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Station: Whatever happened to the kids of Fairbridge Farm

A profound sense of otherworldliness permeates the still morning air at Fairbridge, a neighbourhood of some three-dozen buildings lolling amid pastoral beauty two miles south of Duncan.

Perhaps it’s the early mist’s fingertips gliding among English oaks, hazelnuts, tulip trees or Port Orford cedars that line the country road; or shadows clinging to the windows of converted cottages.

Maybe it’s the two exquisite angels carved from local maple by Shawnigan’s George Gibson 75 years ago kneeling atop the rood screen in the community’s beautiful chapel; or the chapel’s clock and bell, among the oldest existing in Canada, built in Britain in 1875.

Perchance it’s the blue lady sometimes seen flitting among the trees.

“Some people claim to have seen her – but there are no ghosts here,” smiles Ron Smith, secretary-treasurer of Fairbridge Chapel Heritage Society.

Smith, a former CVRD director of planning and an early owner of a home in this secluded, well-heeled community that was once the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School, should know. He’s watched its development from the beginning.

Ghosts or not, there’s a distinct feeling of unique history here: between 1935 and 1950 or so, 329 youngsters passed through a sometimes callous experiment of child migration from mostly industrial, impoverished Britain to learning and hard work on the 416-hectare farm near Cowichan Station. Another 120,000 had scattered since 1830 to other parts of Canada and to similar schools in Australia and Rhodesia.

They lived in cottages with names like St. George’s, Queen Mary, Hill and Richards that still line the shadowed drive; they ate in a communal dining room, studied in a school on site; attended Sunday services in the 300-seat Anglican chapel; and visited the farm’s hospital when sick.

The boys learned to farm. The girls followed domestic pursuits and responsibilities.

Some flourished at the school whose crest of oak leaves surrounding a beaver and Latin motto Industria et Veritate goaded them to work hard and always tell the truth.

Some did not.

“Some people had a decent time while people like me didn’t,” says Roddy Mackay, 79, a Fairbridge student between 1941 and 1951 and now president of Fairbridge Canada Association, former students who gathered last month in the Cowichan Valley for their biennial reunion.

After what he calls an abandonment in Edinburgh, Scotland, the seven-year-old was sent with other child migrants to the farm managed on the principles founded by South African philanthropist Kingsley Fairbridge in the early 1900s.

“I was sad for at least the first five years. It depended on which cottage you were in, and it went beyond strictness,” says the Monterey, CA resident who often ran away from the bullies and his cottage mother for a swim in the sparkling waters of the Koksilah River at the edge of the fields.

Long-time buddy John Hardy, also 79 and former FCA president, arrived in 1947 from Britain’s industrial north.

“My mother had a hard time giving me up, but she knew there was no future for me in Newcastle,” says the Cowichan Bay resident.

Later, Mackay joined the Canadian Army while Hardy became a journalist and teacher. Another Fairbridge boy was the late Johnny Cowans, popular local teacher and educational administrator.

Then it was over. Dwindling resources forced the sale of farm machinery in 1949, and by 1951 the remaining students had been sent to foster homes. In another experiment, families from Britain settled in the cottages before travelling farther afield to farm.

Day students attended the school until the 1960s.

“After that the school just sat there by the side of Koksilah Road. Rats ate the books,” explains Smith. It was finally demolished, along with the dining room, hospital and manual training building, after the property was acquired by Victoria’s Bellamy Properties in 1975.

“The day library, an original 1885 school building, the school office, the chapel and 17 cottages were saved,” says Smith, who moved into the school’s former office in 1978.

Now, some 100 adults call Fairbridge home. The voices of their children echo through the avenue’s trees, acquired from Essendale Mental Hospital in the 1930s. Planted by Fairbridge students, 52 are described by plaques.

“And we bought the chapel for one dollar,” Smith says proudly of the sturdy cedar-clad building, built in 1939, whose 34 pews and additional choir stalls are made of locally produced knot-free fir planks. Its original glowing stained glass windows were re-installed in 2001.

Smith looks to a time when the chapel, now used only for the Old Fairbridgians’ short biennial service and the occasional wedding, will be seen by more people.

“Fairbridge is a unique place with a unique history,” he muses. “It deserves to be seen.”

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