WALBRAN, John Thomas

Author Tags: 1900-1950, Maritime, Place Names

"He is -- and will remain -- without peer." S.E. Read on Walbran

Before there was Spilsbury's Coast, there was Walbran's Coast. Remembered as the namesake for the Walbran Valley, Walbran Creek, Walbran Rock and Walbran Point, Captain John T. Walbran produced a seminal work derived from his hobby of investigating place names. It has been said that any captain worth his salt on the B.C. coast travels with a well-thumbed copy of Walbran's British Columbia Coast Names, the full title of which is British Columbia Coast Names, 1592-1906, To Which Are Added a Few Names in Adjacent United States Territory; Their Origin and History. With Map and Illustrations (1909).

Born in Ripon, Yorkshire, England on March 23, 1848, J.T. Walbran left Ripon Grammar School at age 14 to become a cadet on the H.M. School Frigate Conway. His first ship was the Bedfordshire. By 1881 he received his master mariner's certificate from the port of Liverpool. He arrived in B.C. in 1888 as the first officer of the steamship Islander for the Canadian Pacific Navigation Company. He took charge of the S.S. Danube in 1890. It was soon bought and renamed Salvor by the B.C. Salvage Company. In 1891, Walbran joined the Canadian government's Department of Marine and Fisheries concerned with lighthouses, buoys, etc. He was sent to Paisly, Scotland for the building of the Quadra, a vessel he sailed to the West Coast and commanded from 1891 to 1908. Although he was mainly inspecting lighthouses and buoys, Walbran ran a tight ship in man-of-war fashion. His civilian seamen wore 'sailor-rig' uniforms, he 'shipped' a long sword, made sure his men were trained on 12 Martini-Henry rifles and held roll call and church services every Sunday morning. He was also a stipendiary magistrate.

After Walbran retired from government service in 1903, he lived on the south side of James Bay and diligently researched his one, 546-page book that appeared in 1909. It had credited input from 65 informants including Bishop Edward Cridge, Dr. J.S. Helmcken, W.J. Macdonald and Thomas Lowe who had been present as a child when Fort Victoria was founded. "Clearly Walbran had no intention of writing a directory or handbook," wrote S.E. Read in BC Studies (Summer, 1972). "He loved the sea and its ships; he dwells lovingly on such details as tonnage, rigging, and armament... he writes hundreds of capsule biographies... he describes events large and small... he provides the reader with a host of cross-references; and he commonly cites the sources used in the compiling of an entry.... In short, he was a maker of history, as well as an historian.... Certainly, all other works on the place names of this province must forever stand in his shadow; he is -- and will remain -- without peer."

Walbran was well known as a storyteller and amateur historian. In 1901 he researched and wrote an important article for the Victoria Colonist about the first voyage of Captain Charles Barkley and his wife Frances Barkley that was based on his access to Frances Barkley's sea diary, a diary that has since disappeared. This diary was once presumed to have been burned in a house fire at Westholme on Vancouver Island in 1909, but historian Beth Hill later uncovered some evidence to suggest it might have existed until about 1953. [See Frances Barkley entry.] Walbran's article entitled 'The Cruise of the Imperial Eagle' provides essential details about Captain Charles Barkley's maritime explorations in 1787 that were not included in Frances Barkley's notebook memoir, written when she was 66, and published posthumously as Reminiscences. Specifically he makes clear how Captain John Meares later took credit for some of the original navigataional achievement of Captain Barkley, having had Barkley's ship's journal in his possession. Walbran died at age 64 in Victoria's St. Joseph's Hospital on March 31, 1913. His wife Anne had died six years earlier. Both are buried in Ross Bay Cemetery.


British Columbia Coast Names, 1592-1906, To Which Are Added a Few Names in Adjacent United States Territory; Their Origin and History. With Map and Illustrations (Ottawa. Government Printing Office, 1909). Reprinted by J.J. Douglas Ltd., 1971; 1977.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Classic" "1900-1950" "Maritime" "Place Names"