Shoot Out At First & Commercial

It was the spring of 1949 and Commercial Drive — after two long decades of Depression and War — was reveling in the first flush of postwar prosperity: the stores were full and people finally had money to spend.

No doubt, it was this very prosperity that drew Robert Harrison to the corner of First & Commercial that 8th April.

Harrison, a 29-year old with a criminal record stretching back to before his 16th birthday, and who had already served eight years for armed robbery in a federal penitentiary, was a short stocky man with a round face and high cheekbones. He was well dressed in a tan topcoat over a leather jacket and a sports shirt, as he stood outside the Commerce Bank building after parking his car just around the corner on First Avenue. It was 10:30 on a sunny morning and Commercial Drive’s sidewalks were already crowded.

Harrison, who had stolen $6,000 in an armed robbery of a bank in Victoria just two months previously, used a band-aid to attach a white handkerchief across the bottom half of his face. He then pulled a Canadian Army-issue 9mm pistol from his pocket, and strode into the bank, following behind an older woman.

Once inside, Harrison roughly pushed the customer aside and started shooting wildly, firing six times. Every shot missed the customers waiting in line, but others weren’t so lucky. Bank manager Charles Scanlon was grazed in the thigh, while another of Harrison’s bullets passed through an office door and hit accountant Arthur Pearson in the shoulder, damaging his lung.

Harrison took his time. He stuffed three thousand dollars in mixed bills into his pockets and then ran back to the door.

By this time, everyone out on the street knew a robbery was in progress and an alert Fraser Transfer truck driver had already blocked off Commercial to the south with his vehicle. After being alerted by a Mrs. Clarke who rushed into his shop, Lloyd McWilliams called the police from his drug store on the southeast corner of the intersection while his clerk, standing on a chair, could see people with their hands up through the bank windows.

A cashier who had been returning to the bank from her morning tea break but had been stopped at the door by the noise inside, ran in a panic into the Quality Shoe Store next to the bank. Thirty-nine year old manager William Bishop and his father Arthur had already heard the gunfire next door. Encouraged by the cashier, Bishop ran out into the street to flag down Constable Cecil Paul, who he knew was on motorcycle patrol that day. Looking back as he ran, Bishop saw Harrison leaving the bank, gun in hand, and the gunman immediately saw him. Bishop just managed to duck behind a parked car as a bullet crashed through the side of the engine hood and came out under the fender, a few inches from where Bishop crouched.

Harrison shouted “Stand back!” to the world in general and moved toward the corner where his car was parked. A number of elderly women happened to be gathered on the corner and at least one of them attacked him with an umbrella as he tried to push through. Harrison, realizing that his car had been blocked by the Transfer truck, grabbed one of the women to use as a shield and began to cross Commercial heading west. But the woman proved too awkward to carry and he dropped her. Just at that moment, five year old Ian Erlandson, not understanding the danger, ran by and was grabbed by the gunman to use as a shield instead.

By this time, 26-year old Constable Cecil Paul, a veteran of six years active service in the war, had arrived on the scene and dropped his motorcycle. He pulled out his gun and deliberately fired a shot over Harrison’s head. Harrison fired back, almost hitting 26-year old housewife Gloria Groome who was standing on the west side of the street. She felt the bullet graze her hair.

Constable Paul aimed again and his second shot hit Harrison in the forehead, killing him instantly. Blood spattered everywhere as Harrison crumpled to the ground, the boy still in his arms. The gunman’s Browning automatic still had five live rounds, and there were 32 more rounds in his pocket. The $3,650 he had stolen fell from his jacket and lay scattered across the sidewalk.

Young Erlandson was unhurt and scampered off, to be found later playing with friends near his home on Cotton Drive, seemingly unfazed by his adventure.

The coolness and bravery of Constable Paul was recognized by all and he would eventually be awarded the King’s Gallantry Medal. Immediately after the shooting he had been promoted from second class to first class constable with a pay rise of $21 a month.

Manager Scanlon, though not badly injured, took three months’ stress leave, not returning to work until July. The seriously wounded Arthur Pearson also recovered and returned to the bank well before his manager.