PEMBERTON, JOSEPH DESPARD (1821-1893) 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.
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. Pemberton reached Fort Victoria (Victoria) on 25 June 1851.
His first task was to lay out Victoria’s town-site and survey the agricultural lands on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. By January 1852 Pemberton and his assistant Benjamin William Pearse had divided the Victoria district into town, suburban, and country lands. 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, 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.
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,” 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 politics as a member of the first House of Assembly to meet on British soil west of the Great Lakes. 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 to 1864 Theresa Jane Despard Grautoff 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.