Dinner's kitchen ashes blamed when Government House burned

Ken Roueche Special to Times Colonist June 19, 2005

On April 15, 1957, Government House burned to the ground. Many in Fairfield, particularly along the Fairfield/Richardson corridor, had a front row seat to an unfolding drama -- one that they could plainly see, but the details of which they knew nothing. The drama would involve the unsung hero Chow Wing Suey, the night watchman Edward Varney, the elusive private maid Lydia Juozapaityte and even Lt.-Gov. Frank Ross himself.

Varney, the 69-year-old night watchman, had been employed at Government House for 12 years. He had been scheduled to retire in the spring of 1956, but upon representations from the lieutenant-governor, his services were retained for one more year. In addition to his night watchman duties, Varney was responsible for maintaining the coal-fired furnace in the basement and the coal cooking stoves in the kitchen.

This in itself was remarkable, considering that at this time most Fairfield households would have had= electric ranges and were probably in the process of converting their coal, wood or sawdust-fired furnaces to oil.

Upon his arrival in the late evening, Varney cleaned out the coal fires, prepared them for the next day and removed the ashes to the fuel storage room in the basement where coal, wood, presto logs and garbage were all stored.

That evening was also the occasion of the lieutenant-governor's birthday when 10 guests attended dinner. Because of the party, the kitchen range had been going longer than usual and the ashes that Varney cleared out would have been very hot.

At about 1 a.m., Mrs. Ross's personal maid, Lydia Juozapaityte, smelled smoke and reported it to Varney, who investigated but found nothing. The fire inspector later noted that the fire probably started around this time.

At around 4 a.m., Chow Wing Suey was awakened by a noise. Chow had been born in China in 1906, had worked at Government House for more than 30 years and by the spring of 1957 was the second cook. Despite his apparent seniority, he was still living in shared quarters in the basement, down the hall from the fuel storage room. When he went to open the door to his room, he saw immediately that the fuel storage room was ablaze. He alerted Varney and ran upstairs to alert the household, who immediately evacuated the building. The fire inspector noted in his report that if it had not been for Chow's quick thinking, there probably would have been loss of life.

Varney telephoned the fire department at 4:18 a.m., and that was the last anybody saw of him that night. According to the fire inspector's report, Varney did not make any effort to arouse the household because he thought it was only a small fire.

The first fire trucks arrived at 4:21 a.m. and, in short order, all 89 Victoria firefighters and all available equipment were on the scene. The winds were steady from the southwest at 50 to 60 km/h (30 to 40 m.p.h.), fanning the flames through the 53-year-old Rattenbury/Maclure-designed wooden structure. Ironically, the building was built in 1903 to replace the previous residence, Cary Castle, which had burned down in 1899. It had been built in 1860 to replace the previous Government House which was also destroyed by fire.

Erith Smith, a reporter for the Daily Colonist, described the unfolding calamity:

"Helped by the airy spaciousness of the ballroom, halls and reception rooms, the wind pushed the flames from room to room and from wall to wall. Tons of water cascaded into the flames to vanish as if they d never been ... . Every few minutes there was a warning shout and a crash audible above the roar of fire pumps as sections of roof and wall thundered down."

My personal recollection was of being awakened by my parents, probably sometime before 6 a.m., and looking out our dining room window on Brooke Street to see Government House being consumed by flames up to the roof line.

At one point, Fire Chief Frank Brier ordered hoses turned on the glowing embers in the centre portion of the building, but to no apparent effect. The chief soon recognized the problem -- he had been attempting to extinguish the lights of Port Angeles, 30 kilometres away across Juan de Fuca Strait.

Fortunately, there was no loss of life or injuries, but the building was destroyed, except for the stone porte cochere at the entrance. Some china, silver and linen and the full contents of the wine cellar were also spirited to safety before the fire got to them. The RCMP apparently were also able to recover from the ashes some of Mrs. Ross's personal jewelry.

The destruction was valued at more than $1 million. Many of the Government House workers who lived on the premises had no insurance and lost everything.

Within days, the government announced plans to rebuild the vice-regal mansion, while the lieutenant-governor established temporary quarters in The Empress hotel. The present-day Government House was officially opened on May 19, 1959.

Later, the fire inspector would hear the eye witness accounts from most government house staff, including Varney and Chow. However, the lieutenant-governor's private secretary, the chauffeur, and Mrs. Ross's maid, Juozapaityte -- the one to first report concerns -- were apparently never interviewed.

The fire inspector observed that Varney was not sufficiently alert or attentive for the responsibilities which his job entailed and did not believe that he conscientiously patrolled the building at night. Chow's heroic efforts were never officially recognized, although he did get a mention in that day's Victoria Times.

He continued to work at Government House until about 1962, after which his name disappears from the city directory.

This story is an excerpt from A Fairfield History by Ken Roueche. The book is scheduled for release July 16 on lower Moss Street.

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2005