SPENCER, DAVID, businessman; b. 9 Aug. 1837 in St Athan, Wales, one of the nine children of Christopher Spencer and Ann Evans; m. 30 June 1867 Emma Lazenby in Victoria, and they had eight daughters and five sons; d. there 2 March 1920.
From a farming family, David Spencer was educated at the grammar school in Cowbridge, Wales, and in about 1851 began a five-year apprenticeship with a dry goods firm there. Concurrently he developed a strong interest in the Methodist Church, and by the late 1850s he was recognized as a lay preacher. Glowing reports of life in British Columbia sent home to Wales by a recent emigrant prompted Spencer to sail for Victoria in 1862. He had arrived there by December 1863, and soon established himself in business and in the Methodist community.
In January 1864 Spencer purchased the Victoria Library, in the downtown area on Government Street, where his business would be based for the rest of his life. This “Reading Room and Library” charged subscribers “one bit per vol.” or a dollar a month. Spencer was listed as a bookseller in the Victoria directory for 1868, the year in which his shop was consumed by fire. He is said to have disposed of this business eventually to T. N. Hibben and Company, a long-established stationery firm.
In January 1873 Spencer, in partnership with William Denny, bought the Victoria House at the corner of Fort and Government streets. This was the retail business of Findlay, Durham, and Brodie, a firm of commercial agents, and was purchased for $10,000 cash down, with the balance of the purchase price and the owners’ salaries to be paid out of monthly earnings. The firm of Denny and Spencer, described as “dealers in dry goods, etc.,” existed until 1878, at which time Denny took over the operation. Denny and Spencer was David Spencer’s entry into the dry goods business in Victoria; for him and for the company it signalled the start of Spencer’s Stores.
On leaving the partnership, Spencer began a new business in a leased building, on a part of the site occupied by Spencer’s until 1910. His “new dry goods and carpet warehouse,” opened on 26 Feb. 1879, was called the Commerce House, and carried goods personally selected in England, Europe, and America. The business flourished, and by 1882 he was able to purchase some property and enlarge his shop. In 1885 Spencer initiated another round of property acquisition for his store. The following year he constructed the two-storey Spencer’s Arcade between Government and Broad streets, at a cost of $18,000. His shop, which occupied the lower floor, was called the “Largest Dry Goods Emporium” in Victoria. In 1889 it employed 41 people, many of whom were women.
In April 1896 Spencer was described as “a leader in the retail dry goods trade,” with dressmaking and millinery as particular specialties. His firm was importing directly from England, Germany, France, and the United States. Spencer had just bought a building adjoining the Arcade to enlarge his store. By 1901 Spencer’s had grown from 7,200 square feet to 20,000. No longer a dry goods shop, it had become a department store employing 125 workers. Buyers visited eastern Canada every two months, New York four times a year, and London and Paris twice a year. The success of the store was attributed to the high quality of the goods sold, excellent customer service, and a thriving catalogue business. Later in 1901 a fire gutted the Arcade, leaving the building standing but doing some $150,000 damage, mostly covered by insurance. The following year the Arcade was rebuilt around the earlier store, without interrupting operations. The new four-storey building was “One of the Largest Stores of Its Kind in the Dominion.” Although it lacked “artistic pretensions,” it was described as “neat and attractive.”
As well as consolidating his flagship operation in Victoria, Spencer expanded his retail interests to Nanaimo in 1890 as Spencer and Perkins. When his partner, William H. S. Perkins, who had acted as manager of the store, retired in 1894, the business became known as David Spencer Limited. It was considered the “leading retail establishment” in Nanaimo.
Throughout this period the growth of Spencer’s Stores had been gradual but constant, apparently under the founder’s personal direction. In the fall of 1904 a new joint stock company, David Spencer Limited, was formed, owing to the “advanced age” of David Spencer, who became a director, along with all five of his sons. In spite of this reorganization, Spencer’s retail empire remained firmly family-controlled. The formation of the limited company signalled the start of a period of rapid expansion, which included buying and enlarging a store in Vancouver, expanding the Victoria store, and consolidating holdings in Nanaimo.
Vancouver had replaced Victoria as the commercial centre of British Columbia, and Spencer had intended to enter the Vancouver market even before the company’s incorporation. He purchased a lot on Hastings Street, but his plans were thwarted by a newly formed competitor, Drysdale-Stevenson Company Limited, which bought a larger lot nearby and quickly erected a store. Spencer acquired an interest in Drysdale-Stevenson, apparently in the fall of 1904, and the takeover of its holdings continued in 1905 with the purchase of its Nanaimo branch. This elimination of the major competitor in the market put Spencer’s in an even more dominant position in retailing in Nanaimo. Next David Spencer Limited took over the Drysdale-Stevenson store in Vancouver. In the summer of 1907 it began a large addition to the Hastings Street store to accommodate the rapidly growing business. After this $150,000 expansion was completed in 1908, the 140,000-square-foot store was called the “Greatest Retail Store West of Canadian Rockies.” In the short time Spencer had been in control, business had increased threefold. This growth was ascribed to the integrity of the company’s business practices and the wide range and high quality of goods it carried. The Vancouver store expanded again in 1911 with the acquisition of Standard Furniture Company Limited and the addition of its building to the existing facility.
In 1906 David Spencer Limited had enlarged the Victoria store by adding the Williams Block, at a total cost of about $40,000. Three years later the Victoria Daily Times building was purchased for about $30,000, an acquisition that gave Spencer’s continuous frontage on Broad Street. In October 1910, however, a fire destroyed Spencer’s Arcade. The loss was estimated at approximately $600,000, partially covered by insurance. The store reopened immediately in leased space in the Driard Hotel, opposite the Arcade on Broad Street, with stock brought from the Vancouver store. Within two weeks Spencer had purchased the hotel and the adjacent Victoria Theatre, in addition to another site on Government Street. These purchases gave David Spencer Limited control of two blocks of prime frontage in downtown Victoria. Rather than construct a new building, Spencer’s decided to renovate and integrate the hotel and theatre, to produce “larger and more spacious quarters” for the store.
Its rapid expansion between 1904 and 1911 made Spencer’s the dominant retail organization in British Columbia and one of the “most influential organizations of its kind in the Dominion.” In 1908 the Victoria and Vancouver stores each employed about 250 people, and the Nanaimo store between 40 and 50. The firm itself was restricted to 50 members, who had to be approved by the directors, all Spencer family members. In 1908 Spencer’s sons John William, David Scott, and Christopher were running the Victoria operation, while Thomas Arthur and J. Victor Norman were in Vancouver. The sons had been acting as buyers for the company before the turn of the century, making the purchasing trips to the east and to Europe. They eventually took over the management of the stores and the company. In 1948 they would sell their operations to T. Eaton Company of Toronto.
Spencer had diversified his business interests only to a limited extent. Although real estate holdings were usually restricted to those required for the retail operations, in 1915 the Arcade Block was built on the site of the store destroyed by the 1910 fire. Spencer’s Stores did not occupy this building, but as landlords rented space to various retail firms and organizations. David Spencer Limited also acquired and maintained agricultural facilities in support of the retail business. He once owned a farm in suburban Victoria, which was sold to raise capital for the retail operations. In 1917 the firm bought 200 acres on Kanaka Creek, in Haney, intended to become a feed lot and abattoir. In 1901 Spencer had been president of the Metropolitan Gold and Silver Mining Company, of Lardeau, B.C., Limited. Another mining interest was the 2,500 shares held in 1905 in the Arizona-based Goldfield Mining, Brokerage, and Investment Company Limited. In about 1916 Spencer resigned as a director of the British Columbia Permanent Loan Company and the Pacific Coast Fire Insurance Company. He was described as a charter-shareholder in the former company.
While building his retail interests, Spencer had played a prominent role in the Methodist Church in Victoria. On arriving in 1863 he had joined the congregation of the recently established Pandora Avenue Church. He met his future wife at the church, where both were teaching Sunday school. The couple assumed a leading role in the congregation. Spencer was “a recognized local preacher” in Victoria as he had been in Wales. For example, he was preaching to prisoners in the “old Colonial jail” in about 1870, as was Mrs Spencer.
Spencer remained active in the affairs of Pandora Avenue Church and after 1891 its successor, Metropolitan Church, also located on Pandora Avenue. He continued his involvement in the Sunday school, acting as the superintendent. He had become a trustee on joining the congregation, and retained this role at least until the 1890s. An exhorter, church secretary, and a member of the building committee in the late 1860s and 1870s, he acted as well as a church steward and recording steward through the 1890s. In the 1870s he was a trustee for the building of the Indian Church on Herald Street. Spencer was a choir enthusiast, as early as 1866 presenting a concert of his “Tonic Soh Fah class,” with upwards of a hundred singers. He was in the choir at Pandora Avenue, and later became the choir leader. After the congregation moved to Metropolitan, he became the choir director there. A long-time lay delegate to the British Columbia Conference of the Methodist Church and a representative to the General Conference, Spencer served also as a director of the Columbian Methodist College in New Westminster.
Spencer and his wife were involved in the social reform movement, inside and outside the Methodist Church. Both were active in the British Columbia Protestant Orphans’ Home, Spencer serving on its board of management after it was incorporated in 1892. Mrs Spencer participated in the Woman’s Missionary Society, in such ventures as the Oriental Rescue Home, and was a leader of the Victoria branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, taking a particular interest in its Refuge Home. In her WCTU endeavours she was supported by her husband. He and Noah Shakespeare* had formed the first temperance society on Vancouver Island, and this enthusiasm for temperance continued throughout Spencer’s life. In September 1916, prior to the public vote on prohibition in British Columbia, his firm ran half-page advertisements in the newspapers to promote the cause.
Spencer was described as a financial mainstay of the Methodist churches and social reform causes in Victoria. His support sometimes took the form of direct gifts, such as a $1,000 donation to the building fund for Metropolitan Church. In his will he left $5,000 to the same church and $1,000 to the orphans’ home. His largest bequest was $10,000 to develop a new tuberculosis ward at the Royal Jubilee Hospital, on the condition that $40,000 be subscribed from other sources. Sometimes he mixed church life with business; loans made to Victoria Methodist churches in 1897 carried an annual interest rate of six per cent. In 1901 Spencer was renting the old Pandora Avenue church to use as a warehouse.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Spencer was not involved in the clubs or society of eminent businessmen. Nor was he active in public life, other than serving as an alderman in 1871. A description of him in 1908 noted that he had “never sought public honor or distinction.” He was said to have many friends among the older generation, but at the 50th anniversary of his marriage the business élite of Victoria and Vancouver were prominent by their absence. The few notable guests included the Victoria fixtures Dr John Sebastian Helmcken and Edgar Fawcett, and Spencer’s long-time Methodist associate Noah Shakespeare. His life was defined by his business, his family, and his church, often intertwined. Aside from bequests to church and social causes, his will left everything to David Spencer Limited; there were no personal bequests to his wife or children.
Spencer suffered a serious illness in 1917–18. Although he recovered, the attack seems to have signalled an overall decline, which culminated in his death in 1920. It was reported that his greatest satisfaction had come from two sources. The first was the growth of his stores from the 1870s, when he had one small shop and six employees, to the 1920s, when his stores occupied 462,000 square feet and employed 1,400 employees with an annual payroll of $2,000,000. The second was that his sons had followed him into business. His family, the growth of the Methodist Church, but above all Spencer’s Stores were the legacies David Spencer left to British Columbia.
BCARS, Add. mss 1195; Add. mss 2109; Vert. file, David Spencer. UCC, British Columbia Conference Arch. (Vancouver), Mrs Thomas H. [Thelma R.] Johns, “History of Metropolitan Church, Victoria, B.C.” (typescript, n.d.). Daily Colonist (Victoria), 1863–1934, esp. 5 April 1896; 13 Dec. 1908; 28 Feb., 30 June 1917; 3 March 1920; 10 May 1922; 30 Sept. 1923. Vancouver Daily Province, 1904–33, esp. 27 June 1908. Victoria Daily Times, 1906–33, esp. 29 June 1917, 2 March 1920, 29 Sept. 1923. Golden jubilee, 1873–1923; commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the house of business of David Spencer Limited ([Victoria, 1923]). Michael Kluckner, Victoria: the way it was (North Vancouver, B.C., 1986). John Nelson, “Romance of the house of Spencer,” Maclean’s (Toronto), 38 (1925), no.17: 26, 70–71.