The Maritime Museum

by Danda Humphreys, November 2010

The 1889 Provincial Court House in Bastion Square now houses a remarkable heritage collection.

More than 150 years ago, Bastion Square formed the northern perimeter of the Hudson’s Bay Company fort, but by the mid-1860s it was part of the newly incorporated City of Victoria. Gone were the fort’s palisades and square, rather bare buildings. Gone too were the bastions, or gun-towers, that had once stood sentinel over the Company’s finest. 

From Government Street, where the northeast bastion once stood, short, stubby Bastion Street led to the police barracks and City Jail. The dark red-brick structure with the castellated roof-line, built in 1858 to house the legion of lawbreakers who sailed in and out of Victoria, doubtless struck fear in the heart of many a felon. Sentencing was swift and the penalty for crime was harsh. Close to a dozen murderers, miscreants, and other miserable souls who may or may not have been guilty as charged swung from the jail-yard’s gallows. Faraway families could not claim the bodies, so some were buried, not in a cemetery, but beneath the jail’s exercise yard. 

By the mid-1880s, the City deemed itself in need of a larger, more salubrious site for its judicial activities, and in 1887 the Chief Commissioner of Land and Works authorized a new law courts structure. The architect of choice was Hermann Otto Tiedemann.

Tiedemann had arrived here from Germany in 1858, on the eve of Victoria’s transformation from a fur-trading post to a provincial capital. Within two years of his arrival, he had celebrated two design firsts—a cluster of square, wood-frame parliament buildings known as The Birdcages on the Inner Harbour’s south shore, and a lighthouse on Fisgard Island. Now, almost two decades later, he was being called upon to produce drawings for a Provincial Court House to stand on the site of the former police barracks and jail. 

Tiedemann’s design for the new building, which apparently resembled a similar structure in Munich, incorporated several elements ranging from Renaissance Revival to neo-Baroque. A brick building supported by a stone foundation, it was reportedly the first structure in Victoria to make extensive use of reinforced concrete. 

The building was completed, at a total cost of just over $35,000, in 1889. People came from miles around to celebrate its official opening and to see Lieutenant-Governor Hugh Nelson and Chief Justice Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie lead the parade of dignitaries to Bastion Square. In his speech at the opening ceremonies, Begbie recalled how 40 years earlier, in the mainland gold fields, he had dispensed justice from the saddle of his horse. Now, he and his colleagues would be able to preside over a courtroom on the third floor. 

The impressive new Court House loomed large over other structures in the square, including the 1888 two-storey Beaver Building at the entrance to Commercial Alley, the 1892 Italianate-style Burnes House Hotel, and the taller but smaller 1892 Board of Trade building, all with office space still in use today.

Less than a dozen years after its completion, the Court House underwent $48,000-worth of extensive alterations. Most major of these was the installation of steel beams to support an ornate open-cage elevator that is, to this day, the oldest in use in BC. 

The building fulfilled its function until the new courthouse on Burdett Avenue was completed toward the end of 1961. The last court case was heard in the Bastion Square building in February 1962. In 1963-64, it served as a temporary City Hall during the latter’s renovations. Then in 1965, the old Court House took a new lease on life as the Maritime Museum, which had been formerly housed in two historic buildings at Signal Hill in Esquimalt. The province acquired the building from the city for $1 back in 1977. Today, there is still a working tax court on the third floor, but many of the museum’s 3700 artifacts have had to be housed in storage facilities around Victoria—the museum just doesn’t have enough space to put them all on display.

Its brickwork long since stuccoed and its surface resembling large granite blocks, the museum is still a commanding presence in Bastion Square. Flags flying and heavy old door invitingly open, it welcomes the curious into its cool, old-world interior. 

We’re proud of it—aren’t we? Sad to say, the building described over a century ago as quite a spectacle and “worthy of the admiration of every visitor to our beautiful city and the pride of every citizen” is suffering, like a certain local bridge, from neglect. Visitor numbers (that includes us) are way down. Recently appointed executive director Kevin Carlé has great plans for steering the cultural institution on a “voyage of renewal” into more businesslike waters. I vote we give Carlé and his hardworking board all the support we can.

 

Some years ago, Danda was proud to perform, with a group of local actors, in “The Night of January Sixteenth” (an Ayn Rand play), staged in the Maritime Museum’s third-floor courtroom. www.dandahumphreys.com.