In February of 1902, a group of local businessmen met in the Checkers Room of the Grand Hotel to form the Ladysmith Board of Trade. They wanted to incorporate Ladysmith as quickly as possible so that the new city would rival Nanaimo. They discussed the need for a water and sewer system, electric lighting and a cemetery for the new city. They also decided where the civic centre of Ladysmith would be located.
James Dunsmuir supported incorporation, but did not want his industrial facilities included within municipal boundaries. Nor did the owners of the smelter and several other employers including future mayor John Coburn.
After canvassing local businesses and property owners, a decision was made to petition the Provincial government. Despite the fact that Newcastle provincial riding had elected a socialist MLA, the Conservative government of Richard McBride agreed and letters patent were issued on June 3, 1904.
Elections were quickly held in the Oddfellow’s Lower Hall. Mayor John Coburn who had served previously as Mayor of Wellington, was a logical choice for Ladysmith’s first Mayor. He was joined by Aldermen Dan Nicholson, Murdoch Matheson, Henry Blair, William Beveridge and George Haworth. All positions, including City Clerk and Police Constable were elected by acclamation. (In fact, until January of 1908, no vote was necessary in a Ladysmith City election!)
The first meeting of the new city council was held in the recently built Oddfellows Hall. Meetings were held here or in the Grand Hotel Checkers Room until, in October of 1904, Council purchased a lot at 207 Roberts Street. William Nicholas was hired to draw up plans for a combination City Hall, Jail and Fire Station. Downstairs held the fire hall, two jail cells and a bedroom for an attendant. The Upper floor contained a 23 by 35 foot area for the Council Chambers. This area also served as a court room after the city appointed a magistrate in 1905.
This building was used as City Hall until 1917 and continued as the Fire hall until the Safety Building on Dogwood Drive was constructed in 1973. Later, the building at 207 Roberts was used for many years by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who renovated the interior and took down the hose drying chamber. Today it is a private residence.
However, Ladysmith’s service needs were growing rapidly, and the elected officials realized there was a need for a new location in which to conduct the city’s business. In 1917, Mayor Pannell informed electors that the Fire Department required more space in the existing building and other municipal services should be relocated to a new common area.
The council began a search for a new home. As it turned out, the answer was less than a block away. For a number of years, the Grand Hotel at the corner of Roberts and Esplanade had been in financial difficulty from both the loss of business during the Coal Strike and a requirement to make structural changes to the hotel due to changes in the provincial liquor laws. In August of 1917, owner William Beveridge agreed to sell the old hotel to the council for the sum of $600 plus the cancellation of back taxes. After purchasing the Grand, the building was renovated to contain the civic chambers, the city clerk’s office, the jail, the library, a morgue, and later a public health clinic.
This arrangement lasted until 1951, when the steadily increasing population of Ladysmith had outgrown the ability of the repurposed hotel to serve the municipal requirements of a modern town. Town Council presented a plan for a new Municipal Building immediately behind the existing site which would cost the town $45,000. It called for a one-storey stucco building with a footprint of approximately 54 by 64 feet. The new structure would serve both as town hall and RCMP station, with the council chamber doubling as a court room. The Ladysmith Library also shared the building space.
On Wednesday, January 23, 1952, Mayor Len Ryan proudly opened the first meeting of city council in their new “spacious” chambers. In the 64 years since that meeting, Mayors Kay Grouhel, Bob Stuart, Frank Jameson, Alex Stuart, Rollie Rose, Rob Hutchins and Aaron Stone have all endured complaints about a crowded, stuffy council chamber with uncomfortable chairs and long winded local politicians.
Ed Nicholson is Board Chair of the Ladysmith Historical Society. With thanks to fellow society volunteer Harald Cowie, who provided research for this article.