In the mid 1800 George MacLauchlan Butchart moved his family from the Forfar District of Scotland, to Owen Sound, Ontario. In 1856 Robert Pim Butchart was born, one of 11 children. Robert grew up learning the hardware business at his father’s store. He married Jennie Foster Kennedy, a very adventurous lady who enjoyed ballooning and flying. She later became a qualified chemist.
On their honeymoon in England, Mr. Butchart learned the process of the manufacture of Portland cement. Together with his brother David, Mr. Butchart pioneered advancements in cement as they introduced the first sacks of cements rather then the standard barrels that were common.
In 1902 Mr. Butchart came to Vancouver Island, and located some twelve miles north of Victoria, where he believed the required limestone could be found. Two years later, the Tod Inlet cement plant was started and Jennie joined her husband on Vancouver Island. The West Coast was exploding with development, and cement was in constant demand from San Francisco to Seattle. The first sacks of cement sailed out of Vancouver Island aboard the “Alexander” in 1905.
Jennie Butchart busied herself around the estate by planting flowers and shrubbery in an area between the house and Butchart cove, the area that is now the Japanese Garden. As time passed, Jennie’s efforts increased and her husband often supplied workmen from the factory to assist in the ever growing project of gardening. By 1908 the limestone ran out, leaving a gigantic pit near the house. In an attempt to hide this hideous excavation, Jennie planted Lombary and white poplars along with Persian plums between the pit and the house.
The concept of a sunken garden formed, and Jennie had massive amounts of topsoil imported by horse cart to form the garden bed. The rubble on the floor of the pit was pushed into tall mounds or rock on which terraced flowers were planted. The largest tower in the lower garden supports an observation platform, from which you can see most of the original pit. Mrs. Butchart solved the problem of the grim gray quarry walls by dangling over the side in a boson’s chair and carefully tucking ivy into any discernible pocket or crevice in the rock. In 1921, the project was completed. It had become a garden of immense interest to the surrounding community. Tales of Mr. and Mrs. Butchart’s fabulous gardens spread as fast as the gardens themselves. From the beginning, friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers were welcomed, as they came to marvel at the horticultural masterpiece.
The Butcharts named their home “Benvenuto”, which is Italian for welcome. They would serve tea to all that came, invited or uninvited. This would continue until the sheer number of people arriving made it impossible. In 1915 alone, it was reported that tea was served to 18,000 people. Mrs. Butchart would, on occasion, serve tea herself in such a manner that she was sometimes not recognized, and on one occasion received a tip from a visitor. By 1930, thousands of people were being attracted to Jennie’s gardens. Jennie emerged into an indefatigable and generous hostess, not only to her own friends, but to hundreds of visitors to Victoria. In appreciation of her generosity, in 1930, she was named Victoria’s best citizen.
World War II stripped the area of available manpower and the garden began to decline. Mr. Butchart’s failing health caused them to move to Victoria. Their two daughters, Jennie and Mary continued on as best as possible until Jennie’s son R. Ian Ross returned from the war. Before they died — Robert in 1943 and Jennie in 1950 — they gave the gardens to their grandson, Robert Ian Ross.Robin-Lee Clarke is the great grand-daughter of Jennie and Robert Butchart
When Robert died in 1997, a son, Christopher, took over, expanding the gardens and its staff to 240.
It was Christopher who began the weekly fireworks shows in summer when most of the tourists show up, choreographing lights and music in a Disney-esque display. Christopher died in 2000, and since then the shows have ended with flickering firelights spelling a salute to him: "Good night, Christy."
Christopher's sister Robin-Lee Clarke, 63 (picture to right), is presently carrying on the Butchart tradition at the gardens. A Cowichan Valley resident and one-time singer in the gardens' summer variety show, she is a former blood technologist at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
Barnabas Butchart Clarke, 34, the only child of Robin-Lee and David Clarke, and great-great-grandson of the founders, represents the youngest generation in the Butchart tradition of family management. He lives in Victoria and produces dance shows.