Drinks and Danger Marked Early Victorian Bars

In 1851 (28 years before the founding of The Union Club of British Columbia), Victoria’s first saloon opened its doors, ushering in a heady era that saw hundreds of saloons and hotel bars dispensing alcohol to the city’s thirsty patrons 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In his new book, “Aqua Vitae”, Glen A. Mofford delves deep into the fascinating history of these establishments and transports the reader to the intoxicating — and often treacherous — atmosphere of our capital during the days of swinging doors, smoky bars and five-cent beers.


James Stuart Yates was born in Linlithgow, Scotland, on Jan. 21, 1819. He signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a ship’s carpenter in 1848; that same year, Yates married Mary Powell of Montgomeryshire. Two weeks later, they began their journey to Fort Victoria on the ship Harpooner.

Yates grew to dislike the strict discipline and heavy-handedness of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and after 18 months he escaped to the goldfields of California. Upon his return, Yates was charged with breach of contract and sentenced to six months in the northeast bastion of Fort Victoria, which was used as a makeshift jail. Yates served 30 days of his sentence, and upon his release was discharged from the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was granted independent status on Jan. 29, 1851. This suited the stubborn Yates, and he wasted little time in pursuing his business goals.

On June 9, 1851, Yates paid 50 pounds for each of two undeveloped waterfront lots, 201 and 202, on Wharf Street, northwest of the fort. There he built his home and the first privately owned saloon in Victoria, the Ship Inn. Unfortunately, there are no known surviving photographs or illustrations of his saloon, but the location was most likely 1252 Wharf St. at the southwest corner with what eventually was named Yates Street.

The Ship Inn Saloon did a tremendous business, with the only competition coming from the Hudson’s Bay Company store. For a few months, Yates enjoyed a monopoly on the retail liquor business before two other saloons opened. His main customers were seafarers, such as sealers, sailors and fishers, who came in to enjoy a five-cent mug of beer or a 121Ú2-cent shot of liquor.

From 1851 until the summer of 1853, the saloon business was unregulated and a licence was not required to sell spirits or beer. Two more saloons opened before Sir James Douglas, the chief factor of the colony, introduced a revenue bill that called for a licensing system for the wholesale and retail sale of alcohol. The annual fee for a retail licence was set at £120, while wholesale licences cost £100. The bill passed into law in July 1853 and resulted in the closure of the two saloons competing with the Ship Inn. Yates enjoyed a monopoly once more.

Profits from his liquor business allowed Yates to buy up town lots on Langley, Wharf and Yates streets, the last ultimately bearing his name. By 1860, James Yates was one of the wealthiest men in Victoria. That same year, Yates closed his saloon and reopened it a few doors to the south, at 1218 Wharf St., a newly completed stone and brick building that still exists.

The lower level was a warehouse for merchandise, primarily cases of liquor that were brought in directly off ships moored in Victoria Harbour. The bar in the Ship Inn was on street level. The new Ship Inn would last about a year before Yates closed it and returned to his native Scotland to see to his son’s education. The saloon was converted into an auction house by the new owners.

At least four Ship Inn Saloons operated in Greater Victoria between 1851 and 1869. James Yates owned the first two, followed by a Ship Inn Saloon in Esquimalt and another Ship Inn on Wharf Street just across from where Yates’s second saloon had been located. They all did extremely well, attracting a loyal customer base that allowed these establishments to prosper for years.

PONY SALOON, 1863-70

Of all the unsolved murder mysteries that occurred during these times, the most captivating and certainly the most disturbing occurred at the Pony Saloon some time between 1862 and 1870. The Pony Saloon, previously known as the Highland Mary Saloon (1862) was located at 1324 Government St. near Johnson Street, with Charles Hounslow as proprietor.

Pioneer Victoria was a rough place in the 1860s, and this was especially true along Johnson and Government streets, where most of the new saloons could be found. It proved to be especially rough at night. The saloons were full most evenings, especially when the sailors were in town on leave.

A good time was had by all — well, almost all — but it wasn’t long before the criminal element saw an opportunity to make some fast money. An unsuspecting sailor or gold miner, usually quite inebriated, provided an easy mark.

When alone in an alley, staggering to the next saloon, the innocent victim would be approached from behind and struck on the head with a heavy object, just hard enough to knock him out. He would wake with a sore head and find that his pockets had been picked and all his cash and usually his watch and other valuables stolen.

But one victim did not wake up the next day. His attackers accidentally applied too much force when cracking him over the head, and to their dismay, the victim died from the assault. The body was disposed of in a most unusual and undignified manner, and the incident was kept quiet for years.

The Pony Saloon saw a change in proprietors in 1865 when Hounslow sold to an American, Phillip Smith. Smith and his “red-headed woman friend” loved to entertain; she would sing and dance and Smith would host high-stakes poker games that would last well into the following day. The Pony Saloon fit in perfectly with the rowdy reputation of that area of town.

Smith ran the Pony Saloon for the next five years, selling to George Mason in December 1870. Mason changed the name of the saloon to the Omineca Saloon.

Meanwhile, Smith and his family moved to San Francisco in December 1870 aboard the Pelican. Smith was in very poor health, and once there he became violently insane. Was his condition brought on by tremendous guilt?

By the mid-1880s, most of the wooden buildings in town were being torn down and replaced with brick buildings. A bylaw was passed that banned building with wood over a certain height, so brick was the best alternative. The Omineca, the old Pony Saloon, was one of the establishments being renovated from wood to brick.

During the demolition, a worker was using a crowbar to pry up the floorboards in the back of the old saloon when he “let it fall with an exclamation of horror. His fellow workmen crowded about the spot as he raised a plank exposing to view a human skull with the upper jaw minus three teeth, and the lower jaw missing. The remainder of the planking was quickly torn up and more human remains were found.”

Work immediately came to a halt once the gruesome discovery was made. Doctor Trimble examined the remains and concluded that they were those of a “white man,” and he speculated that the jaw of this person had been split by violence. The victim was most likely murdered for his money.

This revelation didn’t come as a shock to some of the city’s older residents, who recalled that the saloon had a reputation for “horrible bacchanalian orgies in which dissolute men and women joined.” Many poor miners were robbed of their hard-earned cash and tumbled into the street penniless. But who had committed this ghastly murder? Was it Phil Smith? If he wasn’t the murderer, had he had a hand in hiding the body in the back room of his saloon?

Or was it one of the Pony Saloon’s regular patrons who had needed some quick money to remain at the gambling table? It was later revealed that a regular gambler at the saloon had left suddenly in 1863 accompanied by the red-haired lady, and the pair had never been seen again. Could they have had something to do with the murder?

An inquest into the death of the victim resulted in more questions than answers, and the case remains unsolved to this day, another cold-case mystery that took place on the rough edge of town.

Excerpted from: Aqua Vitae: A History of the Saloons and Hotel Bars of Victoria, 1851-1917, TouchWood Editions ©2016 Glen A. Mofford

Coming Soon: A Historic Evening

A Historic Evening

Saturday, May 20, 2017, 6 pm

The Union Club of British Columbia – 805 Gordon Street, Victoria

Celebrating the Union Club’s Designation as a National Historic Site
and the Inauguration of the newly renovated Centennial Ballroom.

Enjoy a delicious three-course dinner with wine and an exceptional evening full of song and dance!

Featuring performances from Pacific Opera Victoria and dancing to The Midnights.

Wine included with dinner.  Chit bar with dancing.

Tickets: $199
(with $75 tax receipt)

Patron Tickets: $1,500
(includes two tickets, special recognition at the event, a welcome cocktail with the President, and a substantial tax receipt)

Union Club members
Please reserve your space through the Union Club – 250.384.1151 (ext. 0)

Dress Code: Black Tie & Formal Attire

Proceeds will benefit Pacific Opera Victoria

Fashion Show Fundraiser

Sunday, April 23, 2017     Time: 2:00pm to 4:00pm


Featuring fashions presented by:

Bernstein & Gold

d.g. bremner & co.

Hughes Clothing

Outlooks Menswear

* Light Refreshments * Chit Bar * Door Prizes *

$35 per person
($10 charitable receipt available upon request)

Tel: 250-384-1151 (ext. 0)

UC Presence at Pacific Opera/Victoria Symphony Fundraiser

Union Club members were present as Tania Miller feted at fundraiser for Pacific Opera Victoria and Victoria Symphony…

The following article originally appeared in the April 2, 2017 Times Colonist.

Union Club member & Brian Butler joins Trish Lortie, Grania Litwin and Robert Milne during the Tania Miller farewell gala at the Victoria Conference Centre.   Photograph By DARREN STONE, Times Colonist

Union Club members Stephen Ison and Rebekah Hutchison join Valerie Raymond and Tom de Faye during the Tania Miller farewell gala at the Victoria Conference Centre.   Photograph By DARREN STONE, Times Colonist 

Friday night’s posh black-tie gala at Victoria Conference Centre wasn’t just another joint fundraiser for Pacific Opera Victoria and Victoria Symphony.

The swanky event doubled as a high-class love-in, with Victoria Symphony’s outgoing music director Tania Miller as the large, well-heeled crowd’s object of affection.

Tribute to Tania, which attracted nearly 300 guests who paid $300-a-ticket, was part of a long goodbye to the beloved maestra whose 14-year tenure ends in May.

If Miller were to shed a tear by night’s end, she said it would be mostly because she’d miss the camaraderie with her creative collaborators.

“I might cry just because I love everybody, not because it’s a sad thing,” she said before dinner. “It’s a happy thing to have had 14 years here and shared so many musical memories with the orchestra and this community.”

While the lithe, articulate maestra will return as guest conductor, she said the timing felt right for her to move on — first as a “freelancer,” and then with another music directorship somewhere down the road.

“It’s been a long tenure for a music director,” she acknowledged. “But with every orchestra you want to hit that golden time where there’s still growth, enthusiasm and things we’re sharing anew together.”

She said her enthusiasm over being able to pursue other opportunities was matched by excitement that the symphony can also evolve and move in new directions.

“You need new ideas and [with incoming music director Christian Kluxen] they have this new European experience coming to them, with such a fresh perspective.”

Gala co-chair Trish Lortie described the event honouring Miller’s imminent departure as a “bittersweet” celebration.

“She has made such a contribution to the arts in the city, and we have to be grateful for the 14 years we’ve had her,” she said. “We also have to understand that all good things come to an end.”

The guest of honour could barely make her way through a crowd of well-wishers during a cocktail reception.

“Tania has been outstanding and we’re delighted to be here to bid her farewell,” said Valerie Raymond, auction committee co-chair and former ambassador to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Raymond and her husband, retired Maj.-Gen.Tom de Faye, have been ardent supporters of POV and the symphony since the couple moved here from Prague over four years ago.

“We knew Victoria was a beautiful city, but we were pleasantly surprised to find the rich cultural fabric that spreads all over it,” said de Faye. “There is so much here for a city this size.”

While both the symphony and opera company hold separate fundraisers, their annual gala fundraiser affords them a unique opportunity to creatively combine their resources, said POV board president Bob Milne.

“If there’s an occasion to celebrate together, we’re always happy to do that because the symphony is the opera’s ‘house band,’ of course,” quipped Milne.

Teaming up for a fundraiser of this magnitude helps reduce each organization’s workload and potentially enlarges their respective audiences, added symphony board president Brian Butler.

“There is obviously crossover between symphony and opera audiences, but there are also distinct differences,” Butler said. “By joining together, we draw from a much bigger pool of potential clients.”

Gala highlights included philanthropist Eric Charman’s flair during a live auction of items, including a luxury European river cruise and a Montreal VIP opera weekend; veteran POV artistic director Timothy Vernon’s tongue-in-cheek remarks about Miller getting a tribute after only 14 years on the job; and guests dressed to the nines dancing to Strauss waltzes with maestro Giuseppe Pietraroia holding the baton.

Also noticeable was the presence of a new generation of opera and symphony lovers like Ainslee Jessiman, 29, the POV box-office manager who assisted guests using digital tablets to place silent auction bids.

“I work for the opera because of its connection to community,” she said. “I believe the arts have a positive impact on the community and I want to help the next generation connect, engage and explore this timeless art form.”

UC Member Proud to Release His Second Children’s Book

Union Club member Henri van Bentum is proud to announce that, fresh on the heels of his first publication, he has released his second children’s book!

Henri’s charming new children’s fable, featuring two garden gnomes, is titled “Nimbert and Tirwinkle in an Enchanted Flower Garden”.  These stories (including Henri’s first book) were written during his convalescence with cancer.  At the time, Henri crafted these stories not only for children, but for the “youngster” in all of us.

I write these fairy tales not only for the young, but to re-kindle the youngsters in us all.  Fairy tales or fables reflect eternal archetypes of the human family. 

If, somehow one day, all the existing fairy tales in the world were to disappear, soon new fables and tales would appear since their themes are universal.”

For further information on this wonderful creation (including the ability to “Look Inside” the book), or to obtain your own copy, please click here.


Stephen Lowe – the Artist Who Bridged Two Cultures in Unique Style

As originally appeared in January 29, 2017’s Times Colonist newspaper…

The Guangzhou Museum of Art, in a city of 13 million people in the south of China, recently hosted a month-long exhibition for Stephen Lowe (1938-1975).

Lowe was born in Quangdong and was long a resident of Victoria before his death from lymphoma at the age of 37. The Lowe family, of Calgary and Victoria, spent 2016 in China, preparing three exhibitions there, and culminating in the recent publication of the long-awaited and definitive book on Stephen Lowe’s life and art.

Lowe spent most of his life in Victoria, beloved by students and collectors here. It’s inexplicable how he achieved such skill and produced so much in the short time he had. And it is even more surprising to realize that his work and his example are enormously appreciated in the burgeoning world of Chinese art.

Lowe’s grandfather, Liu Chang, emigrated from Taishan village in Quangdong to work in the coal mines in Cumberland in the early 1900s. When the turmoil of civil war swept over south China in the late 1940s, his family was stripped of most of its possessions.

Stephen, the eldest of five children, made his way to Hong Kong at age 17, and his determination to study art led him to Zhao Shaoang, leading exponent of the “Lingnan school,” a progressive and atmospheric style of painting that is the distinctive expression of South China. At the request of his grandfather, Lowe emigrated to Canada in 1956, at 18 years of age. He arrived to find his grandfather living in a lean-to in a ghost town, one of the few surviving emigrés still living in Cumberland.

Lowe’s talent and personality brought him valuable support in Victoria. Through connections from his first job, as a room steward at the Union Club, he was sponsored for a year in Hong Kong, where he continued his studies and met Eunice, his wife-to-be.

On his return, he began teaching painting at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The persuasive artist and designer Allan Edwards championed Lowe, and arranged work for him in Eaton’s department store display department. Exhibitions at the provincial library and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (with Lawren Harris) followed, remarkable accomplishments for an artist then just 23 years old.

Skipping forward, we note his huge exhibition at the newly opened Royal B.C. Museum in 1971, and the opening of the Stephen Lowe Gallery on the Humboldt Street side of the Empress Hotel — provided rent-free by the hotel. An exhibition was later held at the United Nations building in New York, and Edwards commissioned 66 originals for the new Skyline Park Hotel in London.

Then, in the fall of 1974, Lowe was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. After summoning up the energy for his 23rd solo exhibition, he died within a year.

Lowe’s supporters insisted that his wife Eunice continue the Stephen Lowe Gallery, for many years a bright spot in Victoria’s art world. In her tiny shop, and later in the prestigious corner location of the Victoria Conference Centre, she brought unique Chinese antiques and works of art to an international clientele.

The family opened another branch in Calgary in 1979. The Victoria gallery closed in 2006, though the Calgary store managed by daughter Anna flourishes, with a focus on contemporary painting.

In 1985, just as China opened to the West, Eunice took 129 Stephen Lowe paintings for an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, followed by subsequent showings in Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The president of the Chinese Artists Association, Wu Zuoren, personally inscribed the banner for the opening.

This was a moment when the older generation of artists, long marginalized by the Cultural Revolution, came out in the light of day for the first time. Their approval of this previously unknown artist was overwhelming.

While to Canadian eyes Lowe’s paintings are certainly Chinese, in his homeland, this art spoke with a new accent. Here was an artist who emigrated but did not lose his roots — a message of profound importance to the Chinese of that day.

When the Lowe family returned to Victoria in 1986, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria presented a retrospective of 75 of the paintings, curated by Barry Till. In my review at the time, I wrote: “Lowe’s all-night painting sessions, his speed of execution and his ever-expanding range of subjects are legendary. He painted to challenge the limits of the acceptable and to continue the progress of Lingnan.”

Eunice Lowe has been working since 2005 to create the new, and definitive, book on her husband. Last week, she and her son, David, presented me with a copy. But first they told of their past year.

In 2016, Lowe’s paintings were chosen as a “bridge between cultures,” for the opening of the new Canadian Consulate offices in Guangzhou. Simultaneously, a prestigious show of Lowe’s work opened at the Guangzhou Museum of Art, which is a shrine to the masters of Lingnan-style painting.

It’s hard to express the importance of this event. The Lowe family have decided to donate their collection of paintings by Lingnan masters, and some Stephen Lowe originals, to that seminal collection.

The book is a delight. The 330 pages include reproductions of 125 paintings in colour, some of the reproductions 50 centimetres across. The Chinese-language version has been published by the People’s Fine Art Publishing House of China, and the English-version, privately published, will be available soon in Victoria. The quality of layout, paper stock and binding are beyond anything available in this country.

For information, contact stephenloweartgallery.ca.

What a story: A penniless immigrant lad, with nothing but native talent and the support of Victorians, created a timeless body of work in a few short years, far from home. And now Stephen Lowe’s reputation is reaching heights we just can’t imagine. Victoria’s art culture is rich.