This article was written for The Torch, vol. 4 No. 3, in the summer of 1985:
On the third floor of Craigdarroch Castle there is a small room on the north side which most Victoria College students of the late thirties and forties remember well. Its name, Ward 9, probably came about because that was its designation in the two years (1918-1920) when the castle was used as a convalescent hospital for World War I veterans. In college days, it was put to quite a different use.
Male students who smoked remember Ward 9 affectionately as their special refuge and bastion, though few recall it clearly for it was generally enveloped in a thick gray haze. When the door opened, the room emitted clouds of smoke and bursts of raucous laughter, and the corridor outside was renowned for the scuffles and shenanigans initiated by Ward 9’s unpredictable and imaginative inhabitants. Co-eds’ hearts beat a little faster as the girls passed on the way to their own common room at the end of the hall.
A female to-day, trying to find out what went on inside Ward 9, immediately encounters a great wall of resistance. One of my former classmates laughed uproariously and said that no lady should be writing an article on the subject. Not a single word was he going to divulge, until he wrote his memoirs in his old age. Others, with great innocence, pleaded bad memories. Forty years later it is still a protected secret! However, through old Annuals, some co-operative wives and a few former inmates caught in a nostalgic mood, a picture starts to emerge.
The 1935-36 “Craigdarroch” tells us there were “23 regular dyed-in-the-nicotine smokers, which included one steady pipe smoker, two spasmodic pipe-smokers and a lone but courageous cigar-smoker who appeared but once.” And what did they do beside smoke?
They achieved special skills…. “B. attained an all-time record of putting his index finger up to the top of the door frame, turning around twelve and a half times quickly and walking straight to the window, discussing Chem II and rolling a cigarette en route”.
They shot wads of paper into a crock. “V.P. skyrocketed to fame on that memorable afternoon when he shot nine out of ten.” H. received honorable mention from the Crock and Wad-of-Paper Club for winning one of the elimination series – he won two out of three contests.
They sang, led in this particular year by “Hotcha” D.S. and “Oompah” P.H.
They presumably discussed and then volunteered to serve tea at the Valentine Dance. “Mr. W., acting in the capacity of hostess, poured.”
They argued. So much in 35-36 that they all became members of the “Lung-Developers’ Club”.
A “snooper” in 1936-37 “tempted Satan himself” and visited Ward 9 to discover “whether or not the smoke of last year could still be smelled, whether or not there was still no furniture to speak of and whether or not the prevailing conversation had been elevated from its previous sinful level”. He found no improvement whatsoever. I am told that the fellows were always rather nervous about the dumb waiter that comes up to that room from the pantry. They were always checking it to make sure no one was hiding there to overhear their discussions.
They seemed to have moved on to most exciting things in 38-39, when one student is described as delighting in “romping with other Ward 9-ers, playing cops and robbers during noon hours.” Mention is also made in the annual of a chap “who made Gene Krupa look like a piker when he goes to town in the Ward 9 orchestra” (using rulers on an upturned wastebasket, perhaps?).
That was the year of the fire. (Readers involved in the preservation of the Castle please avert your eyes here.) One of the girls remembers general panic as smoke poured out of Ward 9 and fellows rushed across the hall and grabbed the house (It’s still on the wall in the same place) and absolutely flooded the room and hallway. It is a wonder that they were allowed to keep it for a smoking room for about five more years!
One vague answer I received to my enquires about what went on in this famous room was that they “plotted things”. Like what? “Well – lots of things.” Such as? “Well – like taking down the flag from the flagpole on the top of the castle”. Then, with great satisfaction, “They had to get the Fire Department to put it back up again.”
The plotters had a few pieces of furniture to sit on by this time, which was an incentive to stay longer. “Some people just stayed there all day” confessed one fellow. “Sometimes for days on end” he added.
By my year, 1941-42, the plots and romps had escalated. I remember keeping a very wary eye for pouncers whenever I passed that door, and even then they almost dragged me in there once. (If I could have foreseen writing this article years later, I’d have gone along!) One girl screamed so loudly when she was jumped that it reverberated into every cranny of the Castle and brought the whole staff on the run.
The boys scattered and disappeared into the woodwork like magic – all except one unfortunate fellow whom the girl had fallen upon. When found, he was being choked by the victim with his own tie. The arrival of Prof Jeff Cunningham prevented his demise. At least four of the attackers were called upon the carpet and the would-be choker was nicknamed “Tiger” from then on.
For the next while, attacks were prudently restricted to the young men standing on their few chairs and throwing missiles out through the transom.
A few other sinful occupations have come to light. My “Memoirs” friend relented and told me, “We perused the daily racing forms, then sometimes skipped classes and went out to the racetrack. The first person I met was my Sunday School teacher.” Another friend finally admitted, “We gambled a bit – card games, crap – just good clean fun. We cornered W.B. who always had a ‘flat 50’ cigarettes, and cadged smokes from him.” “We discussed girls, about dates for the following weekend.” (Oh dear fellows, I’ll give you three guesses what the girls were discussing at the same time in their room!)
About this time, more and more students were leaving their studies and joining the Armed Forces. Whenever one was home on leave, he’d be almost sure to go to the Castle and sit in Ward 9 (or the other Boys’ Common Room) to visit with anyone who came between classes, had a spare or skipped a class.
By 1943, with the country deeply involved in World War II, and military training an important part of college life, Ward 9 was taken over as an Orderly Room for the Militia. “They actually got the reek of tobacco out of the place”, the Annual tells us. I believe that a room called Ward 2 became the men’s smoking room then, but one doesn’t hear much about it.
Ward 9’s glory was short in the terms of history of the College – only about eight years in all. But it remains one of the most talked about areas of the Castle among students of those years. Its well-kept secrets are probably the reason why!
The Torch is the UVIC Alumni magazine. Its wonderful articles can be viewed at http://web.uvic.ca/torch/