1870 – The Beginning
In a time when husbands were expected to rule their wives, men controlled business, and women were given few rights as citizens, this one woman wove a terrific tale of marriage and business in Esquimalt…
The Norwegian Bark “Alpha” left from Liverpool, England in December 1869 after a six-month journey and arrived in Esquimalt on June 15, 1870. When Captain N.A Nielson was questioned about his passengers, he spoke highly of twenty-two female passengers on board. Twenty-one of the girls were engaged in England as servants in the Colony. One of the young women arriving was Mary Ann Brown, Knight, Ashley, Connell, Farrington; a British immigrant who arrived in Esquimalt in 1870 and outlived 5 husbands, all the while establishing a successful nursery business, Fairview Esquimalt Greenhouse Ltd., on Esquimalt Road. Under Mary Ann’s keen business sense and careful attention, her nurseries and, later, flower shops gained a reputation for beauty and taste.
Mary Ann Brown always worked hard to keep the nursery current. She understood that it was “more than simply meeting the customer’s needs that were important. The values remain the same as they were so many years ago under Mary Ann Brown. More seems to be the goal of the women of Brown’s; more community involvement, more focus on customers, more dedication to providing local products.”
She acquired and maintained the largest stock in the city from bulbs to Palms and the largest and most up-to-date Greenhouses in and around Victoria devoted to flower growing only. She managed both the nursery business and her flower shop. She understood the importance of location and had shops on Yates Street, Broad Street and Government Street, finally settling at 2 Government Street, in the heart of the business district. Everyone was invited to come to the store or to Esquimalt to visit the greenhouses.
She was known for beautiful and tasteful decorations. Many brides carried bridal bouquets that were artistically arranged by Mary Ann and proudly wore her fashionable corsages on their ‘going away attire’. Although, her specialty was funeral arrangements. She definitely made her mark!
Mary Ann died in St. Joseph’s Hospital at age 56 of post-operative pneumonia on April 21, 1907. The Colonist said: “The funeral took place from Smith’s Undertaking parlour on Yates Street, the cortege proceeded from St. Joseph’s Church, Esquimalt where solumn requiem mass was celebrated by Reverand Father Nicolaye. The floral offerings were beautiful.” It is a wonder who provided the flowers…
In 1900, Mary Brown hired Fredrick Francis, born in Oshawa, Ontario. Fredrick had started in the florist trade in 1899 and continued in this work for forty-six years. Soon after as proprietor he was advertising: “Flowering and Budding Plants, Choice Cut Flowers, Floral Wreaths or other designs, on short notice.”
After the business changed hands from Fredrick back to Mary Ann Brown, Frederick continued managing Fairview Esquimalt Greenhouse Ltd. until 1911. In 1912, he and his wife Louisa Rose Miller immigrated to Los Angeles where they made their home. Frederick returned to Victoria in 1935 and died just two weeks after his arrival. Louisa died in Oak Bay in 1947. Frederick and Louisa were the parents of Frederick William Francis, husband of Catherine Logan who apprenticed as a jewellery maker with William Brierly Shakespeare, son of Postmaster Noah Shakespeare. In 1921, Francis established Francis Jewellers on Douglas Street.
1912 The company was purchased by Brown Brothers Ltd of Vancouver in 1912, and there begins the story of Brown’s The Florist, grafted onto the much older business of Mary Ann Brown. The company sent William H. Brown and his wife, Elizabeth Margery Brown “Twitty”, to Victoria to manage the business. One can only imagine the struggle of owning a business that deals in luxury goods during the tight days of WWI, the Depression, and WWII. Worried that his beloved greenhouses would become lost in the extensive holdings of Brown’s Brothers Company limited, William took a bold step of separation and bought the Victoria business from his family in 1917. Mr. and Mrs. Brown flowed with the times, becoming keen supporters of our country’s men and women in arms – a sentiment that continues to this day.
In 1915 the company name changed to Brown Bros. Nurseries and later to Brown’s Victoria Nursery Ltd.
A 1937 company advertisement in the Victoria Daily Times stated: “The property was purchased in 1892 from the Hudson’s Bay Company by Mrs. Ashley (Mary Ann Brown). Here for the first time in the history of British Columbia, strawberries were grown in a commercial way. By 1943 Brown’s had grown and modernized the entire property, becoming the largest local grower in the flower business.
William and Elizabeth had no children; Will, like his father, was quite happy puttering in the greenhouses while Elizabeth’s background in bookkeeping and secretarial work gave her a lot of influence over the operation of the flower shop and greenhouses as a business. They owned and operated the florist business until 29 April 1950. Between 1950 and 1977 the company sold twice, the first time to Burt Reid, and subsequently to his nephew Frank Wright. They were both members of the Brown family.
The original business was located on the present site of the Esquimalt Sports Complex and Esquimalt Shopping Centre. The township of Esquimalt purchased the land in the early 60’s and the greenhouses were moved to Saanich. The Esquimalt Plaza Shopping Centre project was completed in March 1962. The retail operation of the flower business was moved to the 600 block of View Street in downtown Victoria. In the late 1960s Frank Wright moved the retail store the corner of Yates and Broad, where it was a Victoria landmark for decades.
The South West corner of Beacon Avenue and Second Street might be described as being a corner of customer service over the years. This corner appears not to have been developed until about 1924 when Harvey Walker started an automotive service station featuring the sale of Imperial Oil products. Walker ran the business for a few years, then sold it to J. Hocking in 1927 and it quickly changed hands several times over the next few years being run by J. A. Speedie (1928), then William A. Stacey (1930), and then finally by George Gray (1930) who would operate it until 1938. Gordon Pratt then acquired the service station running it for a few years, the R. Finlay and L. Cuncliffe. In 1946, Charles Douma purchased the business and renamed it Douma Motors. Douma greatly developed the business and was known for his body repair work. In December 1965, he sold the business to Joe Arsenault who changed the band to Shell Oil calling the business Sidney Shell Service. Arsenault operated the business for several years, changing hands to Dough Couch & Beri Lodge in the mid-1970s. The corner property was then sold and the present two-storey building was constructed, being attached to the former main building of the garage. The long-established Holloway Flower Store then occupied the lower corner shop around 1976. Ted and Sadie Holloway opened their flower shop in the early 1960s and it was situated about midway between Third and Fourth Street on Beacon Avenue. They were well-liked by the locals and supplied flowers and floral arrangements until the early 1970s. They sold the business to Denis Kurtz who ran it under Holloway’s name and moved it to its present location. The business then changed hands and Joy (Dagg) Pressman & Lynn Smith operated it for a short time. Norma Aitken took over the business in 1977 and operated it until 1980 when it was sold to Chris Dysart (owner of Brown’s The Florist in Victoria). She conducted the business until 2007, and then Natasha Crawford acquired it, and now is the present owner. The name of the business was changed a few times running as Holloway’s Florist, then The Sidney Florist, finally being changed to Brown’s The Florist during the fall of 2004.
Christine (Chris) and Herb soon bought out their partners, and also ran a greenhouse and wholesale operation, all the while Herb worked at the university, as Director of Systems and Computing Services. In 1980 they purchased Holloway’s Sidney Florist and brought it into the Brown’s family, and in 1995 they opened a branch in the Hillside Shopping Centre. Chris managed the business from 1977 – 2007 and met the competition of the corner stores and grocery stores now selling inexpensive flowers, with the best business strategy she knew: good ethics. The rules for staff were simple: maintain a pleasant working environment, avoid gossip, give open and honest feedback, and resolve conflict when it arises as best you can. By continuing to provide their customers with the very best in quality and customer service, Brown’s The Florist kept its place in the competitive floral industry in British Columbia.
Although Herb did not play an active role in the company, his influence had a huge impact on the success of the business. The internet as we know it today was created in 1990, and Herb, through his role at UVIC, was instrumental in the creation of BC Net, which brought the internet to BC. Herb encouraged Chris to build a website and start selling flowers online, at a time when few others were thinking about it. In 1996, Brown’s the Florist launched its first website and started selling flowers not only for delivery in Victoria, but also selling to folks from all over the world, and having them delivered to other places in the world. This was what they anticipated, and by leveraging the existing partnership with Florists’ Transworld Delivery (FTD), Brown’s was able to network and help other flower shops throughout North America find their way in the new online world. FTD was a North American trade association for florists that provided member education, advocacy, and quality assurance. Within this association, Brown’s grew to be ranked top 10 in Canada and top 100 (of 22,000) in North America. In an industry with only 10% female ownership, this truly was an incredible accomplishment for Chris and her team. We held that position and ranking for many years until FTD changed its mandate and we cut our ties with them in 2014.
As Chris began to consider retirement she wanted to be sure the company would remain stable through a transition of ownership. She hired Natasha Wasyliw (Crawford) to be the Marketing Manager in 2003. Chris and Natasha worked well together and shared the same values of taking good care of their customers and staff, providing quality, service and having a happy workplace. And thus Natasha became Chris’ understudy. Over the next four years, Chris taught Natasha the ins and outs of the business, and Natasha purchased Brown’s The Florist on April 1, 2007, exactly 30 years to the day after Chris did. Chris remained a business Coach to Natasha for several more years and the two remain fast family friends, a rarity when a business changes ownership. One of the first difficult decisions that Natasha made as the new owner of Brown’s The Florist was to close the Hillside location in 2007 which was an integral part of the community. This was due to pending renovations at Hillside mall. Today, under the energetic leadership of Natasha Crawford, Brown’s The Florist offers professional florist services from three locations in Greater Victoria: Downtown on Fort Street, in Sidney, and in the growing market of the Westshore. Their values remain the same as they were nearly 125 years ago under Mary Ann Brown: “more than simply meeting the customer’s needs.” More seems to be the goal of the women of Brown’s; more community involvement, more focus on customers, and more dedication to providing local products.
Current owner, Natasha Crawford grew up on Cortez and Quadra Island, leaving at 16 years old on a year-long Rotary exchange. She is a Royal Roads University graduate with a Bachelor of Commerce where she says she learned to think on her feet and problem solve with a team. While Natasha and her family are not related to the Brown’s family that started Brown’s The Florist, her mother’s maiden name is Brown and her youngest son’s middle name is Brown as a nod to both her family and her flower family at Brown’s The Florist. Nonetheless, she carries on Brown’s The Florist legacy with her tenacity, compassion and fearless leadership, leading a team of almost 50 members (and many more during holidays) with more than 365 collective years of floral experience. As any good flower grows, she has learned everything from the ground up, starting with Brown’s The Florist as a Marketing Manager. Her superpower of spreading joy and helping others find their strengths has allowed her to continue and expand the tradition of a locally owned flower shop with seriously strong ethics and values. On October 1st, 2013, Natasha opened up our Westshore location on Jacklin Road while was pregnant with her son Carter and also while renovating the Sidney location.
Over the last few years, many of our staff could have decided that adapting to working differently and with more caution and care through a pandemic was all just a little too much, and they didn’t. Everybody dug deep and came to work…masks, hand sanitizer, socially distanced, and continued to work hard to keep families, friends, and loved ones connected at a distance with the tangible and powerful sentiment that flowers can provide. We would not have been able to do this without our “Fireball” directing us through the unknown. As well as our managers, Tammy Candela (Downtown), Kathy Blaine (Sidney), Courtney Hawkins (Westshore), Amanda Vallis (Weddings and Social Media), Harriet Carter (Merchandise Coordinator), Ashley Evans (Website and Purchasing), Annette (Office Manager) and every single other Assistant Manager, driver, and member of our talented team! We don’t always feel small, but we are an independently, locally owned and operated business. We know we have the BEST customers who have been steadfast in their support of us and we are so very grateful. We have weathered WWI, the Spanish Flu, WWII, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. More recently we have been here for 9/11, the 2008 financial crises, H1N1 and SARS, and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Through all those life-changing events, we have been open to our customers, listening to their stories, and helping them send messages of love and support, while also being the face of our local growers, responsible for their beautiful flowers having a good home. We remain dedicated to helping our customers in whatever way we can.