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Pioneer Years in the Wet West
As a youngster on Savary Island, Jim Spilsbury had always doubted "pit-lampers" (poachers) who claimed they could distinguish a deer from a cow in the dark. So he nailed a pair of bottle caps to a stump in a forest where lamp-laden hunters were known to shoot, quite illegally, at eyes that glowed in the night. The next morning the bottle caps, still firmly affixed to the stump, were surrounded by bullet holes.

This is Spilsbury's Coast, a book of humorous anecdotes chronicling the life of a man who for eight decades travelled the intricate network of inlets and waterways between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. Raised on the sandy shores of Savary Island, 140 kilometres north of Vancouver, Spilsbury's early years were spent in a tent-turned-cabin with a fiercely independent mother who cropped her hair short like a man's, wore trousers and favoured shotguns over rifles for hunting deer.

His mildmannered father was "absolutely no businessman" who had lost everything he had inherited from a wealthy family of British eccentrics. "It was a queer upbringing," says Spilsbury. "Damn queer."

Through careers as a manufacturer of radio-telephones, the founder of a coastal airline and a painter of West Coast landscapes, Spilsbury has spent a lifetime associating with "loggers, fishermen, stump ranchers, hermits, remittance men, Greek scholars, ex-prostitutes, former stagecoach robbers, and outright lunatics". Through these oddball characters, Spilsbury fondly portrays his coast as a wild and rugged hinterland, where ingenuity was the basis of survival.

Unlike the memoirs of some one-time authors, Spilsbury's Coast is well written. That's not surprising, since the book was coauthored by Howard White, a publisher and talented writer who, though half as old as Spilsbury, has spent much of his life in the same area. With maps, sketches and more than 100 black-and-white photos, Spilsbury and White have produced a thoroughly entertaining book. You need no special interest in Jim Spilsbury or the B.C. coast to enjoy it.
-Bruce Obee, Canadian Geographic


Spilsbury's Coast: Pioneer Years in the Wet West, by Howard White and Jim Spilsbury.
Spilsbury's Coast is the first instalment of the autobiography of Jim Spilsbury, the radio repairman from Savary Island who formed a highly successful Vancouver-based radio-telephone manufacturing company during the Second World War. This book deals with Spilsbury's family, his youth, and his early career; a later volume will deal with his post-war career as president of Queen Charlotte Airlines and radio manufacturers Spilsbury and Tindall.

Like a curiously large amount of B.C. history, this book begins in an English country house in the late nineteenth century. Spilsbury's grandfather, known only as "the Governor," was a Church of England clergyman who presided over an eleven-member family at The Langlands, Findern, Derbyshire. The family owed its wealth to an ancestor named James Ward who made a fortune constructing canals in the early phase of the industrial revolution. By the 1880s, however, "they were what you call landed gentry, meaning they just lay about doing nothing, living off a community of tenant farmers."

"None of them could do anything except sit around showing off their breeding and eating up the family fortune."

Three of the Governor's five sons came to British Columbia. "Uncle Frank" arrived in 1878 and built a split-cedar shack on the Fraser at Whonnock. After a few years he got bored, returned to England, and transferred the land to his brother Benjamin, a Cambridge graduate. "Uncle Ben," however, also got bored and moved to the new city of Vancouver where he teamed up with businessman R. V. Winch. In about 1880 he transferred his property to his younger brother, Ashton Wilmot Spilsbury or "Dad," a graduate of Repton, the English private school, and Clare College, Cambridge. Ashton cleared part of the 360-acre farm and in 1898, aged twenty-six, maned twenty-seven-year-old Alice Blizard of Fort Langley, a recent immigrant from London, England.

Ashton was generous, sedentary, and somewhat ineffectual; Alice was practical, assertive, and independent. In 1905 they returned to Findern for the birth of their son, named Ashton James Ward Spilsbury after their canal-digging ancestor. "Name him after the only member of this family who ever made any money," said the Governor, leaning on his cane, "it's high time somebody else made some money!" The Spilsburys, however, considered Alice "a caste below them and they treated her accordingly," a fact which "changed her whole life - and Dad's life too." She became fiercely unpatriotic and nonconformist. Her son recalls that "she cut her hair short like a man's and took to wearing men's trousers. To show her absolute disdain of everything proper and British, she became an ardent suffragette, she adopted the cause of the anti-British terrorists in Ireland, and generally became a very difficult person to live with. She led my poor dad a hell of a life, really."

In 1906 or 1907 the Spilsburys returned to the farm at Whonnock where they attempted, unsuccessfully, to manufacture Devonshire Cream for the New Westminster market. Just before the First World War they sold their farm and invested in a thirty-six-foot boat, a project which fizzled in the pre-war depression. Broke, the Spilsburys moved into a tent on Savary Island some hundred miles north of Vancouver. Laid out in 1910-11 by an investors' syndicate, the island became a summer resort for Vancouver's well-to-do, one of whom took pity on the homeless family and invited them to stay in his summer cottage over the winter of 1914-15. The next year the Spilsburys moved back to their tent, where they remained until 1994. During these ten years Ashton and his son Jim built fences, dug wells, built and repaired summer cabins, worked on the island's roads, and cut firewood for the summer residents. Fortunately for the family, Ashton had been at Repton with the man who became governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. "Dad was overdrawn and overdrawn again," Spilsbury writes, "and the Hudson's Bay would carry him. If they hadn't, we never would have made it." Tent life ended in 1924 when Ashton inherited $20,000 from his mother's estate, and he was able to build "a very comfortable home" on two choice waterfront lots bought for the family by Alice Spilsbury's friend Miss Ethel Burpee.

Jim Spilsbury's only schooling took place between 1914 and 1919 the Savary Island school; he hated the experience and graduated when he was fourteen years old. His mother - who loved disciplined organizations like the army, the navy, and the cricket team - got him enrolled in the erchant marine, and he went to China as an apprentice officer on the lumber carrier SS Melville Dollar. His interest fired by the ship's wireless radios, he quit the merchant marine in 1920 and returned, aged fifteen, determined to become a ship's wireless operator. Over the next few years he worked as a hooktender's helper, learned to operate a donkey engine, spent a summer cutting shingle bolts, and in 1922, aged seventeen, got his L.D.E. or Logging Donkey Engineer's steam ticket. After two years in the woods, and with a thousand dollars saved, he quit logging and began his career in the communications industry.

He was already a radio expert. In 1922 he jolted the residents of Savary by picking up a San Francisco station that was one of the first to broadcast not Morse Code but music and the human voice. "This was the human voice coming out of space. . . For sheer shock to your system the Sputnik wasn't in the same league." In 1923 he began building his own radios, helped by a correspondence course in electrical engineering and encouraged by his mentor Frank Osborne, who designed and produced his own marine engines at his machine shop in Lund. By 1924 Spilsbury was building advanced radios for summer cottagers, and in 1926 he established a radio repair business. "Just overnight," Spilsbury recalls, "radio boomed. And it carried me with it."

Over the next fifteen years Spilsbury ignored repeated suggestions that he move to Vancouver. Jilted by his summer cottage girlfriend - the niece of a wealthy Vancouver yachtsman and businessman - be bought a boat with which he tapped the radio needs of the camps, canneries, and settlements between Sayward and the Sechelt Peninsula. On a typical trip he travelled forty miles inland by railway from Rock Bay to the Hastings Mill logging camps to fix a dozen temperamental radio sets. During these trips around "Spilsbury's Coast" he provided radios to everyone from the Greek scholar S. K. Marshall of Evans Bay to the writer Francis Dickie of Read Island, who "spent a lot of his time strolling around his garden with no clothes on like William Blake"; to the "old renegade Englishman" Captain J. Forbes Sutherland of Surge Narrows, who could not pay for his new radio and threatened Spilsbury with a double-barrelled shotgun; to the numerous remittance men who could be found "living like savages in little bevels made of bark but still arrogant as kings."

In 1937, when he was thirty-two, he married his childhood sweetheart Glenys Glynes, one of Savary's "summer kids" from Vancouver. His family had no objections because "she was English." With their son Ronald and their new boat they continued their coastal tours. Spilsbury started to build sophisticated radio telephone transmitters and in 1941 - taking advantage of the wartime economic boom - he teamed up with Jim Hepburn, a radio enthusiast from Victoria, to form Spilsbury and Hepburn Ltd. From their Vancouver base they manufactured or installed radio telephones for the government, the armed forces, and for the mining, fishing, logging, and tugboat companies engaged in war-related work.
The book ends in 1943, when Spilsbury bought a float plane to serve distant customers and formed Queen Charlotte Airlines, which was merged with Pacific Western Airlines in 1955. As pilot he hired Uncle Ben's son Rupert Spilsbury; appropriately and symbolically on their first flight they flew over the "old family homestead" at Whonnock, and Jim was astonished at the change in scale. "I knew I would never be able to look at that coastal world in quite the same way. It had become less mysterious, less forbidding, less grand. It really had become smaller."

Several important themes are reflected in Spilsbury's Coast. One is the general tendency of early settlers to abandon farming in favour of the logging, service, and transportation industries. A second is the end of isolation caused by the radio communications revolution. A third is the transition from waterborne to airborne transportation; Spilsbury shows the coast as it was in the last thirty years before the seaplane, and in this respect Spilsbury's Coast belongs with such epics as Muriel Blanchet's The Curve of Time and Gilean Douglas's The Protected Place. It is an informative and enjoyable book.

Slightly incongruous is the generic "wet west" subtitle and a tendency to lump the well-heeled Spilsburys in with the less privileged residents of the coast. Howard White's claim that Spilsbury was "just a guy from around here" is literally true, but it is equally dear that Spilsbury's world was not that of the builder Frank Gagne or the cook Red Mahone. A photo shows the English community on Savary - dressed in tennis whites and boater hats - waiting nonchalantly at the dock for the weekly steamer from Vancouver. The Spilsburys were members of Savary Island's Anglooriented professional e1ite. Island friends included Colonel and Laurencia Herchmer, Captain Ashworth of the Royal Savary Hotel, Dr. Lea of Vancouver, Burnet the surveyor, the Anglican clergymen John Antle and Alan Greene, and the wealthy Miss Ethel Burpee, whose brother-in-law introduced Spilsbury to Emily Carr (he considered her "a revolting old crank"). The Spilsburys - mother, father, and son - had connections in the larger world which they did not lose by going to Savary and which they did not hesitate to use. Their isolation may even have increased the importance of their social and business connections.

Howard White is right, however, in taking encouragement from the example of Spilsbury's early career. His radio telephones, like Osbome's marine engines, the Empire Macchine Works' donkey engines, and Easthope motors, were home-made and not imported from Kalamazoo or Hamilton. Spilsbury rejected the temptation to go to Vancouver until he was nearly forty years old, choosing instead to cultivate his own potential and the economic potential of the inside coast. His story has contemporary relevance: while nurses, teachers, graduate students and others leave British Columbia in droves, Spilsbury's Coast suggests that there are ways of staying.
-Richard Mackie, BC Studies


Spilsbury's Coast
Howard White, editor-author of the ever-popular Raincoast Chronicles, has once again brought readers of upcoast history another gem in the form of Spilsbury
Coast
, which he has jointly written with Jim Spilsbury, which he has probably best known to fishermen as the maker of the Spilsbury and Tindal radio telephones which, prior to the Japanese-made transistorized phones, were to be found on many fishboats. But the book is much more than a recounting of the history of radio communications on the coast.

Jim Spilsbury grew up on Savary Island in the early years of this century and as a young man worked in logging camps. But it was with the advent of radio in the 1920s that he really came into his own. With a converted troller he joined the fleet of "seller boats" that plied the inside waterways selling everything from shirts to booze in the years prior to World War II. Later, with a bigger boat that came to be known as "the radio boat" in all of the float camps and homesteads, he continued to visit many populated coved and bays of the coast and now in the book he recounts the marine experiences and people of that era.

A special friend and mentor of Jim Spilsbury's was Frank Osborne of Lund. Osborne operated a machine shop there and built one of the first gas engines on the coast. Among a generation of inventive machinists, he was a recognized innovator. He also liked to play and the account of the cannon that he turned on his lathe for the young Spilsbury left this reader in stitches.
-Westcoast Fisherman


Spilsbury's Coast Book Review
Spilsbury's Coast is a real grabber and a book to be heartily recommended. It is a colourful history of the early 20th century on the B.C. Coast, presented as a good-natured look at the people and events that shaped Jim Spilsbury's life and career in radio. There are stories of the characters that peopled the float camps, one-man machinery shops, and fledgling island communities that are so vivid they seem like part of your own childhood memories. Even if you never grew up on the coast, after reading this book you will know what it felt like to live and travel among a community of "loggers, fishermen, stump ranchers, hermits, remittance men, Greek scholars, ex-prostitutes, former stagecoach robbers, and outright lunatics." You can also feel the excitement when the first radio connections linked boats, isolated logging camps, and tiny homesteads with the outside world.

For Jim Spilsbury this odyssey began in 1914 and covered B.C.'s Inside Passage from the Fraser River to the top end of Vancouver Island. He detailed his work and the characters he knew in weekly letters to his father, radio repair logbooks, and later correspondence with his business partner. After his father died, he rediscovered all those letters with their recorded memories-carefully filed, wrapped in brown paper, and dated.

Eight years ago author and publisher Howard White wanted to do a story on the Queen Charlotte Airlines, a business that almost accidentally grew out of Spilsbury's radio-equipment business. They met and, over the next eight years talked about the early days, taped hours of stories, pecked them out on the typewriter, went over the logbooks, looked through old photographs, and re-read the legacy of family letters. The project got bogged down in the wealth of detail until Howard White realized he had enough material for two books - Spilsbury's Coast is the first. The second, tentatively entitled QCA-the Accidental Airline, is slated for publication in September or October. Working on these books may have been a long process, but what delights Jim Spilsbury most is the many old timers from 50, 60, and 70 years ago who have read the book and called up to get in touch again.

Jim Spilsbury is still a ham radio operator. He sold his radio communication business six years ago and now spends his time painting seascapes or going out on his boat, Blithe Spirit, with his wife "Win". Recently Flora McDonald presented the author with an award from Communications Canada for contributions to marine communication on early radio. My awards go to both Howard White and Jim Spilsbury for giving readers this engaging look at "pioneer days in the wet west".
-Vickie Jensen, Westcoast Mariner


UpLink Book Review
This is the true story of a ham radio operator and electronic equipment designer/builder, Jim Spilsbury, who grew up and worked on the British Columbia Coast from the early to middle part of the last century (circa 1920 to 1960), Co-author Howard White writes: "when I was a boy in my Dad's logging camp, I used to think nothing we did quite counted. . . Everything came from somewhere else. . . Caterpillar tractors or ball bearings came from places like Peoria III. or Kalamazoo Mi. . . {but}a couple of things didn't fit that pattern. One was. . . the Spilsbury and Tindal radiophone. . . They looked as real and big-time as anything from Kalamazoo. . . more impressive than ball bearings because they were more scientific and amazing.
Yet they were made by a guy who lived up by Powell River. This filled me with wonder. If one guy around here could get onto the Kalamazoo level, it was at least possible.."
Yes, it was possible and Jim Spilsbury, pioneer, artist, aviator, radio circuit inventor, and businessman did most all of it in that remote part of the Vancouver Island now known as Spilsbury's Coast.

I followed his biographic experiences with that over-the-shoulder interest one sometimes gets when the story involves you in a way that is more personal than usual awareness you get just reading the less absorbing book.

Spilsbury started out as a mobile radio repairman working from a leaky fishing boat, became a successful exporter of radio-telephone equipment, and almost accidentally started what is now Canada's largest domestic airline.
Spilsbury's Coast is eighty years' worth of memories with loggers, fishermen, hermits, former stage robbers, and outright lunatics. As a radio ham/pioneer history buff, I liked the book a lot.
-Uplink Book Review


"Focusing on that part of his life which he spent working along the Inside Passage between the Fraser River and the northern tip of Vancouver Island, Jim Spilsbury's funny, outrageous and intelligent reminiscences portray life on the west coast as recalled by one of its legends."
-Vancouver Island & and the Gulf Islands History, Culture and Biography Booklist