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dave obee Anti-German rioting rocked the city

By Dave Obee

It was May 1915. The Great War had been raging in Europe for several months, and two prominent Victorians -- two members of the Dunsmuir family -- were committed to helping as much as they could.

Kathleen Dunsmuir, by this time known as Mrs. Selden Humphreys, was running a canteen in France, using her own funds to attend to the comforts of Canadian and British soldiers passing through Le Havre, France, on their way to or from the front.

Her brother James, also known as Boy, was on his way to England to enlist with a regiment there. He was determined to get to the front as quickly as possible, so he had resigned from a Victoria regiment to make his own way to the action.

On Thursday evening, May 6, a group of actors and musicians and musicians from Victoria and Vancouver gathered at the Royal Victoria Theatre to stage Stop, Look and Listen. The production was designed to raise money for Kathleen Dunsmuir's canteen and to provide tobacco for our boys at the front.

It was, by all accounts, a successful affair. "It is quite within the truth to say that very many an attraction has come here with professionals from Broadway which had not a tithe of the merit or the finish of the bright little show," the Daily Times reported the following day.

"Each and every one of those who took part did their best, and once more the women demonstrated that they can on occasion dispense with the aid of mankind -- or very nearly so." The Times noted several highlights, with little Miss Suzanne Sicklemore at the top of the list. Suzanne's dancing showed dainty grace and wonderful skill, and she floated about the stage like a fairy. Muriel Dunsmuir and Theresa Mesher were gracefully attractive in their gavotte, and the Times reported that Phyllis Davis was "her own inimitable self," whatever that means.

For one number, Sister Susie, the curtain rose on half a dozen girls treading furiously on their sewing machines. Then, Miss D. Leighton sang an alliterative and tongue-twisting chorus about sewing shirts of soldiers.

About 100 people provided the entertainment, and when the gala evening came to an end, there were bouquets and baskets of blooms for all. It was a pleasant reminder that even as a war raged in Europe, life in Victoria could go on as normal.

That sense of serenity lasted only a few hours. By early Friday morning, the telegraph wires were buzzing with tragic news from the waters off Ireland.

The Lusitania had been sunk by a German torpedo. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew died when the ship, bound for Liverpool from New York City, went down.

On board were 15 people from Victoria, including "Boy" Dunsmuir. His strong desire to serve his country gave him nothing more than a watery grave.

The deaths of so many civilians sparked outrage throughout England, with the worst rioting in the ship's home port of Liverpool. In Canada, the worst rioting was in Victoria.

It started on Saturday, the day after the sinking. Angry crowds, including off-duty soldiers, attacked businesses and buildings with German-sounding names, or whose owners were known to be of German descent. The businesses hit by the mob included the Blanshard Hotel, which had formerly been known as the Kaiserhof; the Victoria Phoenix Brewery; the wholesale company owned by Moses Lenz; the Pither and Leiser store; E.J. Geiger's plumbing business and the New England Hotel, which was owned by someone who had been born in Bavaria. The rioters smashed windows to gain entry to the businesses, and then carried off whatever they could.

The mayhem continued on Sunday, with the worst looting at 721 Fort Street, where Ernest Schaper and W.W. Glass ran a tailoring shop.

"The crowd made a fierce attack on the place, smashed every pane of glass in the shop and walked off with practically everything in it that could be carried off," the Times reported the following day. "Bolts of cloth were borne away openly and boldly under the eyes of the police, and any civilians who suggested that this was stealing were told to mind their own business.

"Goods were thrust into the motor cars of people who had been attracted to the scene, and in one case where a protest was made the man who threw the goods in remarked: 'You will find this better than any dollar day they could have.'"

Both daily newspapers ran stories defending the stores that had been attacked, noting that many shareholders were not German, and that the German-born individuals involved had proven their dedication to our community. Businesses ran advertisements to stress their support for the English flag.

On Sunday evening, Mayor Alexander Stewart stood in front of the New England Hotel and read the Riot Act. The mob responded by singing patriotic songs and continuing to throw stones at the buildings. In time, however, tempers cooled and the crowd dispersed, leaving the business owners to clean up the mess and tally up the damages.

Kathleen Dunsmuir came to Victoria for a visit in May 1916. She was humble, and tried to deflect praise for her war efforts.

"I have only done my duty to the cause as I saw it. There are lots and lots of women right here in Victoria who have done far more in proportion to their opportunities than have I," she said in an interview with the Colonist.

Dunsmuir was living in Switzerland when the Second World War broke out in 1939. She immediately returned to England and helped with the Red Cross and a mobile canteen for the troops. On March 8, 1941, she was killed in a German air raid.

Posted May 11, 2008


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