Visitors to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, may be forgiven for thinking that they had stepped back in time to the glorious days of the British Empire, and that they had arrived at the furthest outpost of it. Even the local newspaper, the Times Colonist has the ring of Queen Victoria to it.
And one young English architect did more than anyone to perpetuate this feeling. Arriving in Canada from England in 1891, the 24 year old Francis Rattenbury would go on to design many of the magnificent Imperial buildings that give Victoria’s inner harbor its grand sweep. Visitors would disembark at his Canadian Pacific Railway steamship terminal, walk past the majestic British Columbia Parliament buildings, and arrive at the doorsteps of his beaux-arts masterpiece, the Empress Hotel.
Built between 1904 and 1908, the Empress soon became one of the worlds most famous hotels. Formidably overlooking the harbour, the grand hotel became a byword in Edwardian luxury. For many years the hotel didn’t have a sign above the door, and when one was finally installed, it was reported that a gentleman watching the workmen raise the sign said, "Anyone who doesn’t know this is The Empress shouldn’t be staying here."
And still today, the Empress is an exquisite throwback to the days when Great Britain ruled the waves. The hotel serves afternoon tea in the Lobby to over 800 visitors a day. Cocktails served on the veranda followed by dinner in the colonial Raj-styled Bengal room. The Empress has played host to film stars and royalty; in the 1920s the young Prince of Wales danced until morning in the Crystal Ballroom, a room covered in such crystal that it advertised itself as "dancing under the stars." The Empress press room archives recorded that "almost 50 years later, the obituaries of elderly ladies would appear under headlines such as, ‘Mrs. Thornley-Hall Dies. Prince of Wales Singled Her Out.’"
But whilst the hotel continues its life of opulence and luxury today, its creator did not fare so well. By the early 1920s, Francis Rattenbury was married and had two children. He had just had his architectural plans for Victoria’s new grandiose swimming pool accepted. The Crystal Garden would go on to be where Johnny Weismuller would set the world record for the 100 metres. Rattenbury retired to the Empress to celebrate, and that evening, whilst smoking a cigar, he met the 27 year old beauty Alma Pakenham. Falling in love, their passionate affair shocked conservative Victoria. Deserting his family, they sailed for England and the quiet seaside town of Bournemouth. And it was here in 1935 that Rattenbury was murdered in his drawing room in a case that was the tabloid scandal of its day. Rattanbury’s head had been caved in by a croquet mallet, and Pakenham confessed to the murder. But in custody she recanted her testimony instead pointing the finger at their 17 year old chaffeur George Stoner, whom she had taken as a teen lover. Claiming they were both addled on cocaine, Alma was acquitted. Painted in the press as the murdering seductress, Pakenham, just days later stabbed herself in the heart six times before throwing herself to her death in a river. Stoner was sent to prison for Rattenbury’s murder, until he was released seven years later.
Today superstitious members of the staff say the hand of Francis Rattenbury can still be felt in the glorious hotel he built for Victoria. In the basement, the hotel keeps a rarely visited archive, containing old ledgers, menus, photographs and cutlery, and it is down here that staff often report seeing a dapper young gentleman walking the halls in an Edwardian suit smoking a cigar, much as he was the ill fated night he met the young seductress who would end his days. All ghost stories aside, the Empress and its historic archive manage to hide its sensational history quite well.