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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Sensational Victoria

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Ever stood in front of an old house and wondered what went on inside those walls? Who lived there, how they lived their lives and what events happened behind the front door? I admit it’s a weird kind of voyeurism, but I’ve spent a lot of the last decade skulking around in people’s hedgerows asking those very questions.

I’m fascinated by the deep connections people have to their houses both past and present. Victorian-born superstar David Foster grew up with his six sisters in a modest house in Saanich that his father built.  He still goes back to visit the house, and he told me it was an important part of his life that has always stuck with him. Alice Munro wrote two of her best selling books from her Rockland house, and Susan Musgrave’s North Saanich house was built by another poet in 1929 and has a 190-foot Douglas Fir tree growing out of her livingroom. Susan says she doesn’t understand people who move into “key ready houses devoid of personality.”

I’ve talked to home owners who have unearthed everything from a murder in the family kitchen, to resident ghosts and celebrities. Others have found evidence of brothels and bootlegging, and one woman found that her house was once a Chinese sausage factory.

My father’s childhood home in Ballarat, Australia has its own odd history. My eccentric grandmother physically had the bedrooms lopped off the house when her children left home. I never found out why, but at least the current owners eventually learned who left them a number of doors that led nowhere.

My obsession with houses and their secrets found its way into several magazine articles, then in 2007, worked its way into At Home with History, a book about Vancouver’s rich and its disenfranchised filtered through the houses where they lived. I started a weekly blog. A book about the interesting, the eccentric and the gutsy figures of Victoria’s past told through the houses in which they lived just seemed like a natural next step. And, after three years, tons of research and too much fun touring the Greater Victoria area, Sensational Victoria: bright lights, red lights, murders, ghosts and gardens, hits bookstores this week.

Emily Carr figures prominently in the book. That wasn’t intentional she just kept getting in my head. She shows readers what James Bay would have been like in 1913 and she shares another chapter with other formidable women from Victoria’s past—Nellie McClung, Gwen Cash, Sylvia Holland, and Capi Blanchet. There’s a chapter on madams and their brothels, another on gardens, murders that span almost a century, ghost stories and some of the writers, entertainers and artists who come from Victoria.

Much of the information comes from their relatives and the current owners, all who are fiercely proud of their homes. They are the custodians—sometimes for just a few years, other times for decades—who add their own stories to the homes and in turn play a vital part in the ongoing history of the city.


Eve Lazarus is a writer with a passion for history and heritage houses. She is the author of At Home with History: the secrets of Greater Vancouver’s Heritage Houses and blogs obsessively about buildings and their genealogies at Her latest book Sensational Victoria: bright lights, red lights, murders, ghosts & gardens was recently launched!