anti-flogging meeting in Portsmouth in 1879, an activity over which the Admiralty was most displeased. [note]

In Victoria, Verney was involved with organizations as diverse as the Immigration Board (and particularly the Female Immigration Committee, an enterprise in which capacity he was assisted by his father), the Lighthouse Board, and the Vancouver Island Bible Society. He was also appointed as a magistrate and was a key force in the establishment of The Mechanics Literary Institute, Victoria's first public library. Verney gave speeches at many events, presumably seen as an appropriate representative of imperial sentiments in Britain. When Verney departed Victoria in 1865, a farewell dinner was thrown at the French Hotel and included an address signed by 75 of the city's (admittedly self-described) "most respectable citizens." [note]

An Unlikely Friendship

It seems that Verney's first encounter with the McKenzie family was when Kenneth rented Verney his first cottage at Esquimalt at a rate of 25 pounds per year. Verney's first Christmas (1862) at Craigflower was particularly memorable for him, and during that evening "the cement of friendship was run in." In February 1863, he noted that he had spent every Sunday with the McKenzies since his arrival the previous May, with the exception of days when the Grappler was not in port. [note]

Verney's close relationship with the McKenzies continued after he left the colony, and in November 1865, soon after arriving at his family home, he sent a package and letter back to Craigflower. The affection between the two parties is clear in the jocular and comfortable tone of the letter. Finally, in 1909, 44 years after he left Victoria and one year before his death, Verney received a postcard from 'Goodie' McKenzie, showing Esquimalt Harbour as it then looked. [note] Verney's relationship with the McKenzies of Craigflower indicates that they were considered respectable by the Imperial establishment.

The Old World Meets the New

Edmund Verney's friendship with the McKenzie family exemplifies the social possibilities of a distant colony. It is difficult to imagine an English country gentleman eating Christmas dinner with a Scottish farming family at home in Britain. Indeed, given Verney's criticism of the ruling circle of Governor Douglas and his associates, and his desire to see them replaced by a more 'civilized' (i.e. English) administration, Verney's relationship with the McKenzies seems even more unlikely. [note]

Considering Verney's participation in institutions which he believed would civilize the colony alongside his friendship with the McKenzies, it seems that he embodies two apparently antithetical imperial processes: the escape from the social strictures of Britain and the attempt by the ruling classes to impose English civilization on the growing colonial societies. Acknowledging the negotiation which took place between these two processes offers valuable insight into the development of North American colonial societies.

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