Vancouver Was Awesome: On the Waterfront, 1918


A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.

After James Woodsworth was fired from his government research job in 1917 for opposing conscription, he left Winnipeg and headed west to Vancouver. He rented a room at 1218 Howe Street and found work on the docks.

Back home he was well known as JS Woodsworth, a preacher and social reformer devoted to improving conditions for the poor urban immigrants he called the “Strangers Within Our Gates.” But in Vancouver he kept his past — and his fancy Oxford education — to himself, hoping to blend in with the other stevedores. “Being a town-bred boy and having gone through school and college into professional life, I had never done manual work,” he confesses in On the Waterfront, a booklet describing his Vancouver experience.

On the Waterfront is a rare inside look into early Vancouver’s most important industry. Woodsworth introduces us to some of the characters he worked with, the “men without a country” who found themselves, like him, “in war time marooned on the shores of the Pacific.”

Wordsworth found longshoring to be physically demanding, monotonous, and unreliable work. Job security was non-existent and work conditions were generally grim, even though this was one of the more coveted manual labour jobs at the time. Ultimately the book is an exposé of the plight of the working class and an outlet for Woodsworth’s developing socialist ideas.

JS Woodsworth returned to Winnipeg in 1919 and was arrested for his involvement in the General Strike of that year. Then he was elected to the House of Commons, where he found himself in a position to force Prime Minister King to introduce old age security legislation as the first substantial component of Canada’s social safety net. In 1933 Woodsworth and other democratic socialists formed the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (the precursor to the NDP), which he led until WWII. His great-niece is former Vancouver city councilor Ellen Woodsworth.

Source: Terminal Dock, 1924 (cropped) by WJ Moore, City of Vancouver Archives #PAN N203; JS Woodsworth, On the Waterfront (Ottawa, ON: The Mutual Press Ltd., 1918), via the Internet Archive.