You Take One Down

The bottles in these photographs all come from the Columbia Square site. This was the old site of the electric light station, in an area once known as “The Swamp,” near what used to be New Westminster’s western edge in the 1800s. It was also where the city’s second Chinatown stood, and where many Japanese-Canadians lived and worked.

The area went through a number of incarnations. A red-brick electrical light building was on the site from 1891 to the 1940s. New Westminster was the first municipality on the West Coast to run its own power utility, turning the lights on in January 1891. For fuel, the plant’s power generators used unlimited sawdust delivered by chute from the nearby Royal City Planing Mills.

Eventually, the city started purchasing its power from the BC Electric Company and sold the building to Westminster Iron Works Company in 1907. Safeway took over the site in 1950, and then it was a London Drugs. These days, most people know it as the Columbia Square shopping centre, with Save-On-Foods and Cockney Kings.

In October 2008, museum curator Rob McCullough plotted out the site map and photographed work there. As Columbia Square Plaza Ltd construction workers found objects in the ground, they collected them in the site office. Later, they donated the objects to the museum. McCullough, now Manager of Museums and Heritage Services, documented the items as best as possible within the general context of the site.

The objects included many antique bricks and iron rails. The bricks were from the electrical light station. The old 1950s Safeway had recycled many of the old iron rails–presumably pulled out from the BC Electric Railway lines that once crisscrossed the city–as floor joists.

The selection of bottles, however, was the most extensive.

Some bottles date as far back as the nineteenth century. Others are beer bottles from the turn of twentieth. The BC Distillery bottles date from the 1920s and 1930s, and the collection includes a bottle of Welch’s grape juice from after WWII.

No one knows how the bottles got there. Did they drift over during the area’s flooded swamp days? Were some of the bottles drinks that people stashed in a corner, then forgot about? We will never know. What we can know is what company sold these drinks, as long as a label survived or a company name is embossed on the glass. Once we know that, we can link the company to the people behind the brand. Then we might understand a little of who the people were.

From this collection, the clear glass bottle with “J. Henley” embossed across the top links us to the lives of earlier New Westminster residents. The museum has two bottles from Henley’s business. The glass one dug up at Columbia Square probably dates to around the early 1900s. An earlier one, donated separately to the museum in 1956, is a nineteenth-century stoneware bottle with a wooden stopper.

Joseph Henley was a soda water manufacturer who advertised mineral and “aerated” waters. There were other soda water dealers in New Westminster before him. Henry Hogan was in the business from the 1860s, and in the 1880s the Phillips & Son Soda-Water Manufactory on Columbia sold plain and sweet soda water, ginger beer, ginger ale, sarsaparilla, cocktail mixtures, and lemon and raspberry syrups.

Henley’s soda water company started on Front Street in 1887, and later moved to Cunningham Street. The 1898 fire destroyed that location. His factory re-opened on Princess Street, by Henley’s home on Eighth. It was there that he worked until his retirement in the late 1920s.

Henley came to Canada in 1871, landing first in Victoria. There he worked as a bread and biscuit baker, got married, and had three children. In 1887, the family moved to New Westminster. From 1905 until 1914, he served as a New Westminster alderman. Henley was popular–he was an athlete, joined almost all of the city’s fraternal clubs, and was in the Hyack volunteer fire brigade. The English-born Henley particularly advocated for cricket in Moody Park, across the street from his house.

Yet not all was happy in his life. Ten days after his daughter’s wedding, his first wife, Mary, died. A year and a half later, in 1900, his younger daughter died at sixteen.

There were grandchildren afterwards, and a new marriage. On a winter day in early 1903, Henley married a Scottish woman, Jennie Stewart McCohen, who would become an enthusiastic church supporter, hosting fundraisers in their home with homemade candy.

Then, more tragedies.

Henley’s oldest daughter died on the morning of November 4, 1918, at St. Mary’s Hospital. She was a victim of the Spanish flu. The epidemic swept over New Westminster that fall, as the First World War waned.

Jennie was next in 1925. She had just sat down in church when, as the front-page news of the day explained, “she was seen to smile, lean back, and expire.”

By January 1938, when Henley himself died, he had been sick for three years. None of his children were around. The Masons, Knights of Pythias, and Elks all announced his funeral in the next day’s newspaper. It was said to be one of the largest Masonic funerals in New Westminster.

From just a single name on a bottle, we can reconstruct someone’s life and shine a light on the city’s past. Imagine what history lies behind the other bottles: Labatt, the BC Distillery, and others.

For an upcoming New Westminster Museum exhibition on drinking cultures in our city, museum staff and volunteers have been researching saloons, manufacturers, and stories. The exhibition, Bottoms Up: Drinking Cultures in New Westminster, opens on November 4. Anyone with stories about local bars, beer and wine making in the city, tea and coffee customs, and other drinking traditions is invited to share their experiences with the museum during the exhibition’s development. Throughout the year, watch for museum programs on the city’s saloons, drinking holes, and distilleries.

Family Stories from Our City’s History

Elizabeth Irving Family Bible

This New Testament belonged to the Irving matriarch, Elizabeth Dixon Irving. It is one of many Irving and Briggs family Bibles in the New Westminster Museum and Archives collection. Four generations of the family lived at Irving House on Royal Avenue. Built in 1865, the house still stands and is one of the oldest intact houses in the Lower Mainland.

According to family legend, Elizabeth Irving obtained this Bible in 1872—the year her husband, Captain William Irving, died. Did it give her comfort in those early days as a widow?

Like the other Bibles in the museum’s collection, it lists family births, marriages, and deaths on its blank pages. This particular copy, however, only includes information about four family members. The first page of handwritten notes has the dates for Elizabeth and William. The second page records the birth of a daughter, also called Elizabeth, and her husband, Ernest Spencer. None of the other four Irving children are listed.

That the book includes the elder Elizabeth’s death tells us that this genealogy was filled in after she passed away. Elizabeth died in January, 1922, aged 90, in Portland, Oregon.

Missing from this information is that Elizabeth remarried in 1887 (or 1889, according to another Bible in the collection). Her second husband was Anthony George Ryan. Ryan was originally a gardener. He was also considerably younger when they married (she was in her fifties while he was about 38).

Elizabeth divorced Ryan nine years later. A clipping in a family scrapbook says he had squandered away her money—her investments around Portland, Oregon, had made her a millionaire. Ryan, however, blamed Elizabeth’s family for driving a wedge between theme. Court papers tell a more sinister story: He repeatedly verbally abused her, and once woke her at midnight to threaten her a gun.

An alcoholic, numerous guardians watched over Ryan during his last years. In 1904, even Elizabeth requested the courts appoint him a guardian. Ryan still owned one-third of a farm he shared with Elizabeth, the only property they bought together after their marriage. Ryan died on the last day of May, 1913.

William Allison ‘Death Plaque’

A next-of-kin memorial plaque like this commemorates those who died serving in British and Empire Forces during World War I. It is about the size of a CD and came with a brief message from King George V.

Around a million of these were sent to families in 1919 and 1920. Parents or wives could display these so-called ‘Death Plaques.’ They were also known as the Dead Man’s Penny, the Widow’s Penny, or even the Death Penny, as they were made of bronze.

The New Westminster Museum and Archives has a number of these plaques in its collection, donated by descendants of the soldiers. Each plaque reminds us of young people who died during the Great War. They are also reminders of the anguish families must have felt upon receiving one. Long after the war ended, newspapers remained filled with announcements of deaths, as wounded soldiers died from their injuries or infectious diseases.

This plaque commemorates William Roderick Allison who died on February 24, 1919, months after the end of the war. The former bank clerk was born in New Westminster in 1897. He worked at the Bank of Montreal in Port Coquitlam.

He enlisted in the Canadian Infantry at 19, along with his two brothers. His unit was immediately sent to Ypres, Belgium, and he fought at Passchendaele.

Allison was wounded in France in September, 1918, two months before the end of the war. He was run over by a truck, suffering chest wounds and a fractured right arm. He lived on for a few months at a hospital in Derbyshire, England. With his compromised health, he caught influenza and later pneumonia. He was 21 when he died.


Oh Wasn’t That a Party!


The New Westminster Museum and Archives collects objects and the stories that come with them. As you can see here, not everything in a museum is antique. Modern objects fill in pieces of the puzzle of our city’s history. One day, today’s everyday objects will become part of our generation’s history. Our job at the Museum is to ask questions and record answers. Who owned this? How did they use it? What did it mean to them? Are there photos of the owner with the object? Every object in the Museum tells us something about the city and the celebrations we’ve had.

oh-wasnt-that-29Lucky Lager bottle

This commemorative Lucky Lager bottle was given to staff when Labatt closed its Sapperton brewery in 2005. The bottle still contains beer.

Birthday cake charms

In the 1930s, fortune-telling cake charms were baked into cakes. A die meant one was a gambler, a boat foretold a wedding trip, a baby predicted a large family, and so on.

Shovel with bow for breaking earth

This shovel was used at a 1989 sod-turning ceremony for “The Renaissance.” The Italian-inspired condos built by the Molnar Group went up the next year along New Westminster’s waterfront.

oh-wasnt-that-30May Day crown

Alvina Eliza Clara Munn wore this crown as the 1899 May Queen. In later years, she performed as a soprano with the New Westminster Symphony Orchestra.

Beer stein

A commemorative beer stein awarded to the winners of a local canoe race in 1893; H.T. Tovey (a Bank of Montreal clerk), E.H. Johnston, E.R. Wilson, and G.L. Brown (a clerk at a painting and wallpaper store).

Turkey platter

A 1867 turkey platter from the Briggs family, who were related to the original family at Irving House. Gravy dripped down the platter’s tree pattern into the depression at the bottom.

Cellulose nitrate hatpin

A hatpin made of cellulose nitrate, a highly-flammable early plastic.

oh-wasnt-that-33Christmas candles

These unlit Gurley Novelty Company candles were probably used as festive decorations.

Hariko tiger

This papier-mâché hariko is a gift from Moriguchi—New Westminster’s sister city in Japan. The bobbing-head tiger was made by one of the premier craftsmen in the Osaka Prefecture.

Granville Street Bridge opening ceremony scissors

Vancouver Mayor Fred Hume used these gold-painted scissors to open the third, and current, Granville Street Bridge in 1954. Hume was mayor of New Westminster from 1934 to 1942. Hume Park is named after him.

oh-wasnt-that-31Terrier trophy

A trophy from the first Provincial Exhibition after World War I. The Hudson’s Bay Company donated this trophy in 1919 to the Best Team of Terriers.