TO DESCRIBE VICTORIA, AND TO DO FULL JUSTICE TO HER MANIFOLD CHARMS, WOULD REQUIRE THE PENCIL OF BOTH POET AND ARTIST
-the Colonist, 1891
VICTORIA, founded in 1843 by the Hudson's Bay Company, is known and admired by visitors and locals alike for its old-world charm and idyllic natural setting: by the sea, in sheltered waters, with verdant parks and gardens and views of snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Its cultural character is enquiring but unaggressive. There is an absence of heavy industry and commercial bustle. Victoria is a centre of learning and leisure with a lingering, somewhat eccentric, British air. In 1904 the local publicity bureau began to advertise the city as an "Outpost of Empire." Rudyard Kipling, writing in 1907, likened it to Bournemouth with the Himalayas in the background. But what sets Victoria apart from many other former colonial cities is its buildings. Victoria's nineteenthcentury architecture - the most cohesive and best preserved in Canada defines the city.
Victoria evolved into a tight little HBC trading and farming community of about six hundred Europeans, coexisting with a fluid Native population that often outnumbered whites during seasonal trading. This delicate balance was irreversibly upset in 185 8, the year the Fraser River gold rush jolted the trading post into a boom town - the stopping-off point on the way to the gold fields for some twenty thousand prospectors from around the world. Residents who were, according to newspapers of the time, aghast at the "habitual drunkenness and disgusting language and the houses of ill-fame" that accompanied gold fever, took small comfort from the town's most imposing building of the time - a battlemented fortress-like jail. But rising above the shambles, ornate cornices hinted at grandeur to come. Bureaucrats, merchants, skilled tradesmen and well bred sons and daughters of the empire set the tone of the town.
By the 1880s, industry and commerce had made the city the biggest and wealthiest in British Columbia. The Inner Harbour was lined with warehouses, shipyards and factories; the port - from which vessels sailed to Europe and Asia - was the busiest in the province. In 1891 the Board of Trade had 150 members. Victoria was the main supply centre for frontier communities, mining and logging camps and salmon canneries on the mainland and on Vancouver Island. Gas streetlights were lit in 1860 and water pipes laid in 1864, the first telephone in the city was tested in 1878; street lighting was electrified in 1889 and the the city's first electric tram line opened in 1890. An economic recession had followed the gold rush, but colonial administration and civic pride - the city became the capital of BC in 1868 - saw Victoria ascend to a bourgeois fin-de-siecle apogee. In 1897 the magnificent new Parliament Buildings were illuminated for Queen Victoria's Diamond jubilee. But the same year, the city's streetcar company was sold to London-based investors, and its main office was relocated to Vancouver - a sign that Victoria's metropolitan veneer was cracking.
The erosion had begun in 1887 when the first Canadian Pacific Railway passenger train from Montreal arrived at Vancouver. Victoria - which had been promised the railway terminus - found its big-city ambitions switched to a slower track. Vancouver became Canada's prime Pacific port and BC's principal industrial centre. By the turn of the century, Victoria, the home of British Columbia's pioneering aristocracy, was becoming a city of elderly gents and civil servants - a milieu that attracted a corps of British colonial officials lured by prospects of comfortable retirement in a clubable setting complete with English climate and Scottish coastal scenery. Their voices preserved echoes of an empire that had begun to expire elsewhereand they were the inspiration for the city's revival as a tourist centre. Where Vancouver looked to the future, Victoria turned to the past.
And what a past - what people! Victoria's history - as an HBC trading post, Royal Navy station, gold rush town, seat of government and focus for colonial high society-features a remarkable cast of characters: HBC Chief Factor and Colonial Governor James Douglas, who ruled the colony with "a glove of velvet on a hand of steel"; his right hand man, "the hanging judge" Chief Justice Matthew Bailie Begbie; the honourable Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, surgeon and diarist at Fort Victoria; Amor de Cosmos, the messianic newspaper editor who became premier Of BC; John Fannin, the obsessive big game hunter and first curator of the provincial museum; Robert Dunsmuir, the miner's son who became the richest man in the province; Emily Carr, the artist who preferred painting Native totem poles to gossiping over afternoon tea - and, perhaps the most eccentric and colourful of them all, Francis Rattenbury, the petulant architect who gave late nineteenth-century Victoria its most enduring imperial monuments - the Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel. If ever a city owed its appearance to one man it is this one. Rattenbury's ghost looms large over the city just as his two most photographed buildings do.
Victoria had the perfect setting and temperament to act as provincial capital and gracious host. In the 1890s, steamers ferried railway travellers from the mainland and the CPR's Empress liners began regular sailings to Asia, making Victoria a port of call on the "All Red Route" around the British Empire. The Empress Hotel opened in 1908 and established an upper crust repute that reinforced the city's British personality. Victoria's urban fabric - which economic decline helped preserve - has since been
embroidered enthusiastically, not to say relentlessly, as "a little bit of old England" - even if no English hotel could claim that a stray cougar was once cornered in its car park, as happened at the Empress in 1992.The surface imagery of the city that was named after Queen Victoria was, and still is, a convincing illusion. There are Tudor Revival villas, cricket grounds and rose gardens. Emily Carr thought Victoria "the most English-tasting bit" of the whole country. British-born residents outnumbered Canadian-born in BC until the First World War and it still shows: behind mock Tudor facades on Fort Street, antique shops and antiquarian bookstores are littered with the bric-a-brac of the British Empire. The Parliamentary Library's copies of the Times of London and the Cariboo Observer evoke the era when frontier gossip was laced with comment about faraway diplomacy and imperial affairs. Royal Navy captains left imperial names on local maps - Albert Head, Sax Point, Coburg Peninsula, and Gotha Point cartographically complete the royal title of Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert of Sax-Coburg-Gotha. In 1862, on the day of the city's incorporation, an editorial in the appropriately tided local newspaper, the British Colonist, opined that Victoria was "The Queen City of the Pacific possessions of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria."
But there was more to the place than the surface current, as Rudyard Kipling sensed when he gazed across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains. "Real estate agents recommend it as a little piece of England," he noted, "but no England is set in any such seas or so fully charged with the mystery of the larger ocean beyond." For Victoria's early immigrants, the anticipation and relief of landfall were heightened by the punishing passages they endured sailing from Europe or from the St. Lawrence River to cross Panama or sail around Cape Horn. One of the colony's first public works was Fisgard Lighthouse, built in 1860 at the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour. The name of Beacon Hill Park recalls navigation beacons that were once lit above the town. Fog banks, tides and tempests earned the exposed west coast the nickname "Graveyard of the Pacific." Salty winds still ruffle Victoria's edges - on the exposed braes of Beacon Hill Park, the trees grow at an angle planed by the stiff prevailing wind.
Protected by a treacherous coastline, located half a world away from the mother country, and perched just beyond a vast mainland wilderness, Victoria's unexpected beauty and tranquility were irresistible to early British settlers. James Douglas, who had explored the coast, was enchanted by the setting - he described it as "a perfect Eden" - and he led the HBC expedition in spring 1843 that built Fort Victoria. For HBC men, used to the bitter winters in the interior and the chilling rains on the north coast, it seemed a paradise. John Burroughs, an American writer on an expedition to Alaska in 1899, wrote: "We were in British waters on June 1st and set foot on British soil at Victoria . . . Even the climate is British - mist and a warm slow rain - with dense verdure and thick green turf dotted with the English daisy. Indeed, nature here seems quite as
English as does the soberly-built town." But while the temperate climate may have reminded British settlers of home Victoria was never as English as the "old England" catchphrase implies: the notion was conjured up in 1918 by a San Franciscan, George Warren, Victoria's publicity commissioner, who had never seen the real thing, but recognized its appeal and employed it to revive the local economy. In the city centre, the nineteenth-century streetscapes, with their frontier copies of metropolitan architectural styles, are unmistakably North American. Even the British imperial blend of Rattenbury's Parliament Buildings is infused with a contemporary North American flavour - a cultural mixture rooted in the city's sudden growth in the late 1850s.
Nothing now remains of Fort Victoria nor, it would seem, of the Natives whom Douglas encountered when he landed in 1843. There are totem poles aplenty in the city today but they were not carved by the local Songhees Indians: the poles are mainly replicas based on styles that were created farther up the coast.
The local Indians did leave their language on some street names and natural features, but they otherwise seem a phantom presence in a land that was once their own. Neither they nor the Chinese (Victoria's Chinatown is the oldest and was once the most populous in the country) had a role in George Warren's dream of re-creating "old England." For Warren - and the CPR, whose publicity polished the myth of Victoria as an imperial garden of Eden - history had little value unless it could be edited and repackaged to suit a different time and purpose. This misleading version of Victoria's past has been perpetuated so religiousty that other voices are not easily heard, although today Victoria's heritage buildings and historic sites have all been scrupulously charted on plaques attached to their walls. These numerous signs seem a well intentioned attempt to recover the past that Warren ignored, but their short summaries barely scratch the surface of the facades whose histories they are meant to illuminate. There is more to Victoria's past - and present attitudes to it - than the plaques are able to tell.
-Robin Ward, Vancouver BC, August 1996