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Saturday, 1 June 2013


A great grandson of my 3x great grandfather William Brodie Gurney (so a second cousin of my grandfather), Arthur Broughton Gurney is the one that got away. So much of my family history is decidedly British; but Arthur went to Canada. Almost nothing that he did in his life has its roots in my ancestors’ British history; nothing ties him to family traditions. He’s a stand-alone ancestor.

Arthur’s father was a Baptist minister who seems to have moved around a lot. Arthur, the eldest child, was born in Chelsea, but the second, Edith, arrived in Ramsey on the Isle of Man; and Grace, the youngest of five, was born in Nova Scotia in 1885. What took them there? By 1891 the family was back in Britain, most of them in Harwich but Arthur at school on the Isle of Man. And by 1898 he was back in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he married Anna Maria Sutherland, the daughter of Scottish immigrants (although she herself was a native Canadian, born after her parents arrived).

The Dawn of Majuba Day, by R. Caton Woodville, depicts troops of the Royal Canadian Regiment celebrating their victory at Paardeberg during the Second Boer War

He signed up with the Royal Canadian Regiment. He is listed as a Captain with 3rd (Special Services) Batallion, which was recruited in 1899 to garrison Halifax and release the 1st Bn to fight the Boer in South Africa. The 3rd Bn was disbanded in 1901, but one memoir describes Arthur as a Boer War veteran; so perhaps he was transferred at some point, or found some other way to get involved.  The Second Boer war ended in 1902, and there’s Arthur, sailing from Liverpool to Halifax for the last time in March 1904, still only twenty-six years old, to rejoin family and his Canadian home.

But he still wasn’t done travellin’. Next thing you know it’s 1907 and he’s accepted a position on the other side of the continent in British Columbia. What took him there? His wife’s family perhaps – Anna’s father came to Canada from Western Scotland in 1854 to help build the railways, and her brother George had the privilege of being the trainmaster (what in Britain I would call the guard) of the train which carried the dignitaries on the occasion of the Driving of the Last Spike some thirty years later in 1885. The momentous completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad took place at Craigellachie in British Columbia.

Driving the last spike to complete the Canadian Pacific Railroad, 7th November 1885 – bearded George Sutherland is the tallest figure in the photograph, on the right staring at the camera

And what was Arthur doing in BC? Nothing that any of the above would lead you to expect. In 1907 Arthur Broughton Gurney took over as the keeper of the newly constructed Pine Island lighthouse, a square wooden pyramid on a tiny outcrop in the Queen Charlotte Strait, which separates northern Vancouver Island from the mainland. It was the first of three lighthouses of which Arthur had charge over the next 37 years.

Pine Island was desperately remote for a couple with a family of three young children, and after much lobbying (or as one memoir tells it, incessant pestering) Arthur was transferred in around 1912 to North Ballenas Island, off Vancouver Island in the Strait of Georgia. There are two Ballenas Islands, and in 1900 they built the lighthouse on the wrong, southern one. In the year that Arthur took it on the Canadian Coast Guard dismantled the original concrete tower and rebuilt it on the northern island.

Vancouver Island, and the lighthouses of Arthur Broughton Gurney

Civilisation was a lot closer for the family now in the form of the village of Parksville, whose popular beaches were only six miles away across open water. But Arthur was still unhappy. He wanted a pay rise, or permission not to hire a fog-horn assistant from his own salary as he was required to do. When World War One erupted, he exploited a loophole which allowed state employees who enlisted to continue to draw their old civilian salaries as well as their new military ones. He signed up again, and transferred the keepership of the Ballenas light to Anna, thereby giving the family three incomes instead of one for the duration of the war.

Maybe the isolated life was getting to Arthur. There are reports that “his comportment  at Ballenas Island prompted complaints from his neighbours.” Whatever that meant, in 1921 the Gurneys moved again, to Active Pass lighthouse on Mayne Island, part of the fragmented archipelago at the southern end of Vancouver Island through which the border with the US runs. Here he served as keeper until his retirement in 1944, despite a Provincial Police report into his actions there in 1938 which was “in no way favourable.” Whatever that meant. One memoir describes him as “a crusty fellow.”

Ballenas Island Light, the Gurney family home 1912-21
Active Pass Light as it was in Arthur Gurney’s time 1921-44
The Gurneys retired to nearby Salt Spring Island where Anna could get the medical attention she now needed. In 1967, like communities all across Canada, Salt Spring created a Centennial Park to celebrate 100 years since Canadian Confederation. Trees were planted for each of Salt Spring’s pioneer residents past and present, including the Gurneys.

As part of the national celebrations, on the railroad laid by the Sutherlands, a special Centennial Train ran all year long, carrying an exhibition of Canadian culture for school children in communities the length and breadth of the country. It was allowed its own unique livery and four-tone horn, the first four notes of the Canadian national anthem, “O Canada.”

Canada’s Centennial Train, 1967

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