Blood Alley and Gaolers Mews are evocative names. Guide books and tourism websites always include them in their itineraries conjuring visions of brawls and murders, or butchers hacking away at poor beasts, the hangman's noose, and of course ghosts.
Unfortunately the truth is very different. Both names were chosen in the 1970s to mark new spaces created during the renovation and beautification of the newly minted heritage district of Gastown.
Where did these names come from?
Vancouver was incorporated as a city in April 1886 and burned to the ground in June of the same year. The fire destroyed what had been the town of Granville, a ramshackle collection of commercial buildings and residences centred on Carrall and Water Streets. It was surveyed in 1870 by a Colonial government anxious to bring order to the growing community surrounding (Gassy) Jack Deighton's saloon,the new six-block community stretched west from Carrall to Cambie and south from Water to Hastings.
In 1871 Jonathan Miller was appointed the town's first constable and later held the job of postmaster and customs collector. Miller's occupations become part of our name puzzle because as constable he had a couple of simple log buildings on his property which served as the jail cells. Because of his government positions he was supplied with an official residence which was known locally as the Courthouse, though it didn't serve as one.
So far so good, except that many researchers and writers placed Miller's house in the wrong location. instead of being set on Carrall close to the lane between Water and Cordova (formerly Willow Street) his house and jail cells were to be found on Water Street six or seven lots west of Carrall, nowhere close to the current Gaolers Mews.
Adding to the confusion is the name of his house - the Courthouse. This leads to the idea that if there's a courthouse then there must be a gallows and hangings which means there must be ghosts...
But wait, there's more.
The picture of the early town is further clouded by a map published in the Vancouver World in the 1896 to celebrate the town's 10th. birthday. An early resident recounted to the newspaper how the town was laid out and where many of the early businesses were located. Miller's residence is noted as well as the jail. But the author of the map made a big mistake and named Water Street as Carrall (and Carrall as Water St.) thus placing Miller's house in its imaginary location. The map was republished without correction in the 1930s and continues to be available at the Archives.
The map could reinforce the idea of the area around today's Blood Alley as being filled with butcher shops because it shows George Black's shop on the mis-named Carrall and it is assumed a butcher shop would slaughter animals on site. Black though had his slaughter house at False Creek near what is Main Street. Also shown is a cow shed and some chicken coops but no evidence to suggest slaughter houses.
After the fire of 1886 the area was rebuilt. There were some bars, the Boulder hotel at Cordova and Carrall, the Balmoral across the street and some on Water Street but not in the huge concentration hinted at in the stories that circulate about Blood Alley. Newspaper accounts of the day don't indicate any major fights, murder or general mayhem in the alley, and most importantly Major Matthews the city's first archivist and a man who interviewed most of the early residents of this city - and a stickler for detail - never mentions Blood Alley.
The name was plucked out of the air or chosen because of some incomplete research and given to the square in the alley in the 1970s.
So interesting stories but just that...
In case you are wondering, the official name of the alley is Trounce Alley, a name used since the 1890s but only officially sanctioned in the 1970s. It was named for Victoria's Trounce Alley by Frank Hart whose furniture store backed onto the alley. hart had spent an enjoyablevisit to Victoria and remembered Trounce Alley there fondly.
Unlike other municipalities in BC and Canada, Vancouver is governed under a separate piece of legislation called the Vancouver Charter.