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Our History: When the first cars came to Victoria

When Fort Victoria was first established in the mid-19th century, eight pioneer families of Europe’s upper class formed the social elite of the modest colony.
Valerie Green, Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918, TouchWood Editions; 2011 Valerie Green.

When Fort Victoria was first established in the mid-19th century, eight pioneer families of Europe’s upper class formed the social elite of the modest colony. These families made laws, surveyed land, founded businesses and set a standard of social acceptability for all those living in Victoria at the time. Like a kitchen hand sneaking up the servants’ steps to spy on the rich, discover the glamorous, complicated lives of Victoria’s social elite.

Valerie Green was born and educated in England with a background in journalism, English literature and history. She has lived in Victoria since 1968 and is the author of many historical books set in the Pacific Northwest.

In this excerpt, taken from the chapter “Costumes, Conveyances, and Conversations,” Valerie Green writes about the business and evolution of travel for Victoria’s upper class.

As today’s transportation is undertaken with such speed and comparative comfort, it is hard to imagine the inconveniences and hardships that early settlers in Victoria must have experienced. The first to arrive on Vancouver Island were limited to three alternatives — foot, horse, or boat —and each was embarked upon with a great deal of trepidation and discomfort.


As Victoria grew, and especially as the female population increased, owning a more elaborate carriage or hiring one became a necessity among the elite. There were at one time at least ten livery stables in Victoria. The Eureka Stable was a brick building on Pandora Avenue, owned by John Dalby. In addition, Dalby ran a daily stage out to Goldstream.

Bowman’s Stable at Broad and View streets operated with 35 horses and carried mail to Esquimalt, as well as running a hack service. Yet another stable was owned by Francis Jones Barnard, who later formed the Victoria Transfer Company for the purpose of constructing and operating “street railways in the City of Victoria and Esquimalt and Victoria Districts adjacent thereto, and carrying on a general transfer, delivery, hack and livery business in the Province of British Columbia.”

By the 1880s and 1890s, with hack driving a large part of downtown business, health problems were also making themselves apparent. “The cab-stand on Government Street is highly objectionable,” announced medical health officials in 1894. The reason was a sanitary one: with horses occupying the site for most of the day, a great deal of manure would accumulate and, when it dried, various unpleasant pieces of refuse could be seen blowing in all directions whenever there was a strong wind.

Three years after the establishment of the Victoria Transfer Company in January 1883, the company had become prosperous. Stock by then included over 60 horses, 12 hacks, 30 buggies and phaetons, eight omnibuses and a number of wagons. The new omnibuses, although at first running at a loss, were gradually becoming very popular with the public at large.

By far one of the most enterprising of the carriage and hack businessmen was George Winter. In colonial days, he had been coachman to two royal governors, Kennedy and Seymour, and had later driven for lieutenant governor Trutch. After Trutch left office in 1876, Winter decided to go into business for himself. The Winters moved to Ross Bay and there George was able to keep horses and have space for his own carriages. He employed a large staff to keep his carriages in immaculate condition, their brass and plate-glass lamps highly polished at all times.

Soon it became something of a status symbol in Victoria to hire a Winter carriage. They were, after all, the very last word in elegance and the company claimed it could provide “conveyances for every occasion.” For dances, the theatre, weddings or christenings, a Winter carriage was essential. To be seen driving in one, with a coachman dressed in blue, brass-buttoned livery, was to have arrived.

Winter Carriages officially operated the livery and hack stable on Fairfield Road in Ross Bay from 1884 onwards, although George Winter was in business for some years prior to that. The property remained in the possession of the Winter family until 1921.Were it not for the coming of the automobile in the early years of the 20th century, the tradition of Winter carriages might have continued for much longer in Victoria.

It is believed that the first car seen on the streets of the city was brought in by a travelling circus in 1899, but the first automobile of note to be acknowledged as such was owned by Dr. Edward Charles Hart, one-time Victoria coroner. His was a 3.5-horse-power Oldsmobile that arrived in Victoria on May 23, 1902, to be driven down Johnson Street the following day by its proud owner. It set Dr. Hart back $900 and was capable of achieving speeds of 15 miles an hour. The Colonist had stated as early as 1895 that “what with the bicycle and the motor carriage, the horse is indeed becoming obsolete.”

Albert (Bert) Edward Todd, son of salmon-canning magnate Jacob Hunter Todd and one-time mayor of Victoria, was a fanatic when it came to the automobile. He could hardly wait for his steam-driven car to arrive from San Francisco on the morning of May 26, 1903. Imported to Victoria by inventor Bagster Seabrook, it was built by the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland, Ohio.

Accompanied by H.D. Ryus, Todd immediately took his new car on a trial run from Victoria to Shawnigan Lake, logging and timing the whole adventure. The fact that the journey was made without insurance, driver’s licence, registration, licence plates, windshield or fenders was of little consequence. Todd had made history. It was not until the following year that the provincial government introduced licensing with an annual fee of $2. The Motor Vehicle Speed Regulation Act then required owners to attach the number of their permit in a conspicuous spot on the back of their vehicle so that it was clearly visible during daylight hours. The licence plates were made of leather.

There were 32 licensed car owners on the roads by the end of 1904, and Bert Todd held licence number 13. His dedication and contribution to all road-pioneering pursuits in the early years of the 20th century earned him titles such as “the father of tourism in British Columbia” and “Good Roads Todd.” Certainly his courageous belief in the automobile as something more than a frivolous toy for the rich and privileged had contributed to its eventually becoming a part of everyone’s life. He was convinced it would one day shape the economy, geography and social aspects of the province.

Excerpted from Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918, TouchWood Editions © 2011 Valerie Green.