T.W. Paterson: How James Nesbitt saved Craigdarroch castle (Part 3)

When Nesbitt said that the castle must be preserved at all costs, Ald. Tom Christie replied, “He gets a little carried away sometimes.”

When Nesbitt said that the castle must be preserved at all costs, Ald. Tom Christie replied, “He gets a little carried away sometimes.”


For all of Nesbitt’s aspirations for a museum, the Conservatory of Music’s hold on Craigdarroch Castle continued to strengthen in the public eye and in fact with the installation of a specially-built organ in a former ballroom.

And the Castle Society’s ongoing struggle to have the building fully maintained and restored continued to be an uphill battle. This was clearly evidenced in November 1969 by the city’s reluctant contribution of $3,173 for unspecified repairs only after the Society kicked in $4,500 it had raised from visitor entry fees and donations.

The slightly cooling rapport between city council and the Castle Society became public with a newspaper headline, “City fathers choke on $200 tea.” Told that 200 people were expected to attend, an indignant Ald. Frampton spluttered, “One dollar apiece?” The request to fund the tea, the preservationists replied, was the suggestion of Ald. Robert Baird, chairman of the city’s committee responsible for the castle. When they said they’d charge participants for their tea and cake, council begrudgingly approved the $200 as a token of appreciation of their good work, to go into the Society’s general revenue.

Then council reneged, 5-4, after some aldermen questioned the propriety of a “thank-you” grant during an election year and it was pointed out that the Castle Society had $3,000 in the bank. Council was unanimous, however, in praising Nesbitt and company for their work. Mayor Stephen, a member of the Society, told Nesbitt not to give up on council but to apply for grants whenever he felt justified in doing so.

Lest the public think that the Society was rolling in money, Nesbitt noted that the Music Conservatory received 10 per cent of entry fees and donations. Only $1,100 was left in the bank after they’d contributed $5,000 to castle repairs that year.

Less than two months later, Nesbitt was back before council, cap in hand. After his usual litany of complaints about the state of the castle grounds and visitors’ unflattering comments he acknowledged that the Society had taken in $7,000. He wanted the city to increase its maintenance budget and to replace modern lighting fixtures with 1890s chandeliers. While aldermen agreed to take his request under advisement, some objected to his claim that “Victoria is singularly blessed with this castle and it must be preserved at all costs.” Rejoined Ald. Tom Christie, “He gets a little carried away sometimes.”

That September, in an interview for the Colonist, Nesbitt’s frustrations boiled over. Grounds maintenance and repairs, he said, were inadequate. In fact, he said, “The city always shows a great deal of delay when it comes to doing anything about Craigdarroch,” pleading poverty even when it still had $1,200 remaining in a fund from donations. Although the Society paid the wages of guides, the city collected admissions and donations for maintenance and repairs. The city was “not too cooperative where Craigdarroch is concerned,” he complained, whereas the province had provided $6,000 over the past 18 months. (This, thanks to Nesbitt’s lobbying.) Some of this money had been used to clean a lower hallway and staircase and to install new lights in the lower hallway and library. Two of the towers, he said, were in poor condition with much of their woodwork rotted from leaks in doors and windows; these repairs were expected to consume the remaining B.C. money.

He simply couldn’t understand the city’s niggardliness when Craigdarroch had proved itself to be “one of the most popular non-commercial attractions in the whole Greater Victoria area. The tourists rave about it and cannot understand why the city, which owns the building, does not look after the garden, paying attention only to the flower beds around the castle itself.”

In reply, newly-elected Mayor Courtney Haddock, whose day job was manager of Woodwards, declared that the city was determined to place Craigdarroch on a money-making basis. Part of this plan included creating a “castle walk,” a promenade, between the castle and the Greater Victoria Art Gallery, to be flanked by rows of trees and park benches. “We will also spend some money on the castle itself. I know it’s in very bad condition,” said Haddock. His was the first public admission by the city that the castle did need serious TLC.

(To be continued)


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