James Bay Neighbourhood History
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James Bay derives its name from the body of water, named in honour
of Sir James Douglas, which was a shallow tidal inlet extending from
what is now called the Inner Harbour eastward almost to Blanshard Street,
encompassing the present site of the Empress Hotel, Victoria Conference
Centre and Crystal Garden. After Fort Victoria was built in 1843, the
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established Beckley Farm on the
James Bay Peninsula, and people went around the head of the bay to get
there, but in 1859 a wooden piling bridge was built to span the water.
After that people said they were going “across James Bay.” Today the
term “James Bay” is used almost exclusively for the neighbourhood, not
the body of water.
James Douglas, HBC chief factor, became the first substantial landowner
in James Bay in 1851, when he bought Section VI – the block now bounded
by Government, Belleville, Douglas and Superior Streets. He began construction
of a fine home overlooking the waters of James Bay and his family moved
in October 1852. James Bay House, demolished in 1906, stood on the present
site of the Royal British Columbia Museum. In 1852 when eldest daughter
Cecilia married Dr J.S. Helmcken, James Douglas gave his son-in-law
an acre of land and the construction of Arbutus Lodge began. Now called
Helmcken House (638 Elliot St) and operated as
a museum, it is still on its original site. Indeed, it is the oldest
house in the province on its original site, with the exception of Oak
Bay’s Tod House. St. Ann’s Schoolhouse (637 Elliot St),
built in the 1840s, is older, but has been moved several times, the
last time in the 1970s to its present location adjacent to Helmcken
The major impetus for James Bay’s development as a residential suburb
came in 1859 when Governor James Douglas built, across the harbour from
Fort Victoria, new Colonial Administration Buildings where the Parliament
Buildings are now. The series of buildings designed by H.O. Tiedemann
were dubbed the Birdcages because their bell-cast roofs, half-timbering
and ornate balconies gave them an exotic appearance. Moving the colonial
offices to James Bay was daring because the new site was far removed
from the centre of business activity in downtown Victoria. Douglas was
accused of choosing the location because it was next door to his own
house, thus enhancing his own property values. The bridge he had built
across the bay in 1859, ostensibly to connect the Birdcages with downtown,
was seen as another self-serving act. The governor denied conflict of
interest, but was quick to take advantage of the situation by pushing
a road through the western edge of his property from the south end of
the James Bay Bridge, and creating lots along the thoroughfare, which
he named Birdcage Walk. The resulting subdivision, Birdcage Terrace,
became a fashionable address lined with Italianate and Gothic villas
for civil servants, business and professional people. The Walk extended
to the south of Douglas’s property and in the mid-1880s a matching pair
of Italianate houses were built there for Hon. John Robson and his son-in-law
Joseph Hunter (506 & 514 Government St).
Birdcage Walk terminated at Michigan Street and in the 1860s Michigan
near Beacon Hill Park became a very fashionable enclave, with fine homes
for HBC accountant Alexander Munro (where South Park School playground
is now), banker A.D. Macdonald (whose brick mansion, Springfield,
stood where Orchard House, a high-rise apartment block, is
now) and colonial secretary W.A.G. Young (at the southeast corner of
Michigan and Young Streets).
In the late 19th century, prosperity was synonymous with industrial
development and the James Bay waterfront was ideally suited for this.
Robert Laing’s shipyard (where Fisherman’s Wharf is now) was producing
steamboats by at least 1861. By the 1870s small marine ways were appearing
around the waterfront below Kingston and Montreal Streets, and Jacob
Sehl established his furniture factory at Laurel Point in the late 1870s.
When Sehl’s factory burned, the site was purchased by William Pendray
for his soap works and later Bapco paint factory. Pendray’s factory
originally stood on the north shore of the James Bay mudflats, but in
1900 a long-awaited scheme saw the construction of a stone retaining
wall across the mouth of the bay. The mud flats were filled in and the
Empress Hotel was built on the reclaimed land. This civic beautification
was encouraged by the completion of the new Parliament Buildings in
1898, designed by Francis M. Rattenbury. In 1904 Rattenbury designed
a wooden marine terminal for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) at the
foot of Menzies and in 1923, in conjunction with Percy Leonard James,
designed a grander replacement (468 Belleville St).
From 1900 until the 1970s the CPR’s docks and steamers dominated the
James Bay harbourfront, and though they have gone, the shoreline remains
a marine transportation centre.
Starting in the 1860s trades and working class people purchased modest
houses on town lots a few streets away from the harbour and generally
farther away from the James Bay Bridge. Thus Quebec, Superior, Kingston
and Michigan Streets west of Birdcage Walk became popular residential
areas. During the 1890s many more homes for middle class and working
class families were constructed. Of the dozens of houses built on these
streets in the 1860s and 1870s, the James Irving House at 428 Superior
Street (1873) is a notable survivor. In the 1880s and 1890s houses for
longshoremen at the Outer Wharf and other workers were clustered along
St. Lawrence, Ontario, Erie, Quebec, Kingston and Superior Streets.
Though hundreds of houses were demolished in the 1950s and 1960s to
make way for apartment blocks, enclaves of 1890s houses survive.
For those who wanted country living in the 1860s and 1870s, James Bay
had much to offer. James Bissett, an HBC employee, purchased part of
Beckley Farm and in 1861 engaged Wright & Sanders to design Woodlands,
an Italianate villa facing Simcoe Street (moved and renovated by Samuel
Maclure in 1909, at 140 Government Street). Nearby, wholesale merchant
Richard Carr had Wright & Sanders design another Italianate villa
in 1863. Carr House National Historic Site at 207 Government
St was the birthplace of Emily Carr in 1871. As a girl
she often walked past the gun batteries erected at Victoria Point (Dallas
Road at the foot of Olympia Avenue) and Finlayson Point overlooking
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Built in 1878 they were a precaution in
case of a Russian invasion. When Battery Street was laid out in the
late 1880s it derived its name from these defences.
One of the last blocks to be developed was the Caledonian Grounds,
a playing field bounded by Government, Niagara, St. Andrews and Simcoe
Streets, owned by the St. Andrews and Caledonian Society. In 1907 the
land was subdivided and the road running along the eastern side became
St. Andrews Street. Before 1905 the road running along its western side
was called Carr Street, but the filling in of the James Bay mudflats
prompted a change. Government was extended from downtown along the new
the Causeway over the reclaimed land, along Birdcage Walk, through Mrs.
McConnell’s cow field and along Carr Street to Dallas Road.
James Bay, Victoria’s oldest residential neighbourhood, has also been an area of mixed use for most of its existence. It has been the neighbourhood most affected by development, with the result that few buildings from the 1850s through the 1870s survive. Many houses that stood until the 1950s were the target of post-World War II redevelopments that saw three-storey and high-rise apartments sprout up all through James Bay. A grass-roots heritage movement developed in James Bay in the early 1970s and resulted in many remaining houses being saved from the wrecker’s ball. Very much a vibrant, mixed-use neighbourhood that continues to see rapid changes, James Bay now boasts a stock of well-maintained heritage buildings and streetscapes that include some of the oldest in Victoria.