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WJ Brewer – Very Near Another City

October 12, 2012

The name of Surrey, BC  is credited to pioneer William John Brewer, who, but for some nimble footwork and a large measure of good luck one icy day at Brownsville,  would not have been around to make the proposal.
The perils of crossing the Fraser River between New Westminster and Brownsville have been oft noted in history.  In the first week of December 1873 a cold spell had choked up the Fraser River with ice floes once again, cutting off steamer traffic. In such circumstances, for travellers from New Westminster to the Fraser Valley, taking the road was the only option.  Starting from Brown’s Landing, travel by horse-drawn sleigh in winter could prove an relatively easy trip, barring fallen trees.  However,  the first leg of the journey was the risky river crossing.

William Jenkins, a settler from along the old Telegraph Road above Barnston Island, and WJ Brewer of Mud Bay set out together by canoe to reach Brown’s Landing.
The report is from the Mainland Guardian.

“Very Near An Accident —
“Two of our farmers, in endeavoring to cross the river on the way to their several localities—Brewer on the Semiahmoo Road, and Jenkins upriver—ventured the perilous trip in a canoe amongst the ice floes.
They had reached probably about the centre of the river, when the swift whirling current brought two of the masses together, and their frail bark was seized in the terrible embrace of the frozen monsters. The resistance was but momentary: the canoe was broken in two.
The unfortunate voyagers clung each to a fragment of the canoe and the adjoining mass of ice, and were thus enabled to sustain themselves until a number of spectators of the catastrophe, reached them in a boat which was with much difficulty taken to their rescue, the men in the boat being compelled to cut their way through the ice for a considerable distance.
The poor fellows–Jenkins and Brewer—must have perished if the current had caused the sheets of ice to separate.”

A native of Cornwall, England, William John Brewer arrived in British Columbia in 1870.  He  selected 160 acres of land “Situated on the north bank of the Serpentine river or slough, Mud Bay,”  duly  registered in October 1870.   To this original pre-emption he  added a further 40 acres to the west and ten years on had increased the size of his holding to over 300 acres, comprising Lot 168 and adjacent sections.

In 1879, settlers in the various settlements opposite New Westminster, including Brownsville, Mud Bay,  Serpentine, Clover Valley and Hall’s Prairie,  petitioned the provincial government for incorporation as a municipality.  It is generally accepted that WJ Brewer proposed the area be called “Surrey” because its location in relation to New Westminster matches that of the county of Surrey in England,  situated across the Thames River from Westminster.

A first election was held in January 1880, with WJ Brewer acting as Returning Officer.  At the first meeting of council, Brewer was appointed Municipal Clerk.

Brewer removed from Surrey in the  mid-1880’s  and by 1890 is listed by the census as farming at “North Arm.”  Brewer took up a lot on Victoria Road, just north of the Westminster Road (now Kingsway)  in the neighbourhood later known as Cedar Cottage,  where he resided for more than 40 years.  Out of the bush he planted gardens of flowers and vegetables.

At his new home he was joined by his father Sampson Brewer, who immigrated from England in 1890. WJ Brewer was married for the first time at the age of 49 the same year.

Brewer once again  played an important role in the creation of a new municipality.  In May 1892 William John Brewer was nominated by JW Lawson and E McHendry and elected by acclamation  to be  the first  Reeve of the Municipality of South Vancouver.  The new district lay to the south of Vancouver,  extending  to the Fraser River.  Whether Brewer also dreamed up the name for this municipality is not known.  Brewer served just one year before giving up the position in favour of the man who had nominated him, James Williamson Lawson.  South Vancouver was absorbed into Vancouver in 1929.

Brewer’s wife died in 1910 and he married again at the age of 71 to actress Elizabeth Heron, age 40.

Here is WJ Brewer looking spry at the age of 87.“The first and last Reeves of South Vancouver.” Vancouver Archives photo. WJ Brewer, age 87

WJ Brewer died in 1931, age 90.
A portion of his property survives in  “Brewers Park”, on Victoria Drive at 26th Ave.

Click map for location of WJ Brewer’s homestead at Mud Bay and at Brewers Park, Vancouver. WJ Brewer - google map link

For more about dangerous crossings on the Fraser River ice read about  tragic deaths  of Gillanders and Lewis or the crossing of the outlaw McLean brothers while in custody.

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