UVic Torch -- Autumn 2008
Autumn 2008,
Volume 29, Number 2

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Victoria College students at a Hard Times Dance in the drawing room of Craigdarroch Castle, ca. 1941. (UVic Archives Historical Photo Collection)

IMAGINE ATTENDING CLASSES, NOT IN A NEW HIGH-TECH, energy efficient building, but in the splendid but Spartan interior of a coal baron’s mansion. From 1921 to 1946 Craigdarroch Castle was the home of UVic’s predecessor, Victoria College.

The former Rockland mansion of James Dunsmuir, Craigdarroch housed a diverse student body. In A Multitude of the Wise: UVic Remembered, the late Peter Smith noted that “a comparison of the class lists with the city directory will reveal…the children of the prominent or powerful were far outnumbered by the middle-class sons and daughters of teachers, civil servants, merchants and tradespeople of various kinds.”

In a 1980 oral history interview, alumnus Walter J. Kitley (assistant editor of the school annual, the Craigdarroch, and later an instructor in the Faculty of Education) recounted that he never felt any discrimination “based on the kind of social background you came from.”

Kitley recalls studies leavened with regular dances, often held in the castle’s old drawing room on the main floor: the uncomfortable wooden benches (“they were slats!”) were cleared away and “fifty to a hundred [would attend]…we had music, it certainly would have been a local band…it was formal in the sense you would wear a collar, a tie and jacket…it was very decorous, very upper class.”

Student handbooks helpfully listed the main social functions of the year: initiation (followed by a dance); distribution of scholarships and prizes (followed by the Hallowe’en Dance); parents’ reception; the college play; the teams banquet; and closing dance. Not to be forgotten was the “Varsity Invasion” described as “Athletic contests with students of the Mother University [UBC] Victoria College plays the part of host.” The handbooks also included college yells (“rack and ruin/blood and gore/Victoria College/evermore!”) and popular songs to be chanted and sung at sporting events.

Notable Craigdarroch Castle alumni include author Pierre Burton, artists Jack Shadbolt, Elza Mayhew and Bill Reid, doctors Frances Oldham Kelsey (pharmacologist, withheld approval of US thalidomide distribution) and John H. Crookston (hematology), academic brothers James and William Gibson (Rhodes scholar, founding president of Brock University; medical historian, former chancellor of UVic, respectively) and businessmen Ian Ross (Butchart Gardens) and William C. Mearns (BC Hydro). A number of UVic buildings are named in honour of the castle’s teaching staff, including Thomas Warren Cornett (history, 1922-24) and Percy H. Eliott (general sciences and principal, 1921-44).

Following the 1982 reunion of the classes of ’37 to ’46, the Victoria College Craigdarroch Castle Alumni Association was formed. Other reunions followed, as did monthly and annual meetings, and the creation of the VCCCAA and Rita Perry Hammett Bursaries. VCCCAA maintained the “college room” on the second floor of the castle with displays of college archives and ephemera.

As of this spring, the VCCCAA has been succeeded by the Victoria College Alumni Chapter, and these special alumni continue to be an important part of the UVic community. The University Archives is honoured to be future home of the Victoria College Craigdarroch Castle archives. It is fitting that these unique materials (including photo albums, yearbooks, banners and class rings) will be available for viewing in the new Archives and Special Collections reading room—at the William C. Mearns Centre for Learning at the McPherson Library.

University Archives is open to the public Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 4:30 (September to April) and 10:30 to 4:30 (May to August).

For information about the Victoria College Alumni Chapter, contact UVic Alumni Services at 250-721-6000.

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