Water Troubles in Victoria

In the early days of the Fraser River gold rush, drinking water was expensive. Every saloon charged “one bit” (12 cents and one half penny) for a glass of water. Some even charged as much as 15 cents. In comparison, you could buy a cocktail for two bits (25 cents).

water for sale - September 28, 1859
water for sale – September 28, 1859

Why was water so expensive? There was no sewer system back then, only open drains which contaminated the local streams. John Muir, one of the early settlers of nearby Sooke, recalled that to navigate Wharf Street one had to wear boots at least 32 inches high. Given that and the overall stench, it is no wonder that the citizens of Victoria didn’t trust to drink or even bathe in water unless it was purchased from a water carrier. If they were short of water they washed themselves in the ocean or used rainwater they collected.

Every day, water carriers took their horse drawn wagons to a place outside of town known as “The Springs” and filled their barrels free of charge.

Victoria’s water source sold

Governor Douglas had declared The Springs to be public property in August 1858, however the lands belonged to the Hudson’s Bay Company. After the HBC was officially removed from its control of Vancouver Island, it began to sell its properties. In March 1861, an area surrounding The Springs was auctioned off.

The sale of Victoria’s water source escaped public knowledge until the new owners fenced off the area and hired a guard to keep out trespassers. A notice was put up at the gate informing the new price of water. A water carrier was caught trying to break down the fence and was arrested and hauled off to police court. As soon as people read about it, they were outraged. The Water Case as it became known, received extensive coverage in the Daily Colonist:

Editorial: The British Colonist (1861-04-26) p 2 “The Water Stoppage”
Editorial: The British Colonist (1861-04-26) p 2 “The Water Stoppage”

“The rightful owner of the Springs is the public. We have unquestionable authority for stating that Gov. Douglas declared them, in 1858, a public reserve; and, as Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Company, empowered to dispose of their lands, he refused to do so, on the ground that they were wholly reserved for the uses of the town. Under the Grant of the Island to the Company [Hudson’s Bay Company], he had the right to reserve any land for public purposes. Besides, the Company had no right to sell a public reserve. Having acted in good faith with the public in 1858 in respect to the Springs, how is it that faith has been broken? How is it that the Company has been allowed to sell them? On Mr. Pemberton’s new official map we find no public reserve marked at the Springs…”