Britannia Village first came to life in the mid-1800s as a summer cottage town with a mill, a few farms and a boating club. The area was part of a large estate along the Ottawa River owned by Captain John LeBreton, which he named Britannia.
LeBreton was one of the influential characters in the foundation of the city of Ottawa, alongside Lt.-Col. John By and Lord Dalhousie. LeBreton is often remembered for his constant grievances with the government and rival landowners along with his money-making schemes.
By 1900, the village was well established as a summertime paradise known as Britannia on The Bay. It was a vibrant community with the Britannia Boat House Club (later called the Britannia Boating Club, now Britannia Yacht Club) which opened in 1887. A double-decker steam boat called Queen of the River ran tours in 1896 and by 1899 the Ottawa Electric Railway Company established a streetcar line that ran from Holland Avenue straight out to Britannia.
For the first half of the 1900s, life went on in Britannia much the same way. Cottagers arrived on the first of May and stayed until the end of September. Activity revolved around the water; sailboats and canoes filled the river and swimmers piled onto the beach.
By 1950, the village was annexed into the city of Ottawa and permanent, year-round homes became as prevalent as cottages along the shore of the river. The streetcar line was decommissioned, and the urban cottage community transitioned into a secluded subdivision of the city, surrounded by water on three sides and a buffer of green space at the south end.
Today in Britannia, not too much has changed. A few of the original cottages dot the neighbourhood streets, the original clubhouse still stands at the yacht club, now in its 122nd year, and the community continues to come alive during summer days at the beach.
A connection remains strong between nature and the community of Britannia. At the East end of the neighbourhood is the Mud Lake conservation area, a 60 hectare complex of wetlands that is home to a stunningly diverse collection of plants and animals, including 269 species of birds. The rail lines have long since been removed and replaced with a multi-use path that runs parallel to the river, now filled with cyclists and joggers. And of course, the Ottawa River is there, providing beauty, recreation and transportation. But that sometimes comes at a cost.
In 2017 the river flooded to unprecedented levels that shocked the community. In the spring of 2019, the water returned even higher than before. Rod Miller is 86 years old and has been spending summers in Britannia all of his life. He remembers flooding as a regular part of life on the river, but only as an annoyance and never a crisis. “We had a cottage that was between the two mills, down by the water, and every year there would be flooding, but never like this spring,” says Rod.
Rod has been a member of the Britannia Yacht Club since he was 10 years old, and served as the club manager for a period. Both he and longtime club member and Britannia resident, David Wilson, tout the merits of enjoying all the club has to offer, with no need to show up in a yacht! They say they have moved away from the exclusivity of the old boys club, “It used to be you had to be nominated to be considered for membership here, that’s gone now,” says David. “If you are interested in coming here, please come out, it’s pretty free and easy,” he adds.
This summer the beach will be filled up again with swimmers and volleyball players and sun bathers. The park will light up with families picnicking among the trees. And the boats will be on the water, racing, cruising or heading off for adventure in an area of the city that offers that gone to the cottage feeling.