Victoria is a remarkable city for a historian to live and work in.
To start with, there are a number of extremely gifted people working in the heritage community – whether in paid positions, as volunteers, or simply as hobbyists. They always seem eager to contribute to one another’s research.
Victoria also has a remarkably rich and densely packed history. I am often heard to say that one of the reasons I love this city is that because it was so isolated in the 19th century the people who did decide to settle here were made of incredibly tough stuff.
The early pioneers of Victoria were hardy, often fearless, relentlessly entrepreneurial, clever and frequently quite eccentric. They were, in short, real characters.
I have a regular reader of this column, a fellow called Ron, who is a local history buff and often sends me notes and comments. A few months ago he sent me the image included here. It is of a tin of mechanical soap, made by the San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company, which was based out of Victoria.
I had never heard of this company, but a quick glance at this image told me the tin was of early 20th century make, given the style of the graphics, text, and packaging. Beyond that it was a mystery.
It turns out that being a history buff runs in families: Ron’s son Aaron had done a little research into this company and we arranged to meet so I could hear about it.
Aaron is a young man with a quick wit and a gift for writing. He has a variety of historical interests and had done an excellent job down at the B.C. Archives in ferretting out some information about this mysterious San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company.
When he brought his notes out, I started to realize that this relatively obscure company had connections with two very famous names in our city and province’s history.
The San Juan Mining and Manufacturing Company was incorporated in 1905. It owned claims along the San Juan and Gordon Rivers, near Port Renfrew. These claims were rich in a number of minerals, but most notably alunite, an aluminium potassium hydrate mineral.
According to Aaron’s research, they had an office at 1210 Douglas St. (where Chapter’s is today) and a factory in Esquimalt, at the corner of Dunsmuir and Head streets.
The factory produced a variety of industrial and household products, including shoe blacking, blue and black inks, metal polish, Prussian blue alum, plate powders and, of course, mechanical soap.
Here is where this story gets really interesting: according to the company records, one of its founders was a man called William Fernie. Fernie gave his name to a town in eastern British Columbia and was largely responsible for the building of the railway through the Crow’s Nest Pass. He was also a prospector and miner, who contributed enormously to the development of the Kootney region.
In 1905, just around the time the San Juan Company was established, he retired to Victoria where he lived in a wonderful home on Oak Bay Avenue called Kimbolton (named for the place he was born in England in 1837).
Another name from Aaron’s research popped out at me. The company records list that in 1913, during the big pre-war real estate and economic boom, a man called John C. Newberry was listed as holding 50 per cent of the San Juan Company’s shares.
I can only assume this is the same John Cowper Newberry who is well-known in Victoria historical circles and whom my colleague John Adams has researched in the past. Newberry was at the head of his class when he attended Vic High in the 1870s, and was the winner of B.C.’s first Governor General’s medal for academics.
At the age of 16 he took up a teaching post at Craigflower School, but later settled in to life as a collector of customs for the port of Victoria. Cowper and Newberry Streets in the Gorge area are named for him.
Fernie died in 1921 and the San Juan Company went through a number of changes. In 1923 it became the Alunite Chemical Corporation. Then its record-keeping began to deteriorate and information becomes sparse.
In 1934, Newberry died, and it was around that period that the company finally began to fail. Amongst its limited records from that era were several letters from the government seeking unpaid dues and admonishing the company for not filing with the registrar of companies. By 1937 Alunite Chemical Corporation was bust.
This little story demonstrates how interconnected early Victoria residents were. This city had a small population, and the same names pop up again and again in a variety of intriguing enterprises. It feels appropriate that, despite Victoria’s large size today, this community of history buffs remains so close and connected.
– with thanks to Aaron and Ron Stefik
Kate Humble is an historian and the education curator for the Maritime Museum of B.C. Questions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.