British Columbia history, Historical documents, Historical novel, Historical research, Historiography, Novel excerpt, Real Estate, Research, Research Tip, social history, Writers

Port Moody passed over in favour of Vancouver


grayscale photography of railway surrounded by trees

Photo by Thomas Craig on

“The new town, called Vancouver, will no doubt be of some detriment to Port Moody”


This quote, comes from the 1887 BC Directory’s introduction to Port Moody, the city that had its designation as the terminus for the national railway pulled out from under it that year, in favour of Vancouver.

Rampant speculation, investment and enthusiasm ran high in the few years prior as Port Moody prepared for the onslaught of growth and investor interest that would come with the rail terminus.

But a syndicate of the CPR, headed by CPR Vice-president William Van Horne negotiated a deal with Premier William Smithe  to bring the terminus to Granville (later Vancouver) in exchange for 6000 acres of land.

Interestingly, title to this land went not to the company, but to two of its board members, Donald Smith and Richard Angus.

And you have to be suspicious when, a few years later, Smith and Angus, along with other Victoria government officials, businessmen, and politicians earned spectacular profits on real estate parceling and selling of that land.

This is an important piece of Vancouver’s earliest settler history. The speculative nature of real estate profiteering from the 1880s  established much of our local politics and business interests to this day.

Ironically, the world view that engendered this display of greed and avarice entirely dismissed any First Nations claims to this land in the first place.

In the novel I’m working on, set in Vancouver 1884-1913, I’m exploring these and related issues from a young settler woman’s perspective.

Reference Tip

I can’t tell you how much I love the old directories to get a snapshot of the moment from that time’s perspective and countless “reading between the lines” possibilities that they provide.

I consulted the early BC Directories to learn more about Port Moody when one of my characters wants to get out of Granville (later Vancouver) because he can’t stand the boredom and backwardness of it. I have him weighing the pros and cons of moving to New Westminster or Port Moody in the months before the final CPR announcement in favour of Vancouver.


Novel excerpt

Annie in the factory – excerpt from the novel in progress

I threw out the first four chapters of the novel I’ve been working on for the past year because I realized I needed to start the story later, when the protagonist Annie and her younger sister Mavis arrive in Granville (later Vancouver).

Some of it may still appear in bits and pieces as flashback in the completed manuscript, or maybe it’ll just silently inform my own writing as the story progresses.

Here’s an excerpt from the novel in progress so you can get an idea about it.  It’s from a short scene that I turfed. 

The setting is in a wool mill in Bradford, 1883.


Annie looked out the window to see the crows flying past, their voices cutting a sharp note through the din of the machinery. Any songbirds that might have added a sweeter tone had long since abandoned Bradford after they’d started falling to the ground dead from the surpherous filth that spewed out of hundreds of factories all day long.

From down the row, the foreman’s gravelly voice broke her reverie and triumphed over the clanging and whirring of spindles and  steam engines.

“Here! Morag! What be the  meaning o’ this?” he said, and shoved a piece of cloth under the girl’s nose.

He stank of sweat and stale beer and they could all smell him long before he was could sneak up and give them a hard time. He was especially cruel to the new girls and enjoyed seeing them wither under the lash of his tongue and, when he deemed it necessary, the four-tailed whip called the cat.

But Bert seemed happiest keeping them all in a state of apprehension. Until he wanted them for his own pleasure. And he always did. It was just a matter of time.

“We canna be selling this crap,” he said. “Maybe you think if it’s not good enough I’ll let you keep it for yourself and you can be a fancy lady?” he sneered.

“Fix it right smartly or you’ll be shown the door. This is the third time this week you’ve been told and I will na say it again”.

Morag whimpered like a dog who’d been kicked, and hunched over her work as if it would protect her from the ugliness of it all. She was a thin girl, no more than 14, like Mavis, with dirty hair and filthy clothes. And she smelled of old pee and smoke just like the rest of them. 

Morag was a new girl, still mourning her mother’s  recent death. Out of the corner of her eye Annie could see her wiping her eyes from time to time throughout the day and she knew she’d been crying. She hadn’t yet built up a tough skin to withstand the likes of Bert. And he knew it. Like most of the girls there, Morag had come from a farm not far away, and her father had been a good one, only beating her when she needed to learn a lesson.

Bert smiled to himself. Yes – he liked them like this.  Easily rattled. He would be back.

Annie heard Bert’s footsteps coming her way and willed him to keep moving. But he stopped right behind her, watching as she worked her machines. She stiffened and bent to her work feeling him watching her. She shivered inwardly, remembering the way his hands ran over her like water, his lips covering her mouth so that she could hardly breathe.

She said a silent prayer and willed him to move on and pick on one of the other girls – anyone but Mavis.

Bradford, England, Historical documents, Historical research, Industrial revolution, Novel excerpt, Research, Women, women's history, Yorkshire

Getting a feel for Bradford

No matter how much you read or watch, there’s nothing like travel to get a deeper feel for a place whether you’re doing historical research or not.

There are things you just don’t think of asking or looking for while researching a place from afar. And things that other sources might not mention because they seem too mundane or obvious.

But by being in a place, you absorb so much, whether consciously or not, that adds depth to understanding your story’s or your ancestors’ settings.

I spent a few days in Bradford in West Yorkshire this week, a place that’s currently going through some tough economic times.

I felt a sadness there – a feeling that was much more palpible than all the research I’ve been doing about the place over the past year.

Is this a vestige of its history? Did the working poor of the 19th century have the same apparent feeling of defeat as I perceived in Bradford this week?

A few people made a lot of money in the textile industry of Bradford in the 19th century.

But the vast majority of its 200,000 inhabitants, including thousands of children – and my protagonist Annie – worked 12-hour days in appalling conditions, earning barely enough to keep body and soul together.

And they lived in dark, dingy, and overcrowded housing surrounded by 200-foot high smokestacks spewing sulphurous smoke from factories throughout the city.

A classic Dickensian scene of the industrial revolution.

Adding to the misery, then and now, Bradford is a very windy place. Relentlessly so. And last week it was really cold too despite the spring season.

It wore me down the way I imagine it wore Annie down as she walked, hunched over in the pre-dawn light on her way to the factory where she worked.

But there were times when the simple pleasure of hearing songbirds chirping made me smile as I walked down the street, or looked out onto the famous moors of the Bronte sisters, and I imagined it bringing some happiness to Annie too.

Along with the more linear research I’ve done so far, I am holding fast to these feelings and impressions of Bradford, adding fuel to the fire of my imagination as I conjure up Annie’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

And also to work them into her memories as she traveled miles from the only home and life she ever knew before arriving in the village of Granville (later Vancouver), in 1885, a tiny settlement with a lumber mill, surrounded by towering evergreens, and a dearth of white women.

Bradford, England, Historical research, Industrial revolution, Novel excerpt, Women, women's history, Yorkshire

Bradford – where Annie comes from


I’m going to visit the city of Bradford next week – now the curry capital of the UK, so I’ll definitely be trying out curry and banghan bharta.

But the main reason I’m going, is because the protagonist of the novel I’m working on comes from there.  Her name is Annie and she was one of thousands of girls and young women who moved to Bradford to get work in a woolen mill. Here is a picture of what I imagine her to look like.

Originally Bradford was a small market town, with a population of about 7000 people. Up until about 1800, women came from the surrounding villages to sell their spun wool and cloth. But as technology developed, the home-spun work these women did couldn’t compete with the hundreds of yards of fabric that could be produced every day in the mills of Bradford.

It ended the century’s-old spinning and weaving tradition in the countryside. As a result, thousands of girls and women migrated to Bradford from the surrounding towns to get work in the factories, swelling the population to nearly 200,000 by 1850.

By then the city had earned a reputation for being the wool capital of the world, but at a cost.  There were frequent outbreaks of typhus and cholera and mill workers in the city had a life expectancy 20 years.

More than 200 chimneys spewed out sulphurous smoke, polluted the waterways with dyes and other chemicals and had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in England.

Annie and her sister Mavis are only 10 when they get pawned off by their orphanage, and sent to work 12-14  hours a day in one of the textile factories in Bradford

Archives, Historical documents, Historical research, Library, Novel excerpt, Research

The Journey Begins

The past is a different place – as different as any unfamiliar part of the world. Think of ancient China or Egypt or Greece.

The food people ate, the way they lived, the games they played, and the politics and economic systems that sustained them. All are different and foreign even to those of us who live now in those places.  Yet human nature – our capacity to love, worry, hate, and fear are universal and follow us across time and across oceans.

This is a blog for people who don’t consider themselves as historians but find they have a historical project in mind or need to carry out some historical research in the course of their work; people like writers, realtors, community developers, artists, and genealogists.

I’ll write about how to navigate in the rarified world of archives and how to track down obscure documents, trying to eliminate as much jargon as possible to streamline your research.

And I’ll take you on a winding journey as I share some of my own discoveries while researching the historical novel and short stories I’m currently working on set in early Vancouver of the late 1800’s.

Things like the likelihood that there would be wallpaper in the house of my protagonist in 1885. Or how long a wagon ride took from New Westminster to what later became the city of Vancouver and  how often they went.  Or the history of typewriters and if there would have been any to buy in Vancouver by 1890. Or which streets had sidewalks and how far they went before petering out into dirt, mud, and skunk-cabbage.

Before I can put my own imagination to work to place my characters in a setting or have them  interact to best build my plotlines, I need to think about the weather, the built environment, the clothes, animals, pests, illnesses,  timing of events, and all sorts of other details.

And although I initially carried out deep research to give me the historical framework for my story, it is during the writing process that I discover the gaps.

Then it’s off to the archives, or a library whether virtual or physical, into google search, maps, images, youtube, and blogs, down to museums, or union halls, the police station, or anywhere else I can think of to track down people or documents or artifacts that might give me the information or background I need.

As a writer, archivist, and community activist I spent many years helping others and contributing to local historical projects and publications and now I’d like to help you.

So pack your bags, grab your passport, and jump aboard as we travel together, back in time.


Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton