History of English Bay


History of English Bay

English Bay & the West End, the beginning

Some of the origins of this grand city were stemmed from a great deal of foresight by a number of clever pioneers. Beneath the glitz and slick lines of this rapidly growing urban centre lies an interesting, simple and honest heritage, crafted by individuals who knew a good thing when they saw it. A fair amount of this success stems from some wise moves made little over a century ago in what is now the West End…

Stepping back to 1862, a District Lot – number 185 – was bought for $550.75 by a John Morton, potter, plus two mates – Samuel Brighouse and William Hailstone. The lot comprised of what is now the entire West End – 540 acres. Morton was the first to have some insight unto the area’s great future, but his speculation was in the form of a hope that they could farm, mine and make bricks on the land. Their investment in this remote piece of rainforest was considered a frivolous one by many, earning them the nickname, “Three Greenhorns”. Brickmaking in this area did indeed fail however, as it was too far from industrial New Westminster, where many of their buyers resided. Instead, they turned their attention to selling the land as lots, claiming “New Liverpool” would soon be a major city. Once again they had little success.

Eventually, in 1886, they were persuaded to donate 1/3 of the property to Canadian Pacific Rail (CPR) as an incentive for them to build their railway through to Coal Harbour, hoping that this may bring people to the area to buy the lots. By the time CPR had made it to Gastown however, the “Three Greenhorns” had parted ways, feeling that they had been cheated.

In 1887, the lots finally did begin to sell, with prices ranging from $350 to 1000, as people realized the potential of the area. With CPR building rail lines, a hotel was going up, roads were being laid through the area plus the establishment of Stanley Park, lots began to move quickly. By 1888, the area was gaining respectability and had swiftly become an attractive investment to wealthy and elite buyers with fine views across Burrard Inlet and a reasonable distance from the smelly warehouses of Gastown.

For a brief couple of decades the West End catered to the rich. Carriages carted well-dressed women around town in the day and well-groomed horses, carriages or motor cars brought the gentlemen home from their offices and stores along Granville and in Gastown. Tram lines were built along Robson, Denman and Davie and shops were established along the lines. With the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the century, tens of thousands of people were enticed to Vancouver and the West End really began to fill up.


The name ‘West End’ in 1887 emerged from the Vancouver School Board’s decision to build a school in the area (Lot 185). The term ‘West End’ was coined from their newly named facility, the ‘West End School’.

Amazing mansions continued to go up. Most famous, still standing and “probably the most lavish private home ever constructed in B.C.” was ‘Gabriola’, on the corner of Davie and Nicola. Gabriola was built in 1900 for Benjamin Tingley Rogers, a sugar refiner from New York City. Rogers came to Vancouver at age 24, and in 1892 opened the ‘B.C Sugar Refinery,’ quickly becoming one of Vancouver’s most important businessmen, known by all as the ‘Sugar King’.

The mansion for the Rogers family was designed by Samuel Maclure, a well known residential architect at the time and was built from stone brought from Gabriola Island – hence its original name. The mansion was sold in 1918 after Benjamin died and his widow moved into Shannon, a new mansion in Shaughnessy, the now fashionable area for the rich. Gabriola was then converted into apartments with over 50 suites, eventually turning into a series of restaurants, as it stands today.

Soon the middle class had discovered the area, and the West End ceased to be exclusive. The wealthy moved to Shaughnessy and the mansions were turned into rooming houses, albeit elegant ones. As the depression hit, these rooming houses became further divided and the once well-to-do West End was no more.

Post WW2 immigration revived the West End, not to mention the lifting of a 1927 bylaw which previously banned buildings over 6 stories. In 1957, this opened up the saturated area to high rise developers hoping to cash-in on the exciting urban lifestyle that the West End had to offer. Once again, people and businesses poured in, enticed by stunning North Shore views, English Bay beach, Stanley Park and the influx of shops close at hand. For the next 15 years, many early century houses were replaced by 20 – 30 story apartment buildings.

By 1973, the council decided to down-size the area in order to slow down population growth, cut down on noise and traffic, and to restore the West End to more of a ‘neighborhood.’ Canada’s most densely populated area slowed to 45,000 and has since maintained that population. Residential streets were blocked to squeeze traffic out of the area and back to the main routes. At these junctions, mini-parks were built and throughout the area a respect for the preservation of the area’s heritage buildings became a priority. Building began to go low-rise again and a sense of neighbourhood pride has emerged.

A jumbled mix of many eras, the West End is still Vancouver’s playground, home to its most popular beach (English Bay), its most popular shopping street (Robson) and its strong gay community.

English Bay Beach

The beach has always been popular, especially after sand was added in 1898 and people began to build themselves cottages where they would spend their summers. It’s hard to imagine that in order to reach the beach in the 1890’s, one had to follow trails through the bushes and then, when you arrived, the beach was divided in two by a large rock, men on one side and women on the other! In the early 1900’s, a wooden bathhouse was built (people no longer had to change behind the bushes) and a walking pier with a glassed-in dance hall called “The Prom” were added. The current concrete bathhouse was constructed in 1931 while, seven years later, the pier and dance hall were both torn down.

English Bay beach, which was termed ‘Ayyulshun’ by the Indians meaning ‘soft under feet,’ was established in 1893 with a few beach shacks built there. The name ‘English Bay’ commemorates the meeting of the British Captain Vancouver and Spanish captains Valdes and Galiano, in 1792. This is the event that also resulted in Spanish Banks’ name.

A significant figure in the history of this beach is ‘old black Joe,’ a Barbados-born man that made English Bay his home in the 1890’s and made a considerable impact on the lives of those who knew him. We have dedicated a section to Joe where you can find out a bit more about this local hero.

The origin of West End street names

Denman Street: named after Admiral Denman, the hero of the bloodiest naval scene ever fought on the coast of B.C. A rebellious Vancouver Island tribe suffered a bombardment of 9 villages and 64 canoes lost.

Davie Street: Vancouver’s Premier of B.C. in 1887, Honorable A.E.B. Davie was Vancouver’s first openly homosexual politician. A group of friends of Davie’s formed the seed of what is now Canada’s largest gay community.

Robson Street: named after Honorable John Robson, Provincial Secretary in 1883 and Premier of B.C. from 1889-92.

Morton Street: the West End’s original founder, John Morton

Many of the area’s streets are named after naval officers: Bidwell (Bedwell was the actual officer’s name), Broughton, Denman, Haro and Pendrell. All were named by Lachlan Hamilton, assistant land commissioner of the CPR when Vancouver was born. He was responsible for envisioning the importance that Vancouver would have in the future and thus laid out the streets as we see them today, even though they were laid out far beyond the spatial needs for the time.

Vancouver ‘Millionaires’ win The Stanley Cup – on Denman Street!

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Denman Arena was a huge brick building built by Frank Patrick and brother Lesterin in 1911 at 1805 West Georgia at the corner of Denman. At the time, it was the largest indoor ice rink in the world. In order to make their new league competitive, the brothers stole players from the National Hockey Association and created the Vancouver Millionaires – hockey flourished in this good playing environment. The 1914-15 season saw the Millionaires become Western champions. The Ottawa Senators were Eastern champs and they played at Denman arena for the Stanley Cup. The Millionaires won with ease and had their names engraved onto the cup! In 1936, the Denman arena was sadly destroyed by fire.

Joe Fortes

In 1884, the vessel “Robert Kerr” left from England. On board was Seraphim Fortes, a man from Barbados who had been living in Liverpool working as a bath attendant and swimming instructor. On its way to Victoria, the “Robert Kerr” was wrecked and had to be towed into Burrard inlet. It was here in Vancouver that Seraphim was to stay, soon to have a great impact on the lives of those he met.


Fortes was also a competitive swimmer and had even been presented with a first place medal by the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London.

Joe, as he soon became known, lived through a time of great development for Vancouver as well as disaster – on June 13th 1886 a fire completely destroyed the infant city in only 20 minutes!

After working as a shoeshine boy, handyman and porter at Gastown’s Sunnyside Hotel, Joe Fortes became the barman at the ‘Bodega Saloon’ on Cardova and Carrall Streets (where the Ranier Hotel now stands). He quickly became very popular with the patrons and at the same time kept everyone in line – he wasn’t shy about discouraging excessive drinking!

Soon Joe discovered English Bay and fell in love with the beach and the sea. He quit his job at the saloon and moved into a tent on the beach, supporting himself with the odd labouring job. Every spare moment he now had was spent teaching the children how to swim and patrolling the beach – he had become English Bay’s self-appointed unpaid lifeguard..

“Every morning, all year round, he swam in the bay and drank his ‘medicine’ – a cup of salt water. All day, when not working as necessity demanded, he ‘managed’ the beach. As the West End filled up, he became known to the elders as ‘English Bay Joe,’ and to the children simply as ‘Ol’ Black Joe’. And the children were his delight; scarcely a tyke who was raised in Vancouver in the 1890’s or 1900’s but learned to swim with Joe’s ham-like fist gripping the back of his or her cotton bathing suit and that deep, mellow voice ordering, “Kick yo’feet, chile – kick yo’ feet.”…Mothers confidently shooed their children away to the bay for the long summer days with the simple command, ..’and don’t go away from where Joe is..’ ” *

At the turn of the century, Joe Fortes was appointed Vancouver’s first official lifeguard and swimming instructor gaining the authority of ‘special constable.’ Around the same time he moved into a little cottage at the foot of Gilford Street. When the City decided to clear all the houses from the beach, the Mayor, agreeing with public opinion, granted special permission for Joe’s cottage to be moved up by the bandstand in the park, keeping Joe as close to ‘his’ beach as possible.

“Joe belonged to the beach, and the beach to Joe. From dawn to dark and long after dark, he was host to picnickers, chaperone to courting couples and a terror to hoodlums.” *

Although ‘officially’ Joe is credited to saving 29 lives, it is believed the real number exceeds 100 and in 1910, for his great service to the public, Joe received a gold watch, a cheque and an illuminated address from the City.

“In January 1922, Joe became ill. At mid-month he was carried to Vancouver General hospital with a severe case of pneumonia, halting his stretcher on the way to give minute instructions to the constable on the beat for the care of ‘his’ bay. To all the city, the news came as a shock, for he had become a permanent and indestructible institution. The hospital telephones rang constantly, and his room was knee deep in flowers every day. February fourth came death for Seraphim Fortes.” *

The Holy Rosary Cathedral was crowded with people from all walks of life the day of Joe Fortes funeral. “High and low, rich and poor, labourer and merchant, logger and miner, housewife and socialite, policeman and pickpocket, old and young”. The city paid for his lavish funeral, with thousands of residents lining Granville and Hastings Streets as the funeral passed by. All had come to say goodbye to their brave, kind and modest friend.

In Alexandra Park, where Joe had lived, a drinking fountain was erected in 1927 by the citizens of Vancouver. Created by sculptor Charles Marega, the fountain is low enough for small children to reach and the inscription simply says ..

“Little children loved him”

* extracts by Alan Morley from ‘Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis’


18 Replies to “History of English Bay”

  1. The history of English Bay begins in 1862? Ouch. The racism would matter less if your ‘history’ page were not so high in google search rankings for “english bay history”

    1. Hey friend, I wrote the original history on this site many years ago and it was meant to be a brief look at the place called “English Bay” not an all-encompassing deep history of the area. Let’s not take political correctness too far

      1. HI there, I concur with GG, even tho this page was done ‘long ago’, this still pops up under searches and your ‘outdated’ verbage and complete lack of acknowledgement that this is unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh Nations is glaring and causing damage. I suggest you update your site to include the very active presence of the Nations historically and presently- as well as on the violence and injustice of how the West End was colonised.

  2. Are they still open? They always appear to be locked. Were they originally for changing into bathing attire?

    Were they used as bath houses? Does the polar bear club use the bath house for changing?

  3. Your “History of English Bay, Origins of West End Street Names” says “Honorable AEB Davie was Vancouver’s first openly homosexual politician. A group of friends of Davie’s formed the seed of what is now Canada’s largest gay community”. This claim comes up in the media every so often; I have been pursuing this story for 15 years. Regrettably, I have found absolutely no documentary evidence to support the claim, in any of the history books or archival resources. I have concluded that the claim is wishful thinking.

    I am still hoping that perhaps I have missed some authoritative source. What is your source for the statement that Davie was gay?

    Ron Dutton, BC Gay and Lesbian Archives

    1. Hi Ron, I was the original creator of the website called englishbay.com way back in 1997. Literally so long ago that I had to educate people in the area what the Internet actually was to prospective businesses on the business listings! Lol
      In response to your question, much of the research for the website had to be done using library books as the internet was so nominal back then that it lacked much useful info to draw off of. As for the legitimacy of the claim about Davie, I guess that you might have to dig up some of those old books and suss out their references. However, I did not fabricate the claim…it was definitely part of the research I did for the site.

  4. I would love to know where you got the information that the Honorable A.E.B. Davie was an uncloseted gay man. He was married with four children, and although that was par for the course for any man in public life at the time, gay or straight, I have not found one corroboration of the fact.

    1. Hi Lizzy, I was the original creator of englishbay.com. Check out my response to Ron regarding this issue!

  5. This is really a question, rather than a comment. I am hoping that someone who manages this site can refer me to the source of their information to the effect that Premier Alexander Davie was “Vancouver’s first openly homosexual politician,” and that “A group of friends of Davie’s formed the seed of what is now Canada’s largest gay community”

    I have heard and read this many times. I am a life-long West End resident, the original gay columnist for the Georgia Straight in the 1970s, and currently have a twice-monthly column in DailyXtra, for which I am researching this story.

    Any information you can provide would be appreciated.


  6. Elm grove at English Bay has 5 Elm trees I was once told each tree was planted in memory of 5 men
    Is this true ?

    1. Sorry for the extreme lateness of getting this posted. Newly reworking the site and just saw this comment. I know you are no longer looking for a reply…. And sadly I do not know the answer.

    1. Sorry! I know you are no longer waiting on my reply!! However as the webmaster I am getting around to clearing out old posts and spam comments. This one is finally approved. Thanks for the catch! FUNNY.

  7. I live on Vancouver Island. As a kid I heard rumour that the sand from Coles Bay in North Saanich (near Sidney) had been moved over to English Bay. The article says “sand was added” in 1898. Is there any record of the added sand coming from Coles Bay?

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