Victoria’s John William Grundison had sea water in his veins

From Scotland’s Firth of Forth, and as the son and nephew of fishermen, it wasn’t unnatural for John William Grundison to follow the sea. At least initially.

A retired carpenter by the time I interviewed him in 1971, he had excellent recall and proved to be a fount of knowledge about Victoria’s early commercial fishing. He, in fact, claimed to be "one of the first commercial fishermen to fish with a powerboat

out of Victoria. This was about 1915, when I was 19 or so. Trolling had just started then. I had a five-horsepower Palmer."

By 1923, he was trolling for salmon out of Kyuquot with an uncle in a 36-footer. Hard as it is to believe, "They wouldn’t buy coho in those days. It was 12 cents a pound ‘in the round’ for pink salmon, five cents a pound for halibut the same way".

During the 1930s, he fished for halibut off Trial and Discovery Islands. Also, before fishing seasons were regulated, he’d plied his skill regularly off Sooke, between Point No Point and Jordan

River, remarking with a smile, "There were no power gurdies in those days."

At the time of my interview his sons, Bill and Robert, were also following the sea, at least part-time. A sheet metal worker between seasons, Bill owned a 47-foot troller and Robert was an optometrist between weekends and holidays when he and his family raced their yacht.

Mr. Grundison told me how Fisherman’s Wharf had evolved from the 1890s. Originally, it was just a float built for the lighthouse service employee whose duty it was to daily light the oil lanterns erected on piles in the harbour channel. Nearby was the ill-smelling chemical works, later moved to James Island, which he remembered well: "We kids used to get nitre, which spilled through knotholes in the fence, and charcoal… We’d make flares and set them off [at Ogden Point].

"Located west of present-day Fisherman’s Wharf was a beach on which was a shipyard known as Lang’s… The sealing schooners used to be hauled out there, their copper sheathing removed while they were re-caulked. Hundreds of copper nails fell on the beach. The young boys of the vicinity would come down after school and dig the copper in a tin and sell it on Saturdays to the junk man for pocket money."

Prior to gasoline engines, life as a fisherman was physically daunting, in an open boat less than 30 feet long with a shallow draught and seven-foot beam.

Two men rowed in a standing position as they pushed the long sweeps while heading out to Constance Cove Bank to fish for halibut and cod, although the latter wasn’t a popular seller.

Most of the fishermen were of Scottish origin although some were Greeks as were some of the fishmongers.

Mr. Grundison recalled how one Greek merchant tried to squeeze the Scots out of business by refusing to buy their catches: "The next day, Jim Donaldson had a wheelbarrow with halibut and a for sale sign. That finished that. The Greek bought their fish ever after."

The Chinese buyers who operated at the foot of Wharf Street were, he said, highly respected by the Scots.

He recalled numerous random memories of the pioneer fishing fleet, as told to him by the hardy men who sailed their small boats as far as Nanaimo and off the Island’s stormy west coast.

Some didn’t even leave Victoria, dropping their hooks for cod off what’s now the Laurel Point Inn at the entrance to the Inner Harbour.

Victoria’s first power boat was the Athens, powered by the engine from a steam donkey.

"She wasn’t much of a boat as fish boats to today," he said, "but she was the first power halibut boat out of Victoria. When I was eight years old, in 1903, I made a trip from Victoria to New Westminster on her with a load of halibut."

Victoria’s history-making halibut boat ended her illustrious career by sinking while under tow to a new owner.

John Grundison died in 1972, aged 77.

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