Brick by Brick

By Vernice Shostal

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“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would actually write, publish, distribute and sell a book,” says genealogical researcher Nancy Hughes, author of Built by Luney Bros. Ltd.

Nancy began researching her family history as a hobby in 1993 and, by 1997, had three filing cabinets of information and photographs. Her original plan was to include a chapter about her grandfather’s and her great uncle’s construction business in a family history book; however, while interviewing family members, former employees and people who knew her grandfather, Nancy had accumulated too much material for a single chapter. She also found, during her research, that numerous books had been written about the architects who designed the buildings in Victoria, but there was no recorded history of the construction industry that built the structures.

Recognizing the gap, Nancy set out to record the Luney Brothers building history (1885- 1962) in a book rather than a chapter. 

Nancy has fond memories of her grandparents. Her grandfather was a businessman who wore a three-piece suit, white starched shirt, tie, hat and topcoat. He carried a pocket watch on a chain and always had hard candy, a penknife and tape measure in his pocket, she recalls.

Victoria owes much of its construction history to the Luney Brothers, who were responsible for over 180 buildings in the city. Some of these included 21 schools - elementary, junior high, high school, colleges and university, including the Victoria Normal School (now Camosun College) and the Royal Roads Grant block.

They built St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Nanaimo Hospital, Central Block at Royal Jubilee Hospital, the Royal Jubilee Tuberculosis Building, nurses’ homes at St. Joseph’s and the Jubilee as well as banks, bridges, street and highway pavements, the Canadian National Railways line into Victoria and 500 wartime houses for veterans.  Although many of the structures have been replaced, at the time of his retirement, Walter Luney said, “Nearly every street in town has at least one building we put up.”

A well-respected member of the community, Walter served as president of the Victoria Rotary Club, Queen Alexandra Solarium, Potentate of the Shrine Gizeh Temple and sat on many boards including the Chamber of Commerce, the Masonic Lodge, the Plumbing Board of Examiners, St. Mary’s Church and the Protestant Orphanage. He was one of the charter members of the Victoria Building Industries Exchange when it was formed in 1911 and served as its president. He was elected to the Victoria City Council in 1933 and served as alderman for the city until 1937.

“Grandpa [Luney] used to delight in telling us stories of the mischief he got up to as a child,” she says. Like the day he brought a pocketful of baby rats to school, or the time he planted a paper-wrapped firecracker under a girl’s desk and the pot-bellied stove blew up when the girl threw the camouflaged firecracker in it. “Nana would get after Grandpa saying he shouldn’t be filling our heads with that nonsense.”

Of her own parents, Nancy says they were strict, but not restricting.

“They were strict in manners and politeness,” she says. But the children were free to walk to and from school, visit friends, explore the neighbourhood and play in the fields, woods and empty areas, as long as they were home at dinnertime.  Growing up during the Second World War, Nancy remembers blackouts, having covers over the car headlights with little slits that emitted the smallest possible amount of light and the sound of air raid sirens.    

After secretarial school, Nancy held an office job in Victoria until she married Ray Hughes, her high school sweetheart, in 1959. For the next 11 years, the couple lived at Shawnigan Lake. 

Back in Victoria and two children later, Nancy took up swimming and received her Bronze Medallion in lifesaving. She spent a year writing poetry while taking lessons from British-born writer and poet Robin Skelton, and then persisted with karate lessons until she achieved her brown belt.

Her next venture was Chinese brush painting, followed by five years of learning to read, write and speak Chinese. “I’ve always admired people who could speak multiple languages,” she says, “so if I was to make the effort to learn another language, I wanted to learn one I could use in Victoria.”  

After touring China with her daughter in 1979, Nancy enrolled in an East China Normal School in Shanghai in 1982, and again in 1984, through the University of Victoria’s summer studies. 

A perennial volunteer, Nancy has served on the boards of the Victoria Spinners and Weavers Guild and the Victoria College of Art. In 1973, she was presented with a volunteer medal by Mrs. Dave Barrett, wife of former Premier Dave Barrett, for volunteering with G.R. Pearkes pre-school for hearing impaired children. For many years, she cared for a family friend who suffered from dementia. She paid the friend’s bills, did her banking and shopping, took her to doctor’s appointments, included her at Christmas dinner and special occasions, moved her in and out of condos and care homes, held her hand to calm her when she was upset and made sure no one “ripped her off.” “Everything a daughter would do for her mother,” says Nancy.  

A patient, persistent, energetic and tenacious researcher, Nancy’s interest in her family led her to the Mormon Church, the University of Victoria, the Vancouver City Archives and Library, B.C. archives, building permits, tax records, plumbing records and the censuses. She especially enjoyed the “Eureka” moments when she found names of relatives she had not been able to locate.  

Since the book’s publication, family members of former employees have told Nancy they see her book as a legacy to their children and grandchildren. Inadvertently, a genealogical research that began as a hobby became a historical document. Nancy’s next book, Barking up the Wrong Tree, will deal with the family history she originally intended.

Built by Luney Bros. Ltd. can be purchased at Ivy’s Bookshop, Munro’s Bookstore, Tanner’s and Bolen books. To learn more about Nancy Hughes or to view online photos of historical buildings built by Luney Bros., visit



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