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Golden Country: Ashcroft Manor and the Cornwall brothers

Established in 1863, the Ashcroft Manor roadhouse is still a landmark in the Interior.
The Ashcroft Manor roadhouse in 1962, several years after a second floor was added. Ashcroft Museum and Archives

During the winter of 1861 the British newspapers were full of news of the discovery of gold in the new colony of British Columbia; and these reports prompted brothers Clement Francis and Henry Pennant Cornwall—descended from a long line of British aristocracy—to abandon their lives in England, and move to the far-off colony.

They left England in April 1862 and, upon arrival, decided that the lives of miners were not for them. They settled on the idea of farming, something with which they were familiar, and travelled east from Lillooet to Hat Creek and then the Bonaparte River Valley. On July 1, 1862 they pre-empted two adjoining parcels of land—each 160 acres—on a “desirable looking flat watered by two streams with fine surrounding range for cattle” near the Thompson River.

The two brothers were able to invest $10,000 of their own money in the site, and laboured exceedingly hard, working seven days a week, to get their enterprises up and running. The first building on the site was a single-storey dwelling with a kitchen, a living-room with fireplace, two bedrooms, and an attic. The brothers named their property Ashcroft, after the name of their family home in Gloucestershire, England.

The new Cariboo Wagon Road from Yale to the Cariboo came straight past their property, and almost as soon as the brothers moved in and hired a Chinese cook, they found that there were patrons willing to rent rooms in the attic, especially with the approach of winter and more inclement weather.

The Cornwall brothers saw an opportunity, and were not slow to take advantage of it. They decided that a public roadhouse located by the Cariboo Wagon Road would be an excellent venture, so set about making it happen, with construction taking place over the winter and spring of 1862–1863. On April 30, 1863 the roadhouse at Ashcroft opened, and the Cornwalls took in $29 on their first day. The “Public”, as the brothers referred to this new house, had framed pictures hung on painted walls, and a large mirror reflecting an assortment of bottles behind the bar. Within, guests could sit in stuffed leather chairs and read the latest English newspapers, only three months old.

The roadhouse remained busy throughout the summer and fall of 1863, entertaining guests such as Judge Matthew Begbie; apparently the judge and Clement Cornwall stayed up late into the might, discussing some of the judge’s recent cases.

The roadhouse was shut up during the winter of 1863–1864, due to the lack of traffic, but reopened in the spring of 1864, with warm weather and temperate breezes causing Clement Cornwall to write: “Beautiful day, young grass springing rapidly all about. Lots of travel, and the road looks quite lively with wagons, pack trains, buggies, and pedestrians. We hauled out some rails and slabs to the Public today, where we are about to build a new kitchen.”

Soon the Ashcroft roadhouse was known to all travellers in the area as a good place to stay. An advertisement in The Cariboo Sentinel in spring 1866—which also reveals what people were looking for in a roadhouse at the time—said of Ashcroft House that “at this well known house, halfway between Spences Bridge and Clinton, on the Yale route, travellers will find good accommodation, of living, liquors, and of wine. Fresh butter, milk, and vegetables. Good stabling and cheap feed.”

Within a short time the Cornwall brothers were extending their holdings. They eventually oversaw more than 6,400 acres of property, on which they grazed cattle and raised crops. The roadhouse served as the area’s first courthouse, with a jail in the cellar, and was a post office; there was also a sawmill and a flour mill—the first in the Interior—on the property. In 1865 a horse race track was developed at the site, and it later became the site of the first airplane landing strip in the Interior of B.C. In 1938 actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.—son of Hollywood legend Douglas Fairbanks—had to set down on the landing strip there, when a plane he was flying in needed emergency repairs. In 1867, Ashcroft House became the site of the first court case heard in the area.

Clement Cornwall continued to take an interest in the property, but he had other matters to preoccupy him. He had been called to the bar—that is, entitled to practice as a lawyer—at the prestigious Inner Bar in London in 1862, but left for Canada before taking up the legal profession in London.

He kept his hand in as a lawyer, however, alternating his time as a roadhouse-keeper and stockman with seasonal practice as a lawyer at Wild Horse Creek, French Creek, and Big Bend.

In 1864 Clement was elected to represent the Hope-Yale-Lytton riding for the newly created Colonial Legislative Assembly, and was a member of that body when B.C. joined confederation in 1871. In 1864 he also became a Justice of the Peace; was named the Ashcroft postmaster in 1865; and by 1867 was a district magistrate.

Immediately after British Columbia became part of Canada, Clement was appointed to the Canadian senate, where he served for 10 years, only ceasing to be a senator when he was appointed the third Lieutenant-Governor of the province in 1881. He retired from that position in 1887 and spent two years as a “gentleman rancher” before being appointed to the bench as Judge of the County Court of the Cariboo in 1889.

He continued in that position until 1906 when, aged 70, he retired to Victoria. He died in 1910, aged 74 (Henry had died in 1892, aged only 55). The Cornwall Hills, Cornwall Mountain, and Cornwall Creek, all in the vicinity of the property Clement and Henry purchased in 1862, are named after them.

In the 1880s the Cornwall brothers lost a battle with Ottawa, when the federal government decided to name the new settlement a few miles away by the Thompson River Ashcroft. The roadhouse was renamed Ashcroft Manor, and under that name continues to live on today.