Heyday of Victoria as a Very Clubbable Place

Union Club History #1

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

Heyday of Victoria as a Very Clubbable Place

The Union Club of British Columbia was founded in April 1879 with rooms above a butchers shop at the corner of Government and Yates.  The building is still there. By 1885 the first Club House was complete, an imposing Victorian Italianate brick building on Douglas Street next to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. The Club’s size doubled with plans by architect F. M. Rattenbury in 1902.

The Union Club’s founding committee foreshadowed the groups from which it would draw its membership: law, politics, business and professions. Supreme Court Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie was the Club’s founding president. Founding co-members were businessman Frank Barnard, Cariboo MPP, and retired Royal Navy Lieutenant Henry E. Croasdaile. The club quickly developed as the home-away-from home for politicians, (federal, provincial and local), civil servants, military officers and professionals, in particular legal, medical, the various branches of engineering, architecture, surveying, and also the press.

The Commercial Club announced its organization in June 1885 with 100 members, but took rooms as the Victoria Club the next month.  In 1894 it reincorporated as the Pacific Club with rooms on Fort Street.  By 1911, with a membership of 400, it had expanded to occupy the top two floors of the new Pemberton Building and included a glass-domed dining room, bar, reading room, billiard room, card room and fourteen bedrooms.

As if in response, a group of women formed the Alexandra Club which occupied rooms in the Galpin Block at 1017/21 Government Street, then built the luxuriously appointed purpose-built clubhouse at 716 Courtenay Street in 1911.  Indeed this was a period of voracious clubhouse construction: the Victoria Golf Club opening their new pavilion in Oak Bay in 1910, the Royal Victoria Yacht Club finishing new premises in 1913. The Victoria Lawn Tennis Club built new facilities at Fort and Foul Bay roads in 1910. The YMCA moved into its new five storey palazzo-style building in 1911.  However, probably the largest monument to this era of club building was Bay Street Armories, built for the local reserve militias and completed in 1915. The towering galleried drill hall (well preserved to this day) accessed campaign rooms, general mess rooms and officers’ messes, armories. Below the main level was a recreation complex complete with swimming pool, two rifle ranges and gymnasium.

Buoyed by this rising popularity of clubbing, the expanding city and soaring national economic prospects in 1910, the Union Club members decided to build themselves a luxurious new clubhouse.

Next article: Architects Rattenbury and Rixford design and build the new clubhouse.

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