T.W. Paterson: How Nesbitt saved Craigdarroch Castle (Part 4)

“We also will spend some money on the castle itself. I know it’s in very bad condition.” —Mayor Haddock.

(Part 4)


“We also will spend some money on the castle itself. I know it’s in very bad condition.” —Mayor Haddock.


Christmas 1970 came early for historian and journalist James Nesbitt. In mid-September, after three years of badgering the City of Victoria to recognize Craigdarroch Castle’s unique historic and tourism values, and as an asset, he had renewed hope.

Victoria had a new mayor: Courtney Haddock, who doubled as manager of Woodwards Store. Better yet, Haddock had seen the light! For starters, he wanted the castle placed on a “money-making basis” by linking it via a “castle walk,” or promenade, to the Victoria Art Gallery.

“We also will spend some money on the castle itself. I know it’s in very bad condition.” His was the first ever such public admission by a city official. He thought the cost, estimated to be $90,000, a “wise investment”.

“This should have been done a long time ago. The word castle is a magic word, and we should have used that to our advantage,” he said at a convention of B.C. municipalities in Penticton. He wanted everything that could be done to enhance Victoria as a tourist destination to be done. This included a restored Craigdarroch being turned over to a “promoter” who’d “pour thousands and thousands of tourists into the place”.

For all of Haddock’s enthusiasm, council begrudgingly granted the Castle Society just $2,300 to refurbish the castle’s halls and towers. In yet another of his letters to the editor Nesbitt caustically noted that the Society had raised this money from admissions and donations — it wasn’t from the city treasury.

Other changes were afoot. Only weeks after Haddock’s declaration of support for the castle, the Conservatory of Music was told that its $1 a year tenancy would now be negotiated on a year-to-year basis, perhaps sooner. As of Jan. 1, 1971, Craigdarroch Castle would at last become “a historic building,” a legality that meant the city would forego the financially struggling Conservatory’s $1,428 annual school and property taxes. In lieu, Haddock, wanted their $1 annual rent upped to $100 monthly; he urged the musicians to charge more for lessons if necessary.

Only a month later, after 60 years of neglect, one of the refurbished towers was opened to the public. Other recent improvements — again, all of the work done by, and the money raised by the Castle Society — included the releading of “beautiful, bevelled stain glass windows” damaged by rain leaking through and also causing dryrot. Panelled walls had been cleaned and “the main entrance hall fireplace has been restored to its natural rich glow after years of complete blackness. Hand-carved copper tiles blackened by the years have now been cleaned and reflect the original beauty…” So wrote the Colonist’s Dorothy Wrotnowski beneath a headline that described Craigdarroch Castle as a “historical jewel”.

Then the ever-feisty Nesbitt let loose. Rumours that an unnamed development company was sniffing around, and Haddock’s talk of making the castle a “more high-pressured tourist attraction” that included historic exhibits and would generate $200,000 annually, was, he said, “gimcrackery.” “From what I know, it is not good for the castle. It eventually must be made to look as a private residence as it was for Mrs. Joan Dunsmuir.”

In February 1971, despite grumbling by the city manager as to who controlled the money raised by the Society, Nesbitt’s request for new carpeting for the castle stairs was granted. And the IODE staged a well-attended period costume tea in the library, the first of many such events, even Hollywood movies, to utilize the castle’s ambience over the past 46 years.

By then Nesbitt was pressuring the city to re-open the castle’s top floor to visitors so that they might enjoy “one of the finest panoramic views in Victoria.” Because the floor had settled over 80 years, the city agreed to have their engineering department inspect it. But city council’s doling-out of castle-generated money to make other repairs and improvements continued to be frustrating for the Society. Sniffed Nesbitt: the city hadn’t lifted a finger to help the castle, and had nothing to do with collecting donations, most of which came from American visitors. But the castle was city property and so was the money, retorted Ald. Frampton. He didn’t object to the money being used for the castle so long as it was approved by the finance committee.

Then, good news, almost: the engineering and fire department had approved the top floor for visitors so long as an employee was there to supervise and to limit the number of visitors at any one time because there was no fire escape. Rather than rejoice, Nesbitt said the upper floor should remain closed as it was in a shabby state and the Society couldn’t afford to hire another guide for that purpose.

Whine, whine, grumble, moan and bluster: it was all part of James K.’s masterful passive-aggressive strategy to not just save Craigdarroch Castle but to have it restored to its original splendour as one of Victoria’s finest museums and tourist attractions.

And it was, ever so slowly, ever so painfully, working.

(To be continued)


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