The Townley House – Hastings and Burrard

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Across the street from the Mahon family the Townley’s had their home. This house was the home of J D Townley, often described as the Assistant Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The earliest we can trace his residence in Townley 1887Vancouver to is 1887, when he was described as the accountant of the Pacific division. We also find him here in 1888 in a series of financial transactions in conjunction with the completion of the railway and the purchase of lumber ties. Those papers make it clear that more accurately he should be described as the Assistant to the General Superintendent, Henry Abbott, whose later home was built nearby in 1897 on Georgia Street, but who lived on Hastings in 1887. We don’t know exactly when the house that Mr Townley lived in was built, but we know he was living here by 1889 at 944 Hastings.

In 1881 James had been living in York outside Toronto in Ontario with his mother, Alice, aged 52 and two younger brothers, Thomas and Robert and a sister, Rose. He was aged 22 and a station master. Robert Townley aged 20 also worked for the railway. All the children at home were born in Ontario, although Alice was from England. We can trace the family back ten years: the family were still in Ontario. James was 12, all three of his younger siblings were there, there is an older brother, John, aged 16 and an older sister, Lilly and his mother was recorded as being aged 37 (although she was probably 41). Ten years earlier than that, in 1861, the census finally reveals the name of James’s father to be John, a sailor born in England. Alice was 31, and as well as John and Lilly there are four older siblings, all born in England; Richard (11) Margaret (13), Elizabeth (15) and Ann (17). There’s also a younger brother, Charles.

Townley Lulu 1892By the 1891 census James is shown as aged 29 and Assistant superintendent of the CPR. In 1892 as the advertisement shows he was secretary of the Vancouver and Lulu Island Railway – a spur line, technically not owned by the CPR until 1902.

In 1901 His mother, Alice, was head of household, aged 72 and her son James was shown aged 40 and his sister Rose was also at home. Somehow his brother Charles, who was younger before is now 2 years older, although the street directory missed him that year. (A year later he is shown at 924 Hastings, with both his mother and brother. when he was a partner in Keith & Townley, brokers.)

Soon after 1903 Charles married Alice Ashcroft (a writer with the same first name as his mother). In the 1906 directory none of the Townleys are listed, but in 1908 Charles is living in the house on Hastings again (presumably with Alice). His mother and J D Townley are apparently no longer to be found in the city. Charles has a new business partner, he’s now Walker and Townley, and he is a Justice of the Peace.  In 1911 he’s still living there, but now doing business as Townley & Keefer.

The Census that year shows that after many years of relative quiet, the household is now positively buzzing. Charles and Alice head the house, Ethel and L W Herchmer are lodgers, with their baby daughter Laurentia, and a 9-year-old nephew, Randall Laurence. There’s a nurse, a 12-year-old maid, a Chinese servant, and last but not least Alice senior, now 81. There’s no suggestion that James is still alive in 1911 – if so it was not in Canada (unless the Census missed him).

Ethel Herchmer (not Edith as the press reported) was aged 28 (although she was probably 31), and her husband L W was recorded as being 64 – quite the gap, but actually even greater as L W Herchmer was really aged 71. He was born in 1840 in Shipton-on-Cherwell, England and had an extraordinary career, arriving in Canada to attend school in Toronto, returned to Military College in England and aged 17 he acquired a commission and served in India and Ireland. In 1862 he sold his commission, returned to Kingston and became a farmer before taking a job as supply officer to the boundary commission of 1872, setting the Canada / US Border. He married in 1864 and had at least four children. He ran a brewery in Winnipeg before becoming Indian Agent in Manitoba and in 1885 he was promoted to inspector of Indian agencies for the North-West Territories. In 1886 Sir John A. Macdonald selected Herchmer wedding 1905Herchmer as commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police. Herchmer dealt with a huge range of problems, and created a highly efficient organization (and a few political enemies in the process). Accused of mistreating his men and mis-using government funds, an internal departmental investigation cleared him. However, Herchmer found himself caught between governments cutting back on expenditure and manpower and a public demanding increased services. A change of government saw him even more isolated, his wife died in 1899, and an episode during the South African War (in which he had volunteered in early 1900) saw the prime minister decide that Herchmer was being unreasonable, had in fact been insubordinate, and was therefore no longer fit to command the NWMP, and he retired him to pension on 1 Aug. 1900.

In 1905 Colonel Herchmer married again, as the press cutting (sort of) shows. For once the British Colonist got the details of the wedding wrong; there were two weddings involving a Lawrence Herchmer that year. Lawrence Herchmer, of Winnipeg, married Edith MacDonald of Ontario in Fernie. This Lawrence was L W Herchmer’s son, and was apparently usually known as Sherwood (one of his middle names). He almost certainly wasn’t in the NWMP, and Edith wasn’t related to Alice Townley. Lawrence (the son) died in Greenwood in 1933 aged 66.

How LW Herchmer met his second wife we don’t know, although they would seem to have settled in Victoria around 1906 and moving in with his wife’s family a few years later. The couple owned property in Victoria (somebody moved their fence – and the sidewalk – in 1908), and they were living in rooms at ‘Roccabella’ on Quadra Street. (The City of Victoria denied any involvement in the mysterious realignment). There’s no suggestion that the Herchmers moved out of 944 Hastings after 1911, but there’s no confirmation that they were there either. In 1914 there were new power poles installed outside the house, worthy of recording in a photograph. (Either the work made a mess of the street, or paving still hadn’t reached this part of town, even by 1914).

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L W Herchmer died in Vancouver in 1915 aged 74, his widow in 1968 in North Vancouver. In 1926 and 1927 Ethel was living in an apartment on Thurlow Street with her sister, Alice. In 1928 they were living in a newly built house at 1177 W 33rd Avenue, and a decade later they were still there and her daughter Laurentia was also living with them.

1916 is the last reference to Charles Townley living at 944 Hastings. A year later Mrs Fletcher was living there. Perhaps Charles joined up, and on his return they left the city. In 1919 Charles was shown to living on Savary Island, a location he had earlier bought and subdivided in his brokerage days. His wife, Alice, was increasingly active in a variety of areas of city life.  In 1912 she founded the British Columbia Equal Franchise Association, of which she was president until 1917. In 1918, she was president of the League of Women Voters, a post she held again in 1932.

In 1929, she was elected as the first female commissioner of the Vancouver Parks Board, a post she held until 1935, a role now commemorated with a park named after her on E 2nd Avenue. She was also a successful writer; she apparently wrote for a Toronto newspaper before her marriage and she published several books, both fiction and non-fiction. She died in 1941.

By 1925 the Townley House was gone, and soon after a service station appeared on the site run by Thompson and Graham. In 1984 Waisman Dewar Grout Carter designed the building that’s there today, an unusually silver reflective office building called Commerce Place (home to the CIBC Bank in town) that reflects the view of the Marine Building across the street.

Image sources City of Vancouver Archives SGN 299 and LGN 1238


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