1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Victoria Families

The James Yates Family

(Scottish Records Office, HBC Archives, other sources - compiled by Maureen Duffus, great granddaughter of James and Mary Yates)

A Name Change
for Yates Street?

Leonard Meyers wrote in The Islander of September 20, 1982, at the end of a two-page article about James Yates and the street:

"There have already been overtures in the Victoria City council that the historic street be renamed. And present Mayor Peter Pollen allegedly suggested recently that Yates Street be changed to George Street in honor of 95-year-old Percy George, who served as mayor of Victoria from 1945 to 1951, since Yates Street, he was quoted as saying, was 'a horrible name'. Only time will tell if the proponents of the name-change will succeed in obliterating a historic street name honouring an illustrious son and a dedicated early builder of this city."

Yates Street, the first 'main street' in Victoria, was named for James Yates who came to Fort Victoria in 1849. An outline of the life of this Hudson's Bay Company shipwright, successful businessman, early Victoria landowner and member of the first legislative assembly of Vancouver Island, includes photos of James and his family.

1819-1843: James Yates was born January 21, 1819, in Linlithgow, Scotland. Father died when he was six years old. Mother remarried and moved with James and his sisters, Isabella and Helen, to Dysart on the north shore of the Firth of Forth. So far no records available about his childhood and education, but it is speculated that his stepfather, A. Wilson, might have owned a boatyard where James was apprenticed in the trade.

1843-1848: Employed as ship's carpenter on the Hudson's Bay Company ship Prince Rupert on voyages to Hudson's Bay. Married Mary Powell, daughter of Welsh architect Evan Powell and Jane (Morris) Powell, of Montgomeryshire, November 13, 1848. Two weeks later sailed aboard the Harpooner as ship's carpenter with "first shipload of immigrants" for HBC's Fort Victoria, part of the newly established colony of Vancouver's Island.

1849: Arrived Victoria May 31. Working for, and grumbling about, Company rule of the Colony. Working on HBC ships, including the Cadboro, American ship Cayuga anchored in Esquimalt Harbour to load lumber from HBC sawmill. Also working on house for Governor Blanshard.

1850-1851: Yates house within the fort palisades at southwest corner (later the post office). completed February, 1850. First daughter, Emma Frances, born and baptized by Chaplain Staines with Emma Frances Staines as godmother, March 31, 1850. Second daughter, Harriet Elizabeth Sinclair Yates, baptized April 27, 1851. Terminated contract with HBC 18 months after arrival. Bought two waterfront lots, 201 and 202, north of fort (Wharf Street) in June, 1851.

1852-1854: Built first saloon, the Ship Inn, at corner of present day Yates and Wharf streets; leader of anti-company group that included the Chaplain Staines, Captain Langford, James Cooper. Group drew up petition with complaints for British parliament, with encouragement from unhappy first colonial governor, Richard Blanshard. Began buying land along the Gorge, eventually more than 400 acres between the water and Burnside Road.

Paid annual fee of £120 for first retail liquor licence in the Colony when only other sales outlet was the Fort sale shop. Monopoly was short-lived, records show a few other licences bought a few months later.

1855-1859: Continued agitation against Company and for elections. Elected member of the first legislative assembly, 1856, with Helmcken, Pemberton, Skinner, McKay, Muir, Kennedy. Continued thriving businesses, the tavern the most profitable. Helped to apprehend villains engaged in illegal sale of liquor to Indians. Moved to house on 400-acre land holdings along the Gorge waterway, shortly before town inundated with miners for Fraser River Gold Rush. More children born - Mary, James Stuart and Harry, plus a daughter Agnes who died in infancy.

Information from HBC Fort Journal, land sales, liquor sales, other Company records, Christ Church Cathedral baptism records, correspondence of James Douglas, diaries of other settlers.

1859-1860: Second building, present address 1218 Wharf Street, recognizable with iron pillars still jutting out over sidewalk (see photos below). Lower level of tavern with wharf and loading dock useful for import business. Sister Isabella Yates (Later married engineer Edward Stephens December, 1874) came from Scotland to stay with the boys after James, Mary and the girls left for Britain in October, 1860. James now a wealthy respected figure, much praised in a farewell in The Colonist of Oct. 26, 1860.

For the story of James and Mary Yates and their contemporaries in these turbulent years, see A Most Unusual Colony.

James, Mary and Harry Yates
Harry, Mary and James

1862-1864: James Yates back in Victoria struggling, like many others, to sort out land ownership claims, in alarming disarray after the Colony reverted to the Crown. HBC authority to act as land agent for the Crown ended when its contract to administer the Colony expired without renewal in 1859.

James returned to Edinburgh with his sons in 1864. One son, seven year-old James Stuart, remembered watching from their New York hotel as civil war soldiers straggled along the street.

1864-1900: Income from Victoria investments (including the 1860 building still standing at 1218 Wharf Street, and another at 1250 Wharf Street at the foot of Yates Street, built under the supervision of James's agent Henry Rhodes in 1871) was enough to keep the family comfortably for the rest of their lives. James Yates is listed in Edinburgh census records as landowner, fund holder, and generally known as a person of independent means. Two of the houses they lived in were still standing in 1995.

The Children

The boys were educated at Edinburgh Collegiate and Edinburgh University. Both returned to Victoria, James to practice law in the city from 1881 until the 1940s.He died in 1950 at the age of 92. Harry died in 1907. Both lived in houses they built on the Gorge estate while the dairy farm was leased to the Rogers family. The property extending from Balfour Road (originally Emma Street) and Harriet Road to Tillicum Road, was subdivided. Other sections sold earlier included a long lot between Dysart and Austin Avenue, sold to John Joel Austin, whose daughters Annie and Nellie, married James and Harry Yates.

The Yates daughters, with the exception of maiden aunt Catherine, married well. Harriet became Lady Woodhead after her Cambridge pathologist husband was knighted for perfecting a method of purifying water for troops during the First World War. Emma married Alec MacGregor and moved to Copenhagen. (Their daughter Mary married the Swedish Count Horn.) Mary Isabella Yates married J. Harper, head of a tea plantation in Ceylon.

Mary died in 1898, James Sr. in 1900.

The Desertion Story

James Yates in Edinburgh
James Yates in Edinburgh

A troublemaker who abandoned his wife and work, as stories have it, or a pillar of Society as described in The British Colonist on his departure?

"A powerful cantankerous being" is how Fort Doctor J. S. Helmcken described his fellow MLA. Hot-tempered, as evidenced in records of an 1853 court session: When a drunkard repeatedly threatened to knock down the door of his saloon if he wasn't served, Yates threw him out and dragged him across the street. Twice.

But in 1855 good citizens Mr. Yates and schoolmaster Robert Barr helped to apprehend unsavoury characters selling grog to Indians from a boat beneath a bridge. The schoolmaster borrowed a blanket from Yates, disguised himself as an Indian, went off in a canoe with two Indians - and successfully bought a bottle of rum. In court Yates corroborated the account, the grog seller was proven guilty and fined £5 and costs by Chief Justice David Cameron.

True, James Yates was a leading member of 'the grumblers' or malcontents, along with the Fort Chaplain and later arrivals who agitated continuously against the authoritarian rule of the Hudson's Bay Company. By all accounts a difficult character, he eventually cut both sons out of his will.

But the often told story that he deserted and ran away to California seems without basis in fact.

First mention of the story, seems to have been in an 1854 letter from Annie Deans, wife of a Craigflower Farm employee, who greatly admires Mr. And Mrs. Yates:

"A Man the Name of Yates here came out from Scotland about 5 years ago and here he is today independent he was as poor as any of us he engaged [as] a Companys servant so when ever he came he ran of[f] to California his wife stopped still here and sowed and worked away here he came through the night from Calefornia to steal his wife away so he was catched and put in the Bastin for a Month after he came out he would not work for them but what little money he had and his wifes together he took up a shop and today he independent he is a very steady Man ..." (MS.incomplete)

The story has grown with repetition. More than a hundred years later it had Mary Yates working as a seamstress and finally forced to sell her clothes to support herself while her husband was away. When he came back for her he was thrown into the Fort jail for a month. This is alleged to have happened 18 months after their arrival at Fort Victoria because of a serious falling out with Company Management.

This would be after James and Mary had been living in their own house in the fort, their daughter Emma was born, James had purchased 20 acres of land in April, 1951, two town lots to set up in business outside the fort in June, 1851, and, as Dr. Helmcken says in his reminiscences, "Yates got permission to leave the service and build outside: got some waterfront lots on Wharf Street."
(See copy of sale, signed by James Douglas.)

Two sources that would have noted the desertion of the shipwright are the Fort Victoria Post Journal and the correspondence of James Douglas. Both cover the period when the run to California was supposed to have happened, but neither mentions it. Other desertions are recorded at some length in the Douglas letters to headquarters: the Fort Rupert coal miners who "left the place with their families for Calefornia," and "Walker the blacksmith and six other men who absconded at the same time."

The Fort Victoria Journal records other desertions, including that of five men who were chased across the strait by HBC clerk Finlayson and brought back for their punishment. At the same time numerous entries show Yates the shipwright at work caulking ships, superintending a complete overhaul of the Company ship Cadboro, helping to build a house for the first Governor of the colony and apparently fulfilling his duties.

Question: if Mary was left to sew and work to support herself when they were living inside the fort, who was she sewing for and selling her clothes to in 1851?

Wharf Street building
The 1860 brick and stone building, from an illustration from an 1879 directory, and as it looks now. The brick and stone building with the metal columns that still extend over the sidewalk at 1218 Wharf Street, was the second saloon built by James Yates on one of the waterfront town lots he purchased in June, 1851. Since its days as the Ship Inn it has been an auction house and an almost derelict structure. The lower level, once a warehouse for merchandise, primarily liquor, landed directly from Victoria Harbour, is now the dining room of a popular restaurant. (The building at the foot of Yates Street was also built by James Yates, with Henry Rhodes as agent.)

A copy of an original handwritten sale document of the wharf street property, signed by James Douglas, is held in the BC Provincial Archives:

land sale document

Also see Yates Family Photos | Back to Victoria Families

Read more about James Yates' involvement in Vancouver Island's first legislature and his proposal to attach Frazer's River to Vancouver's Island, one of the factors leading to the establishment of the mainland colony of British Columbia in 1858.