The Windsor Hotel
by Danda Humphreys
Mock tudor hides historic hostelry
The Windsor Hotel circa 1890, BC’s first all-brick building
WHAT'S BLACK AND WHITE ON TOP and red-brown underneath? An old building on Government Street that lays claim to being our city’s first all-brick hotel. Not that you’d know to look at it, and its original owner would probably turn over in his grave if he could see it today. George Richardson was very proud of his establishment. Good British subject that he was, he named it after the young British queen of the day. And despite his accidental attempt to blow it up, his building—now almost 150 years old—has survived the ravages of time. Richardson was just 23 when he boarded the Hudson’s Bay Company ship Norman Morison at Gravesend, near London, in October 1849. He was in good company. More than 80 souls were aboard, most journeying to the southern tip of Vancouver’s Island as contracted HBC employees.
When they sailed into our Inner Harbour in the early spring of 1850, most of the passengers saw Fort Victoria, farms, and the future prospect of land available at a reasonable price. The entrepreneurial Richardson, on the other hand, saw a small settlement with immediate potential. He worked hard. Five years later, with enough money saved to buy acreage at North Park (then on the outskirts of town), he went back to England to find a bride.
Mary Ann Parker was 11 years George’s junior, but just as adventurous. The newlyweds boarded the Princess Royal and arrived here in early 1858—a scant two months ahead of the first rush of Fraser River-bound gold miners. Victoria was the jumping-off point for the mainland gold fields, and before the summer was out, 30,000 prospectors would come here to buy licences to dig for gold. Richardson could almost hear the coins clinking in his cash-box as those returning with gold dust sought somewhere to stay.
The 1860 City Directory listed several hotels in the downtown core. These were mostly wooden buildings, hastily erected north of the Fort to cater to the newcomers’ needs. Richardson decided to cater to the more discriminating traveller. His “Victoria Hotel” on Government & Rae (as Courtney was then called), completed in 1859 and later re-christened the “Windsor Hotel,” was reputedly the first all-brick building in BC.
He built his hotel toward the south end of the little town on purpose. Fort Victoria was being demolished piece by piece, but the rough, grass-lined dirt track along its eastern side— called Government Street because the first Government Office was situated just north of the fort—was fast becoming the most important commercial thoroughfare.
Meanwhile, over on the Inner Harbour’s south shore, a strange-looking set of wooden buildings—the new home of the Legislative Assembly—had taken shape. They were reached from downtown via a narrow wooden bridge that extended from the south end of Government Street across the murky waters of James Bay. Richardson couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Anyone headed for the Legislature had little option but to walk right by his impressive, high-arched brick entrance!
Business was brisk until 1864, when the city experienced a post-gold rush slump. Richardson leased out the hotel, and moved his growing family to his farm at North Park. But by the mid-1870s, as business improved, he was back. And one night in 1876, thanks to a gas leak, he almost destroyed his precious building.
It was Mary Ann who smelled it first. Alarmed by a strange odour emanating from below, she nudged George awake. Sleepily, he went downstairs to investigate...with a lighted candle so he could see where he was going. The resulting explosion reportedly flattened a couple of lamp standards along Government Street and, according to the next day’s newspaper, could be heard clear out to Oak Bay.
The force of the blast blew down brick partitions, tore plaster from walls, and wrenched doors from frames. The parlour and dining room were wrecked. Ignited gas rushed up the stairwell, blew out windows, and littered the street below with shattered glass. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt. Richardson suffered severely singed hair and a burned hand, but he lived to tell the tale—and to repair the damage to his precious hotel.
Around 1915, an extension was built, taking the building up Courtney to Gordon Street. It was a plain and unremarkable single-storey brick structure which, compared to the original, lacked imagination. By that time, the Richardsons had long since retired. Mary Ann died in 1911. George died in 1922, at the ripe old age of 96.
The Windsor Hotel in 2007
Today, Richardson’s original two-floor building is home to retail stores, one of which advertises a seemingly perpetual “Liquidation Sale.” Hidden in more recent times under a stuccoed, mock-Tudor facing, it stands just where George Richardson left it—a legacy of another era, and of the proud proprietor of Victoria’s first brick hotel.
Danda Humphreys is a Victoria author, historian, and storyteller who, just like George Richardson, has been known to make the wrong decisions in the middle of the night. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the July 2007 edition of Focus Magazine.