The late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century was a golden age of working class newspapers across North America.
Labour newspapers were launched across the continent to give news of workers’ actions and positions, a perspective largely absent from mainstream news reporting then and now.
The British Columbia Federationist was one of these early labour newspapers. Originally issued as the Western Wage Earner, it was owned and operated by the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC) that, at the time. was affiliated with 52 unions, representing 8000 (mostly male?) wage earners across the province.
Its motto was “The Unity of Labour; The Hope of the World” and its mandate was “to seek to reflect and voice the needs of organized labour”.
Edited by Parm Pettipiece, a leading socialist, the BC Federationist was published twice a month following VTLC meetings, and reported on its work, its decisions, and priorities. The paper also included reports from provincial unions generally, and on strikes and job actions in the province as well as Canadian Trades and Labour Congress Reports, and national and American labour news.
Each issue of the Federatist also included a directory of provincial unions and listed the officers and location of each member union, and the day, time, and location of their meetings.
Many of the unions represented in the Federationist are still in existence today, but others, like the ones listed below, are vestiges of a different era.
Street and Electric Railway Union
Paper Hangers and Decorators Union
Newspaper names and runs are notoriously difficult to pinpoint but from my preliminary research it seems like it ran until 1916 and later resurfaced as the BC Labour News in 1921.
The BC Federationist is a valuable resource, and, along with the Canadian Labour Gazette gives a rich snapshot of working class life and issues – a perspective that is generally under-represented in mainstream archival records.
“Major Matthews” – or simply “The Major” as he still is called in local archival circles, claimed the position of city archivist for himself in the 1930’s even though he was not at the time employed by the City of Vancouver.
The volumes of Early Vancouver contain information on a vast range of topics from city halls, to Hotel Vancouver construction, the fire of 1886, trees, streets, hockey teams, and Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations through story, photos, drawings, and maps – frequently accompanied by notes and commentary from Major Matthews.
There is a wealth of raw information woven into the stories depending on what the witness noticed, cared about, or thought was important. Sometimes you only get teasers about a subject because conversations veer off in other directions following the interviewee’s train of thought, making the exact meaning, timing, or relationships mentioned in a transcript unclear.
For example, here’s an account of the 1892 smallpox outbreak by early Vancouver Alderman W.H. Gallagher. In its essence, the story reveals the sense of panic and actions taken by the citizens of the city and its nascent civic administration to make sure noone with smallpox landed in Vancouver, but Gallagher also makes mention of the police and fire department at the time, as well, incidentally, about there being no road to Port Moody at the time.
“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a steamship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf.
The news soon spread through the little city.
“It was this way.
Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; afterwards the Charmer, and the Premier was an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers.
So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”
Major Matthews: Who started the fun?
Mr. Fraser: “The Premier. The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade.
Vancouver Fire Brigade outside Fire Hall #1 (Water Street) 1895 CVA AM54-S4-: FD P41
The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the” (cold water) “hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.”
Early Vancouver contains a lot of rich raw information but be aware that much of it needs to be untangled and cross-referenced in order for it to be comprehendible.
Still the stories give a feeling for the subject at hand, and the anecdotes suggest countless embryonic story ideas.
And now, since 2011, the 7-volume set is available electronically in 2011. Before that, researchers had to go in to the Archives to look at the print editions, consulting each volume’s index individually.
Now you can search across all seven volumes at once, or limit your search to a specific volume.
For keyword searches, use quotation marks for phrases.
Or use the advanced search page to do a Boolean-like search using the Ultraseek search engine over multiple fields (body, title, link etc) and by date.
Enjoy perusing this fascinating resource – as much a product of the time Major Matthews collected the stories as the actual information they convey.
Another sad loss in the local historical community this year was Professor Robert (Bob) A.J McDonald who died June 19, 2019
I met Bob while I worked at the City of Vancouver Archives in the 1990s while he was researching his book, Making Vancouver – Class, Status, and Social Boundaries – 1863-1913, a comprehensive social history of Vancouver’s development
He was always available and encouraging of the various historical projects I was working on including my tenure as president of the Vancouver Historical Society in the late 1990s. And one year, on International Women’s Day (IWD) he brought in an IWD button that he’d gotten in England many years before – an artifact!
Once, when my children were very young and I didn’t seem to get out much I ran into him on the street. The first thing he asked me was what (historical) project I was working on.
Bob was a great guy and as sad as his memorial service was it was also a beautiful tribute to his time with us on earth and I realized how many people he touched deeply. He led a rich life and contributed so much to our local historical knowledge – a local hero.
We know about the ravages of smallpox in the colonies of North America, and the devastation they brought to the First Nations communities here but lesser known is an outbreak that occurred in Vancouver in 1892.
Stories about the outbreak can be found within Early Vancouver, a 7-volume set of books filled with the documented interviews of early Vancouver settlers undertaken by the city’s first archivist Major James Skitt Matthews.
Early Vancouver includes stories and first-hand accounts and details about early Vancouver people, places, businesses, and events, including a few stories about the smallpox outbreak here, in 1892.
I will write about some of the idiosyncracies of Early Vancouver (of which there are many) in a later post but for now, here are some stories I found about the 1892 smallpox outbreak. In them you will also find information about the volunteer fire brigade, Port Moody, Dupont St (now part of East Pender St.), prostitution, the character of various streets in the city at that time, and more.
From Early Vancouver Vol 1, p. 85 from Mrs. J.Z. Hall
” I think it must have been in 1892 that we had the smallpox scare in Vancouver. It was supposed to have come in by the “Empresses”[steamships] from the Orient (sic).”
“It was a terrible July; yellow flags were everywhere; no one who went through it will forget the scare we got. Houses were quarantined back and front—there was no getting out of them; people were quarantined all over the city. We lived on Nelson Street—I was Miss Greer then—Nelson Street was very sparsely settled, so was Robson Street, but there were cases on Robson Street. One young man, [who helped] Mr. Hanna, the undertaker, contracted the disease and died.”
“It was the custom to put those stricken in an express wagon, and with the driver ringing a bell to keep people away, warning them, the load of sick, frequently girls from Dupont Street, who had been visited by the sailors from the Empresses, would be driven down to the dock, and taken by boat to Deadman’s Island”
From Early Vancouver Vol 4, p 171, from A.W. Fraser
“I saw the trouble the time the Premier [a ship] tried to land her passengers when we had the smallpox scare. I did not see the start; the news soon spread, and by the time I got there, there was a big crowd down on the C.P.R. wharf. The news soon spread through the little city.”
“It was this way. Capt. O’Brien was in command of the Premier, as she was then; an American ship; flew the American flag, and had been down at Seattle and of course, when she came in [to Vancouver] she had to pass the customs, and the health officer went on board and he found smallpox, and would not allow the passengers to land, and Capt. O’Brien was determined to land his passengers. So Capt. O’Brien mustered his passengers, and said he would land the whole crowd of them, and then the fun started.”
“The news spread like wildfire, and in those days we had only three or four policemen in town, and they could not handle the situation, so they called out the fire brigade. The fire brigade was all volunteers then, and I don’t know just all about it, because I was not there at the start, but the Premier turned her steam hose on to drive the crowd of onlookers on the wharf further back, and some of the crew on the Premier started to throw lumps of coal, and then the fire brigade turned on the [cold water] hose, and someone cut the ship’s line, and she drifted off into the harbour, and hung about for a while, and then she turned and headed for Port Moody, and of course there was no road to Port Moody then, and she went to Port Moody quicker than they could, and she went up to Port Moody and there was no one there to stop them landing the passengers.”
Since 2011 Early Vancouver has been available electronically, allowing for online searches.
I’ll write more about Major Matthews and about Early Vancouver in the weeks to come
One of the most valuable resources on trades and labour issues, including strkes is the Labour Gazette, produced by the Canadian government 1900-1978.
The federal Department of Labour (now Labour and Social Development Canada). was initiated by the Conciliation Act of 1900. The department’s mandate was to prevent and settle trade disputes and to publish accurate and statistical industrial information about conditions in Canadian industry and labour.
The department published the Labour Gazette, a monthly publication which began September 1900, following the same content and format of gazettes used in Britain and other commonwealth countries at the same time.
Local correspondents collected data and reported monthly on a wide range of labour and industry related events and evolving trends and statistics.
The Labour Gazette contains:
Reports from local correspondents on industry composition (gender, wage, productivity, and more) in cities and regions of the country
Reports from different industries (cigar-making, coal, fishing, farming, building trades and more)
Department of Labour reports
Lock-outs, strikes and other labour disputes
Cost of living reports
Lists of trade unions founded in the year of publication
Wage rates by industry
Lists of trade unions founded in the year of publication
Decisions on worker compensation claims
Relevant provincial legislation in the year of publication
It’s an immensely rich resource and can give you ideas for writing or other creative work grounded in history, or to allow you to create acccurate portrayals of working people at the time.
Each annual edition is made up of 12 bound reports with one comprehensive index at the very front.
The Vancouver Public Library has the Labour Gazette in an incomplete run spanning the years 1900-1942. They are located in the Business section of the library in compact shelving. The location can be confusing and access may require assistance from a librarian so be sure to ask for help.
Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa has the complete run of Labour Gazettes, but not in electronic format.
I’m toying with the idea of having either my protagonist, Annie, or her sister – or both – working at the New Westminster and Burrard Inlet Telephone Company (later BC Tel and later still, Telus) and taking part in a strike that really took place in Vancouver, against the company in the early 20th century.
On November 26, 1902, women telephone operators from the phone company, along with linesmen, inspectors, and repairmen struck for higher pay, shorter hours, and recognition of their union.
Telephones had already become crucial to running a business in Vancouver, so businessmen (sic) in the city supported the strikers and even offered to volunteer to help keep the service running while negotiations were underway.
A little over two weeks later, on December 12th, the company gave in to all of the strikers’ demands including implementation of an 8-hour work day and provision of three days sick leave per month.
Every phone operator who’d been with the company for six months or more received a raise of $2.50/month. This brought their pay up to $20/month, ($300/year), the poverty line at that time.
Long distance operators got $32.50/month, and linesmen $66/month.
Wet and heavy, the snow we get in Vancouver paralyzes the city for days to the delight of skiers and children. But for those who have to get to work or have no choice but to get somewhere, the snow can wreak havoc to their plans. Even public transit buses get stuck in the snow and city crews are kept busy clearing streets and putting up barricades to keep traffic off the steepest hills.
I wanted to find out about a real-life snowstorm in Vancouver- the likes of which we are familiar with here – for a scene in my story, in either 1911 or 1912 I wanted my protagonist, Annie to be stuck in her west-end home, alone and lonely with lots of time on her hands to think about something that was bothering her.
The Canadian government has weather records as far back as 1898, and, fortunately for me, there were records for Vancouver back to 1911.
I went through a few months when we generally have blizzards here in Vancouver, and identified a run of three days in November 1911 when the snow did not stop falling. This fit in perfectly with the scene I was working on and helped me pin down the next series of events in the story with historical accuracy.
Yipee! I’ve been trying for as much authentic historical accuracy as possible, but at times have had to fudge a few dates to fit the storyline, and create wholly fictionalized characters where I cannot accurately portray a real-life person from our city’s past.
At the same time, I’m trying to follow Jack Bickham’s advice from his book on Scenes and Settings about the importance of getting local facts right, including weather.
Originally I was going to assume sometime in November or December of either 1911 or 1912 for this scene, (because I wanted it to be before Christmas) and just pick a random date but Jack Bickham convinced me to make the extra effort to track down accurate local weather conditions for added authenticity.
The federal government weather statistics that exist cover average and extreme temperature ranges, rain, snow, and total precipitation, and wind gusts, by month and by specific day of the month. Plus more, no doubt, that I haven’t looked into. It’s fun to look at even if you don’t have a specific research project in mind.