By Danda Humphreys
How many light bulbs illuminate the front of our Legislature, and why are they there?
The BC Legislature at night
Queen Victoria was only 24 years old when the Hudson’s Bay Company established its northern headquarters on our Inner Harbour in 1843. Fort Victoria flourished at the foot of Fort Street for some 20 years before it was demolished, its valuable waterfront lots quickly snapped up by eager entrepreneurs. Their business premises stand on Wharf Street, between Broughton and Bastion Square, to this day. One, a building once owned by Scottish merchant Robert Rithet, contains the only surviving remnant of Fort Victoria—its water well.
The queen our city is named for may not have ventured to these shores, but many of her loyal subjects did. During Victoria’s six decades on the throne, hundreds of people from the British Isles came here in search of a better life.
Why, I’m often asked, would people uproot themselves and their families from the very centre of the British Empire and take a long, arduous journey to a place hardly any European had seen?
The answer is as sad as it is simple. For much of Victoria’s reign, and for many of England’s citizens, life was a harsh and constant struggle. Conditions were rough. Food was scarce. People were starving. The men who ventured to the New World in the mid-1800s probably figured that whatever awaited them here could not possibly be worse than what they were leaving behind. They worked hard, persevered; their families joined them; and new lives were begun.
Meanwhile, back home in England, the young Queen Victoria had married Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg Gotha (whose names adorn points of land along our coast). The Queen was now the mother of nine. The family spent much of its time at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. Then, in 1861, Albert—still a young man -- died of typhoid fever. The Queen went into deep mourning. From that time on, she appeared rarely at court ceremonials.
But she never neglected her duties as Queen, and was diligent in her recognition of colonists who served her well. Over the years, many a prominent Victoria citizen was able, after a visit to Buckingham Palace in London, to assume the title “Sir.” James Douglas, Frank Stillman Barnard, Matthew Baillie Begbie, Henry Crease, Joseph Trutch, Henri Joly de Lotbiniere, and W.A.G. Young were among those whose shoulders felt the weight of the ceremonial sword during Queen Victoria’s reign.
In 1897, in honour of the monarch’s 60th year on the throne, 3,333 light bulbs were affixed to the front of the not-yet-completed Legislature. Two years later, the 82-year-old Queen of the British Isles and Empress of India, whose name would live on in the city she never saw, was dead. But the Legislature lights remain, and will doubtless shine a little brighter on May 24, the 187th anniversary of the day she was born.
Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria!
Read more about Victoria’s early days in Danda’s books, On The Street Where You Live (a trilogy), and Building Victoria, which includes stories about all the major buildings around the Inner Harbour. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the May 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.