I. Joseph Despard Pemberton
It really all began in 1850. It had only been a year earlier that the British Colonial Office had suggested to the Hudson’s Bay Company that it submit a proposal for the government and colonization of Vancouver’s Island.
This prospect must have caught the imagination of one Joseph Despard Pemberton because on December 9th, 1850, at the age of 29, he wrote to The Hudson’s Bay Company seeking employment as “a Surveyor and Engineer of thorough business habits and energy with reference the Colonization of Vancouver’s Island”.
The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Minutes of January 22, 1851 contain:
“The certificates of Mr. J.D. Pemberton having been taken into consideration, it was ordered that he be engaged as Surveyor for Vancouver’s Island at an Annual Salary of 400 pounds for a term of three years with a premium of such sum as the Governor and Committee may approve at the end of that period not exceeding 500 pounds provided they shall consider his services and conduct perfectly satisfactory. It is understood that he shall make himself generally useful to Mr. Douglas in all colonization business. This engagement is to be a charge upon the Colonization Fund to be held in Trust by the Company. It is also understood that the Company is to provide an outfit of the requisite instruments at a cost not exceeding 100 pounds – to pay Mr. Pemberton’s expenses of conveyance to the Island – and that the salary and commencement of the contract shall date from his arrival on the Island”.
It is interesting that the salary was not to start until he got to Vancouver’s Island, because it was well known that it would take several months to get there.
Final instructions were issued to him on February 15, 1851 to proceed by Royal Mail Steam Packet leaving South Hampton on the 17th – only two days later – to Chargres, and from there to cross the Ithmus of Panama, and take the first available ship to San Francisco. From San Francisco he was to “proceed either by the monthly mail steamer or by an occasional sailing vessel” to the Columbia River where he would probably arrive at Astoria, and thence find his way “either by mail boat or by canoe” to Fort Vancouver. The Officer in Charge there would provide the means of conveyance to Fort Victoria on Vancouver’s Island. On arrival at Fort Victoria he was to report to “Mr. Chief Factor Douglas”.
So it was that on June 24th, 1851, after an extremely eventful journey of more than four months, Joseph Despard Pemberton moved into the wooden palisaded Fort Victoria to take up His Hudson’s Bay Company appointment as Surveyor for Vancouver’s Island.
He was to play an integral part in the development of the area, laying out Victoria’s town site, surveying from Sooke to Nanaimo, and detailing the topography and natural resources. After serving as Surveyor-General to both the Colony of Vancouver’s Island and Fraser’s River, he later became a member of the first Legislative Assembly.
II. Pemberton & Son
By 1887 Victoria was a growing city. A paid fire department had replaced the volunteer brigade, electric street lighting had replaced gas, many people had acquired telephones, electric street cars provided urban transportation, while the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway offered rail service to up-Island points.
Such was Victoria when in 1887 Joseph Pemberton and his eldest son Frederick Bernard Pemberton (Fred) went into business by opening the firm of Pemberton & Son – Engineers, Surveyors, and Real Estate Agents.
For the first year father and son concentrated mainly on the engineering and surveying work and worked from the house but on the 29th of November, 1888, they opened their office on Fort Street on the property at the south-west corner of Broad Street that Joseph had bought many years earlier because he needed a stable for his horse.
Part of a two page memorandum written by Fred Pemberton reads: “A rustling office like—would not in the long run pay us as well as one conducted on quiet & strict commercial principles”.
Right from the start, the firm was engaged in both the mortgage business and the property management business which was then known as the Rentals business. It was therefore a logical result that the firm would look for a Fire Insurance company that would like an Agent in Victoria and in 1893 and insurance agency was arranged with the Sun Insurance Office. Later that year Joseph Pemberton died, leaving his son Fred, at the age of 28, in full charge of the business.
III. Pemberton Holmes
In 1917 Cuthbert Holmes, whose family were also early Victoria settlers, married Phillippa Pemberton while he was on leave from active duty in France. In 1920 Cuthbert Holmes joined his father-in-law, Fred Pemberton, in Pemberton & Son. After assuming its presidency in 1933, he changed the firm’s name to Pemberton Holmes and today Pemberton Holmes is still thriving as a modern day business that is still conducted on those same “quiet and strict commercial principles” that Fred Pemberton wrote about so long ago.
On Cuthberts retirement in 1967 his son Philip (“Pip Holmes”) Holmes took over as President and was joined in due course by his two brothers Desmond and Vincent and Desmond’s son Richard. Eventually the firm passed into the hands of Phil and Warren Holmes and the real estate and property management departments are now being managed by Michael Holmes, a great great grandson of J.D. Pemberton. Pip stewarded the company through challenging and changing times and had the honour of being elected as President of the International Real Estate Federation in 1975 and 1976. Of interest is the fact that the firm’s telephone number may be one of the oldest in Canada, having started out in the first exchange as 8124 and later developing in its latest manifestation as 384-8124.
1. HBC Archives A1/67 Fo. 45/46
2. HBC Archives A6/120 Fo. 12-17
Almost all of the foregoing has been extracted from a manuscript that was researched and written by the late Fred Maurice in his retirement. Fred worked for 52 years at Pemberton & Son and Pemberton Holmes.
IV. Century of public service for Pemberton Holmes
In 1920, Frederick Bernard Pemberton wrote to then Mines Minister William Sloan to request the preservation of a little timber for all time along Vancouver Island roadways.
Pemberton made special mention of a magnificent piece of timber west of Cameron Lake on the way to Port Alberni, in an area known today as Cathedral Grove.
To Phillip Despard Pemberton Holmes, his grandfathers efforts in getting the now world renowned park established best symbolizes the activist role Pemberton Holmes Ltd has played in community affairs since its inception 100 years ago.
Pemberton Holmes has survived two world wars and a depression in its climb to current ranking as a multi-million dollar real estate firm, but Pip Holmes most vivid recollections are company achievements in the community.
The landmark Victoria institution celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. Holmes took time during an interview to recall the legacy of involvement that at least rivals, if not surpasses its business success. The tradition began when company founder Joseph Despard Pemberton conducted an agricultural survey of Vancouver Island to guide future development. It continues to the present day with the public admonitions of his great-grandson, Pip Holmes on preservation of farmland. In addition to Cathedral Grove, the Municipality of Oak bay bears the Pemberton Holmes stamp as does the linear park beside the Trans Canada Highway and the Victoria golf Club, which was sold at a bargain price to preserve land as green space.
Corporate and personal citizenship has been our battle cry, Holmes said. It is understood that if you live here, you play a role in the community and contribute what you can.
In 1851, J.D. Pemberton came by canoe to Fort Victoria at age 30 on the final leg of a three-month sea and land journey from Britain. After a lengthy government service career that saw him survey the first town site of Victoria and go prospecting in the Nanaimo coalfields. Pemberton and his eldest son F.B. Pemberton formed the partnership of Pemberton and Son. The year was 1887, J.D. Pemberton died of a heart attack six years later and the line of succession passed to his son, an engineer and accomplished businessman who guided the firm through the First World War and the early years of the Depression.
Henry Cuthbert Holmes was named president in 1933. An Oxford graduate and former officer in the Irish Guard, Cuthbert Holmes married F.B. Pembertons second daughter, Phillippa, and went to work for the company in 1921. Incorporation of the business under its current name in 1913 recognized Cuthbert Holmes role in building the public confidence that allowed the company to become the only firm in B.C. to achieve 100 years of family ownership.
As an alderman in 1926, Cuthbert Holmes envisioned the need for a city planner then, headed the city planning department for many years, expanding his interests into promotion of green belt areas.
He and his son, Pip, both headed the Victoria Real Estate Board. Pip Holmes, who joined the organization in 1945 and became president in 1965, has carried the banner as chairman of the Provincial Capital Commission and vice-chairman of University of Victorias board of governors. As president of the Paris-based International Real Estate Federation from 1975 to 1977, Holmes was the youngest person and first Canadian elected to that office.
In addition, company staff have been involved in United Way, Kiwanis, Big Brothers, the Chamber of Commerce and Camp Thunderbird.
Involvement is essential to our reputation, which itself is essential to our success. Holmes said. You have to pay your rent; you have to put your shoulder to the wheel.
The company has enjoyed its most vigorous period of growth under Holmes. Growth sales rose to a peak of $45 million in 1981, sank to $25 million at the bottom of the recession a year later and have subsequently recovered to $35 million annually.
The company employs 75 at three corporate locations in Victoria, Sidney and Saltspring Island. Two-thirds work out of company headquarters at 1000 Government St.
While both sales and staff have generally registered steady growth down through the years, the recent recession upset that pattern dramatically. Sales dropped 73 per cent between the first and second six months of the 1981 financial year and Pemberton Holmes had to fight for survival for the first time since the 1930s.
One day, business was flourishing like there was no end in sight and the next day, there was no business, Holmes recalled. It was that sudden. As dramatic I suspect as the 1929 bust.
The company responded by cutting virtually every expense on the books. Staff cutbacks would have been one obvious solution, but instead of layoffs, everyone took pay cuts ranging from five percent for the lowest paid staff to 20 percent for top management.
Simultaneously, the company began casting a wider net for new business. The climatic and scenic advantages of Victoria and southern Vancouver Island were touted on the Prairies and in Ontario until retirement business began returning to the local area.
We had to cut costs without corroding the business itself; we didnt want to reduce costs until there was no business left, he said, I certainly wasnt sitting here looking to put more people out of work.
Looking ahead to the next 100 years, Holmes believes Vancouver Island and especially Victoria are on the threshold of unprecedented growth and expansion.
Not only has the influx of retired people resumed, but people are retiring at an earlier age. Add the financial muscle of the Baby Boom Generation, and demand for housing, goods and services can only increase.
The challenge will be to accommodate development without destroying the areas numerous assets.
Holmes urged that farmland not be gobbled up with subdivisions: I dont think houses should desecrate everything. And he warned that prevailing logging practice and commercial strip development along highways could eventually undermine tourism.
I see no reason why Vancouver Island couldnt be another Switzerland a pleasant place but also busy with high employment, good income and green fields, he said. But you’ve got to farm it right.