There are three-storeys of pure Victorian history sitting vacant in Bastion Square and Victoria Buzz set out on a mission to find out the past, present and future of the Bastion Square courthouse.
The ‘Provincial Law Courts’ were designed by renowned architect Hermann Otto Tiedemann (1821-1891) in 1888. He arrived in Victoria in 1858 and soon became the newly-founded colony’s first and only architect.
The building’s sordid past
Tiedemann designed the first BC Legislative buildings which were our current Legislature’s predecessor. They were dismissed by many and called the “bird cages” by the media.
Following designing the Legislative buildings, he penned the designs for the first west coast lighthouses at Fisgard Island and Race Rocks.
He then undertook several surveying and exploration expeditions while trying to help the rest of the colonists get their settlement established.
His last major architectural undertaking before his death was the new provincial courts which was completed in 1889. Although Tiedemann was responsible for the bulk of the design, Francis Mawson Rattenbury — who designed our current BC Legislature — altered the designs marginally.
The building’s design was considered eclectic at the time of its construction. The towers, arched windows and decorative elements made it one of the more grandiose of the other provincial courts in BC.
The most famous judge to grace the halls of the provincial courthouse, Matthew Begbie, also arrived in the new colony of Fort Victoria in 1858 along with the building’s architect. Begbie would become known as the “Hanging Judge” post-mortem.
Prior to the courthouse being finished, Begbie would travel throughout BC on horseback and preside over cases that needed his attention.
Famously, he was the first judge to rule in favour of an Indigenous man over a white settler based solely on the testimony of the First Nation’s people.
Despite this historic sentencing, Begbie also was responsible for sentencing many Indigenous people to death and other forms of punishment while imposing colonial law upon communities who had been living in harmony with the land for time immemorial.
There is a mountain near Revelstoke, schools and courts with Begbie’s namesake across BC with many wishing to change their names. Some statues bearing his likeness have been taken down in the province in the name of reconciliation over the past few years.
The “Hanging Judge” earned his nickname because in the halls of the provincial courthouse, he sentenced several people to death by hanging at the gallows located outside the provincial courts in the heart of Bastion Square.
The bones of some who were hanged in Bastion Square remain buried beneath the square as we see it today and some locals believe that the ghost of Begbie and his victims still haunt the provincial courthouse to this day.
The provincial courthouse ceased operation out of the Bastion Square location in 1962, when it moved to its Burdett Avenue location. The Maritime Museum of BC was the next tenant of the building with a sordid past.
Prior to taking over the courthouse, the Maritime Museum was located on Signal Hill, just outside the gates of the HMC Dockyard in Esquimalt.
It outgrew this space as it expanded and gained traction. By 1965, the museum packed up and made for Bastion Square where they took over the courts.
The federal government gave the building historic distinction in 1980 and in 1995, the building was designated a historic site by the City of Victoria.
The Maritime Museum of BC occupied the space, which is now the oldest standing courthouse in BC, for a total of 49 years.
The courthouses present day situation
In 2014, the museum received news that they would have to vacate the building from the province who controlled the property due to its historic site status.
The building did not live up to modern-day seismic code in particular, and because of this, it could not house any occupants for business or housing purposes until upgrades could be implemented.
The Maritime Museum of BC moved to a storefront at 634 Humboldt Street in their relocation.
Since 2014, the building has sat empty and boarded up to deter houseless folks from ‘squatting.’
In the present day, the building’s ownership lies with the Province of British Columbia’s Ministry of Citizen’s Services.
The unsure future of the historic building
Victoria Buzz reached out to see what the future holds for the historic building that’s been a fixture of Victoria since its construction over 130 years ago.
The cost of repairs appears to be the main reason the building has been unoccupied for nearly 10 years.
“The province has completed a seismic/structural update, cost update, and multi-criteria analysis and has determined that considerable repairs and costs will be necessary in order to make it safe for use,” said Harriet D’Costa, Senior Public Affairs Officer, Ministry of Citizen’s Services.
When asked what will become of the building going forward, D’Costa said, “before a preferred use can be further pursued, we will consult with the City of Victoria and local Indigenous groups.”
Surprisingly, the building’s multiple historic site designations don’t fully protect it from being torn down or altered in major ways, according to the ministry spokesperson.
“Our goal is to revitalize 28 Bastion Square in a way that delivers the best value to government and the people of British Columbia,” D’Costa told Victoria Buzz.
“The building is on the City of Victoria’s heritage registry but is not a formally designated heritage building. As such, It is not provided bylaw protections or restrictions.”
So with no concrete plans to revitalize, renovate or ruin, the historic provincial courthouse has an unclear future in the province and city’s eyes and nearly 10 years of vacancy.
For now, ghost stories and historic tours of the building’s facade are all that Victoria will have of the building until a decision can be determined.