David W. Spencer

It was reported that David Spencer’s 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 all of 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.

One of nine children from a long line of farmers, David Spencer arrived in Victoria, BC from Wales in December of 1863 at the age of 26 to seek his fortune in the gold fields. But upon seeing many prospectors returning empty-handed, he changed his course, establishing himself in the dry goods business, a profession he had trained for as an apprentice. In 1864 Spencer purchased a book and stationery business which he ran as a Reading Room and Library for almost a decade.

During that period, David Spencer also became active in Victoria’s Methodist community, serving as church secretary, organizing choir concerts and teaching Sunday school. It was in the latter capacity that he met Emma Lazenby, also a recent immigrant, whom he married in 1867. The couple went on to have 13 children.

By 1873, David Spencer saw greater opportunities in the dry goods business than the lending library. After a five-year Partnership with William Denny as co-owner of Denny & Spencer, David Spencer began his own retail outlet. Despite fires in 1901 and 1910 that greatly damaged the Spencer Arcade in Victoria, David Spencer’s retail empire steadily grew through repeated expansion of the Victoria location and extended Provincial reach into Nanaimo and Vancouver.

David Spencer was a savvy entrepreneur whose passion for business spanned generations. The Spencer family is one of the few instances in Canada in which all of the sons have followed in the footsteps of their father. Spencer’s five boys remained to successfully carry on the business after his death. In addition to prosperous commercial endeavors, Spencer gave back to his community. The Methodist Church and a number of social causes relied heavily on his financial support he bequeathed $10,000 in his will to develop a new tuberculosis ward at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Testimonies to his legacy were the tributes paid to his retailing empire 13 years after he died, when Spencer’s celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, having added stores in New Westminster and Chilliwack. In 1948, when the stores were sold to Eaton’s, newspapers of the day lamented that the Spencer name, which had fond and familiar memories for generations of British Columbians, would no longer be represented in the province’s retail landscape. Today, the Spencer heritage building in Vancouver is home to Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus.