Robert Pim Butchart (1856 – 1943) was a significant figure in British Columbia’s shipbuilding industry. Born and educated at Owen Sound, Ontario, he married Jennie Foster Kennedy of Toronto in 1884. Four years later the couple founded the Owen Sound Portland Cement Company… the business that would become the foundation of the couple’s enduring success. By the early 1940’s Robert had become a shareholder in cement plants across Canada and throughout the United States.
In 1904 Jennie and Robert saw a new opportunity and left Owen Sound to establish British Columbia’s first Portland cement plant beside a rich limestone deposit north of Victoria. Limestone is a necessary ingredient of Portland cement. From the sheltered waters of adjacent Tod Inlet they shipped cement far and wide… to Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco. Robert’s newly acquired maritime shipping experience and keen business sense led to directorships in a number of coastal steamship companies including the Pacific Steamship Co. Ltd. and The Pacific Alaska Navigation Co.
World War One Shipbuilding
His shipping connections led to Butchart’s delegation by British Columbia’s shipbuilding industry to travel to Toronto during the second year of the Great War to present a wartime shipbuilding proposal to J.W. Flavelle. Flavelle had recently been appointed head of the Imperial Munitions Board (IMB). The IMB was established to let and to coordinate all wartime construction contracts in Canada on behalf of the British Government. In 1915 the IMB saw little need for shipbuilding services on such a far away coast and Butchart returned home empty-handed.
By 1917 things had changed dramatically. Losses to Britian’s coastal fleet to German submarine action was threatening England’s wartime production capacity and her hopes for winning the war. Among the responses to the crisis was Flavelle’s appointment of Butchart as British Columbia’s “Director of Wooden Shipbuilding”. Butchart mobilized the province’s wartime shipbuilding effort which ultimately brought 135 significant vessels into existence during those last two years of the war.
Victoria’s Shipbuilding Effort
In Victoria’s harbour he arranged “Emergency Shipbuilding Contracts” for Cameron Genoa Mills Shipyard and the Foundation Company who leased the Point Hope facility to fulfill their contract. To power and plumb Victoria’s prodigious shipbuilding production Butchart arranged for the Victoria Machine Depot (VMD) to obtain the IMB contract to manufacture and install each wartime freighters’ machinery, plumbing and fittings. Installation was carried out at a newly established assembly plant on an Ogden Point pier in the Outer Harbour before the freighters steamed south, transited the Panama Canal and crossed the Atlantic to serve in the Allied coastal fleet.
Well over 1,000 were employed in this emergency shipbuilding effort.