The Bedford Regency
By Danda Humphreys
The origins of a hotel on Government Street lie in stationery and books.
The Bedford Regency Hotel on Government Street in 2010
Recent news about the sale of the Bedford Regency reminds us of an interesting fact: The hotel near the corner of Government and Bastion streets was originally built as a boon to local businesses, not to accommodate overnight guests. It all started in the 1850s, when the section of Government Street just south of Bastion Square was on the east side of Fort Victoria. With the discovery of Fraser River gold in 1858, and the arrival of thousands of California prospectors, the fort’s days were numbered. The Hudson’s Bay Company decided to cut its losses and sell the land.
By the mid-1860s, Fort Victoria had vanished, apparently without a trace. What had once been the path through the middle of the fort became Fort Street. Wharf Street sprouted merchants’ offices and ware-houses, while Government Street lots were snapped up by erstwhile entrepreneurs. Some had struck it rich in the gold fields; others had arrived to service them.
Beyond the former fort’s northern perimeter, Yates Street had enjoyed some prominence since the start of the gold rush. And it was here, among the shacks and shanties selling gear to the gold miners, that Thomas Napier Hibben first opened his doors for business.
Hibben was an American, born and educated in Charleston, South Carolina. At 21, he travelled to California, intent on searching for gold, but instead set up a bookstore and stationery business. When news of the Fraser River gold rush reached San Francisco, he had money in the bank and made immediate plans to move north.
Hibben sailed into Esquimalt in the summer of 1858, along with hundreds of other hopefuls. Rather than follow them to the gold fields, he and partner James Carswell set up a combined printing and book-selling business on the south side of Yates Street. It was a smart move. Situated well inside the still-small settlement’s boundaries, Hibben & Carswell’s books were a welcome addition to the fledgling newspapers of the day.
By the end of 1858, Victoria had its first official street map, and the newly numbered bookstore and reading room at 37 Yates Street
was a popular place for men to discuss local politics and the business of the day. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s influence was rapidly dwindling. There was talk of uniting the Colony of Vancouver Island with the mainland colony, in order to protect British interests. Demolition of Fort Victoria had already begun.
In 1864, as the last of the fort buildings bit the dust, Thomas Hibben took a wife. He and Janet Parker Brown were married in January. They moved into a house on Pandora Avenue, and their first son was born later that same year. Not long afterwards, James Carswell set up a legal publishing firm. Hibben bought out his partner’s interest, and continued the business on his own as T. Hibben & Co. By this time, he had moved his store to the east side of Government Street, near the corner of Thomas Trounce’s alley.
Over the decades, the store enjoyed continued growth. Advertised as “Importing Stationers and Booksellers,” it declared itself “prepared to furnish nearly every variety of stationery in use,” along with popular literature, printing, ruling and binding services, legal and office supplies, Admiralty coast charts, photographic albums, mathematical instruments, fine pocket cutlery, wrapping paper, music, and more. The establishment was a firm favourite with at least one local youngster: Emily Carr wrote of her fondness for Mr Hibben’s store, especially at Christmastime when picture books were left invitingly open at the perfect height for small children to see.
In 1910, Hibben’s original building burned to the ground in a fire that destroyed the nearby Spencer Arcade. From its ashes rose an impressive structure on the opposite side of Government Street. The seven-floor (six on Government, seven on Langley) building was designed to house the stationery store on the lower Government Street level, with offices and warehouse/storage space below and above. The Hibben-Bone Block was topped by a large electric sign depicting St George and the Dragon, advertising another local company, but at one time a huge pencil on the roof, sharpened end pointing toward the skies, provided a clear indication of the kind of business being conducted below.
Thomas Hibben would have been proud of that building, but by then he was long gone, dead at the age of 62 and buried at Ross Bay Cemetery. Sons Parker and T.N. Jr. represented their mother in the business, which was co-managed by key long-time employees C.W. Kammerer and W.H. Bone.
The stationery store’s days eventually came to an end, and the building went on to house the Churchill Hotel in the 1950s, a hostelry of somewhat dubious distinction; followed by the Bastion Inn in 1985, then briefly the Alhambra. Today, looking much the same as when it was first built, one hundred years ago, it is the Bedford Regency Hotel—a location with character and old-world charm in our downtown core (and currently for sale by its Vancouver-based owner for $8 million).
Danda Humphreys sharpened more than a few pencils while writing four books on the early European settlement of Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the June 2010 edition of Focus Magazine.