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Review

Vancouver’s Bessborough Armoury: a History. Vancouver: The Fifteenth Field Artillery

By R. Victor Stevenson

November 4, 2013

Review By James Wood

Victor Stevenson’s longstanding personal and professional attachment to Vancouver’s Bessborough Armoury is reflected in his concise and well-researched account of the building’s history. Having served as both honourary colonel of the 15th Field Artillery Regiment, R.C.A., the primary reserve unit housed at the Bessborough, and as the founder, director, and curator of the regiment’s museum and archives – the first official Canadian Forces militia artillery museum of its kind in Canada – his book is presented as the collective product of Stevenson’s leadership and the work of several university students sponsored by the Directorate of History and Heritage and the Royal Canadian Artillery Heritage Fund (10). A significant strength of the resulting work is the primary research this group has assembled, from military correspondence at the Library and Archives Canada, to legal, municipal, and architectural records, as well as local newspaper coverage from the 1920s to the late 1990s. The group worked in consultation with UBC History Professor Peter Moogk, who carried the book through to publication after Stevenson became fatally ill.

The introduction to Vancouver’s Bessborough Armoury notes that it is “intended to inform military personnel and civilian community members alike of the armoury’s rich history…. It is not an indulgence in nostalgia, but rather an attempt to objectively and accurately relate the history of the Bessborough Armoury” (10). Stevenson has succeeded in achieving this goal. The various military units that have occupied the building and their training activities, their reorganization in response to changing requirements over time, early struggles to fund the construction and maintenance of the armoury, its unique Late Art Deco architecture, and the wide range of military and social functions that have characterized its existence – all are carefully outlined in this book. Of particular interest is the chapter portraying the complex financial, legal, and leadership challenges faced by the Vancouver Overseas Artillery Association in attempting to have the armoury built in 1932-33, faced as they were by a crippling economic depression and a decline in both federal and community support in an era of decidedly limited interest in military affairs. Urban historians might look for a broadening of the analysis here to further establish the context of this fascinating chapter, perhaps by drawing comparisons between the isolationism and financial restraint of the 1930s as opposed to Vancouver’s pre-1914 martial enthusiasm and the community spirit that had once led to the formation of militia units such as the Sixth Regiment Duke of Connaught’s Own Rifles or the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders.

By focusing his research on the building itself, Stevenson has written a valuable account that presents the Bessborough as a microcosm of the city’s history, “a living symbol of our past” (81). Although the book falls slightly short of the introduction’s promise to examine the armoury’s “wide-ranging effects on the men and women who have called it home, and its relationship with its surrounding community” (10), those looking for more detail here will continue to look to Peter Moogk’s 1978 work, Vancouver Defended: A History of the men and Guns of Lower Mainland Defences. Although Stevenson’s book is dedicated “to the reservists and cadets who have marched through the portals of the Bessborough Armoury,” his book should be regarded first and foremost as a history of building itself rather than those who served within it or their place in the community.    

The concluding portions of the book highlight Stevenson’s dedication to the preservation of the armoury against the threat of new and “creative” uses of community structures that emerged in the 1990s. At that time, Stevenson opposed a local campaign backed by MP Hedy Fry to establish a family recreation centre at the Bessborough that would have undermined the building’s military function. After gathering the support of municipal and provincial backers, Stevenson was instrumental in discrediting a citizen advocacy group’s contention that the armoury was “underused” by its military occupants. Pointing to the almost insurmountable “difficulty of moving guns and vehicles within a structure containing a swimming pool” (75), Stevenson led the campaign to achieve both federal and municipal heritage status for the Bessborough Armoury. As a result of these efforts, the building will be preserved as a heritage structure, and the publication of Vancouver’s Bessborough Armoury stands as an admirable written and photographic record of its past. Though now deceased, Stevenson’s efforts have helped preserve the Bessborough “not just a historical artifact, but a functioning testament to Vancouver’s history” (83), and he leaves us with a book that may inspire continuing research into the place of this historic armoury in the Vancouver community. 

Vancouver’s Bessborough Armoury: a History. Vancouver: The Fifteenth Field Artillery Regiment, RCA Museum and Archives Society: 2010. 112 pp., index, illus.