Victoria's Victoria: Theatre Royal

Politics and Theatre in Colonial Victoria

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The Keans performed at the Victoria Theatre and in the audience were Governor Kennedy of Vancouver Island and Governor Seymour of British Columbia.

The cultural and political environment in which the Keans found themselves in Victoria in the mid 1860’s was one of political strife and cultural angst. Charles and Ellen Kean’s stature as Queen Victoria’s Master of the Revels was well known throughout the British Empire. This accorded the Keans a significant amount of social and political stature wherever they traveled in the Empire.  The combination of the Kean's prominence and Victoria’s political and social climate created an environment where theatre, politics and Empire merged.

Victoria, the capital city in the Colony of Vancouver Island entered the 1860’s with both political and economic issues that “dominated the colonial consciousness,” which was reflected in the events that surrounded the Keans visit.1 Ultimately, the stature of the Keans influenced the events, which would affect colonial politics after their departure.

In the early half of the 1860’s, Victoria experienced economic decline due to the end of the Gold Rush, which “turned away the customary American miners (and) left Victoria to the British once more.” 2 Political discussion mounted regarding the union of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. This led to antagonism between the “Colonial Office and the Legislative Assembly" with issues, such as colonial unification and responsible government which were not easily rectified. 3 This antagonism between the two political bodies was intensified at the arrival of the new governor in early 1864 and the arrival of the Keans in December of that same year.

Governor Kennedy - B. C. Archives, Governor A.E. Kennedy, Call # A-01401.
Governor A.E. Kennedy of the Colony of Vancouver Island. 1864-1866.
Image courtesy of BC Archives

Governor Arthur Edward Kennedy arrived in Victoria in March 1864 to replace Governor Douglas and implement his mandate from Britain’s Colonial Office to unify the two British colonies of the northwest coast of North America. Governor Kennedy encountered the local Victoria elite, which did not look favorably on unification of the two colonies since it would end Victoria’s “free-port status which had made Victoria the (port of entry) for goods and supplies arriving from San Francisco and other Empire ports.4 In this political environment the arrival of someone of the Keans’ stature within the Empire would raise the prominence of any individual or group in the company of the Keans during their stay in Victoria.

As a result the Kean committee was struck in the fall of 1864 to welcome and plan the events of the arrival of the Keans. The nature of this committee was political and the committee hoped that they would gain political clout by associating itself with the Kean's visit. This committee was the “result of rival factions…maneuvering for position” as the Keans would “automatically confer prestige upon any group or party which could publicly identify itself with them.” 5 The Kean committee encompassed Victoria’s elite with the exception of Governor Kennedy and local Americans. Consequently, the perspective of the committee was that the “Kean’s visit was…a symbol of the British colonists’ aspirations” of Victoria remaining separate from the larger colony of British Columbia, distinctly British in culture, and a hub for trade with the Empire with representative government in the Legislative Assembly. 6

The Keans
Charles and Ellen Kean
from J.M.D. Harwick, Emigrant in Motley, (London: Rockliff, 1954)

Dec-13, 1864 Last Night the celebrated artists Mr. and Mrs. Kean, made their first appearance before a Victoria audience, and were received with an enthusiasm befitting their world-renouwned fame. The theatre was crowded by one of the most select and fashionable assemblages that ever graced its walls, the greater number of the ladies being in full dress, thus adding an unusual charm to the house.9

Dec-16, 1864 Theatre-Mr. Kean appeared last night as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The attendance, though not the largest we have seen was, nevertheless, of the same brilliant description as on the two previous occations. Their Exellencies Governers Kennedy and Seymour, and parties were present during...the representation.10

Dec-16, 1864 Legislatorial Tribute- To Mr. and Mrs. Kean-On Monday evening the Hon. Members of the Legislative Council and the Members of the House of Assembly will, we understand, be present at the play in honor of the distinguished actors who now grace the boards of our theatre.11
Therefore the Keans, with the reputation as the best actors in the Empire, with connections to the House of Windsor , created a stir in society and politics of colonial Victoria. What the Keans found in Victoria, was a little bit of old England to which they brought their traditional British notions of society and “instinctively guided by familiar English caste systems,” they found comfort in associating with their own class.7 It was with Governor Kennedy and his family in which the Keans immediately found comfort ’. In fact, “the politically naïve Keans were probably unaware that their friend-ship was strengthening the Governor’s hand in a power struggle, and frustrating the (Kean) Committee.” 8 As a result, Kennedy’s position became more entrenched in the increasingly dominate British resurgence and the Kean Committee’s political ends weakened significantly.

The Keans would leave Victoria shortly before Christmas in 1864, but their legacy to Victoria was more than just their performances. Their prominence in the British Empire influenced politics and society in Victoria and strengthened the Governor’s prestige and allowed him to achieve his mandate: to unify the two British colonies on the west coast of North America. In 1866, the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia together came to be known as the Colony of British Columbia with Governor Seymour becoming the Governor of a united colony. Victoria lost its free-port status, but remained the capital of the colony. Responsible government would not be achieved until Confederation with Canada in 1871, when the Colony of British Columbia became the Province of British Columbia.


1.Chad Evans, Frontier Theatre. (Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1983): 23.
2.Evans, Frontier Theatre, 22.
3.Alan Hughes, "Charles Kean in Victoria: Touring Actors and Local politics in 1864."BC Studies 74 (Autumn 1987): 26.
4.Hughes, "Charles Kean…" 25.
5.Hughes, "Charles Kean…" 21.
6.Hughes, "Charles Kean…" 23.
7.Hughes, "Charles Kean…" 26.
8.Hughes, "Charles Kean…" 29.
9. British Colonist. December 13, 1864.
10. British Colonist. December 16, 1864.
11. British Colonist. December 16, 1864.

A Look Inside Victoria's Theatre Royal

Charles and Ellen Kean : British Fame Visits Victoria

Local Theatre in the 1860s


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