Victoria in the dawn of a new century, 1901

Rock Bay (District 17)

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I — Location

Ellice Street on the north, Gorge Road and Government Street on the east, Rock Bay and Victoria Harbour on the south, and the Gorge and Selkirk Water on the west. A portion of Enumeration Division 17. [Click on the thumbnail map to see the area under review.]

II — The Built Environment

Several structural landmarks formed the cornerstones of Rock Bay and reflected the social and economic diversity of the community. The most visible and significant of these were Rock Bay Bridge; Point Ellice Bridge; Captain William Grant's Point Ellice House; the Rock Bay Hotel, Rock Bay School and the Centennial Methodist Church. It was within the boundaries set by these structures that the bulk of the population resided in a variety of large, modestly built, wood frame, Victorian styled homes.

Since the community of Rock Bay is, in fact, located on a peninsula the two bridges served as convenient links to other areas of Victoria. To the west was Point Ellice Bridge, which served the very practical purpose of spanning the short distance across the Selkirk Channel, connecting the Rock Bay neighbourhood to Victoria West and Esquimalt. It was practical in the sense that it eliminated the necessity of travelling many miles in order to skirt the Gorge waterway. Much less practical was the Rock Bay Bridge to the south. Although it undoubtedly reduced the distance between the Rock Bay community and the downtown business district, it only reduced it marginally, by approximately eight city blocks.

On entering Rock Bay from either of these two bridges one would see some impressive buildings. On the west side of the neighborhood, Captain William Grant's Point Ellice House was an exquisitely designed, eleven room, Second Empire style home built in 1886. With its elegantly designed rooftop "Captain's Walk" and beautifully kept gardens, it was always recognized as the grand home of a most distinguished Rock Bay family. While approaching the neighbourhood via the Rock Bay Bridge one would also notice the Rock Bay Hotel with its distinctive entrance on the corner of Work Street and Bridge Street. This three-story brick structure was an imposing presence amongst its smaller residential neighbours.

A little to the west of the hotel was the newly renovated Rock Bay School. It was a two-room wooden structure with a capacity for ninety of the neighbourhood's 314 school aged children. On the north side of the community was the Centennial Methodist Church. Constructed of brick, it was distinguished by round towers, massive gables and a tall steeple which overlooked all of Rock Bay. The church was completed and began services in 1891.

III — The Economic Environment

What says more about an economic environment than a name like Work Street? This street serviced the waterfront and connected the two bridges to Rock Bay. The sheltered waterways that encompassed the peninsula made this part of Victoria a good place for industry. In 1901, industries included the Victoria Machine Depot, the Clyde shipyard, Sayward's lumber mill, and O'Kell and Morris' pickle and jam factory. On the shoreline near Bay Street were two competing tanneries — the British Columbia Tanning Company and Rock Bay Tannery.

Light cottage industries nestled in this neighbourhood. Ida Blackwood, for example, made shirts from her home at 83 John Street. The house was owned by her cousin, Captain William McDougall and it accommodated two families, the McDougalls and the Cessfords. In 1901, she had realized some fairly decent business from her daily advertisement in the Victoria Daily Times. Her price of $1.50 to $2.50 per shirt earned her an annual income of about $250. That equates to about one shirt every three days! Mary Devereux also worked from her home on Bridge Street. She made confections. In fact, she made very good confections and a very healthy living. In 1901, while some doctors were earning $1300 per year, Mary earned $2,400 making and selling her confections.

IV — Social Environment

Rock Bay was a diverse and somewhat polarized community. The core of the neighborhood comprised large working class and middle class families. Most of the social luminaries resided on western waterfront properties along Pleasant Street and on the northern boundary formed by the Gorge Road. Former premier John Herbert Turner, Supreme Court judge Montague W.J. Drake, retired County Court judge Peter O'Reilly, Doctor Charles Fagan, and the renowned adventurer and managing director of the Victoria Sealing Company, Captain William Grant, all lived on Pleasant Street. Prominent Gorge Road residents included the family of the late Alexander Rocke Robertson, who at one time served as Provincial Secretary and Supreme Court judge; Andrew Sheret, a very successful plumbing contractor; salmon cannery owner Walter Morris; sealing ship owner, Captain Charles Hackett, and the Reverend W. M. Barraclough, incumbent of Centennial Methodist Church. Both Pleasant Street and Gorge Road exuded a sense of prominence.

Less prominent but no less respectable families, some of European descent, also lived in Rock Bay. Henry Levy ran a restaurant on Work Street. On the census he described himself as a 'nonbeliever' while his family affirmed to being Jewish. The Kettle sisters from Henry Street worked as bookkeepers and John Street resident Albert Maynard was a photographer. Martha Saunders, a widow, worked as a nurse while her daughter toiled as a tailoress. Robert Williams ran the Rock Bay Hotel on Work Street and Walter Disher, Samuel Waldron, and Samuel Ernest were employed as motormen on the new electric streetcars that travelled throughout the city. Small business owners offering services as clothiers, tradesmen, and grocers made up the bulk of the residents.

The district was a collection of young entrepreneurs and grizzled establishmentarians. Judging from reports in Victoria newspapers, it was eventful place to live....

V — Conclusion

Rock Bay was a complex mixture of industrial and residential properties and different social classes that co-existed for many years. Slowly the prestige of the community was lost and prominent residents moved away. As the houses grew old, industry slowly encroached. Today, there are few remnants of this once diverse and energetic community. One must search carefully through the industrial maze to find them. Currently, there are plans to re-design Rock Bay as a "funky marketplace," but the character that once distinguished Rock Bay is gone.

VI — References

Victoria Daily Times, selected items from 1901: 26 February, 27 February, 29 July, 5 September, 30 September, 30 November, 3 December 1901. (All items appeared on page five of this newspaper.) Also, 'Rock Bay eyed as Funky Marketplace,' Victoria Times Colonist, 16 Jan 2003: B1-B2.

Written and researched by Rick Rembold, Jerrold Paetkau, and Terra Phillips (History 351: Vancouver Island University), March 2003