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Jack Knox: The mystery of the tombstone in the garden

“There’s a tombstone in my parents’ garden,” began the email from Kate Whyte. “My grandfather passed it down to my dad about 20 years ago, but it didn’t belong to him. In fact, it doesn’t belong to anyone in my family.

“There’s a tombstone in my parents’ garden,” began the email from Kate Whyte. “My grandfather passed it down to my dad about 20 years ago, but it didn’t belong to him. In fact, it doesn’t belong to anyone in my family. It belongs to a woman named Isabella Stockand and we think it’s about time that Isabella went home.”

Well, if that opening doesn’t grab you, then you, like the aforementioned Isabella, have no pulse.

Victoria-raised Whyte, now a Vancouver photographer, shared the story this past week after diving into a mystery that goes back to the 1970s. That’s when Margaret Speers, a friend of her grandmother, bought a house on the Gorge, one where something about the overgrown yard didn’t seem quite right.

“The garden’s stepping stones and steps were paved with slabs of marble that looked just a little too uniform to be typical paving stones,” Whyte wrote. “Out of curiosity, and with the help of my grandfather, they flipped a couple of them over to have a look. On the backs were inscriptions: dates, names, places of birth. It was clear that these were tombstones.”

Pause here to imagine your own reaction to such a discovery.

In this case, Whyte’s grandfather, a man with a keen interest in history, decided to keep one of the stones he had turned over.

“That was Isabella,” Whyte says.

A subsequent Daily Colonist story in 1975 said a neighbour remembered a contractor taking the headstones from a pile of slabs that had been in the municipal works yard for as long as anyone could recall. The markers, the story said, might have been ones that didn’t fit into the allotted space when tombstones were uprooted from the old Quadra Street cemetery and crammed into its eastern edge in the early 1900s.

The 1975 story said that in 1861, chain-gang convicts had dug up the markers and (most of) the human remains from a cemetery at Johnson and Douglas — one where hogs were known to root up the ground — and relocated them to Quadra Street and what we now know as Pioneer Square.

Alas, the new site had drainage problems: Occasionally, graves “would be so full of water that somebody would have to stand on the coffin in the grave until enough earth had been shovelled in to hold the coffin down.” The tombstones in Speers’ garden could well have been ones left over from the transformation of that troubled graveyard into a public park.

Years later Whyte’s father Keith McLaren, who has authored a couple of books of a historical nature, took another run at the mystery, but found only minimal information. It was the pre-Internet era. All he knew was the tombstone was for Isabella Stockand, who was from Scotland and died at the age of 44 on Aug. 28, 1867. McLaren found evidence she might have been a homeowner, somewhat of a rarity for a woman in that era, but that was about it.

There things stood until this summer. After being passed down to McLaren, the tombstone spent the last couple of decades in his North Saanich garden, where Whyte remembers it leaning against a rock with tendrils of clematis curling around. “I can think of worse places for a stone to be placed,” she wrote, “but something about it has never sat right with me.”

So, a couple of weeks ago, she took to Google. There, she found a 2015 Vancouver Sun column in which a Manitoba man named Rob Dixon identified himself as Stockand’s great-great-grandson. He had learned the fate of her headstone from that 1975 Daily Colonist story and was ticked off about it being used as a paver. He also said that were he on the West Coast, he would try to find it and reunite it with the grave of Stockand’s husband, in Ross Bay cemetery.

Alas, when Whyte tried to track down Dixon this summer, she discovered he died a couple of years ago.

However, he did leave behind more details in that 2015 Sun piece. Isabella’s husband’s name was James. She had daughters, one of whom was born at sea during the family’s five-month journey aboard the famed sailing ship Norman Morison; the Stockands were among the earliest European arrivals when they disembarked in 1851. (Pause, again, to think of having a child under such circumstances.)

Then McLaren found an archival report with more evidence that Isabella had indeed been buried at the Quadra Street cemetery. And after Whyte posted something online, history sleuths weighed in, with one posting photos of Stockand descendants in Cumberland.

Whyte discovered Isabella had had eight children. A website dedicated to descendants of Orkney Island settlers, of whom Isabella was one, led to a contact with a great-great-great-granddaughter. She told Whyte about the daughter who had been born to Stockand at sea, and who at age 16 in Victoria married a Scotsman named David Ross. He died after they moved to Scotland.

John Adams of the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria proved to be a gold mine of information. Records show Isabella had been buried in the Roman Catholic part of the Quadra Street graveyard, which had been divided into sections for Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Chinese and others, he told Whyte.

“In 1873 Pioneer Square was closed and Ross Bay Cemetery was opened,” Adams wrote. “A handful of families moved bodies to the new cemetery and a few tombstones were also moved (probably without the bodies), but the overwhelming majority remained at Pioneer Square. The old cemetery became overgrown and vandalized.

“In 1908 the City of Victoria Parks Department took what it thought was a progressive step by clearing the old site. This involved relocating about 150 tombstones to the eastern edge of the ground, while leaving a dozen of the most impressive monuments in place. The other tombstones were buried onsite or taken to the city works yard. The grounds were then graded, grassed, and new pathways were put in place. It was then that the name ‘Pioneer Square’ was adopted and the place was declared to be a city park, even though 1,300 bodies are still under the grass.”

Adams wrote that after 1908, vandalism to the 150 stones in Pioneer Square was routine.

“In the 1990s the Old Cemeteries Society got permission to remove most of the intact ones to storage, where they remain. A handful are still in place and were cleaned up by the city a few years ago. The stones that were taken to the city works yard were dispersed, apparently to friends of city employees,” he wrote.

“We have documented several small groupings in private homes and yards. The biggest grouping (now safely in storage) was in a patio near Admirals Road in Saanich. I recall seeing others near Royal Oak Burial Park and on Eastdowne Road in Oak Bay. I imagine the Isabella Stockand stone is from the ones dispersed from the city works yard that were taken from Pioneer Square in 1908. It never would have been at Ross Bay.”

That matches what McLaren knows. The Admirals patio sounds like Speers’s house. The Eastdowne address would have been his father’s, where Isabella’s tombstone was kept in the basement.

Where will that marker go next? Maybe to Ross Bay, where Adams has helped narrow the location of James Stockand’s unmarked burial plot. Maybe to Pioneer Square, where Isabella’s remains remain. Or maybe one of her descendants, whom Whyte has contacted, will want to have a say.

At least it won’t be flipped upside down and used as a paving stone.

jknox@timescolonist.com