T.W. Paterson: How Nesbitt saved Craigdarroch Castle (Part 5)

According to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Craigdarroch is the only true castle on the North American continent, one of only two ever built.

According to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Craigdarroch is the only true castle on the North American continent, one of only two ever built.


From the beginning, James K. Nesbitt and fellow members of the Craigdarroch Castle Society had had an unlikely ally: American tourists. Having found the castle on their own, many saw its potential, if restored, as a tourist attraction. And they were harshly critical of its owners, the City of Victoria.

Wrote Mrs. William C. Wheeler of San Leandro, Calif., in October 1971: “…We were surprised that the people of Victoria apparently care so little for what could be a useful and beautiful part of their lives. I am referring to the magnificent Craigdarroch Castle.

“It is a sad commentary on the governing bodies of your city that a music school, of all things, is all they can think of to do with such an outstanding structure… What a waste of a beautiful building! …Please don’t let it just sit there. It is much too beautiful to be ignored.”

Stung by Mrs. Wheeler’s criticisms, Principal Robin Wood claimed that the Conservatory of Music “is one of the most respected musical institutions of its kind in Canada”.

He pointed out that his school saved the city thousands of dollars annually by providing security, heating, lighting and janitorial services.

“The City was good enough to put us in the Castle. We now have over 600 students and 50 teachers and until somebody builds a centre for the arts we would like to stay here. Now perhaps may we get on with our teaching.”

In a second letter to the editor, after crediting his conservatory with contributing to repairs and renovations through donations by attracting visitors to the castle, he couldn’t resist a parting shot: “The use of the Castle is for the city (not California) to decide.”

Then it was back to Mayor Haddock’s scheme to make everybody happy by placing them on a money-making rather than the present tax-exempt basis.

He suggested that the music school move into the Maritime Museum building and called for a meeting of the principals. He was not well received. BCMM chairman A.G. Coning termed Haddock’s proposal “indicative of the mayor’s two-bit attitude. This man [also the manager of Woodwards] is too much of a merchandiser, interested in nothing but the dollar.

“I’m simply not interested in the mayor’s plans.”

A spokesperson for the conservatory just said the Maritime Museum, originally a courthouse, was unsuited to their purpose. She reminded the public that, while the school paid only $1 tax per year, it contributed $10,000 yearly to Craigdarroch’s upkeep.

Haddock, after what he termed a cordial, “productive and amiable meeting” with both societies, let the matter drop.

The tide, ever so slowly, was turning. By October 1972, the Castle Society led by Nesbitt, who continued to use his historical articles in the Colonist to beat he drum, was said to be one of the most successful non-profits in the city.

Raved a front-page article in The Victorian, the castle had been saved from the “wrecker[’s] hammer” thanks to the Society’s “gargantuan efforts.” Not only had they returned it to its original splendour but they had “a nice fat bank balance to boot”.

All of this had been achieved, since the Society’s founding in 1959, with only $12,000 from the province.

The rest of the money had come from visitors, local businesses and private individuals including $500 from lumber titan H.R. MacMillan. The city, sniffed Nesbitt, hadn’t contributed “one red cent” towards upkeep — but charged the Society for maintaining the grounds.

And the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, organ for tourism, had let their $25 annual membership lapse!

In spite of this, Nesbitt modestly explained, “What has happened at the castle proves that if a society of people rolls up its sleeves and goes to work it can do wonders.”

It was the realization that tourists had discovered Craigdarroch as early as 1969 — and the help of a cardboard placard requesting donations — that really started the ball rolling.

The first day’s take was $45 — and the visitors and the money had been coming in ever since. In fact, the more the Society spent on the castle, the more the donations increased. He cited the many improvements made to the building, including restoration of the ball room on the top floor which had been thought to be irreparable.

The only sour note throughout had been the city’s continuing diffidence. He had words of encouragement and caution for other groups wishing to do similar projects: “One of the secrets is to get going. Find people who will help polish bannister railings or do any other sort of work. Most of all beware of the so-called experts, they will wreck your building. They don’t want to conserve, they want to ‘restore’ or ‘replace.’

(To be concluded next week)


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