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Launching History: The Saga of Burrard Dry Dock

By Francis Mansbridge

Review By Andrew Hildred

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003  | p. 200-1

IN 1894, ON THE SHORES of False Creek, Alfred “Andy” Wallace began what would become the largest shipbuilding conglomerate on the West Coast of Canada. Specializing in wooden fishing boats, Wallace soon diversified into wooden tugs. By 1906 he had moved his shipyards from False Creek to North Vancouver. Here the shipyards remained in operation until 1992. The company went on to employ three generations of Wallaces before it was sold to corporate interests in the early 1970s. Francis Mansbridge’s Launching History: The Saga of Burrard Dry Dock is a popular account of Wallace’s shipyard. Mansbridge and Harbour Publishing have chosen a timely subject, as the former shipyards in North Vancouver are currently being transformed from their industrial origins into mixed commercial and residential use. Launching History serves as a reminder of what was once an integral part of the North Vancouver waterfront and a significant contributor to British Columbia’s economic diversity. Drawing on a diverse and extensive collection of company records, personal interviews, an unpublished corporate history, and a published union account by former shipyard workers, Mansbridge has woven together a history of “significant ships and the men and women who made them possible”(xi). These human stories combined with the corporate history of Burrard Dry Dock provide an interesting insight into local community. For example, Alfred Wallace’s decision to change his name from the English-sounding “Alfred” to the Scot-friendly “Andy” says much about the Wallaces’ customers, his workforce, and Vancouver’s early business elite (10). 

While the corporate history of Burrard Dry Dock is intimately tied to the Wallace family, Mansbridge recognizes the importance of other contributors. His book includes highlighted excerpts from personal interviews and both company and union sources. These are presented as “local colour” outside of Mansbridge’s formal narrative. But once again, these human stories make the book interesting. For example, when corporate giant Versatile Manufacturing assumed control in 1978, Mansbridge foreshadows some of the problems of the new ownership, which was more concerned with the bottom line than with building good ships. The new owners brought in a personnel director, “an American, a Vietnam pilot shot down three times in Vietnam in his helicopter. He was on the BC Lions Grey Cup team in 1964” (162). The union president at the time remembered their first meeting. Luckily, he had been forewarned that the new personnel director would try to “break his hand” when they were introduced. The new personnel director represented the company’s hard-line approach to labour and the unions in the shipyards. 

Corporate histories often have little to say about unions and organized labour. Bradford Mitchell’s Every Kind ofShipwork: A History of Todd Shipyards Corporation IÇ16-1981 (1981), almost 200 pages into the text, briefly mentions a union, and then only to note that company profits were lower due to a prolonged strike. Todd Shipyards Corporation was a contemporary of Wallace and Burrard Dry Dock and also a competitor with shipbuilding and repair yards in Seattle and Tacoma. In the American Northeast, where Todd s head office was located, Todd gained a reputation for ruthlessly opposing the organizing efforts of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (IUMSWA). David Palmer’s Organizing the Shipyards: Union Strategy in Three Northeast Ports, 1993-1945 (1998) provides a useful account of the IUMSWA. The official corporate history of Todd Shipyards avoids the topic of unionization among its workers.

Mansbridge has taken a slightly different approach to unionization. He quotes frequently from union sources. He conducted personal interviews with present and past union leaders, and he repeatedly draws from a union-published book: A History of Shipbuilding in British Columbia (1977). And yet, in his introduction, Mansbridge claims that the union movement is “outside the scope of this narrative” (xi). In a book that purports to be about the ships and the men and women who built them, I would argue, the union movement is integral to this story. Although he recognizes the biases inherent in the company sources, Mansbridge often resorts to presenting the company view. For example, he repeatedly cites the company line that wages on the West Coast were too high for the shipyard to remain competitive. Given Mansbridge’s use of union sources, I would have liked some further discussion of the union and its place in the shipyards. 

In the end, Mansbridge and Harbour Publishing have produced a very well written and well illustrated popular history of the Burrard Dry Dock company. Hundreds of photographs grace this book and add to its visual appeal. I would highly recommend Launching History not only to those fascinated by ships and maritime history but also to those interested in local and community histories. Launching History‘will serve as a longtime reminder of this province’s shipbuilding past – a history that seems almost already forgotten.