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dave obee Shelbourne's trees are a memorial

By Dave Obee

It was a grand plan to create a living memorial to our war veterans, our very own Champs-Elysées -- and 86 years ago this month, it started to take shape.

It was known as Memorial Avenue, although then -- as now -- the name most people preferred was Shelbourne Street. It was meant to be tree-lined for its entire length for all time, a lasting tribute to those who gave their lives in the First World War.

The idea for turning a street into a lasting memorial came from H.B. Thomson. He presented it to the Chamber of Commerce in February 1921, telling the directors that a major road leading out of the city -- for example, Shelbourne -- could have stately trees on each side. Each tree would have a small metal tablet representing one of the province's war heroes.

"What finer memorial could one have when we are all dead that an avenue of this kind to record to future generations British Columbia's part in the war and the heroes who died for the Empire?" Thomson said in a letter to the chamber.

He warned that it was important to agree on an suitable memorial as soon as possible, noting that it took a decade after the South African war before there was an agreement on a suitable way to perpetuate the memory of the fallen.

The chamber endorsed the idea a couple of weeks later and planning began in earnest. It was determined that Shelbourne would offer enough space for 1,500 trees, and that every British Columbia war casualty should be remembered. Victoria was, after all, the provincial capital, even if most of the memorial trees would be in Saanich.

On the afternoon of the first Sunday of October 1921, Lt.-Gov. Walter C. Nichol planted the first tree to launch the project. The ceremony was at the Mount Douglas Park end of Shelbourne.

"Never before in the history of this section of the province has any celebration struck so deeply in the hearts of the public," the Victoria Daily Times reported the following day. The line of motor vehicles heading to the site stretched for about three kilometres. Fields and side streets were filled with parked cars.

Nichol said the memorial on Shelbourne was sure to become as famous as the Mall in London and the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

Nichol's exuberance was matched by that of the writers at the Times. "After centuries, these same trees will still stand and symbolize for our children's children the spirit of 1914-19, and the portals which will be erected by the various municipalities of the province at the entrance of the section of the avenue apportioned to them will perpetuate the names of the glorious dead."

A few months later, in March 1922, about 75 volunteers set to work to realize the dream. They gathered at the north end of Shelbourne, spades and picks in hand, on Wednesday, March 8. They had 175 trees to plant, with plans calling for alternating plane and ash trees. Stakes marked the tree locations on the wide borders on either side of the paved road.

It was rather cold that day, with a bitter wind, and despite the best efforts of the men and women on hand, only about half the trees were planted. As a result, they returned to the street a week later to complete their work with the first allotment of 175 trees.

The following day, the Times printed a list of some of the participants -- and reported that "motion pictures of the affair were taken."

Memorial Avenue was given a boost on March 29 when Marshal Joseph Joffre, one of the commanders of the Allied armies in the First World War, planted a tree during a visit to Victoria.

On his way to the planting site, Joffre saw a group of children from Cedar Hill School who were waiting beside the road to wave to him. He stopped, and "two pretty little girls," Helen Riley and Martha Potter, presented him with a poem written by E.A. Miles of the Cedar Hill district.

The Times noted that Joffre, "despite being unaccustomed to physical exertion of any sort," insisted on doing the planting without assistance.

"May the memory of these brave fellows always remain as green as this tree's leaves," he said in French.

Joffre then smiled and waved, kissed a few babies, and drove away to the cheers of the crowd.

Memorial Avenue was never meant to be the only war memorial in Greater Victoria. In May 1924, the city decided to erect a cenotaph to honour the veterans. It was completed the following year.

Work continued on Shelbourne. In 1928, the Colonist reported that completion of the avenue was "within sight."

In 1935, the chamber and the Victoria-Saanich beaches and parks committee agreed to get back at it. It never did, however, meet its original goal of plaques on every tree, signs at all cross-streets, archways at each end, and trees for every casualty.

Many of the trees that were planted have been removed over the years. Still, the ones that remain along Shelbourne help us to remember.

Posted March 16, 2008


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