By Danda Humphreys
You could bank on it.
The former Bank of Montreal (centre) beside the eastern entrance to Bastion Square (2005)
Hands up. How many banks are there along Government Street? Answer: None. But in the early 1900s there were four—count ‘em, four! And the buildings that housed them remain there to this day.
Government Street which once formed the eastern perimeter of Fort Victoria—was so named because the first Government House stood on the corner of what is now Government and Yates. That is where Richard Blanshard, Vancouver Island’s first governor in 1850, lived and worked before he returned to England in 1851.
Seven years later, when gold was discovered along the mainland’s Fraser River, prospectors from California sauntered along the street. No longer needed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Fort Victoria was demolished, and businesses sprang up in its place. Some were started by miners, recently returned from the gold fields; others belonged to entrepreneurs, eager to service men with money to spend.
Eventually, Government Street was the first paved street west of the Rockies. But in the 1860s it was a rough track, dust-swirled in summer, mud-slicked in winter. By the 1880s, it was still more country road than capital thoroughfare. Geese nibbled on either side of the street, and hitching posts for horses would be in evidence for decades to come.
Gradually, grassy strips gave way to planked sidewalks, and merchants erected awnings to protect potential customers from the rain. It was these stores that benefited most from the financial institutions that made Government Street their home.
First in place was the Bank of British Columbia, which in 1862 rented part of the large brick house built by Thomas Harris, Victoria’s first mayor. In 1885, the bank moved to a brand-new building on the southwest corner of Fort and Government that was later used by the Canadian (later Canadian Imperial) Bank of Commerce, which purchased the Bank of B.C.
The 1862 Bank of British Columbia as it appeared in 2005
Harris’s old home was demolished, and in 1896, the chateau-style roof of the Bank of Montreal pierced the Government Street skyline at that site (above). It was designed by Francis Rattenbury, the young architect whose stone legislature was at that moment taking shape on the south side of James Bay.
Between the two banks stood the Royal Bank. Established in 1869 as the Merchants Bank of Halifax, the Victoria branch changed its name to Royal Bank of Canada in 1901. Devoid of the grand corner entrances enjoyed by its competitors, the middle-of-the-block Royal Bank enticed customers with a solid, Temple-style structure and classic columns.
Meanwhile, plans were afoot for yet another bank on the northeast corner of Government and View streets. The seven-storey Union Bank of Canada, boasting white glazed terra cotta corner blocks and window surrounds, opened for business in 1912, right opposite the Bank of Montreal.
Today, the bank buildings still stand—but none of them are banks any more. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is now a Christmas shop. The Royal Bank, completely renovated by retailer Jim Munro in the 1980s, is now a fine bookstore. The Union Bank houses a clothing store on its main level, and the Bank of Montreal has taken out a new lease on life as an Irish pub.
You can’t bank on Government Street any more. But you can still enjoy those beautiful old buildings, a reminder of the Government Street of days gone by.
Danda Humphreys is a Victoria author, speaker and tour guide. Her latest book, Building Victoria, is available in local bookstores. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the March 2005 edition of Focus Magazine.