Clubs were the Backbone of Social Life in Victoria

Union Club History #3

This is the third in a series of historical bulletins which sketch the origins and history of the Union Club by members Douglas Franklin and Dr. Martin Segger.  They draw from the research for our nomination document seeking national heritage commemoration…

Clubs were the Backbone of Social Life in Victoria

The social history of Victoria illustrates the role of clubs in early Canadian civil life, both through its colonial years and the years of early post-confederation.  A survey of club activities over the years 1870-1915 through the social pages of the Daily Colonist newspaper reveals how national, ethnic, sporting, literary and social interests revolved around club memberships, and how clubs complemented and filled in recreation time not allocated to that other imposing bastion of civil society, church.

The role of Chinese associations, in particular the “tongs” or benevolent associations has been well documented in the publications of UVic geographer Dr. David Chuenyan Lai.  Victoria’s Chinatown boasts numerous monuments to the power and influence of these groups, including the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association buildings at 554/62 Fisgard (1885), the Gee Tuck Tong and Fun Toy Tong at 622-626 Fisgard (1903), the Yen-Wo Society at 1713-1717 Government Street (1905), Lee Benevolent Association at 614 Fisgard (1911) and the Chinese School at 636 Fisgard (1909).  These monuments define the core of the Chinatown National Historic Site.

Not so well known is Victoria’s other world of civil associations. In 1870 the first “Union Club” was actually a local baseball team. Sports clubs for everything from cricket to badminton emerged, but the overarching organizer of team sports in Victoria was the James Bay Athletic Association and the Victoria Lawn Tennis Association, both founded in 1886, the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in 1888, and the Victoria Golf Club in 1893.

Early benevolent societies such as the Orangemen based on national or ethnic affiliations were popular. However, social life for men revolved around the early fraternal organizations. Among the first was the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, founding the Victoria Lodge in 1864 and Columbia Lodge in 1870.  The first clubhouse building still stands at 500 Fort Street. The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons built their Grand Lodge of British Columbia at 1315 Douglas Street in 1878 (now 650 Fisgard Street).

The Fraternal Order of the Knights of Pythias moved into a new accommodation in the Duck Building on Broad Street in 1892. These club buildings still stand, preserved as heritage buildings in Victoria’s downtown core. As well as social hubs, the so-called “friendly” societies were often organized around the provision of life, accident, and sickness insurance, as well as elaborate rituals.  The 1870s saw lectures regularly organized by the Victoria Mechanics Literary Institute, which itself was to evolve into the Victoria Carnegie Library, built in 1904.

Professional societies emerged in the 1890s: the Victoria School Teachers Association, the BC Marine Engineers Society, the BC Stationary Engineers Society, the BC Architectural Institute (1891), the Victoria Bar Association, and even local clerics formed the Ministerial Association.

Victoria business interests coalesced early in 1863 as the Victoria Chamber of Commerce became the British Columbia Board of Trade in 1878. Political organizations ranged from single-issue groups such as the 1870s Carnarvon Club, concerned with implementing the terms of British Columbia’s accession to confederation, the Single Tax Club in the 1890s, through to the Liberal-Conservative Association who sponsored the MacDonald Club for “young liberal-conservatives”.  The Socialist Society also held regular meetings.

Next article: The Kers, a pioneer Victoria clubbing family.

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