Fort Victoria was established by HBC in 1843 as a depot for the northern Pacific trade. The Company's main headquarters, Fort Vancouver, was just too far from the B.C. interior and coast to service them efficiently. Moreover it was increasingly likely that the new international boundary, then being negotiated in London, would be finalized at the 49th parallel - leaving Fort Vancouver squarely inside the U.S.A.
HBC Victoria store on Douglas St., Opening Day, Sept. 19, 1921
HBC decided to scout a likely destination for a new depot at the southern end of Vancouver Island. In addition to a good harbour, the new post would need a defensible position, plenty of water power for grain and saw mills, plentiful timber and an adequate supply of arable land. In 1842 Chief Factor James Douglas found just what he was looking for at the location the First Nations peoples called "Camosack", meaning "rush of water". On March 14, 1843 the building of Fort Camosack - soon to be renamed Victoria in honour of the reigning monarch - was underway.
By 1858 Fort Victoria was home to a mere 50 residents. The HBC post was located almost exactly where the Empress Hotel stands today. But that same year gold was discovered on the Fraser River and nothing was the same again. One morning in July, some 2800 men arrived from San Francisco en route to the gold rush, and that year 30,000 people passed through Victoria on their way to the Fraser River goldfields. The retail era was underway with a bang and the following year both retail and wholesale activities were set up in the warehouse on Wharf Street, modern site of Bastion Square. For the next six decades this structure would be the site of HBC's retail activities in Victoria. In 1862 the city was incorporated and by 1864 the burgeoning settlement had outgrown the post, which was demolished and its lands sold off.
In 1909 a fact-finding mission headed by Harrods Chairman Richard Burbidge came to Canada to inspect HBC's retail operations across the west. As a result of his investigation, Burbidge recommended that the Company make retail a free-standing division, separate from the fur and land business. His proposals culminated in the building of HBC's six great modern department stores across the west. Burbidge's 1909 report specifically recommended that Victoria's operation be converted from a warehouse depot to a retail store. His follow up report in 1912 stated:
S.S. Beaver off Fort Victoria, 1846 by Adam Sherriff Scott, 1932
"There is no doubt that a considerable trade can be done in this city, as at the present time the medium and good class trade is very badly catered for; also the position of your store site in Douglas Street is good, considering the amount you paid for it, and the difficulty there would be in getting a block so as to build a good sized Departmental Store. It is situated on the brow of the Hill and at present it is about 300 yards from the central Shopping centre. When the store is erected it will be seen form any part of Douglas Street and in a short time it will be thin the heart of the shopping area."
By 1913 construction had begun on the store, which would not be completed until nearly a decade later. Victoria's new landmark at 1701 Douglas Street, at Fisgard, was designed by architects Burke, Horwood and White. The construction was halted in 1914 due to the continuing depression in the economy and the labour shortage caused by the outbreak of the World War I. The store was finally opened September 19, 1921, an occasion marked by day long celebrations. Guests included the Lieutenant-Governor, Premier, CPR president and other heads of big department stores.
Built at a cost of $1.5 million, the new HBC Victoria store featured 50 departments and 250 employees. Situated adjacent to growing residential areas, by the end of that year it had become the nucleus of a new shopping district. The Georgian style building was regarded as a prime example of modern architecture and customers were overwhelmed by the store's modernism, style and elegance. The structure boasted the newest in heating, cooling and ventilation systems, as well as state-of-the-art elevators and escalators which whisked customers from floor to floor. Gleaming mahogany and brass fixtures displayed a collection of the world's best products, including the newest, "most up-to-date merchandise that is possible to procure".
Interior of HBC Victoria Douglas St. store, ca. 1943
There was a large circulation library on the mezzanine level. It allowed weary shoppers to recharge with a good book in comfortable chairs while listening to the soothing strains of a live orchestra. For the hungry, the fourth floor Victorian restaurant boasted the ultimate in comfort and ambiance with its Jacobean furnishings set in a tasteful décor.
In 2001 the store celebrated its 80th anniversary. But the city's growth pattern and the increasing importance of the Downtown as both a tourist and shopping destination had left the 1921 store too far from the centre of retail activity. As a result HBC announced in September 2002 that it would take possession of the more accessible, four-level, 236,000 square foot location in the former Eaton Centre. The new Downtown Victoria flagship store, in The Bay Centre, opened for business on May 2, 2003 - the Company's 333rd anniversary. Meanwhile, the 1921 store is listed in the city's heritage registry and awaits redevelopment.