SPILSBURY, Jim (1905-2003)




Author Tags: Art, Business, Essentials 2010, Haida Gwaii, Photography, Transportation

Raised in a tent, the Savary Island-based renaissance man, inventor, entrepreneur and quintessential West Coaster Jim Spilsbury co-wrote one of the classics of B.C. literature, Spilsbury’s Coast: Pioneer Years in the Wet West (1987) with Howard White, cementing his reputation as perhaps the most ingenious character in coastal history. He excelled in communications, transportation and art.

Jim Spilsbury was born in Findhorn, Derbyshire, England in 1905 but came to the B.C. coast in his infancy. His mother was a trouser-wearing suffragette and his father was a Cambridge-educated gentleman. Fascinated by the wireless as a boy, Spilsbury invented radio gear out of mail-order catalogue items that he received on Savary Island, a summer haven for well-to-do families from Vancouver. As a poor, year-round resident, Spilsbury fell in love with a rich girl and vowed to make himself worthy by earning his fortune. He never got the girl, but he got rich.

Starting as a salesman for his own radios in coastal logging camps, Spilsbury became Canada’s largest exporter of radio-telephone equipment, first manufacturing small radios in the 1920s. In 1941 he founded Spilsbury and Hepburn Ltd, later renamed Spilsbury and Tindall Ltd., and his products were used world-wide. One of his radio-telephones accompanied a Japanese climber who made a solo ascent of Mt. Everest.

One successful business wasn’t enough. Realizing that he could better serve his customers with a seaplane, Spilsbury co-founded Queen Charlotte Airlines in the 1940s and it became a lifeline for the “loggers, fishermen, stump ranchers, hermits, remittance men, Greek scholars, ex-prostitutes and outright lunatics” who had bought his radios. Spilsbury’s planes were known as “whistling shithouses” at the outset, due to their extremely rudimentary toilet facilities, but by the time QCA merged with Pacific Western Airlines in 1955, Spilsbury had become co-owner of Canada’s third largest airline. Later Pacific Western would morph into Canadian Airlines, the chief competition for Air Canada.

Ironically, as outlined in Spilsbury’s second co-authored bestseller, The Accidental Airline (1984), a fatal air crash early in the history of QCA had actually helped the fledgling outfit by providing much-needed national publicity. Many years later, when he became the subject of a documentary film screened nationally on CBC as Spilsbury’s Coast, the feisty octogenarian was not averse to chuckling about this fact.

Upon retirement from business, Spilsbury developed his third vocation as a raconteur and painter of coastal scenes. At 81, he had his first art exhibit. He also published a collection of his coastal photographs called Spilsbury’s Album (1990). His enormous archive of self-developed, meticulously catalogued, b&w photographs is housed at UBC Special Collections.

Jim Spilsbury died 30 minutes past midnight, of heart failure, on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003. The National Museum in Ottawa later erected a permanent ‘Spilsbury booth’ to represent the essence of West Coast culture. “Of all the characters I’ve come across,” says his publisher and co-author Howard White, “he was the most fun, the most entertaining. He loved being alive and he loved being on the B.C. coast.”

[The first two coastal history books about the life and times of Jim Spilsbury were co-authored by his publisher, Howard White, winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour for his non-fiction collection Writing in the Rain (1990). For more information on B.C. publishers as authors, and B.C. publishing, see abcbookworld entries for Aligizakis, Manolis; Anastasiou, Kip; Anstey, Robert; Antonson, Rick; Barlee, N.L.; Basque, Garnet; Bendall, Raymond; bissett, bill; Brett, Brian; Bringhurst, Robert; Brown, Earl; Brown, Jim; Budd, Ken; Campbell, Betty; Campbell, Gray; Castle, Stephanie; Chaplin, Robert M.; Coney, Michael Greatrex; Douglas, Diana; Downs, Art; Elsted, Crispin; Fred, Randy; Fredeman, Jane; Garden, John; George, Paul; Goldsmith, Penny; Grundle, Jack; Gursche, Siegfried; Hancock, David; Hanebury, Derek; Hatch, Ronald; Heal, S.C.; Hoffer, William; James, Jack; Katz, Michael; Kaufman, Brian; Kirk, H.; Lester, David; Lorimer, Rowland; Lugrin, Nora de Bertrand; Mallandaine, Edward; Marks, Vic; Matheson, George; Mayne, Seymour; McConnell, William; McDonald, Herbert; Milton, Ralph; Mitchell, Howard; Olafson, Richard; Opre, Kal; Osborne, Stephen; Pass, John; Persky, Stan; Plant, Judith; Reid, Robert; Rimmer, Jim; Ross, Julian; Safarik, Allan; Schwartzentruber, Michael; Siegler, Karl; Smith, Cherie; Smith, Ron; Soules, Gordon; Sturmanis, Dona; Such, Peter; Taylor, Andrea; Thomson, Robert S.; Touchie, Rodger (and Pat); Tyrrell, Bob; Varney, Edwin; Wakan, Naomi; Walker, Michael; Werschler, Terri; West, Ann; White, Silas; Wilmott, Norah Mannion; Wilson, Cynthia; Windsor, John; Yandle, Anne; Yates, J. Michael; Zebroff, Kareen; Zonailo, Carolyn.] @2010.

[BCBW 2010] "Aviation"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Accidental Airline: Spilsbury's QCA