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  • Walbran Park’s namesake

    By Danda Humphreys

    A turn-of-the-century sea captain continued his coastal explorations by writing about the history behind the names of the places he had earlier visited.



    Cairn commemorating Captain Walbran in Walbran Hill Park. The cairn lies just outside the City of Victoria. 


    If you’ve biked, walked or driven westward around McNeill Bay, you’ve probably noticed the stone cairn up on Gonzales Hill that reminds us of the Spanish explorers who sailed these waters in the 1700s. Gazing across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the top of that hill, you’re mere steps away from a park named after one of British Columbia’s most memorable mariners. In his later years, Captain John Thomas Walbran published a book on the historic origin of names around BC’s coastline, and yes—those Spanish explorers were featured in its pages.

    Captain Walbran had come a long, long way from his beginnings in Yorkshire, England.

    When he was born in 1848, Queen Victoria was in her 20s. The Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading post named in her honour on the southern tip of Vancouver Island was still a small settlement. And James Douglas was still based at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, though he would soon become Chief Factor at Fort Victoria, the HBC’s new northern headquarters.

    While Walbran was attending Yorkshire’s Ripon Grammar School, Fort Victoria was surrounded by only a few farms. There were no streets— just a trail that led through forest, marsh and meadow from the fort’s east gate to the First Nations village and encampment at Cadboro Bay. Then came the 1858 Fraser River gold rush. Victoria was incorporated as a city in 1862 while Walbran was still training for sea service in England on H.M. school frigate Conway. By the time he qualified as a master mariner in 1881, Victoria was the capital of British Columbia, BC had entered Confederation, and James (now Sir James) Douglas was dead.

    Walbran’s career as a mariner progressed steadily. By 1888, he was working for the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company, and within two years was serving as captain of the SS Danube. Joining the Marine and Fisheries service in May 1891, he went to Paisley in Scotland to attend the building of the Canadian Government Steamship Quadra. He captained the new vessel from Scotland to this coast, thus entering a new phase in his life.

    Walbran worked for BC’s lighthouse, buoy and fisheries service. His duties took him up and down the coast, examining, inspecting, and reporting his findings. He sailed into almost every bay, explored every inlet. Along the way, he amassed a vast knowledge of seafarers and seafaring stories, which he passed on to an enthralled public through a lecture series on his return.

    Walbran was intrigued to note that he was following the routes taken by the great 18th-century British and Spanish navigators, men with names like Cook, Cordova, Vancouver, Quadra, Quimper and Galiano. By the time he retired from government service in 1903, he had gathered enough information to form the basis for his most enterprising and enduring project—a study of BC coastal names.

    Walbran and his family were now living in James Bay on the corner of Dallas Road and Menzies Street. In the relative peacefulness of turn-of-the-century Victoria, it was the perfect location for the retired mariner to concentrate on research and writing, near to the ocean he loved so well.

    In 1906 he ventured for the first time to make public mention of his new project, and scoured public libraries and private collections for additional information. When British Columbia Coast Names: Their Origin and History was published in 1909, its list of acknowledgements included, among others, James Bay neighbours Dr J.S. Helmcken, Bishop Cridge and Senator W.J. Macdonald. An impressive array of printed and manuscript sources ranged from Captain George Vancouver’s Voyage of Discovery to Swanton’s Haida Texts, and from the Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle to the HBC’s early Nanaimo and Fort Simpson posts’ journals. Walbran gathered personal recollections from people like Thomas Lowe, who had been present at the founding of Fort Victoria, and Captain G.H. Inskip, RN, who had skippered HMS Virago during her coastal surveys in the 1850s. In all, he credited 65 individuals with contributing information.

    To this day (and now in its umpteenth reprint), Walbran’s book makes for fascinating reading. It is not just a historical directory of place names. Providing far more detail than one might expect in such a document, it is a history in itself, an alphabetized account of the colonized West Coast’s earliest beginnings and the people who bore witness to them. And now journalist Andrew Scott of Sechelt has a written and updated (and longer) version, called The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names: A Complete Reference to Coastal British Columbia, published by Harbour Publishing in honour of the 100th anniversary of Walbran’s landmark work.

    Captain Walbran died at the age of 64 in March 1913, at St Joseph’s Hospital. The family home stands to this day on Dallas Road near the corner of Menzies. Walbran’s wife and daughters are commemorated by Cape Anne, Florence Island and Ethel Island, while the man himself is remembered in Walbran Island, Rock and Point, and that little patch of parkland on Gonzales Hill.

    Danda Humphreys has written several books about Victoria’s early history and the people who helped create it. www.dandahumphreys.com.

    This story was published in the November 2009 edition of Focus Magazine.


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