Heritage Register
James Bay

638 Elliot Street (ex-2½ Belleville St; 20 Elliot St)
Arbutus Lodge, Helmcken House

Built 1852-53; 1860-65; 1883
Provincial Heritage Site 1963

For: John & Cecilia Helmcken

Builders: Gideon Gifford Halcrow & others (1852-53)
John Pope Burgess (1883)

638 Elliot


The right wing of the original log house, built in the HBC post-on-sill, pièce sur pièce construction, is very similar to St. Ann’s Schoolhouse (637 Elliot St) in form but clad in later shingles. Here again it is side-gabled with bellcast eaves. Joined on the west is a 1½-storey extension leading to a two-storey front-gabled addition with a full-width front verandah. Both earlier parts have 6-over-6 double-hung sashes but 1883 section is clad in drop siding and has larger windows either one-over-one or two-over-two. The early door is 4-panelled and has a simple multi-pane transom. The verandah has a hipped roof, fretwork brackets and turned balusters with chamfered posts. A side entrance has a little canopy porch supported by brackets.

638 Elliot


In 1852 HBC Chief Factor and Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas bought land on the south side of James Bay from the HBC, and had James Bay House built for himself and his wife Amelia. They gave an acre of the land to their daughter Cecilia and her husband John Helmcken as a wedding present. The rough land was cleared, the lumber was brought by water and hauled to the site by oxen; the logs were planed and grooved by hand. The house was roofed with wood shingles split by Natives, who also dug the wells. The house was begun before their December 1852 marriage, but not finished until early 1853. The title for the land was finally transferred in 1856, but the second section not built until the early 1860s. The two-storey addition was noted in the VDC, 19 Jan 1884: “34 by 24 feet....two rooms on ground floor, and two bedrooms and bath room above.”*

Born in Fort Vancouver in 1834, Cecilia Douglas grew up in a rustic and rugged environment. She attended boarding school with two of her sisters in Oregon, training in music, writing and drawing; she was fluent in English, French and Cree. At Fort Victoria, Cecilia was her father’s office assistant. Of the seven children she bore, only four survived, and her own life was cut short by pneumonia in 1865.

John Sebastian Helmcken was born in London, England, in 1824 to German parents. John began his education in 1828 at St. George’s German and English School, but his father died when he was 15. In 1837, he began working for the family’s physician, Dr. Graves, as an errand boy, and by 1839 was apprenticing to be a chemist and druggist. He continued his studies at Guy’s Hospital, won first prize for practical chemistry in 1845, and one of two prizes from the Pupil’s Physical Society. John attained a licence with the Apothecaries’ Society, and in 1847 became the surgeon on the HBC ship Prince Rupert. He returned to Guy’s Hospital for another year, and in 1848 was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons. He sailed on the HBC ship Malacca to Bombay, India, then in 1849 sailed from England on the Norman Morison to Vancouver Island. During the five-month voyage, smallpox broke out, but, thanks to John, only two people died. Upon arrival in 1850, John began what he thought would be a five-year posting. Two months later, he was transferred to Fort Rupert as HBC surgeon and Magistrate to deal with the disorderly mining town, but he returned to Fort Victoria at the end of the year and practised here from then on.

John’s skills were not confined to medicine: he also became an accomplished politician. In 1856, he was elected a member of the first Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, representing the Esquimalt district, and delivered one of BC’s first political addresses at Craigflower Farm. He was elected Speaker at the Assembly’s first session, and retaining the position until the island joined BC in 1866. In December 1866, John was elected MLA for Victoria/Esquimalt, and was re-elected in 1868, initially on an anti-confederation platform. John later changed his position, becoming one of the stalwart proponents of confederation, and was one of BC’s three representatives sent to Ottawa to negotiate the province’s political entry into Canada. John was appointed to the Executive Council of BC in 1869, but retired from public life by 1871. In 1885, the BC Medical Association (BCMA) was established and John was elected president. He retired from practice in 1910, and died in 1920 at 96. He was cremated and his ashes were placed in Pioneer Square (1030 Quadra St, Fairfield) in Cecilia’s tomb.

Catherine (1855-1922), the eldest child, in 1877 married horticulturalist George McTavish, whose family owned a 630-acre farm in North Saanich. The successful Intertavish Nursery Gardens was established in 1889. Catherine was president of the Royal Jubilee Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, a dedicated member of Reformed Episcopal Church, and involved with the Aged Women’s Home and local orphanages. George was an MLA for Saanich, and a founding member of the Victoria Yacht Club. Their son Duncan Douglas McTavish lived in 28 Douglas St, James Bay, in the 1930s.

James Douglas Helmecken(1858-1919), the eldest son, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.. He married Mary Jane Halliday in 1886, but she died a year later. James attained his M.D. at Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1884, was admitted to the Medical Regency of BC in 1886, and practised in Victoria for 34 years. He married Ethel Margaret Mouat in 1888 (1015 Moss St, Rockland). They had five children, including Ainslie James Helmcken, who founded the Victoria City Archives in 1965 and was archivist until 1983.

James' brother Harry (1860-1912) attended the Collegiate School with James, the Nest Academy in Jedburgh, Scotland, then Edinburgh University, London University, and Osgoode Hall in Toronto, for his law degree. Harry, an accomplished local athlete, founded the James Bay Athletic Association in 1886. Like his father, Harry was in politics, serving as a Conservative MLA from 1894 to 1903. He lived with his father until 1895, when he married widow Hannah Jane Goodwin.

Edith “Dolly” (1862-1939), the youngest, attended St. Ann’s Convent School and finishing school in Toronto. She then spent a year in London, England, studying art and music and travelling throughout Western Europe with her aunt. Upon returning to Victoria she married William Ralph Higgins in 1889, the son of David William Higgins (1501 Fort St, Rockland), editor of the Victoria Daily Colonist (VDC), and Speaker of the BC Legislature. William shared Edith’s artistic interests and had a music degree from London’s Royal College of Music. The couple lived in a small cottage on Scoresby St (now McClure). However, William died in 1896 at 30. Edith returned home to live with her father, and remained in the house until her death in 1939. She was treasurer of the BC Protestant Orphanage (1190 Kings Rd/2691 Cook St/27 Hayward Hts, Oaklands) for 20 years, and a long-time worker with the Church of Our Lord.


The BC Government purchased the house in 1939 and opened it as a museum in 1941. In 1940, BC Government library attendant Frederick Kemp and his wife Gertrude lived here. By 1943, BC Government clerk Herbert Webster and his wife Rachelle “Pat” resided, and Pat was curator of Helmcken House. Herbert died in 1966 at 84, Pat in 1978 at 90.

*With new research by John Adams, Donald Luxton & Stuart Stark


• Statement of Significance (Canadian Register of Historic Places)

• James Bay History

• James Bay Heritage Register

• This Old House, Victoria's Heritage Neighbourhoods,
Volume Two: James Bay

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