One of the most frequently asked questions by visitors at Craigdarroch Castle is, “did this place have electricity back in the day?” Despite being built in 1890 and the comparatively remote location of Victoria at the time, the Castle was in fact fully wired for electric power at the time of construction in 1890.
Surprisingly, Victoria, BC was one of the first cities in Canada to get electric power in 1883. Their reason for adopting the innovative technology had less to do with its modern appeal, but seemingly more to do with a difficult relationship between the local gas company and the city council. While the gas company supplied streetlamps and gas power to the city, there had been several cases where the city council had refused to sign rate increase contracts, and so the company shut off the city lights and gas supply. Understandably, this caused a bit of a stir amongst the council and locals alike. In any case, it was no issue for a well-connected and wealthy family like the Dunsmuirs to secure an electrical source for their stately new residence at the turn of the century.
At the time, the standard method for running power through buildings was a ‘knob and tube wiring’ system, and typically ran at much lower electrical loads than you would normally see today. They would have used 60 amps, compared to the 200 amps used in our modern homes. However, with fewer appliances being used during the period, lower levels of electricity were perfectly acceptable and did not present a disadvantage at the time. The main difference between the Victorian ‘knob and tube’ system and our modern system is that they would have had the ‘in’ and ‘out’ wires through two separate cables, with small porcelain posts installed to keep the wires from touching any of the surrounding wood, or each other, whereas with our modern system, all the wires are contained and insulated safely in one cable. We also use ‘ground wires’, which give the electricity a safe exit point in the event of a break in the cable. The Victorians, being new to electricity and its development, were unfortunately not prepared with the best safety measures. For example, it was widely known that Thomas Edison killed an elephant with AC power. A local paper in Victoria, The British Colonist, once wrote that “like all infants, [electricity] should be handled carefully”. Because of the known dangers, Victorians were beginning to try and invent new safety measures as quickly as they could.
The system originally installed here at the Castle was mostly the same as the common Victorian method, with a few differences. Notably, Craigdarroch did not have the traditional ‘knob and tube’ system, but instead had a modern installation with the wires nailed to the walls with pieces of wood. Craigdarroch also possessed cutting-edge safety technology: a fuse box. Though that might not seem impressive by our modern standards, having a fuse box installed was the newest method for protecting your home or business. Patented by Thomas Edison in 1890, the electrical fuse meant that should you go over the power limit for your home, or two of the wires accidentally touched, you wouldn’t short-circuit the entire building, or worse, fall victim to a fire. Instead, the fuse box meant most of the system would be protected, apart from the small, comparably cheap component that would need to be replaced. Better that than rebuilding an entire home or business. Since the technology was new to 1890, it’s impressive that the builders swiftly incorporated it into the electrical system here at the Castle.
So, while it might have seemed unlikely that such a remarkable technology like electricity would have been present here 130 years ago, it just goes to show what kinds of fancy amenities the wealthy were able to buy during the time. During the turn of the century, indoor electric lighting and power was one of the newest and greatest luxuries around, and naturally very desirable. Electricity enabled the Dunmsuirs to have an electrical call system throughout the house, and even an electric burglar alarm system on the windows of the first few floors. Electricity was so fascinating to the people of the Victorian era that in 1879, over 1000 people from Victoria travelled to the Esquimalt harbour to see the electric lights on one of the ships docked there, the HMS Triumph. Being able to afford such a thing in your home surely would not go unnoticed, and one might assume the Dunmsuirs weren’t shy about showing it off.
Roy, P. E. (1976). The Illumination of Victoria: Late Nineteenth-Century Technology and Municipal Enterprise. BC Studies, 32.
The Electric light. (1881, December 31). Daily British Colonist, p. 2.
The Electric light. (1879, May 17). Daily British Colonist, p. 2.
Edison, T. A. (1890). U.S. Patent No. 438305. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Schneider, N. H. (1916). Wiring houses for the electric light. New York, New York: Spon & Chaberlain.