SYME, JAMES, artist, gold-seeker, salmon-canner, and architect; b. in 1832 in Edinburgh, Scotland; d. 18 April 1881 at Victoria, B.C., survived by his wife Janet.
James Syme received training in the applied arts and design, perhaps at the Trustees Academy (later the Edinburgh School of Design). By 1859 he was living in San Francisco, and in 1862 he joined the Cariboo gold-rush. That year he and three other “free miners” recorded a set of claims on Williams Creek as “Syme & Co.” The original partners were out by 1864 when Syme sold half his interest for $600 and transferred the other half, but the claim was still known as “Simes Co.” in 1866.
Syme had lived in New Westminster during the winter of 1863–64, and settled there in 1865. He supported himself, at least in part, as an artist and ornamental plasterer, using skills he may have learned at the Edinburgh school, which in 1855 had listed a course in moulding and casting in plaster. Two works extant from these years are a plaster medallion of Sir James Douglas*, which was presented to Lady Douglas when the governor retired in 1864, and the ornamental ceilings and cornices in the house built in 1865 for river captain William Irving*. None of Syme’s oil paintings from this, or the later period when he lived in Victoria, is known to have survived; they were said to show “an innate vigor” but to be “somewhat lacking in softness and delicacy of touch.” Syme was also active in community affairs and organizations including the St Andrew’s Society, the New Westminster Dramatic Club, the New Westminster Volunteer Rifle Corps, and the volunteer firefighters of Hyack Fire Company no.1.
As the gold-fields declined, many erstwhile gold-seekers began to exploit other untapped resources of the colony. In 1867 Syme undertook the first substantial attempt at salmon-canning in British Columbia. Contrary to oft-repeated assertions, his effort was no mere “kitchen stove” experiment, but an operation on a commercial scale. The product, put up in one-, two-, and six-pound cans, was offered for sale “in lots to suit” by a local merchant. It won prizes at the New Westminster exhibition and a trial shipment to Australia was well received. For the seasons of 1867 and 1868, and possibly 1869 as well, Syme operated in a former saltery complex at the site of Annieville on the south bank of the Fraser River opposite New Westminster. By 1869, however, the colony was in the midst of a general depression after the end of the gold-rushes. Lacking sufficient capital, Syme was unable to maintain his business, and by September the establishment he had used was offered for rent. Syme returned to San Francisco, where he worked in the atelier of the highly successful and popular artist Samuel M. Brooks, and was a member of the city’s Scottish fraternal organizations, the St Andrew’s Society and the Caledonian Club.
In 1874 he went to Victoria, for his health it was said, and soon established himself there as an architect, presumably qualified by his Scottish training. He executed several major commissions, including the first building for St Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria, opened in 1876 by the Sisters of St Anne, and St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Nanaimo in 1877. He also designed and supervised the construction of a number of houses, ranging from modest cottages to elaborate mansions. After 1877 he seems not to have been as active, partly because of the depressed state of construction in Victoria but also possibly because of that “combination of diseases culminating in liver dropsy” which ended his life at the age of 49.
Syme’s career in colonial and early provincial British Columbia was typical of many. Relatively unsuccessful as a gold-seeker, he was forced to turn to other specialized pursuits in which he was skilled. These the fledgling society could not support as could a large urban centre like San Francisco. On the other hand, institutional restrictions did not prevent, as they might have done in an older and more sophisticated community, his taking up other occupations. No government fishery regulations hampered his attempt at salmon-canning, and he deserves to be recognized as the founder of the salmon-canning industry in British Columbia. Nor did professional rules prevent him from setting up as an architect and making a substantial contribution there as well.
PABC, GR 216, 35, 56. Caledonian Club of San Francisco, Constitution and by-laws of the Caledonian Club of San Francisco . . . (San Francisco, 1878). St Andrew’s Society of San Francisco, Historical report of the St. Andrew’s Society, of San Francisco, Cal. . . . (San Francisco, 1871). British Columbia Examiner (Yale and New Westminster), 23 Nov. 1867. British Columbian (New Westminster), 2 Dec. 1863; 12 March, 13, 16 April, 4 May 1864; 25 April, 20 May, 1, 15 July, 7 Oct., 2 Dec. 1865; 16, 23, 30 June, 12 Sept., 17 Oct., 10, 17, 28 Nov., 5 Dec. 1866; 16 Jan., 27 April, 13 July, 16, 19 Oct. 1867; 9 May, 3 Oct. 1868. Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 19 May 1868; 15 Jan. 1869; 8 Sept., 11, 14 Oct. 1874; 11 July, 22 Aug. 1875; 12, 13, 18 April, 6, 25 June, 5, 14 July 1876; 30 May, 24 June, 4, 10 July 1877; 5 Jan. 1878; 21 April 1881; 29 June 1883. Free Press (Nanaimo, B.C.), 28 Nov., 27 Dec. 1877. Mainland Guardian (New Westminster), 15, 25 Sept. 1869; 9 Sept., 10 Oct. 1874. Victoria Daily Standard, 3 April, 3, 10 June 1875. Guide to the province of British Columbia for 1877–8 . . . (Victoria, 1877). The San Francisco directory for the year commencing March, 1872 . . . (San Francisco, 1872), 631. John Mason, “The Edinburgh School of Design,” The book of the Old Edinburgh Club (Edinburgh), 27 (1949): 67–96. Madge Wolfenden, “The early architects of British Columbia . . . ,” Western Homes and Living (Vancouver), September 1958: 17–19.
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