Joseph Despard Pemberton
1821 - 1893
Joseph Despard Pemberton was born near Dublin, Ireland on July 23, 1821. In 1837 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, but after only a year of studies, which included science and mathematics, he took an engineering job with the Midland Railway of Ireland. During the railway boom he worked as an engineer on four different lines in Ireland and England before becoming professor of practical surveying and engineering at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester in 1849.
The following year his design for the main buildings of the Great Exhibition of 1851 won him a bronze medal. On December 9, 1850 he offered his services to the Hudson's Bay Company, and he was hired for a three-year term as colonial engineer and surveyor of Vancouver Island. A professional was badly needed, for the colony's first surveyor, Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant, had resigned on March 25, 1850, just as several hundred colonists were arriving from Britain. Pemberton reached Fort Victoria on June 25, 1851 and started work the next day.
His first task was to lay out a town-site and survey the agricultural lands on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, which the HBC and the British government had already decided should be settled on the systematic and selective principles of theorist Edward Gibbon Wakefield. By January 1852 Pemberton and his assistant Benjamin William Pearse had divided the Victoria district into town, suburban, and country lands. After examining the survey systems of eleven colonies, including South Australia, New Zealand, and Upper Canada, Pemberton set the price of town lots at £10 each, suburban lots at £15, and country lands at £1 an acre with the minimum size being twenty acres. Land was also reserved for the governor, the clergy, a school, a church, and a public park. By December 1853 he had surveyed six additional districts on southern Vancouver Island.
Pemberton turned his attention next to the rest of the island, much of it still unexplored and unsurveyed, of which the best charts available were those prepared by Captain George Vancouver in 1792 - 94. In August 1852 Pemberton explored the coastline north from Victoria to the coal deposits at Wintuhuysen Inlet, where the HBC established Nanaimo a post named by Pemberton after the local Indians. Between 1853 and 1855 he surveyed the entire coastline of southeastern Vancouver Island, a particularly challenging project since the heavily forested terrain made it necessary to construct survey stations in tree-tops. He was also in charge of road and bridge construction, and he designed the first school and church in the colony. In 1854 Governor James Douglas called him a "fortunate selection" who had done his job with "zeal and untiring energies."
In the spring of 1854 Pemberton returned to England where, despite receiving what Douglas called "a very tempting offer, in connection with the projected rail-ways in India," he negotiated a second three-year contract with the HBC. While in London he arranged for the publication of a map showing his surveys of Vancouver Island. He persuaded his uncle Augustus Frederick Pemberton, who would later be appointed Victoria's commissioner of police, to join him in the colony and manage his farm. Following his return to Vancouver Island in December 1855, he led two expeditions to its rugged west coast.
In 1857 he made a successful seventeen day journey across Vancouver Island at the request of Governor James Douglas. His instructions were: "To examine and report upon the country between Cowichan Harbour and Nitinat."
Pemberton's surveys and land laws had a lasting influence on the character of the earliest settlements in the colony. Although many colonists eventually left for the mines of California and the agricultural lands of Oregon and Washington territories, some one hundred and eighty settlers bought over 17,000 acres of country land and about one hundred and fifty town and suburban lots on Vancouver Island prior to the Fraser River goldrush. Many were or had been HBC employees, and the company's social hierarchy was transferred to the colony, with labourers buying the cheaper town lots while officers and clerks bought the more expensive country lands. Pemberton himself owned the Gonzales estate, a large farm near Victoria, and was identified with the HBC's landowning élite, later dubbed the "family-company compact" by reformer Amor De Cosmos.
When the goldrush began in the spring of 1858, Pemberton's office was inundated with land-hungry miners, farmers, speculators, and merchants on their way to the mainland. Between April 1858 and February 1859 he laid out town-sites in the newly created colony of British Columbia at Fort Yale, Fort Hope, Port Douglas, and Derby (near Fort Langley), the proposed capital. He also suggested using the 49th parallel as a baseline upon which to establish a rectangular grid system. In 1859 he severed his connection with the HBC and was appointed surveyor general of Vancouver Island, a post he would hold until October 1864. During these years he supervised the settlement of agricultural districts from Salt Spring Island in the south to Comox in the north. Abandoning Wakefieldian ideas, he framed the liberal pre-emption law of 1860, which permitted any settler to occupy an unsurveyed portion of land under one hundred and sixty acres provided he paid ten shillings an acre when the survey was completed.
While in England on a leave of absence in late 1859 he wrote Facts and Figures Relating to Vancouver Island and British Columbia: Showing What to Expect and How to Get There which was published in 1860, it is remarkable for its proposal that a transcontinental railway be constructed uniting Canada, the Red River settlement, and the Pacific colonies. Pemberton also invested in the abortive Bute Inlet Railway Company.
Soon after his arrival on Vancouver Island, Pemberton had become involved in its polarized politics. Described later by John Blaine Kerr as "a strong Conservative," Pemberton supported in 1853 - 54 the controversial appointment of Douglas's brother-in-law David Cameron to the Supreme Court of Civil Justice, and he called for the dismissal of the radical Robert John Staines from his post as colonial chaplain and schoolmaster. In August 1856, as a member of the first House of Assembly to meet on British soil west of the Great Lakes, Pemberton assisted HBC clerk Joseph William McKay in having Edward Langford expelled from the assembly on the grounds that he did not possess the necessary property qualification. Pemberton remained a member of the assembly until December 1859, and he was appointed to both the Executive and the Legislative councils of Vancouver Island in the spring of 1864. Shortly after his marriage to Theresa Jane Grautoff in London later that year, he resigned as surveyor general and gave up his seats on the councils, but after the union of Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1866 he again entered politics, serving twice during the next two years on the Legislative Council as a member for Victoria District. In 1867 he was the author of the important resolution calling for "the admission of British Columbia into the Confederation on fair and equitable terms," when and if the colony should decide to join.
Pemberton retired from politics in 1868, and during the next two decades devoted himself to his family, his farm, his work as a justice of the peace, and corporate and real estate investments. In 1887 he and his son Frederick Bernard founded the Victoria firm of J.D. Pemberton and Son, surveyors, civil engineers, and real estate and financial agents. A real estate company in Victoria and a Vancouver-based investment company are descended from this firm. Pemberton Senior also imported and bred horses. Pemberton also gained the distinction of having the largest personal library in British Columbia, a collection estimated as high as 30,000 volumes, and his palatial home was a focal point for Victoria's high society and artists.
Joseph Pemberton died of heart failure in Oak Bay, Victoria on November 11, 1893 at the age of seventy-two.
Mackie, Richard. "Joseph Despard Pemberton" Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 12. University of Toronto Press. Toronto, Ontario. 1990.
Joseph. Facts and Figures Relating to Vancouver Island and British
Columbia: Showing What to Expect and How to Get There. Longman, Green,
Longman and Roberts. London, England. 1860.