Business records offer new insights into B.C.'s history
In an old building on Langley Street, down a winding corridor lit with bare bulbs, through a series of locked doors, Kathryn Bridge emerged into a dim, grimy room.
She could see oversized ledgers, great tomes three feet thick. Dockets wrapped in red twine sat piled beside thousands of files on warped shelves, all covered in a layer of dust, and which looked ready to collapse.
This was the Pemberton Holmes Ltd. archive – the financial records, maps, letters, company reports, legal documents, land titles and tax statements reaching back into the 1880s – which together tell the story of how Victoria and B.C. grew as a colonial outpost and a young province.
For the manager of the B.C. Archives, this is about as good as it gets. Bridge admits it was her “Indiana Jones” moment.
“We started going through it last fall. It was dusty, hot, sweaty work. It was a nice break from the clean, sterile archive rooms," Bridge says. “It’s not often you get to see a huge record with such a long date range in original storage. It was a nice Indiana Jones feeling.”
Archivists spent months inspecting and cataloguing what they had and transferring it piecemeal back to the Royal B.C. Museum. On Thursday, Michael and Richard Holmes officially donated the collection to the provincial archives.
“It’s not everyday we get such a large donation,” said Gary Mitchell, director of the provincial archives. “We accept the story of not only a great family but a great company that influenced and contributed to the life of the province since Confederation."
In the back room of the museum, officials laid out a few of the most compelling documents: financial transactions of Amor De Cosmos, the eccentric second premier of B.C.; turn-of-the-century maps of subdivided properties in Oak Bay, Victoria, Steveston and Abbotsford; a dozen dockets – a kind of thick envelope bound by twine that held all the records for a particular client – with names and dollar amounts owed.
One impossibly thick accounting ledger would have taken at least two people to lift and demonstrated the clean, crisp and entirely legible handwriting common throughout most of the materials.
“We are still in stages of discovery. What we are showing here is a drop in the bucket,” Bridge says. “There are thousands of pages, hundreds of journals, ledgers, photographs, maps. A 125 years of history is here, and its just beginning to be processed.”
The collection originates with Joseph Pemberton, a surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay Company and then surveyor general for the colony of British Columbia, who completed the original land survey of Fort Victoria in the 1850s.
He founded Pemberton and Son in 1887 with his son Fredrick Pemberton. Fredrick’s son-in-law Henry Cuthbert Holmes joined the firm in 1920, creating the what is now the oldest real estate company in B.C.
From early days, it was an organization with interests far and wide – real estate development and speculation, insurance, mortgage brokering, and estate and financial management. It secured land for what are now Port Alberni, Prince Rupert and towns in the Cariboo and Chilcotin along the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. It established mining claims in the Kootenays and logging in the Cowichan Valley. The Pemberton family ranch is now Oak Bay, Fairfield and Rockland.
Paul Washington, a contract archivist who oversaw the transfer of the archive from Langley Street to the museum, said the collection gives fresh insight into the how institutions and authorities viewed women, minorities and labourers.
“It’s not just a business history, it a social history as well. We have a record of correspondence from the 1890s, which in ways was a very different culture,” Washington said. “You get an idea of the social life, of the class system, who was hired to do what, and how little they got paid.”
During the cataloging process Washington and his co-op students had a laugh over the antiquated labelling of unmarried women, which to a certain degree continues to this day.
“I used to joke with them a bit about legal documents, which would identify somebody as a ‘spinster.’ You’re in your 30s, so you must be a spinster.”
Almost every bit of yellowing paper displays curious snippets of history. A docket inked with Victoria and Sidney Co. offers a reminder that a railway once connected Sidney and Victoria. Among the company's neatly folded papers – a 1921 tax notice from Saanich, twice stamped with “delinquent” and owing $8.44. A map showing the railway's right-of-way is coloured a rich blue, the blue in blueprint.
Archivist Frederike Verspoor points to the financial records of Amor De Cosmos, a valuable find for an enigmatic historic figure.
“Amor de Cosmos died in penury. Everything he owned was sold off to settle debt,” Verspoor says. “He didn’t leave a lot of personal records. This will give insight to his life.”
Richard Holmes, president of Pemberton and Son Ltd. (his brother Michael Holmes is president of Pemberton and Holmes Ltd.) remembers as a child his grandfather Cuthbert Holmes telling stories of Fredrick Pemeberton, who made a wager at the Union Club that he could walk from Nanaimo back to the Union Club in 24 hours.
“(Fredrick) made it in 23 hours and 45 minutes. That was one hell of a distance, given it was the 1880s or 1890s. There was no Malahat road,” Holmes said.
He noted the family bought the land where the downtown Yarrow Building now stands for about $250 in the 1880s, which had the original Pemberton office. In the late 1890s, the family allowed people to golf on their waterfront 90 acres in Oak Bay, except in the summer when it was needed to graze sheep and cattle.
The Pemberton name ended with Fredrick. Two of his sons died in the First World War and his third didn’t have children. His daughter Sophie became an internationally accomplished artist, but stopped painting after she was married. Her work hangs in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Holmes said his family had been discussing donating the old buinsess records for a decade, but renovations in the Langley street building made it a priority last year.
“The collection needs to be in a museum-type conditions. There is a lot of interesting stuff in there. We found shares of the Esquimalt Waterworks company. I guess we still own that,” he joked.
For more on the B.C. Archives, see bcarchives.bc.ca.