Former guard Phil Williams is working on a book on the history of the jail on Wilkinson Road

Former guard Phil Williams is working on a book on the history of the jail on Wilkinson Road

‘Fortress’ in Saanich celebrates a century

A farm, a mental hospital, a jail and a historic site, the castle on Wilkinson Road endures as a Victoria icon

The storied history of the Wilkinson Road jail now extends back 100 years, and encompasses all the crimes, escapes, changes and rehabilitations that go with it.

Phil Williams worked from 1994 to 2003 as a guard at the jail, now called the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre.

During that time he was a member of the prison history committee and is now helping with the centennial celebration. He is also working on a book on the history of the jail.

“The site is steeped in history,” Williams said. “I’ve always been of the mind, how can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”

Constructed in 1913, the jail was built as a replacement for the Victoria jail on Topaz Avenue, which had a main wing burn down in 1912.

Architect Col. William Ridgway Wilson, the man behind the Bay Street Armoury, designed the unique fortress look of the building, with crenelated parapets and towers, brickwork and arched windows. The building was recognized as a Canadian historic site in 1981.

Though construction finished in 1913, the year displayed on the headstone above the main entrance, the first prisoners arrived at the prison on Sept. 12, 1914.

At its start, the jail housed civilian prisoners, along with military prisoners and some prisoners of war, namely Canadian domestic dissidents and spying suspects related to the First World War.

The first and only execution to take place at the prison happened in 1915, when Robert Suttie was hung for shooting his foreman at a mine in Oyster River.

In 1917 the jail was closed as a cost-saving measure to help fund the war effort. It became a pheasant farm before reopening in 1919 as the Colquitz Provincial Mental Hospital for the criminally insane. By 1951, it held about 280 inmates, who operated a farm on the land.

Tragedy came in 1960 when a prisoner escaped and stole a number of guns from a nearby farm. The police located the man and a shootout ensued, resulting in the death of Const. Robert Kirby, the only Saanich police officer in history to be killed in the line of duty.

“As you can well imagine, the press had a field day,” Williams said. “I think that was probably the beginning of the end for (Wilkinson) as a mental institution.”

Another reason was its location. When first built, the jail was out of town, away from the general population, but as the city grew, housing surrounded the 10-hectare property.

“It was sort of out in the sticks, and then of course the residential neighbourhoods grew up around it,” Williams said. “Then … it made the residents nervous and they don’t want it there.”

After 45 years as a mental hospital, the provincial correctional service took over the property and reopened it as a working prison farm in 1971, an expansion of the long history of farming at the facility.

By 1973 the farm had seven bulls, 168 cows, 125 calfs, three boars, six young sows, 24 sows and 1,650 laying hens. Livestock was eaten at the prison, making it somewhat self-sustaining, while some animals were sold to generate income.

“In that time you were able to put the prisoners to work, doing something positive where they learned a skill, felt good about what they were doing,” Williams said. “By the time they got back to the cell block they’d be too exhausted to get into trouble.”

During efforts to modernize the jail, the farm operation was cleared away in 1985.

The building itself had many additions during its time as a mental hospital. In 1985 the building was modernized, with a complete renovation of the jail’s interior, with only the medieval facade left in its original form.

“I wouldn’t really call it an old building, it just looks like an old building,” Williams said.

Williams noted he has fond memories of working at the facility. “I could make a difference in the day to day experience of those prisoners,” he said. “I don’t know if I miss the job so much, but I certainly miss the people I worked with.”

The jail currently houses prisoners serving sentences under two years and those awaiting trial. It is a maximum security jail, because those waiting for trial can be accused of any sort of violent crime.

Did you know?

-Phil Williams said when he worked at the jail, he would often see tourists arrive for a picnic, thinking the building to be a local landmark. When they were told they had to leave, and the true nature of the building, they usually wasted no time clearing out.

-A story in the Victoria Times from Oct. 10, 1974 suggested “antiquated Wilkinson Road jail” would be closed and prisoners transferred to a new jail to be built in Jordan River.

reporter@vicnews.com

 

 

 

 

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