Vancouverite or visitors to Vancouver fans of period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and Ripper Street might enjoy a visit to Vancouver’s Police Museum, the oldest police museum in North America. Located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the museum’s building dates back to 1932 and is a designated heritage building protected by the City of Vancouver. The building housed the Coroner’s Court as well as the autopsy facility until 1980. The City’s Analyst Laboratory (e.g. food sampling) operated on the main floor until 1996 but is not open to the public. The museum has over 20,000 artifacts, photos, and archival documents. Visitors can wander through the permanent and temporary exhibits, try to solve a crime scene, and pay a visit to the morgue.
The museum was established in 1986 by the Vancouver Police Historical Society, 100 years after the formation of the Vancouver Police Department in 1886. This was the year when the City of Vancouver was incorporated (6 April), was razed in the Great Vancouver Fire (13 June), formed the Vancouver Fire Department, and received its first transcontinental train (in Port Moody on 4 July). Talk about rough beginnings and the perfect start for a historical drama (more on this later)!
The Vancouver Police Department began with one man, John Stewart, a night watchman who had been appointed as the city’s first police chief on 10 May. Within a month, the city was engulfed in flames, and Stewart was joined by three other members to form the VPD (one day later, apparently). There is a rather comical photo showing the VPD’s first ‘office’ in the City Hall tent in Gastown as the city was being rebuilt. Since they were so hastily appointed, they had to order uniforms from Seattle and used melted American coins to create badges. (Coincidentally, Seattle also formed its first police department in 1886 – 2 June, to be exact, just over a week before Vancouver’s fire catastrophe.) One year later, the VPD increased to 14 members and eventually doubled in size in 1904. In 1912, the VPD became the first police department in Canada to hire two female constables as matrons: Lurancy Harris and Minnie Millar. (Hurrah!) Their job was to escort female prisoners and to patrol locations where the young would congregate, such as at dances, cabarets, and pool halls. Today the VPD has over 1700 employees, 27% of which are female. (Having said that, the VPD is keen on hiring more female police officers, so if you’ve always dreamed of being a Lady Detective like Miss Fisher, go and apply!)
The VPD & Murdoch Mysteries
The Toronto Police Services was established in 1834, the first municipal police force in North America and one of the oldest in the English-speaking world (the London Metropolitan Police was formed in 1829). The fictional Toronto Constabulary Station House No. 4 was established in 1889, six years before the first episode of Murdoch Mysteries. I can’t quite remember if Detective William Murdoch had already been working at the station house since its establishment. Nonetheless, there was certainly more ‘order’ in Toronto than in Vancouver at the time… Who knows, maybe Murdoch’s half-brother, the RCMP Sergeant, had to ride into Vancouver several times.
What is interesting to note is that in 1929, the VPD had its own Chief Inspector Brackenreid: Chief Constable W.J. Bingham, the former District Supervisor of the LMP. (Granted, Chief Inspector Brackenreid hails from Yorkshire and I can’t remember if he had served with the LMP at any point of time. We do know in S8 that his nephew did.)
Historical Police Attire
How did the VPD go from bobby helmets similar to those still worn by male police officers in England and Wales to today’s flat hats?
First, let us explore the history of the custodian helmets. These helmets had been adopted by the London Metropolitan Police in 1863, replacing top hats that must have flown off many a running police officer from 1829-1862/3. As police forces were being formed in the late 19th Century in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, these helmets were also being worn as part of the uniform. Unfortunately, these helmets turned out to be unsuitable for sun protection or travel in vehicles and were replaced as a result. The flat hats were eventually adopted around the 1920’s.
I’d forgotten to take notes on the insignia bearing a maple leaf and crown atop a beaver as shown in the photo on the bottom right. All I can say is that the maple leaf has been our national symbol since the 1860’s and the beaver is one of our national animals (the Canadian horse is our second). You may recognise this ‘badge’ as the one on the custodian helmets that the constables in Murdoch Mysteries wear.
Period Drama Idea
After the tour of Sins of the City: A Walking Tour on Vancouver’s Shady Side, all I could think of was how Vancouver was practically the Las Vegas in the Victorian era. The city has a long history of alcohol and drugs, brothels, racism, and gangs, going back to the late 1800’s.
We know that despite the effort the VPD put in, the crime rate kept increasing. Maybe a crime scene will send Detective Murdoch – or even the future Detective Crabtree – on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to Vancouver. I can already imagine their horror as one of them finds himself walking into a ‘Ripper Street in the West Coast’ set, assisting the less than 30-something Vancouver police force.
What do you think? Or does anyone have some better ideas?
Ticket price*: $12 Adults | $10 Seniors (age 60+) | $8 Students/Youth 6-18 (with ID) | $30 Family (2 Adults & 2 Youth)
*Sometimes Groupon has discounted tickets (e.g. 2 for 1). Tour costs $8 more.
Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 9-17:00
Address: 240 E Cordova St (between Cordova and Gore), Vancouver, BC