Positioned overlooking the scenic and historic Gorge Waterway, Point Ellice House is among the oldest homes in Victoria and was constructed between 1861 and 1862 for Catherine and Charles Wallace. Architects John Wright & George Sanders chose an Italianate Villa-style design that was popular during the nineteenth century. The Canadian Register of Historic Places lists the character-defining elements of the house as:
Point Ellice House was designated a National Historic Site in 1966 and became a Provincial Historic Site in 1975. The house is also listed on the City of Victoria’s heritage registry. For more information about the architecture and history of the house, visit the Victoria Heritage Foundation’s website.
Peter O’Reilly was born in England in 1827. From 1850 to 1857 he served in the Irish Revenue Police and Irish Constabulary. After a honourable discharge from the police service he was encouraged to seek new opportunities in British Columbia. He arrived in Victoria in April 1859; the Fraser River gold rush was well underway and officials with an understanding of British law and order were needed. Possessing a letter of introduction to colonial Governor James Douglas, O’Reilly was soon appointed as a gold commissioner, magistrate (judge), and sheriff for the Colony of British Columbia.
In 1863, Peter O’Reilly married Caroline Trutch. Caroline’s brother, Joseph Trutch, was a member of the Vancouver Island Legislative Assembly and an established colonial elite. As a result, the O’Reilly family became highly regarded in the Colony and, when British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, the Province. From 1880 to 1898, O’Reilly served as an Indian Reserve Commissioner and was tasked with setting out and, in many cases, reducing the size of reserve lands for First Nations across the Province.
Peter and Caroline moved into Point Ellice House in December 1867. Their first daughter, Charlotte (known as Kathleen), was born soon after, on December 31, 1867. They had four children: Francis Joseph (1866-1941), Charlotte Kathleen (1867-1945), Mary Augusta (1869-1876), and Arthur John (1873-1946). John, also known as “Jack,” and his wife Mary Beresford Windham (1886-1963) lived at Point Ellice House until they died. Their son John and his wife Inez Louise Elson then moved into the house. It is thanks to the work of John and Inez that the public is able to enjoy Point Ellice House today. The couple saved the house from demolition and began restoration work, turning the house and its collections into a museum. In 1975, John and Inez sold the house, its collections, and the property to the Province of British Columbia. The house remained in the O’Reilly family’s possession for 108 years.
The O’Reilly family took great pride in their gardens. The garden was designed to frame the architectural details of the Italianate house. Peter O’Reilly and daughter Kathleen were particularly passionate gardeners. The family grew a number of ornamental plants, roses, and trees. The most prominent of these is the Wellingtonia redwood tree, also known as a Sequoiadendron giganteum. This tree was ordered by Peter O’Reilly from San Francisco in 1876.
The property also contained vegetable and cut flower gardens, a small fruit orchard, and a greenhouse. Point Ellice House has a fine collection of Victorian garden tools and catalogues, as well as heirloom plantings.
The Point Ellice House woodland shore is a valued part of the site and is known as the largest surviving natural and heritage landscape on the Gorge Waterway. Several non-native plant species, such as ivy and periwinkle, escaped from the formal gardens to the shoreline area. Volunteers have been working since 2008 to remove invasive plants from the Point Ellice shoreline and replant with native species. Barred owls, eagles, and other raptors roost in the mature trees along the Point Ellice shoreline. River otters, raccoons and the occasional mink are also seen along the shore. The landscape, gardens, and plants of Point Ellice House are an integral part of the site’s historic collections
In 1975, 108 years after the O’Reilly family first purchased Point Ellice House, John and Inez sold the house and its contents to the Province of British Columbia. Realizing the significance of the family’s possessions, the couple left behind nearly everything – from armoires to tea services, a harp, clothing, writing desks, board games, kitchen utensils, and more. The items now on display at Point Ellice House cover the period from 1890 through 1920.
Throughout the twentieth century, industrial operations overtook the once residential character of the Rock Bay neighbourhood. Point Ellice House and its surroundings remain a prime example of the urban, social, and environmental changes that Victoria and British Columbia have undergone over the last 160 years.
Today, the house and gardens provide a rare opportunity to see one of North America’s largest collections of late Victorian and early Edwardian objects in their original setting. Point Ellice House continues to be a site for recreation, social gatherings, and learning – a small oasis in the midst of urban commotion.