A brief history of Nanaimo Coal

Harewood Coat of Arms
Harewood Coat of Arms

Where does the name ‘Southgate’ come from? What does that have to do with Harewood?

In 1858 the Hudson’s Bay Company had returned control of Vancouver Island to the British government and the following year its trading rights on the mainland ended. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold its coal mines in the Nanaimo area to the Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company, based in England.

Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company

The Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company used the Victoria firm of Dickson, Campbell and Company as its agents. Much of the coal went directly from Nanaimo to San Francisco or the Royal Navy based at Esquimalt. Dickson and Campbell managed two ships on behalf of Vancouver Island Coal Mining and Land Company. Coal production rose steadily. From 1865 to 1868, coal production rose from 32,000 tons to 44,000. But by 1870, the Company ran into trouble as it faced competition from Robert Dunsmuir.

Robert Dunsmuir
Robert Dunsmuir

Robert Dunsmuir

Robert Dunsmuir, from Scotland, had been employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company at its Nanaimo mines Dunsmuir as its resident manager. After the HBC left, Dunsmuir launched his own independent workings.

In addition, another English coal mining venture, the Harewood Company was launched in 1864. The Harewood Company was founded by Horace Douglas Lascelles, son of the third Earl of Harewood. He was also a former Royal Navy captain of the H.M.S. Forward.

In 1869, Dunsmuir discovered the Wellington Mine which was backed by another officer, Lieutenant W.N. Diggle of the Grappler.

The Dunsmuir Company soon flourished, having one of the best coal seams on the coast and became a key player in the San Francisco market. Robert Dunsmuir’s coal operations grew steadily. In 1873, the Wellington Mine turned out 16,000 tons in comparison to the Vancouver Island Coal Company’s entire production of 45,000.

In 1880, Dunsmuir’s holdings produced 189,000 tons and three years later he bought out his partner for $600,000. He was well on his way to being the province’s outstanding industrial capitalist, with a fleet of cargo vessels, a mine railway and a large part of the Albion Iron Works.

In 1883, the Esquimalt Railway Company of which he was president obtained a contract from the federal government to build the Esquimalt and Nanaimo line, on terms that included a large land grant.

Marketing Nanaimo Coal

Merchants with ties to Britain and San Francisco had an advantage when it came to marketing Vancouver Island coal.  One of these merchants was J. J. Southgate.

J. J. Southgate
J. J. Southgate

Born and raised in England, Joseph Johnson Southgate came to Victoria in 1859 from San Francisco with a letter of introduction to Governor Douglas from the Lowe firm.

The Lowe brothers, former HBC traders who had become successful coal merchants, vouched for their satisfactory business dealings with Southgate, including the recent sale of “three cargoes of Nanaimo coal.”

While in Victoria, he was a successful merchant, co-owning a store on the southeast corner of Yates and Langley. His store, named Southgate and Mitchell (Mitchell, being his partner), sold liquor, coal, and other commissioned products. Eventually, the name of his business switched to “J.J. Southgate & Co.” and moved to Wharf Street.

J. J. Southgate & Co. - 1863 BC & Victoria Directory
J. J. Southgate & Co. – 1863 BC & Victoria Directory

From 1860-1863, he was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, representing Salt Spring Island. Later he was the elected representative for Nanaimo. In 1864 he was president of the newly formed Vancouver Club.

It wasn’t uncommon for politicians of the day to mix political and business interests. In the same year that the Harewood Mine opened, J.J. Southgate put forward a request in the Legislative Assembly for Vancouver Island:

“A letter was read from Messrs. J. J. Southgate and Sebright Green, Directors of the Harewood Railway Company Limited, dated 10th June 1864 requesting the consent of the Governor to their taking land in the Government Reserve in the Nanaimo District for the purposes of their proposed Railway.

The Council were of opinion that the Harewood Railway Company might be  permitted to take the land necessary for their line of Railway across the unsold portion of the land situated on the Government Reserve opposite Newcastle Island in the District of Nanaimo upon the same terms that are provided by the Vancouver Island Land Clauses Consolidation Act 1863 with regard to the land of private persons.”

In 1869, on the former site of Fort Victoria, Southgate and his friend Horace Lascelles commissioned a building at 1102 Government Street to house their general merchandising firm.  Horace Lascelles didn’t have a chance to go there; he died in Esquimalt June 15, 1869. The building, known as Southgate and Lascelles’ still stands today.

After the Colony of Vancouver Island merged with that of British Columbia in 1867, J.J. Southgate served as the elected member for Nanaimo. He was also a keen supporter of Confederation and was honoured with several geographical features named after him.