Monday, January 25, 2016

Seraphim's Story

The early 1920's may have been a time of change brought on by violence and lawlessness but not all of the change in Vancouver revolved around crime and irresponsibility. During the winter of 1884-5, Seraphim Fortes from Barbados arrived on Vancouver's shores. Fortes became a porter, handyman and second bartender for the Sunnyside hotel.

Seraphim, or Joe as he was known, lived through the great fire, saw the first train arrive and, during the 'boom', obtained a steady position at the bar of the Bodega Saloon where the Rainer Hotel now stands at Carrall and Cordova Streets. The burly, chocolate-coloured seamen became a popular citizen, and was known for his habit of discouraging excessive drinking.

Sometime during the 1890's, Joe discovered English Bay. He gave up his good job and established himself in a squatter's shack on the shore side of Beach Avenue, a little to the east of present day Alexandra Park - a triangle fronting on the bay, near the boathouse. He supported himself by doing casual labour jobs but the work of his life became the bay and its beach.

Every morning - 365 days of the year - he swam in the bay and drank his "medicine" - a cup of salt water. When he wasn't working, Joe managed the beach. More people moved into the West End and to the adults, he was "English Bay Joe' and to the children "Ol' Black Joe". Joe loved kids and most of the children raised in the 1890's or 1900's learned to swim with Joe holding the back of his or her cotton swimsuit and listening to the deep, mellow voice ordering, "Kick yo' feet, chile - kick yo feet".

During the summer, mothers would confidently shoo their children to the bay with a simple command "...and don't go away from where Joe is."

When the time came for the Park Board to hire a lifeguard, Joe was the obvious choice.

When Joe wasn't with the children on the beach, his little boat cruised over the waves. We don't know how many lives he saved over the years but he was credited with over one hundred witnessed rescues, some of them in desperate circumstances. When, as will happen, Joe's efforts failed he was grief stricken.

Joe belonged to the beach and the beach was his. From dawn to dark and long after dark, he hosted picknickers, chaperoned courting couples and terrified bums and hoodlums. His cottage was spick and span inside and out. The children came to visit - he kept a tin full of all-day suckers. Beside his bed was his one book, Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and he did leave the bay on Sunday mornings. A devout Catholic, Joe attended Mass weekly.

Joe Fortes was given the authority of special constable by the city of Vancouver and when the houses were cleared away from the shore where he lived, Mayor Buscombe had Joe's cottage moved beside the bandstand in the park where it would stay as long as Joe lived.

In January of 1922, Joe became ill.

Thanks to the book Vancouver, From Milltown to Metropolis by Alan Morley for the above information.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

Karen Magill