The Hotel Wilson in Nanaimo (next door to the office of the Nanaimo Free Press) was the location of the 1900 Native Sons Banquet. (Royal B.C. Museum and Archives)

The Hotel Wilson in Nanaimo (next door to the office of the Nanaimo Free Press) was the location of the 1900 Native Sons Banquet. (Royal B.C. Museum and Archives)

Column: 1900 banquet celebrated first Nanaimo Pioneers

Mayor Mark Bate hosted event that was 'merry as a marriage bell,' says historian T.W. Paterson


Never did the spacious banqueting hall of the Hotel Wilson present a more gay or attractive aspect than last evening with the tables set ready for the celebration of the 46th anniversary of the landing here of the pioneers from England on the H.B.Co.’s bark Princess Royal,” begins the lengthy account in the Nanaimo Free Press of Nov. 28, 1900.

The occasion, as noted, was to mark the arrival of the first white families and was hosted by Post. No. 3 of the Native Sons of B.C. You don’t hear of this group or the Hotel Wilson these days—or much about Nanaimo’s forefolk, either.

It was an evening of reminiscing, many of those attending being direct descendants of the Royal’s passengers (some of them had been childhood passengers themselves) and the city’s first local-born generation.

An historian would give blood to have been present, to have been able to record their life stories straight from the horses’ mouths. Some of them had known Nanaimo from its beginnings, when it consisted of little more than the Bastion and a clutch of HBCo. buildings and homes.

Host for the evening was Mayor Mark Bate, who, fortunately, has left posterity some excellent word-sketches of early Nanaimo that are considered priceless by historical researchers. All went “merry as a marriage bell,” it was said of the historic event, and the food was good, too. After the tableware was cleared away the men lit up their cigars (another indication of just how long ago this was), toasted the Queen, then the president of the United States in recognition of “the kinship existing between the people of the States and our own”.

Only then did they get down to the meat of the evening, reminiscing. George Bevilocky said he was just eight years old when his parents arrived and he’d never been farther than San Francisco since. He’d tried his hand at most lines of work over almost half a century, from shipbuildng to serving as a shipboard steward to coal mining. He’d served underground for seven years as a “box-pusher” before becoming a boss and moving on to business. (Applause.)

City Clerk Sam Gough gave what was described as a humorous description of the trials and tribulations of the first settlers, speculating that some of them, had they known the hardships that faced them, might never have come to the New World. Even the voyage itself—almost six months in duration—had been difficult and he remembered with affection the old sailor who’d taken it upon himself to see that the children “had full rations of plum duff and other sea delicacies in plenty”.

While looking over some old papers recently, he’d come across an agreement his father had signed with the HBCo. in 1854 to dig coal, “so many tons at two shillings per ton. Prices are now somewhat better than they were in those days for coal-getting,” he noted with obvious sarcasm, to laughter and applause.

He recalled his first night in Nanaimo, spent in an old, one-room house on the site of what became City Hall. The Goughs shared it with another family, protected only slightly from the cold by carpets nailed to the walls. Many a time he’d “lain in bed and listened to the rats scampering up and down amongst the rafters”.

One night his mother and father were alarmed by a row at the other end of the house, “thinking murder was being done,” only to discover that a rat, also seeking warmth, had chosen to explore the clothing of the woman who shared their quarters. As she was still wearing them, she panicked, shrieked and proceeded to “divest herself of several important articles of raiment”.

This reminiscence (he was careful not to mention names) elicited a great round of laughter and applause and Gough concluded his presentation by expressing the hope that the city’s current pioneers would “be long spared to enjoy their reunions”.

A. McGregor could hardly call himself one of the Royal Princess pioneers, he modestly averred, being too polite to rub in the fact that he was already in Nanaimo when the colonist ship arrived. He recalled how, aged 12, he’d watched the arrival of the HBCo. miners and their families: “Nanaimo was a very different place then from what it is now. There were not more than two dozen houses all told, stretching from about the site of the present court house to where Mr. James Hirst’s store is today. Roads and bridges were unknown, all the settlers had in that line were the forest paths made by wild animals, and there were plenty of them, too. The whole town lay on the lower side of the ravine, across from that was dense forest.”

When McGregor’s family had arrived on Vancouver Island, Fort Victoria was “simply a trading post with about a half-a-dozen buildings enclosed within a palisade or stockade. There were neither roads or trails and no bridges, and certainly none of the luxuries were enjoyed. Indeed, the early settlers had barely the necessities of life, and they were hard[y] enough to get [by].

He’d attended school there while his parents went on to Nanaimo. When it was time for him to join them his mother, accompanied by a woman friend and escorted by an HBCo. officer, had fetched him in a canoe. It took them three days to make the trip south, McGregor recalling that they were stopped at Cowichan Gap by an armed party of Cowichans who were at war with northern tribes. Once their identities were made known they were allowed to proceed to Victoria, although they were checked out a second time before they arrived.

McGregor hoped that the evening’s reminiscences would give those present “some idea of the difficulties of transport in the early days, and show them how well off they are today with their scores of steamers. There was only one steamer on the North Pacific in those days, the first steamer that ever turned a wheel in the Pacific, the old HBCo.’s steamer Beaver.”

Times had indeed changed. His first trip to Victoria had taken three days—his most recent trip had taken three hours. Other wonderful changes had taken place in British Columbia in just 40 years; he believed that these had largely been brought about by the pioneers. Looking back, it seemed to him that it was but a short time indeed: “Many people who come to this country now will tell you the pioneers have done nothing for the country, that they have been asleep all this time, but those people should understand they could not enjoy the ease they now do if it [hadn’t] been for the exertions and enterprise of those old pioneers. (Applause.)

Chief of Police William Stewart (who did much to save the landmark Bastion for posterity by putting his chain gangs to work at maintaining it] declared that he was pleased to be a guest of “this very rising society” and he predicted that Nanaimo would become B.C.’s largest city. (Hear! Hear!)

He recounted how he’d arrived in the future province shortly after the Fraser River gold rush, during the time of the San Juan Island dispute with the United States. When he first set eyes on Nanaimo it was “pretty well settled, but the same class of buildings now to be seen did not then exist. There was only Front Street at that time.” He believed that great credit was due city councils of the past three decades for their enterprise: “They[‘ve] done much for Nanaimo; indeed, they[‘ve] done wonders for the place,” and he was glad to see so many of the older pioneers there that evening. Many more of them, sad to say, were “now lying out in the cemetery on Comox Road”. Fortunately, a few were left who remembered those early days although they too would soon pass on.

But, he was sure, they wouldn’t be forgotten and he expressed the hope that society would continue to prosper. (Applause.)

Nanaimo News Bulletin