Victoria's first mayor was 'an 'umble tradesman'

Thomas Harris ran a butcher shop, civilized the city and lived well until he went bankrupt

The afternoon of Dec. 3, 1884, was cold and rainy in Victoria, but that didn't stop a large crowd from gathering at the Church of Our Lord, at the foot of today's Blanshard Street, for the funeral of Thomas Harris.

At the time of his death, Harris was the high sheriff of Vancouver Island, but it was just the last of a string of public positions Harris had held. He had also been a member of the legislature of the colony of Vancouver Island and had served as MLA for the Cariboo.

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He left his greatest mark, however, when he was acclaimed as the first mayor of Victoria in 1862.

Harris was born in Hertfordshire, England, and moved to California in 1853. Five years later, he came north to Victoria with the Gold Rush.

He started a butcher shop in a borrowed tent. Within a few years, his business, Queens Market, was operating at the corner of Johnson Street and Waddington Alley. The mansion he built at Bastion and Government was perhaps the handsomest two-storey brick building on Vancouver Island.

Harris served briefly on the colonial legislature as the member for Esquimalt, arguing for the grading and surfacing of Esquimalt Road - a project the assembly turned down.

Harris lobbied for the incorporation of Victoria as a city. It was a groundbreaking idea, since no other community on the Island had municipal status, and Victoria was still basically a company town under the thumb of the Hudson's Bay Co.

Nonetheless, the City of Victoria came into being on Aug. 2, 1862, thanks to an act passed by the colonial government of Vancouver Island. A few months later, Harris became mayor of the new city, resigning from the legislature so he could take on the new role.

The British Colonist reported that Harris - "an 'umble tradesman' as he delights to term himself" - would "right nobly" serve as the first mayor.

The first council meeting, held in the police barracks on the site of today's Maritime Museum of B.C., saw Harris and his six councillors approve 13 bylaws. They made it illegal to ride through the city any faster than eight miles an hour, to fire a cannon within city limits, or to throw garbage on the sidewalk, among other things.

Harris served three one-year terms as mayor, warring with his council for most of that time. By 1865, the other council members had voted a want-of-confidence motion regarding Harris's leadership. Harris chose not to run for re-election that year.

Harris lived well for several years, and owned a farm on the Saanich Peninsula as well as his business in the city.

After he stepped down as mayor, however, his finances took a turn for the worse, and he was pushed into bankruptcy in 1867.

In 1872, Harris was appointed sergeant-at-arms in the new provincial legislature. Four years later, he was named to his last public office, as high sheriff of Vancouver Island.

When Harris died on Nov. 29, 1884, the Daily Colonist described him as a "man of fine presence and gigantic status," and "one of the most powerful men in the province."

His funeral reflected his stature. After the burial service was read by Bishop Edward Cridge, the cortege was accompanied to Ross Bay Cemetery by Victoria's mayor, members of council and virtually every senior employee of the city.

The Harris family home on Government Street was torn down in the late 1890s to make way for the Bank of Montreal building designed by Francis Rattenbury, a building that still stands today.

The Harris name lives on in Harris Green, the small park on Pandora Avenue east of Quadra Street.

The city's mayors since 1862: 50 men and one woman

1862-1865 Thomas Harris

1865-1866 Lumley Franklin

1866-1867, 1871 William M.J. MacDonald

1867-1870 James Trimble

1870-1871 Alexander R. Robertson

1872 Richard Lewis

1872-1873 James E. McMillan

1873 James D. Robinson

1873-1875 William M. Dalby

1875-1876 John S. Drummond

1876-1977 William M. Tyrwhitt-Drake

1877-1878 Roderick Finlayson

1879-1881 J.H. Turner

1881-1882 Noah Shakespeare

1882-1883, 1896-1899 Charles E. Redfern

1883-1884 Joseph Carey

1884-1885 R.P. Rithet

1885-1887 James Fell

1887-1891 John Grant

1891-1893, 1896 Robert Beaven

1894-1895 John Teague

1900-1902 Charles Hayward

1902-1903 Alexander G. McCandless

1904-1905 George Henry Barnard

1905-1907, 1909-1911, 1913 Alfred J. Morley

1908-1909 Lewis Hall

1912 John L. Beckwith

1914-1916 Alex Stewart

1917-1919 Albert E. Todd

1919-1921 Robert J. Porter

1921-1922 William M. Marchant

1922-1924 Reginald Hayward

1924-1928 John Carl Pendray

1928-1931 Herbert Anscomb

1931-1936 David Leeming

1936-1944 Andrew McGavin

1944-1951 Percy E. George

1951-1955 Claude L. Harrison

1955-1961 Percy B. Scurrah

1961-1965 Richard B. Wilson

1965-1966 Alfred W. Toone

1966-1969 Hugh R. Stephen

1969-1971 Courtney J. Haddock

1971-1975, 1981-1985 G. Peter A. Pollen

1975-1979 Michael D.W. Young

1978-1981 William J. Tindall

1985-1990 Gretchen Brewin

1991-1993 David Turner

1994-1999 Robert Cross

2000-2008 Alan Lowe

2008-present Dean Fortin

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