Windsor Park at 120: looking better than ever
If Windsor Park could tell stories, having hosted bike races, track meets, lacrosse, rugby and cricket matches over its 120-year history – to say nothing of the car shows, dog shows and military exercises – it would no doubt have some doozies.
Fortunately for lovers of history, a human recounting of such tales is still available.
And Dick Hales is a storyteller.
Best known as a rugby man – he was a centre back in the 1950s with the Oak Bay Wanderers and in 1964 helped form the Castaways club (whose home field was Carnarvon Park) – Hales likes to poke fun at the little old clubhouse that stood on the property for decades.
“It was a horror show,” he recalls. “It had a wood heater in there, and of course somebody had to stoke the boiler up to get hot water for the showers. Quite often it didn’t happen,” he says. “It was a very archaic situation there, but we never let that stop us from getting out there and playing.”
Getting out there and playing, or gathering to watch the latest star athletes show their skills, is something residents near and far have been doing at Windsor Park since the days of dirt roads and fledgling electric tramways.
“In 1890, Oak Bay was virtually uninhabited,” says municipal archivist Jean Sparks, “and there was nothing in the village to speak of.”
In those days the local railway company, National Electric Tram and Light, was starting to build routes around the growing city of Victoria. And before long it was looking for new ways to increase ridership out to its farthest reaches.
At the same time, team sports such as cricket, soccer and rugby were also becoming popular in the city – helped by the influence of English immigrants – as was field lacrosse.
NET and L had found people would take its streetcars to games at the terminus of its routes in Esquimalt, where Canteen Park (now in CFB Esquimalt) hosted soccer and other sports; to Beacon Hill Park for cycling races and baseball, among other games, and to the Driving Park horse race track near what is now Oak Bay High.
With one of its newest routes taking riders down Newport Avenue, the company figured they’d cash in on the idea of hauling sports fans to the end of the line.
They built Oak Bay Park to host the above-mentioned sports and anything else that would draw people east from the city. Workers got underway in 1890 and completed the park in 1891.
“The park created everything, and it was mainly to increase ridership and bring them out to the beach,” Sparks says. “That was an adventure in those days, to come out to Oak Bay beach.”
It’s unclear whether the owners of the rail line had a financial stake in the activities at the park, but a 10-foot high fence was built around the outside to force attendees to pay an admission price. A grandstand with room for around 2,000 spectators was also constructed.
While lacrosse and professional baseball were big attractions at the new park for diversion-hungry residents, so were bicycle races on the specially built, one-third mile cinder track.
“Bicycle racing was huge when the park first opened,” said Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame curator Dave Unwin. “The Victoria Wheelmen hosted three big meets a year there, with professional riders coming from as far as California to compete.”
Out-of-town riders backed up the claim that the Oak Bay facility had the finest track on the West Coast. The local club had its own caretaker who “just babied the track,” Unwin says.
By the turn of the century, more people were building homes in the area, which featured quality waterfront real estate. But it also had the region’s most versatile sports facility.
“Victoria’s major sports field in 1900 was the new Oak Bay Park, located in the area of today’s Windsor Park, which just happened to be at the end of the old streetcar line,” Unwin writes in his book, From the Sidelines. “It was used mainly for inter-city games: baseball, field hockey and lacrosse, but later some important rugby and association football (soccer) games were played there.”
Changes in the whims of sports organizations made the idea of running a sports park less appealing for the railway company, which had become B.C. Electric by 1897. It tried to sell the park to the fledgling municipality of Oak Bay before 1920 for $10,000, but the idea was rejected in a public referendum.
The idea was pitched again in 1921 and that time residents agreed. The name of the park was changed at that time to Windsor, for the road on its northern edge.
Sporting events were ever-present at the park through the early part of the 20th century. But given its size, it was a perfect venue for community gatherings. During the Second World War, it played host to many marching drills and inspections.
“Paul Beck (who went on to a great rugby career with the Oak Bay Wanderers) and I used to go down to see the British army trainees come down with their thumping brass band and do their manoeuvres at Windsor Park,” Hales recalls. “It was nice to see them marching so uniformly down Windsor Road.”
Oak Bay-raised Unwin played many a soccer game at Windsor, boasting that the fields were “the nicest in town.” He has another connection, in that his father, Bill, a former parks worker for the district, helped build the rose garden in the southeast corner of the park.
“I can remember him taking me down there on a Sunday to see all the roses blooming,” he recalls. I always felt so proud of that garden.”
Rugby provincial championships have been won on its fields, the Victoria Symphony has performed Splash in the Park, and non-sports events like the annual Jaguar show are ever-popular.
The construction of the new pavilion in 2006 has helped take the park to another level, says Oak Bay parks manager Lorne Middleton.
“You’ve got garden clubs, stamp clubs, yoga and pilates and a range of different groups that use the facility,” he says. “It’s a great focal point for the municipality, that park, with the hedges all around and the gardens and the pavilion in the middle. It’s kind of a blend of all worlds.”