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PEMBERTON, JOSEPH DESPARD, engineer, surveyor, farmer, politician, jp, and businessman; b. 23 July 1821 near Dublin (Republic of Ireland), son of Joseph Pemberton and Margaret Stephens; m. 1864 Theresa Jane Despard Grautoff in London, England, and they had three sons and three daughters, including the artist Sophia Theresa; d. 11 Nov. 1893 in Oak Bay, B.C.

Born into a large Anglo-Irish family, Joseph Despard Pemberton was the grandson of a lord mayor of Dublin. In 1837 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, but after only a year of studies, which included science and mathematics, he took an engineering job with the Midland Railway of Ireland. During the railway boom he worked as an engineer on four different lines in Ireland and England before becoming professor of practical surveying and engineering at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester in 1849. The following year his design for the main buildings of the Great Exhibition of 1851 won him a bronze medal. On 9 Dec. 1850 he offered his services to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he was hired for a three-year term as colonial engineer and surveyor of Vancouver Island. A professional was badly needed, for the colony’s first surveyor, Captain Walter Colquhoun Grant*, had resigned on 25 March 1850, just as several hundred colonists were arriving from Britain. Pemberton reached Fort Victoria (Victoria) on 25 June 1851 and started work the next day.

His first task was to lay out a town-site and survey the agricultural lands on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, which the HBC and the British government had already decided should be settled on the systematic and selective principles of theorist Edward Gibbon Wakefield*. By January 1852 Pemberton and his assistant Benjamin William Pearse* had divided the Victoria district into town, suburban, and country lands. After examining the survey systems of 11 colonies, including South Australia, New Zealand, and Upper Canada, Pemberton set the price of town lots at £10 each, suburban lots at £15, and country lands at £1 an acre with the minimum size being 20 acres. Land was also reserved for the governor, the clergy, a school, a church, and a public park. By December 1853 he had surveyed six additional districts on southern Vancouver Island.

Pemberton turned his attention next to the rest of the island, much of it still unexplored and unsurveyed, of which the best charts available were those prepared by Captain George Vancouver* in 1792–94. In August 1852 Pemberton explored the coastline north from Victoria to the coal deposits at Wintuhuysen Inlet, where the HBC established Nanaimo [see Joseph William McKay], a post named by Pemberton after the local Indians. Between 1853 and 1855 he surveyed the entire coastline of southeastern Vancouver Island, a particularly challenging project since the heavily forested terrain made it necessary to construct survey stations in tree-tops. He was also in charge of road and bridge construction, and he designed the first school and church in the colony. In 1854 Governor James Douglas* called him a “fortunate selection” who had done his job with “zeal and untiring energies.”

In the spring of 1854 Pemberton returned to England where, despite receiving what Douglas called “a very tempting offer, in connection with the projected rail-ways in India,” he negotiated a second three-year contract with the HBC. While in London he arranged for the publication of a map showing his surveys of Vancouver Island. He persuaded his uncle Augustus Frederick Pemberton, who would later be appointed Victoria’s commissioner of police, to join him in the colony and manage his farm. Following his return to Vancouver Island in December 1855, accompanied by his sister Susan Frances Pemberton (later principal of the Girls’ Collegiate School), he led two expeditions to its rugged west coast.

Pemberton’s surveys and land laws had a lasting influence on the character of the earliest settlements in the colony. Although many colonists eventually left for the mines of California and the agricultural lands of Oregon and Washington territories, some 180 settlers bought over 17,000 acres of country land and about 150 town and suburban lots on Vancouver Island prior to the Fraser River gold-rush. Many were or had been HBC employees, and the company’s social hierarchy was transferred to the colony, with labourers buying the cheaper town lots while officers and clerks bought the more expensive country lands. Pemberton himself owned the Gonzales estate, a large farm near Victoria, and was identified with the HBC’s landowning élite, later dubbed the “family-company compact” by reformer Amor De Cosmos. In January 1857 Pemberton played Sir Lucius O’Trigger in Sheridan’s The rivals, one of the first theatrical productions in the colony.

When the gold-rush began in the spring of 1858, Pemberton’s office was inundated with land-hungry miners, farmers, speculators, and merchants on their way to the mainland. Between April 1858 and February 1859 he laid out town-sites in the newly created colony of British Columbia at Fort Yale (Yale), Fort Hope (Hope), Port Douglas (Douglas), and Derby (near Fort Langley), the proposed capital. He also suggested using the 49th parallel as a baseline upon which to establish a rectangular grid system, an idea later adopted by Colonel Richard Clement Moody*. In 1859 he severed his connection with the HBC and was appointed surveyor general of Vancouver Island, a post he would hold until October 1864. During these years he supervised the settlement of agricultural districts from Salt Spring Island in the south to Comox in the north. Abandoning Wakefieldian ideas, he framed the liberal pre-emption law of 1860, which permitted any settler to occupy an unsurveyed portion of land under 160 acres provided he paid 10s. an acre when the survey was completed. While in England on a leave of absence in late 1859 he wrote Facts and figures relating to Vancouver Island and British Columbia . . . (London, 1860). A handbook for “intending emigrants, merchants, or capitalists,” dedicated to John Rae, it is remarkable for its proposal that a transcontinental railway be constructed uniting Canada, the Red River settlement (Man.), and the Pacific colonies. Pemberton also invested in the abortive Bute Inlet Railway Company.

Soon after his arrival on Vancouver Island, Pemberton had become involved in its polarized politics. Described later by John Blaine Kerr as “a strong Conservative,” Pemberton supported in 1853–54 the controversial appointment of Douglas’s brother-in-law David Cameron* to the Supreme Court of Civil Justice, and he called for the dismissal of the radical Robert John Staines* from his post as colonial chaplain and schoolmaster. In August 1856, as a member of the first House of Assembly to meet on British soil west of the Great Lakes, Pemberton assisted HBC clerk Joseph William McKay in having Edward Edwards Langford expelled from the assembly on the grounds that he did not possess the necessary property qualification. Pemberton remained a member of the assembly until December 1859, and he was appointed to both the Executive and the Legislative councils of Vancouver Island in the spring of 1864. Shortly after his marriage in London later that year, he resigned as surveyor general and gave up his seats on the councils, but after the union of Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1866 he again entered politics, serving twice during the next two years on the Legislative Council as a member for Victoria District. In 1867 he was the author of the important resolution calling for “the admission of British Columbia into the Confederation on fair and equitable terms,” when and if the colony should decide to join.

Pemberton retired from politics in 1868, and during the next two decades devoted himself to his family, his farm, his work as a justice of the peace, and corporate and real estate investments. In 1887 he and his son Frederick Bernard founded the Victoria firm of J. D. Pemberton and Son, surveyors, civil engineers, and real estate and financial agents. A real estate company in Victoria and a Vancouver-based investment company are descended from this firm. Pemberton Sr also imported and bred horses, and was described by his former assistant Pearse as a “bold and judicious horseman.” He died of heart failure while participating in a paper-chase in Oak Bay.

Richard Mackie

Joseph Despard Pemberton’s map The southeastern districts of Vancouver Island, from a trigonometrical survey made by order of the Honble. Hudson’s Bay Company was published in London in 1855. A surveying notebook, entitled “Trigonometl. Memda.” (Add. mss 1978), and several letter-books dating from his years as the HBC’s colonial engineer and surveyor of Vancouver Island and from his later work as surveyor-general of Vancouver Island are at the PABC.

PABC, A/C/15/H86P; A/C/15/P36; C/AA/30.7/5; C/AA/30.71/C42.1; C/AA/30.71/W55; C/AA/30.71J/P36; E/B/P36.9; K/LS/P31; B. W. Pearse, “The early settlement of Vancouver Island” (transcript, 1900). PAM, HBCA, A.5/17: ff.65, 73; A.11/73: f.307d; 75: f.18. PRO, CO 60/3: f.314; CO 305/15: f.640 (copy of J. D. Pemberton, Extracts from professional certificates of J. Despard Pemberton (London, [c. 1860])) (mfm. at PABC). A. T. Bushby, “The journal of Arthur Thomas Bushby, 1858–1859,” ed. Dorothy Blakey Smith, BCHQ, 21 (1957–58): 83–198. James Douglas, “Report of a canoe expedition along the coast of Vancouver Island,” Royal Geographical Soc. of London, Journal, 24 (1854): 245–49. HBRS, 32 (Bowsfield). Helmcken, Reminiscences (Blakey Smith and Lamb). Journals of the colonial legislatures of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, 1851–1871, ed. J. E. Hendrickson (5v., Victoria, 1980). PABC Report (Victoria), 1913. British Colonist (Victoria), 12, 26 Feb., 29 July, 19 Aug. 1859. Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 6 Oct. 1864. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 12, 14 Nov. 1893. Walbran, B.C. coast names esp. 24, 378. Ormsby, British Columbia. E. O. S. Scholefield and F. W. Howay, British Columbia from the earliest times to the present (4v., Vancouver, 1914). W. E. Ireland, “Pioneer surveyors of Vancouver Island,” Corporation of British Columbia Land Surveyors, Report of proc. (Victoria), 1951: 47–51. H. S. [Pemberton] Sampson, “My father, Joseph Despard Pemberton: 1821–93,” BCHQ, 8 (1944): 111–25. J. P. Regan, “Hudson’s Bay Company lands and colonial surveyors on Vancouver Island, 1842–1858,” British Columbia Hist. News (Vancouver), 19 (1986), no.2: 11–16.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Richard Mackie, “PEMBERTON, JOSEPH DESPARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pemberton_joseph_despard_12E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pemberton_joseph_despard_12E.html
Author of Article:   Richard Mackie
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   April 16, 2024