Discovering Leah Westwood

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By Production Manager Catherine Charlebois

A lone gravestone sits under the protection of a willow in the Bowen Cemetery, moss creeping up its side, with the name James M Brown engraved on its rocky surface. Below it, in a faded and barely legible script, the text reads:

In loving memory of his beloved wife who departed this Life May 22nd, 1875. 

Nameless on her own gravestone, Leah Brown née Westwood lies in her final resting place in a Dunsmuir family plot. One hundred yards down, her husband lies in a grave with his second wife, Louisa Rumming, and two of their children, Robert and Violet.

Her obituary in Victoria’s Daily British Colonist is a measly paragraph, with Nanaimo’s shipping affairs taking precedence over her death.

“It is our painful duty to announce the sudden demise of Leah Brown, the beloved wife of James M. Brown, tailor, Front Street, on Monday morning last. She leaves a husband, seven young children and a large circle of relatives and friends to mourn her loss.”

The Nanaimo Daily Press only adds her funeral arrangements.

 Leah’s husband’s final resting place, buried with his second wife, Louisa, and two of the children from that union. 📷 Catherine Charlebois

Leah’s husband’s final resting place, buried with his second wife, Louisa, and two of the children from that union. 📷 Catherine Charlebois

Born in Worcestershire, England in 1841, Leah was daughter to Elizabeth Westwood née Tilley and William Westwood. Coming from a large family, she made her way across the Atlantic on the Sailor Prince in 1848. Her family arrived in the United States in time to be recorded in the 1850 Missouri census, and left in a Mormon convoy of 340, with 61 wagons, headed for Salt Lake Valley in 1852. The family’s 4 month overland journey on the Oregon Trail in Captain John Tidwell’s 5th company, rife with cholera epidemics and constant threat of attack, arrived safely at the head of the convoy in late September.

The Westwood family, consisting of Leah’s grand-parents, parents, and siblings were reportedly detained by the Mormons from making their way to California, by persuading them to play and sing in their Tabernacle. Stowing away with a company of soldiers, they put their musical talents to rest and made their way to California, where they settled for six years before heading over to Victoria on the Pacific, where William Westwood purchased and began operating the Lion Brewery in 1860. They moved to Nanaimo’s Mountain District, now East Wellington, around 1861, where they bought 650 acres of land and started the first dairy business in Nanaimo. In 1863, the family sold their coal rights to an American named R.D. Chandler, who developed the East Wellington Mine. Coming from an illustrious family, Leah’s grandfather Joseph Westwood, a veteran of the Crimean War and the eldest survivor of the Battle of Waterloo, was reportedly the first nail manufacturer in Nanaimo as a blacksmith under the Vancouver Coal Company. Her brother David, has Westwood Lake named after him, due to his long residency in the area.

As children, Leah and James had lived in towns only eight miles apart. Their lives took them on similar paths, full of near misses, from the East Coast of America, overland to California, and diverging from the Cariboo to Victoria, finally converging in the blossoming town of Nanaimo.

A handsome man full of tales of adventure and a steady tenor voice, the thirty-five-year-old married gentle twenty-year-old Leah on December 12, 1863, at St Paul’s Cathedral.

They soon settled in East Wellington, in a house half way to Nanaimo, which they later named Ashlar Farm, affectionately called “The Farm”. Built by hand for his bride, reportedly mostly in four feet of snow, James Miller Brown’s cabin was unusual for its time. Situated three miles north of Nanaimo on Comox Road, it had a center part flanked by a wing on either side. A labour of love, it also had chinks in the walls in case of “Indian attacks,” and cleverly placed trees in the yard to give cover from enemy fire. With no plaster for the interior, the inside walls were instead covered in white canvas stretched taught. Always considerate of his wife’s needs, James built Leah a Dutch-style oven, claiming that no bread ever tasted as good as baked in that oven. In the summer, despite seed shortages, Leah had a garden, where she tended to her pink, sharply petaled Sweet-Williams and puffy English double daisies along with her orchard of apple trees.

One of the only pictures of Leah Westwood. Courtesty of ancestry.ca.
One of the only pictures of Leah Westwood. Courtesy of ancestry.ca.

Leah hosted a variety of military officers on leave from the British Naval base in Esquimalt, her husband acting as their guide around Nanaimo. One said officer was so impressed by their unusual home, that it is reported he may have built a replica as a hunting lodge on his estate in Ireland.

Paralleled by sweet images of domestic bliss, life in early Nanaimo was one of adventure. Leah, despite her gentle character, could shoot as well as any man, and would slip a pistol in her pocket and walk out on Comox Rd. as far as she dared, with her two eldest sons when her husband was late coming home. Wolves were a common danger, and as such, Leah’s home boasted five wolf pelts on display.

In this cabin, Leah bore 5 children, her first child a still-born daughter. James William came in 1865, Joseph Miller two years later, Leah Elizabeth in 1868, and Clara Emma in 1869, who went by Bernice, supposedly the name of one of her father’s old sweethearts.

In 1871, the Browns settled on Front Street where James set up a tailoring shop. In their new establishment, Leah gave birth to three more sons, George Stanley (1872), Benjamin David (1874), and William Henry in 1875, who died that winter. His father would recall him as always laughing, with long light curls. In 1876, Leah gave birth to the last of her nine children, a boy named John. She died an hour after his birth, and he didn’t live much longer, passing away at barely six-weeks-old.

Leah and her sons, William and John, were buried in the pioneer cemetery on Wallace Street. James, heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife, reburied her in haste in 1878, in the new Comox cemetery upon hearing that the old one was closing. After moving her grave, James was reported as saying, “I forgot the babies”, and  never forgave himself for his lapse in memory. Leah never did get reunited with her lost children.

At 35-years-old, her life seems to be but a mention in the history books, a repetition of the same epitaph, not doing justice to a woman who lived in the shadow of her illustrious husband. Though we don’t know a lot about her, she was clearly beloved by all who met her. After her passing, her husband raised their six surviving children by himself, remarrying only 17 years later. A strict but loving father, James Miller went on to have eleven other children with his second wife.

Standing by her husband’s side, Leah witnessed him become a founder, Grand Master and charter member of Nanaimo’s Ashlar Lodge No. 3 and Freemason at Nanaimo’s first Masonic Hall, being left alone as her husband went out of his way to attend all meetings. Her children became prominent figures in the community, namely Joseph Miller, who became an internationally renowned master clock smith, and the city’s youngest elected councillor; his daughter, Audrey Alexandra Brown, became a famed Canadian poet.

Her daughter Clara Emma, married George Norris, founder of the Nanaimo Daily Press, Vancouver Island’s second oldest newspaper.

From sea to land, to farm to city, Leah’s short thirty five years were by no means ordinary. She was a pioneer, home maker, beloved mother, and wife and is now in her final resting place overlooking scenic Nanaimo harbor. Nestled under the protection of her willow tree, Leah Westwood remains tended to, alone yet an ever present imprint in Nanaimo’s history. A ghost in flickers of memory, Leah Westwood lives on, as the poem engraved on her stone remains:

All must to their cold graves,

But the religious actions of the just

Smell sweet in death and 

Blossom in the dust.


A sassy French Canadian with a penchant for puns and coffee, Catherine is The Nav’s Production Manager. Living out of her planner, she is always looking for ways to streamline the paper’s production. You can find her writing in The Nav and also at frozenconstellations.wordpress.com