VICTORIA—Long before a certain duke and duchess ever set foot in Victoria, Britain had a way of turning up there.
Take, for instance, the one unique feature of Mike and Betty Hubbards’ home that Mike just couldn’t live without.
An engineer by trade and a collector by passion, he would install a bar somewhere in each home he and his wife, Betty, lived. He’d stock it full and add kitschy British trinkets acquired at souvenir shops to already-elaborate decorations amassed over the years.
It was his “Victorian, marine-themed English city pub,” Betty Hubbard said.
“He loved it. He was very proud of it,” she said, sitting by the electric fire in the last pub her late husband assembled during their 45-year marriage.
The wooden bar stools, rare collection of Scotches and portrait of the Queen: Those were his way of always carrying with him a piece of the country where he was born and raised.
Betty and Mike Hubbard’s pub was the couple’s personal slice of Britain in a city teeming with nostalgic references to the country. In Victoria, a small provincial capital on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and named after a queen, nearly two thirds of all residents have British heritage.
When Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, spent their Christmas holidays in the Victoria area, then announced their plan to move to Canada part time, speculation began to fly in both Canada and the United Kingdom about whether the senior royal couple might make a more permanent home in or near the city. Having professed a desire to live more independently in a “progressive” relationship to the royal family, a move across the ocean to Victoria would definitely give them distance from Buckingham Palace.
But it would also take them to a place with a reputation for being “more English than the English.”
Victoria is a city that attracts tourists from around the world for afternoon tea at a famous imperial hotel, The Empress, and where room-temperature English ale pours through taps at local pubs in defiance of the unofficial coldness laws governing Canadian brews. British accents make up a major part of the local sounds heard on the street. Even the sweet-smelling gorse shrub, native to Britain but invasive on North America’s West Coast, engulfs rocks and park surfaces.
The “more English than the English” saying started when the artist Emily Carr described her father — and his relationship to the city of Victoria that way, because of his desire to create, in Victoria, an English ideal. Local historian Terry Reksten then wrote about it in her locally famous 1986 book, which uses the quote as its title.
“What he hoped to find was a town in which British traditions were combined with American progressiveness, a city that represented the best of both words,” Reksten wrote. “And, to some degree, he did.”
It’s been 150 years since Emily Carr’s father, Richard, lived in Victoria, but to author Rosemary Neering, who helped update Reksten’s book in 2011, Victoria’s connection to “Englishness” still rests on the nostalgia of its British residents.
“We’re talking about the between-the-wars ideal, the kind of ordered society that you see on the historical dramas like (Downton Abbey),” Neering said. “That’s the old England that people are referencing when they talk about Victoria.”
But Neering sees that aspect of Victoria, very much alive in its tourist attractions, as a fading part of the city’s larger story. Increasingly, she said, the young people in Victoria are promoting a culture of hiking and enjoying the city’s stunning, meandering coastline. There’s a sense of newness and adventure that was also part of the stories of the first English people to come to Victoria.
“One of the things that strikes you over and over and over again is how many of them came from England but could not have made a success out of being in England,” Neering said. “Although this was a place that was English in those days, it was a place that had room for the individual expression of the people who ended up here, many of whom were ne’er-do-wells or second sons.”
As for whether Harry and Meghan may be able to do the same thing in Victoria, Neering was less sure.
Get more of the Star in your inbox
Never miss the latest news from the Star. Sign up for our newsletters to get today’s top stories, your favourite columnists and lots more in your inbox
“I think they’ll go to Toronto,” she said.
However Victoria’s relationship to England evolves, there are still those committed to preserving a sense of English heritage.
A few years after Mike died in 2014, Betty Hubbard took on his former role leading the local chapter of the Royal Society of St. George — an international organization dedicated to Englishness with chapters around the world.
“There is a lot of English people here,” she said. “I’ve got something upstairs that says people that are not interested in their culture and their heredity are like a tree without roots.”
To that end, several times of year Hubbard runs events for dozens of English Victorians — sometimes afternoon tea, sometimes a dinner. On Saturday, she planned to hold a brunch. There’s no agenda, and the attendees don’t always talk about England, but she likes to keep the group involved.
Likely, she said, they would drink tea, and they might also discuss Meghan and Harry.