Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer
On March 25, 1910, a party of emigrants embarked from Great Britain to settle on 24 “ready-made farms” in the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Irrigation Block in Alberta. The farms were clustered together in a colony located approximately 50 kilometres east of Calgary, in an area that came to be known informally as the “English Colony” (officially named Nightingale in 1911). While the English Colony was not a long-term success—the majority of the original immigrants had moved on by 1912—the history of the colony offers a fascinating window into different aspects of early agricultural settlement in Alberta.
The story of the English Colony begins in 1904 with the CPR’s acquisition of nearly three million acres of land in Treaty 7 territory between Calgary and Medicine Hat (south of the Red Deer River and north of the Bow River). While this area had generally been viewed by settlers as too dry for farming, the CPR believed that irrigation would transform the land and make it suitable for agriculture. In the language of the time, irrigation would, “make the desert bloom.” The company began construction on the irrigation system in 1904, which diverted water from the Bow River just east of Calgary and delivered it to a reservoir (now Chestermere Lake). From there water was distributed through a series of secondary canals and ditches to farms throughout the western third of the Irrigation Block. By 1910, the CPR had already sold nearly 70,000 acres of irrigated land in the western section.
Despite this early success, the CPR soon faced a problem. The vast majority of the irrigated land (up to 90 per cent) was bought by land speculators who wanted to re-sell it for a quick profit rather than settle on it. While the CPR had made significant money from land sales, the true economic potential of the irrigated land rested in the increased rail traffic that would come with population growth. The CPR needed to find a way to attract bona fide settlers and one of their solutions was the “ready-made” farm experiment where the CPR would prepare farms grouped together in colonies for immediate occupation by settlers. The company would build a house and barn, dig a well, fence the property and plough and sow fifty acres of land prior to the settler’s arrival. It was hoped that these measures would increase the farmers’ chances of success and encourage them to remain on the land. The company focused on selling to British families rather than individuals, the reason being that families would be more likely to permanently settle. Customers were also required to have a minimum of $1,500 upon their arrival in Canada. These provisions were aimed at ensuring the “better class of farmers in the British Isles” would buy farms in the colony, illustrating the ethnic and class biases associated with early twentieth-century immigration.
The CPR aggressively promoted their “ready-made” farm project in Great Britain with travelling exhibitions, public lectures and colourful advertising posters. Family narratives printed in the 1979 book The English Colony: Nightingale and District speak to the effectiveness of this promotion. Syd Griffith remembered that, “the CPR had big advertisements around the country praising-up their land and especially their ready-made farms in Western Canada,” and decided to emigrate with his brothers after attending a public lecture in Wales. Alfred Pool had attended a lecture with slides in Leicester and came home, “full of enthusiasm” for the ready-made farm scheme. Henry Hilton was convinced to emigrate by a, “high-pressure salesman… showing us pictures of what a wonderful place it was in the Nightingale area.”
Many of the colonists, however, were disillusioned when they saw the poor state of the colony. Some of the houses were still under construction when they arrived in the spring of 1910 and those that were complete did not live up to the settlers’ expectations – while advertisements promised settlement, “with a minimum of discomfort”, some colonists described the homes as “boxcars,” “monstrosities” and “three-room shack(s).” Even worse, the irrigation ditches feeding the colony were incomplete and there was virtually no rainfall in the summer of 1910. Hailstorms in the fall of 1910 destroyed what few crops had managed to grow and colonists unaccustomed to the Canadian climate had to endure a severe winter in 1910-11. The gap between expectation and reality was summed up by one colonist: “advertised in the British Isles as being the best of land with comfortable family-sized homes,…nothing could be further from the truth.”
In addition to these disappointments, however, there was community and friendship. Family narratives speak of colonists providing mutual support and assistance, helping each other overcome isolation and adjustment to a new life. Dances and other social gatherings helped foster a sense of community. Those who were children when the colony was first settled share memories of, “a great adventure” and a, “simple and happy life.” However, while the colony was on firmer ground by 1911, many of the colonists found the challenges of irrigation farming in southern Alberta too daunting and chose to sell their farms and move on. What started as a distinctly British colony was a mixture of peoples by 1913, as Canadian and American-born settlers moved in to buy the farms.
The English Colony was the first of many “ready-made” farm schemes launched by the CPR in Alberta. Between 1909 and 1914, the company sold over 1,600 such farms to prospective settlers in small colonies around province, both within and outside of the CPR Irrigation Block. The initial preference for British settlers soon gave way to a willingness to recruit other immigrants, particularly Americans who had greater experience with farming in North American conditions. The program never fully lived up to the company’s expectations—the colonies experienced varied levels of success and most remained quite small. The main legacy of the program can be found in the communities whose establishment and early growth were fostered by “ready-made” farm colonies, including Bassano, Irricana, Crossfield and Sedgewick.
Armstrong, Christopher, Matthew Evenden and H.V. Nelles. The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.
Eagle, John. The Canadian Pacific Railway and Western Development, 1896-1914. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1989.
Gilpin, John. Quenching the Prairie Thirst. Lethbridge: St. Mary’s Irrigation District, 2000.
Gourlay, Shona. “Just Add People: CPR’s Ready Made Farms.” Alberta History 67:4 (Autumn 2019): 2-7.
Hedges, James B. Building the Canadian West: The Land and Colonization Policies of the Canadian Pacific Railway. New York: Russell & Russell, 1939.
Lam, Elsa. “A Fertile Wilderness: The Canadian Pacific Railway’s Ready-made Farms, 1909-1914.” Journal for the Society of the Study of Architecture in Canada 35:1 (2010): 3-16.
Nightingale Community Association Historical Committee. The English Colony: Nightingale and
District. s.l.: Historical Committee of the Nightingale Community Association, 1979.