Vic High History…1876 and Counting

Victoria High School is the oldest public high school in western Canada. It opened on August 7, 1876, with an enrolment of 12 girls and 22 boys.

Vic High has had four successive homes. The first was a log building with two classrooms, located on the grounds of what is now Central Middle School. Only six years later, the facilities were so inadequate that a new building – a brick annex attached to the public school next door – opened in 1882. This too was soon outgrown and a new building opened in 1902 on an adjacent site. This imposing new school at Fernwood and Yates was designed by the eminent architect Francis Rattenbury, who was also responsible for such local landmarks as the Provincial Legislature, the CP Terminal Building, and the Empress Hotel.

On May 1, 1914, the fourth Victoria High School opened a few blocks north at Fernwood and Grant. This state-of the-art facility, designed by local architect C. Elwood Watkins, cost some $460,000, at that time the most expensive school ever built in British Columbia. Its principal was Samuel J. Willis, who later became BC’s first Deputy Minister of Education. With an enrolment of 478, the new school had plenty of room to also house Victoria College, whose classes were taught by Willis and other senior Vic High faculty.

The Fairey Technical-Vocational Unit officially opened in 1949, across the playing field from the main school. Major additions to the 1914 building were completed in 1956 and 2011. The 1956 addition provided a second gymnasium, classrooms, and art and music studios, while the later one replaced the obsolete Fairey Tech facility. The school’s enrolment peaked at 1540 students in 1963.

The school’s centennial celebrations in 1976, chaired by former Deputy Premier L.J. Wallace (VHS 1930), attracted some 10,000 alumni and friends. One highlight was an original historical musical presentation at the Memorial Arena, produced by staff, students, and a team of volunteer theatre professionals led by the popular teacher Tommy Mayne (VHS 1935). The proceeds from this celebration resulted in the establishment of endowment funds, now generating thousands of dollars in annual scholarships for Vic High students. Another legacy of the centennial was a lavishly illustrated history, Come Give a Cheer by Dr. Peter Smith (VHS 1949), whose father H.L. Smith had been the school’s longest-serving principal (1934-55). Still another was the creation of the school’s award-winning Archives and Museum, which are funded by the Association and managed by Alumni volunteers. The Association went on to produce major celebrations in 2001 (Vic High 125), in 2008 (a homecoming for grads of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s), and in 2014 (the 100th anniversary of the present Vic High building). More celebrations are planned for 2026, Vic High’s 150th anniversary.

In 2020, after months of public debate and a year of planning, the building closed for a major seismic upgrade budgeted at over $77 million. Classes continue at the Vic High Topaz Campus (former S.J. Willis Education Centre) and Fernwood (Fairey Tech) until the renovated building reopens in January 2024 with a capacity of 1000 students.