Time marches on

By Danda Humphreys, March 2011

A clock hangs as a reminder of conflict between citizens and City council around downtown development.

In March 13, clocks spring forward again as we rush headlong toward summer. In downtown Victoria we have several public clocks, including some that show the time on all four sides. The most titillating of these timepieces—suspended from the ceiling of our major downtown shopping mall—“comes of age” this year.

Before personal wristwatches and pocket watches were commonplace, public clocks were the most reliable way to tell the time. Many downtown businesses featured them in their façades. Others stood on sidewalks. The magnificent clock hanging above the entrance to C. E. Redfern, Jewellers, which operated on the 1000 block of Government Street in the late 1800s, is clearly visible in archival photos of that thoroughfare. Two original cast iron-based sidewalk clocks  stand to this day, one at the Government Street entrance to Bastion Square, the other beside the Broughton Street premises of Francis Jewellers.

Charles Redfern, who arrived in Victoria in 1862, became our 15th mayor in 1883. Over the next 16 years of re-election and defeat, he served our city well, helping to create good roads, a more adequate water supply, and better sewerage. Concerned that our new City Hall (1878) lacked a visible timepiece, and that no local clock-makers had the necessary expertise, Redfern arranged for one to be made-to-measure in England. It took a while, but the clock mechanism and four 2.5-metre dials, made by Gillett & Johnson of Croydon, Surrey, and a 2170-pound bell were finally installed in the City Hall clock tower in 1891. 

Redfern died in 1929, a good half-century before a proposed major development just north of his Government Street store created a controversy the likes of which Victorians had never seen. At its centre was Toronto-based building giant Cadillac Fairview, which planned to create a major shopping mall similar to its 1970s Toronto and Vancouver properties in partnership with the T.E. Eaton Co. 

The developers presented a proposal that purported to solve all our downtown business woes, then sat back and waited for permission to proceed. But they had not reckoned with Victoria’s heritage groups and concerned citizens, who countered with a spirited “Thanks, but no thanks!”

It wasn’t the shopping mall they were concerned about; it was the 11 heritage structures dating from the 1880s through 1920s that would be demolished to make way for its creation. “Our heritage is not for sale!” declared the Hallmark Society, calling upon the mayor and council to designate the façades of the registered buildings, and urging citizens to write to the president of Eaton’s in Toronto.

In the face of increasing pressure, Cadillac Fairview agreed to reconstruct the façades of the buildings concerned. These included David Spencer’s Arcade Building as well as the Kresge Building, Victoria Theatre, Driard Hotel, R. Lettice Painters, Goodman and Jordan Piano Makers, Winch Building, and the Times Building. By Christmas 1986, the City had given its blessing to the $1 million development, and the aforementioned buildings disappeared in a huge pile of rubble. When it was cleared, the new structure reigned supreme. However, promises to reconstruct façades using original materials were not fulfilled, because the old bricks did not meet newer building code standards. Instead frontages were replicated with new brick façades. “Faux history” was here to stay.  

The new Eaton Centre could be accessed from Government and Douglas streets, and via the former Broad Street pedestrian mall that once connected Fort and View streets. Officially opened in 1990, the structure included 300,000 bricks, 15,000 bolts, 18,000 light bulbs, 198 kilometres of electrical wire, 2.1 million pieces of ceramic tile, 10 elevators, 16 escalators, and—suspended from the ceiling near the mall entrance to the Eaton’s store—a handsome four-sided timepiece. 

On two sides, large clock faces displayed local “Victoria time” and the words, “Victoria Eaton Centre Grand Opening 1990.” Smaller clock faces on the other two sides displayed the time in other world cities and centres, above the strangely Imperial-sounding slogan “Westward the course of Empire goes forth.”

Eaton’s may have won the battle but they definitely lost the war. Seven years after opening Victoria’s downtown mall, the company declared bankruptcy. Soon, the signs outside were changed to read The Bay Centre, a reflection of its new ownership and a seemingly suitable reminder that the complex stands across from the location of the original Hudson’s Bay Company fort.

Time marches on. Inside the building today, most shoppers don’t even see the clock, its chimes nothing more than a temporary fleeting distraction from their purchasing pursuits. But for many of us, the clock is a symbol—a reminder of a time when, just as they do to this day, concerned citizens threw their collective efforts into trying to save part of our precious heritage.

Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s earlier days. www.dandahumphreys.com