The KWENCH Friendly Ghost

By Camilla Brown

Victoria is often cited as one of the most haunted places in British Columbia. From the Scottish Baronial castle perched on a hilltop, to the Chateau-style hotel, to the numerous alleys that weave throughout downtown — our city has got history! Without a doubt, the local phantom we would most like to share a bottle of red with is the one and only, Francis Mawson Rattenbury.

Francis Mawson Rattenbury in 1924. Photographer, H Knight

Francis Mawson Rattenbury in 1924. Photographer, H Knight

The turn of the twentieth century was a prolific period for the architect. He was working on a variety of projects across British Columbia, among them was the ‘Pembroke Car Barn’, now known as the upcoming KWENCH Coworking Culture Club. It was originally built to house the streetcars that trundled along Victoria’s main thoroughfares between 1890 and 1948.

Street car network as it was in 1902, a year after the KWENCH building was built. Owen Lett/Dr. Patrick Dunae

Street car network as it was in 1902, a year after the KWENCH building was built. Owen Lett/Dr. Patrick Dunae

Rattenbury’s story of whirlwind success to tragic end is renowned worldwide. His star began to rise towards the end of the nineteenth century, when, aged just twenty-five years old, he won a competition to design Victoria’s new legislative buildings. This marked the beginning of a phase of great success for the wunderkind. His schedule quickly filled as he received heaps of commissions across Canada, including Victoria’s Pacific Railway Steamship Terminal, the Empress Hotel and, of course, the new KWENCH HQ.

Victoria was a pretty exciting place to be around the turn of the twentieth century. The mild climate and natural beauty of its setting had attracted some of the wealthiest families in British Columbia. They lived in custom-built villas, set in sprawling park-like grounds. There was also a great deal of prosperous industries. Sealing, whaling fleets, coastal shipping — you name it, it was going down in the harbour!

Rock Bay bridge from 1901, decorated because the Royals were paying a visit. Courtesy of the City of Victoria Archives.

Rock Bay bridge from 1901, decorated because the Royals were paying a visit. Courtesy of the City of Victoria Archives.

Overflowing with a conviction that was typical of the imperial age, Rattenbury instigated multiple commercial endeavours in British Columbia around that time. But he wasn’t working solely for monetary gain, the architect was a firm believer in British Columbia’s potential — and he wanted to be involved in its story.[2] Perhaps that’s why the Pembroke Car Barn was on his rota, rubbing shoulders with fancy hotels and mansions.

 

A decade after completing the Pembroke Car Bar, Rattenbury’s fortunes started to change for the worse; he was involved in a series of ruinous lawsuits, developed bitter rivalries with fellow architects and was in a loveless marriage. His destiny was sealed during a party at the Empress in 1923. There he met Alma Pakenham; a mysterious woman thirty years his junior, with ‘deep, hauntingly sad eyes and full lips which easily settled into a pout, at once fashionable and sensuous.’[3]

 

In a move that had scandalised Victorian society, Rattenbury left his wife and married Pakenham. The pair resettled in Bournemouth, UK, where Rattenbury drank heavily and became increasingly depressed. Then, in 1935, he was found in his living room, bloody and unconscious with his head caved in from multiple blows by a carpenter’s mallet. His wife’s teenaged lover, George Stoner was accused of the crime. In a further dramatic turn, while the courts were deciding on Stoner’s fate, Alma Rattenbury walked to a river and stabbed herself six times in the heart.[4]

 

Standing outside the Pembroke Car Barn today, one can take in the view of the 1892 powerhouse across the road and the old buildings which formerly housed Victoria Gas Co. Just a couple of weeks ago, road repair workers dug up a strip of Pandora and discovered tram tracks lying beneath the tarmac. This is the fantastic thing about living in a city with such a rich history: we live and work among all these relics. It doesn’t take much imagination to time travel and old ghosts.

Letting the light into the Pembroke Car Barn’s attic, now KWENCH Coworking Culture Club.  James Jones Photography

Letting the light into the Pembroke Car Barn’s attic, now KWENCH Coworking Culture Club.
James Jones Photography

Rattenbury came to a sad end, but we reckon that the old Pembroke Barn is packed to the rafters with creative influence from his heyday. We can’t wait to fill the old barn with life again, and look forward to raising our glasses to our favourite friendly ghost.


  Camilla Brown for KWENCH
www.camillabrown.co.uk
Twitter @camlucbr

[1]Anthony A. Barrett and Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, Francis Rattenbury and British Columbia: Architecture and Challenge in the Imperial Age, 1983 

[2]Anthony A. Barrett and Rhodri Windsor Liscombe, Francis Rattenbury and British Columbia: Architecture and Challenge in the Imperial Age, 1983

[3]https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/politics-law/the-architect-the-lady

[4]https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/victoria-architects-murder-still-stumps-some-to-this-day/article16164723/

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