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dave obee Craigdarroch housed a college

By Dave Obee

For a quarter of a century, Craigdarroch Castle made a fine home for Victoria College. But it couldn't last.

Consider the numbers. Craigdarroch was built as a private family home by the Dunsmuirs. In the early 1920s, soon after it began its new life as an educational facility, its hallways were filled with 100 to 200 students at a time.

By the fall of 1946, its enrolment had grown to 600, double the number of a year earlier. The reason was simple: The end of the war meant that returning veterans were ready to get back to their regular lives, and that included the resumption of their education.

Admittedly, Craigdarroch was a large home, but 600 people? That defied all logic. There were reports of students sitting in fireplaces while listening to lectures, or being unable to get from one class to another because of the crush of people all around.

There was talk in September of moving the college, but nothing was done.

So on Oct. 3, 1946, Victoria Fire Chief Joseph Raymond wrote to the Greater Victoria School Board, saying that at least half of the 600 students would have to be housed somewhere else.

"If a fire did occur, many of the students would not get out," Raymond said.

Raymond's letter was made public on Tuesday, Oct. 8, and the Victoria Daily Times jumped on the story. The banner headline that day was "Victoria College condemned as fire hazard," and the newspaper launched a campaign to convince the government that something had to be done.

John Ewing, the college principal, was keen to help the Times with all of the sensational quotes that it needed. "At least 50 students would lose their lives in the event of a fire," he told the newspaper.

"Even a slight degree of panic would cause a lot of them to be trampled to death in the narrow stairways."

In stories in the Daily Colonist, Ewing was somewhat more subdued. He said that while the outer walls of Craigdarroch had been constructed of stone, most of the interior was of wood, which would burn quite nicely.

The staircases leading down from the second and third floors, which would be needed to evacuate the building in case of a fire, were also made of wood, he said. The library was on the fourth floor, with access possible with only one stairway.

Ewing said fire drills had shown the building could be evacuated, in ideal circumstances, in three minutes. Students could go single file through a small door, or three abreast through the building's main doors.

Ewing also noted a problem beyond the fire concerns. Craigdarroch had enough toilets for a family and its hired help, but not for a college with 600 students.

Students at Victoria College had decided they had to do something. The student council, under president Terry Garner, decided to march on the legislature.

The march, held on Thursday morning, Oct. 10, featured banners with sayings such as "College of death" and "Will the government fiddle while the college burns."

It took 10 minutes for the marchers to pass a spot on the route. And it was noted that with so many veterans involved, the marchers were managing to keep in step.

The following day, fire chief Raymond reiterated that something had to be done, reminding the authorities that he had the power to order the school closed, or to place limits on its capacity.

"No responsible government should allow this condition to exist," he said. "The building is overcrowded by 400 pupils. The lives of these young people are in danger.

"A good number of these young people were in uniform a short time ago and as a result we have homes and jobs today."

The pressure paid off. Less than a week after the protest march, the government announced that the Provincial Normal School on Lansdowne Road would become the new home of the college. The building would also accommodate the regular students of the normal school.

It was not the big news of the week, though. On Oct. 16, after the trials at Nuremberg, Germany, 10 Nazi war criminals were hanged. Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's second in command, cheated the executioner by swallowing potassium cyanide before his scheduled time on the gallows.

The normal school had been established as a teacher training facility, but had been used as a military hospital during the war.

Its capacity was said to be 900 -- which meant there was plenty of room for the students of both institutions. Army huts were moved to the normal school grounds to provide laboratory space.

One early suggestion was that the two bodies simply switch buildings, but that notion was quickly rejected. Craigdarroch did not have an auditorium or a gymnasium, both considered to be essential in the training of teachers.

Premier John Hart said the move would take place as soon as renovations could be completed. The major work needed was the removal of partitions that had been added by the military. The renovations were done in record time, and the students from Victoria College moved from the castle in the middle of November.

"Conditions at Craigdarroch were intolerable, entirely apart from the reported fire hazard," the Colonist said in an editorial supporting the move.

Principal John Ewing died in 1952, but a building on the Lansdowne campus -- today's Camosun College -- was given his name.

The college remained at the Lansdowne location until the 1960s, when it was transformed into the University of Victoria on a new campus in Gordon Head.

And Terry Garner? The former air force pilot who led the protest in downtown Victoria went on to bigger and better things -- he became host of Reach for the Top, the television show that featured top secondary school students from across the province.

Posted June 8, 2008


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