Red lights in Victoria’s history

Patrick A. Dunae

Civic dignitaries and tourism promoters may be appalled by what they percieve as blight and decay in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, but a look at the history of the area shows it's a lot better than it was.

In 1866 Victoria was described as "the most licentious spot on the entire Pacific coast from Sitka to Valparaiso." The Victoria Evening Post went on to say Victoria’s "moral climate" had been "polluted" by prostitutes. "After sundown, the alleys and bye-ways of the town are filled by these wretches and their degraded male companions, whose filth and obscenities annoy the entire neighborhood."

A decade later the situation had not improved. The Victoria Daily Colonist reported in 1876 that prostitution had reached epidemic proportions. "In no city in any part of the world [is] the nefarious traffic carried out in such an open manner as here." The editor conceded the "evil known as prostitution" would never be eliminated in Victoria. "But it may be confined to very narrow limits, so that eye and ear shall not be offended by its appearance on every street-corner."

As it happened, a quasi-official red light district emerged around Broad Street in the 1880s. A police report in 1886 identified over a dozen "houses of ill fame" there. The properties were owned by prominent citizens, including Louis Vigelius, a city alderman, and Simeon Duck, a former provincial finance minister. Duck redeveloped one of his lots in 1892 and erected a substantial two story brick building. The Duck Block on Broad near Johnson still stands. It has accommodated many prostitutes over the years.

By 1892 Victoria’s brothels were well known throughout the Pacific Northwest. One of the most celebrated was run by an American, Alice Seymour. It stood on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broughton. Seymour’s brothel catered to an influential clientele, which may explain why it was never raided by the police.

Police raids were intended to regulate not eradicate the sex trade. After a raid, brothel "keepers" and resident prostitutes (styled "inmates") were tried before a police magistrate and ordered to pay a fine. The fines were levied in lieu of a business license and were set during court sessions infused with levity, not moral indignation. In 1892, following a raid on a View Street brothel, there was much laughter when the magistrate suggested the "inmates" be sent to Vancouver instead of to prison. In the event, the miscreants were fined $25 dollars and sentenced to one hour in jail.

The Edwardian era was the heyday of the sex trade, when police acknowledged close to three hundred "known prostitutes" in Victoria. The sex trade was segmented socially and economically by then. At the top end of the market were "parlor houses" like the one run by Alice Seymour. She had expanded her brothel and was employing six women in 1903. Many upscale brothels also flourished on Broad Street.

At the other end of the market were the small, one-room "cribs" as they were called, located on Chatham Street, between Store and Government. At least 50 women lived and worked in cribs in this part of the city in 1903. But the trade was not confined here. Street walkers congregated in Bastion Square. Prostitutes trawled Government Street in open, horse-drawn cabs, and solicited for customers among patrons of the Lyceum Music Hall, conveniently located in the Duck Block.

Flagrant and flamboyant, the sex trade was also dangerous and debilitating. Then, as now, alcohol, drugs and mental depression were part of the demi monde. Several prostitutes attempted suicide and one, unhappily, succeeded. Nineteen-year-old Edna Farnsworth killed herself with a handgun in a Broughton Street brothel in 1889. She’s buried in Ross Bay cemetery.

The sex trade was precarious in other ways. On 23 July 1907 a fire destroyed a large part of the city, including Chatham Street. In a front page story, the Colonist noted: "Lower Chatham Street is occupied exclusively by cribs and there were many painful scenes among the terror stricken denizens. Women in scanty attire fled into the streets imploring aid, which was cheerfully rendered." Broad Street was ravaged by an inferno a few years later. Fortunately, there were no deaths or injuries in either of the conflagrations. However, after the fires the commercial sex scene began to change.

The change was partly the result of a new moral climate at City Hall. Reforms were also driven by the tourist industry, increasingly important to the local economy. Street walkers – nettles in the city of gardens – were embarrassing and so were banned from the downtown core. For the same reasons, brothels were confined to a small section of Chatham Street and Herald Street west of Douglas.

A few brothels survived into the 1920s, but most gave way to temporary or itinerant bordellos. In this new kind of commerce, several prostitutes from, say, Seattle would rent space in a hotel on lower Johnson Street. They would do business until they were raided, shut down, and run out of town. Usually they were prosecuted for illegally selling booze, not for selling sex. These low key brothels did not provoke much controversy in the 1930s.

However, the sex trade was frequently in the headlines in the Second World War, when Victoria was again depicted as a major sin spot. In 1942 it was reported that "Victoria was the only city on the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska in which houses of prostitution were running wide open." Victoria brothels were blamed for the high incidence of venereal disease among servicemen stationed here. During the war, when accommodation of any kind was in short supply, reformers were angry that "scores" of "disorderly houses" were operating in the city. In one celebrated case, police busted a bordello in a brand new "wartime house" on Berwick Street in James Bay. The house had been rented to a shipyard riveter, but was occupied by a woman who had previously run a brothel in a Johnson Street rooming house.

After the war, the term "call girl" began to appear in the local press. Some officials thought the call girl would replace street walkers and brothel prostitutes. "The old bawdy houses are no more," a provincial judge declared in 1955. "Men no longer pick up women in the street. They just make a telephone call and the girl drives up." The judge was mistaken. During the second half of the last century, customers continued to negotiate with prostitutes on certain streets of Victoria and continued to meet them in local bawdy houses. Moreover, despite the geographical expansion of the city, the sex trade remained close to its historical roots on Broad Street and Lower Chatham Street.

The sex trade is still there and it’s still part of the city’s culture. But it’s not nearly as blatant as it was in the 1870s, when "persons of known immoral habits, such as bawdy house keepers and their inmates" would disport at public picnics and parades on Victoria Day and the First of July.

Prostitution may be pernicious, but it’s not as pervasive as it was a century ago, when entire city blocks were given over to cribs and brothels. The so-called red zone may be the troubled heart of Victoria today, but the city has always had a lurid core. Indeed, the Victoria’s scarlet blush may have been much darker in the past than it is today.


An abridged version of this essay, entitled "Red lights of history," was printed in the Victoria Times-Colonist Islander and published online by CanWest Global Communications on 8 June 2003.

Image courtesy of City of Victoria Archives, photo number CRS 170-1233