Richard Vance Winch was born in Ontario in 1862 (although 1863 is recorded in some census entries). Despite becoming a very wealthy and successful member of Vancouver’s business elite, R V Winch does not appear to feature in any detail in any of the biographies published in the city through the years he was active. His early story does however appear in several books, some of them about the salmon industry where R V made much of his money. Here’s an example “He was born in 1862 in Cobourg, Ontario. He ran away from home at age 16, herded cattle and worked on the CPR, arriving in B.C. in 1893.” The 1871 census shows him aged 8 in Hamilton, where he was still living (aged 19) with his mother and father (a butcher, also called Richard) in 1881, and he was still a student. He arrived in Vancouver late in 1886, and was already in business by 1887. Whether he embroidered his story to match some of the other pioneers, or whether the accounts got the wrong Winch is unclear. There was a Winch family in Cobourg, so it appears that he was born there and moved to Hamilton, probably in 1871, the year his sister Elizabeth was christened in Cobourg. (Another sister, Julia, born in 1860, also moved to Vancouver and married George Bower who worked for R V and became a property developer himself, developing the Bower building on Granville Street).
Exactly how he raised his capital to start in business is also, at this juncture, unclear, but R V travelled extensively in the early years of his involvement in Vancouver. He sailed for San Francisco in September 1887, returning in December, and he went again in spring of 1888, and to Puget Sound at the end of the year, apparently on behalf of a company called Harning Bros (of whom there is no trace – although there is a salmon cannery run by Harlock and Co). In spring of 1889 he travelled to San Francisco again, this time with his wife.
In 1887 he was in business on Cordova Street as a fish and game dealer with Joseph Shupe, and apparently also living on the same street. The following year Mr Shupe is no longer associated with the Vancouver Market at 20 Cordova Street – it’s all R V Winch’s. In 1889 the address is the same, but the business is now ‘wholesale fruit and commission’ and Mr Winch is living at 412 Oppenheimer St (these days East Cordova). It’s likely that the Directories are mistaken about the address, as Major Matthews recorded that Mr Winch’s place of business in 1887 was 125 feet west of the southwest corner of Carrall and Cordova Street, then the principal business street, and the busiest part, of the City of Vancouver. This small wooden building was pulled down when the Dunn-Miller block was erected (in 1888). Mr Winch recalled “We supplied the Canadian Pacific Railway steamships and railway from Hong Kong to Banff with fresh provisions from that little store”
In 1889 he was offering ice for sale – perhaps the business he was setting up in San Francisco. In 1890 the details are the same, but there is a telephone (#58), In 1891 he’s shown as being at 52 Cordova, and in 1892 he’s offering both fruit and fish and his credit rating is considered to be good. There’s another almost identical picture to the one below that has the Winch name board, and that’s numbered as 66 (in 1899).
We know that 52/66 Cordova was built for him. In 1889 R V Winch commissioned Thomas Hooper to design the Winch Block with shops and offices on Cordova. The building that’s on the site these days is a residential condo building, but the building was still standing in the 1930s. Here’s a picture of the building in 1896, by which point a Mr Bower has partnered in the game business (apparently R V Winch’s sister had married Mr Bower, who was from Coburg, Ontario).
W A Grafton, in conversation with Major Matthews recalls selling game to the company. “You see, I used to sell all the fish and game—deer and grouse—to the Hotel Vancouver at first, or to Coughtery, the butcher, and then I changed over to Dick Winch” (Winch and Bower.) “The biggest lot I ever sold to Winch was thirteen deer and sixty-seven brace of grouse all shot by my brother and myself on Bowen Island, and in two days; deer were ‘thick’ then. Winch gave me sixty-eight cents a brace for the grouse, and five cents a pound for the deer.
“You could sell the deer only at the opening of the season. After that, you could not sell them; the market was glutted; they did not want them. After the Comox started running, they brought in too many from up north, but you could always sell blue grouse.”
A bit further east was the butcher’s store of Hayes and McIntosh, seen here in 1893. R V Winch’s building was one of the buildings on the right half of the picture.
One account of Winch’s life (one of those that have him running away from Cobourg aged 16) says he lost everything in a depression in the 1890s. This seems unlikely, as he had a new home built in 1899. The 1890 Vancouver Board of Trade Annual Report shows the annual catch associated with the two principle fishery related companies: R V Winch was easily the larger, with 120,000 of fresh salmon caught. He was in partnership with Mr Port of New Westminster, and they used the railway to ship halibut and sturgeon on ice to the east and into the United States. In 1899 he had bought out the Anacortes Packing Co for $26,000, and successfully packed the entire 40,000 case production. Taking a risk (which his partner wasn’t willing to pursue) he bought a further 26,000 cases of cans, and a second salmon run allowed him to pack those too. On the strength of this success the Alaska Packers Association bought out the Anacortes operation for $450,000, cash.
R V Winch was starting to entertain serious business success as the city’s growth took off in the early years of the century. His business interests widened to include insurance, importing materials (he lost a court case over losses associated with a cargo of Portland Cement on its was from the UK to North America), and most of all the salmon canning. His obituary in the Province (which is probably the source of the Cobourg/cowboy story) is probably more accurate in describing his business activities “he established the Canadian Pacific Canning Company on the Fraser River in 1893. In 1895 he shipped the first trainload of canned salmon ever exported from this province. They sold in Liverpool, England, for about $5 per case. It was a shipment of 30,000 cases, on which Mr Winch said he cleared $1 per case. His enterprise helped set up canneries at Nootka Sound and on the Naas, Skeena and Fraser Rivers. He also built a cannery at Anacortes. During his career he built and operated seven canneries and one sawmill. At one time these were valued at $1,600,000.” So after only 10 years of operations, In 1902, having built the company up, it was sold. “Mr. Winch acting as manager during the first three years, after which Mr. Alexander assumed the duties of that office, continuing as such for six years and proving capable, discriminating and far-sighted in the discharge of his duties. At the end of that time the company disposed of their interests to the British Columbia Packers’ Association”.
In the early 1900s R V Winch and Company were formed through the acquisition of Robert Ward and Company, a Victoria based commission merchant with connections to Winch through the salmon canning industry. (Over fishing was starting to make the salmon industry far less predictable or lucrative). The commission merchant was the typical Pacific-coast businessman of the time. He acted as broker, supplier, and insurance and shipping agent to a variety of entrepreneurs, in addition to importing and exporting on his own account.
In 1905 he commissioned a building on West Pender Street, designed by Grant & Henderson. As with the first building, it’s no longer in existence; these days the 500 block on the north side of Pender Street is Conference Plaza.
In 1899 Thomas Hooper had been hired to design the Winch family home on Comox Street, and it was Hooper & Watkins who got the contract in 1907 to design Mr Winch’s serious property investment. Construction took 3 years, was completed in 1911, and cost a reported $700,000. It was described as “an entirely modern Class A office building, the first of its kind in British Columbia” It’s something of a departure from some of Thomas Hooper’s other buildings – here he was given a generous budget so designed a Beaux-Arts Classical style stone-clad building (albeit on a steel and reinforced concrete frame) that would look at home in London or Paris.
The building today is part of the Sinclair Centre
We get hints at the degree of success the Winch family enjoyed. In 1908 Mr and Mrs Winch visited Los Angeles. R V Winch bought a 1910 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost from Captain Clarence Mawson Marpole not long after Marpole had taken delivery of it. His steady advancement from his arrival in 1886 to his holding significant position in the business life of the city is shown in the Census entries. In 1891, Richard is aged 29, born in Ontario, a Methodist, listed as a Green Grocer, Bella is 25, born of Scottish parents in Ontario, son Richard is aged 1. Ten years later in 1901, Richard is age 39 (20 March 1862) with Bella, 38 and 11 year old son Fife, 8 year old daughter Gertrude, son Charles 6 and Harry 3.and Linda Carlson, their 21 year old servant. (Presumably Richard Fife Winch was known by his middle name to avoid confusion). In 1911 Richard is now born in 1863, wife is now Isabell and has lost 2 years in age, their 21 year old son is called Richard again, Gertrude is 18, Charles is 15, Harry 13, Donald 10, and the household is completed with a servant Edith Docksay aged 22 (probably mistakenly noted as male), a 19 year old cook, Hoy and a 48 year old gardener, Sing.
Winch’s business continued to prosper. He added property dealing to the commission and insurance businesses. (In 1920 for example the company was selling 4 houses in the West End).
There are only a few records available that refer to Mr Winch in later years. In 1912 he acquired an orchard estate in Lytton, Earlscourt, and got Maclure & Fox to design a bungalow on the property (although it’s also referred to as the Mansion – so it was quite the bungalow! It burned down in 1993.) He continued growing apples on 17,000 trees until the late 1940s when a late frost decimated the crop. He worked the estate with David Spencer who owned the Vancouver Department store on West Hastings Street and his son, Colonel Victor Spencer, who had married R V Winch’s daughter. There are now films available of the life of the family, donated to the Vancouver Archives. They date back to the 1920s, and there are brief glimpses of R V Winch playing with his grandchildren at Jericho Beach, at his home on Comox Street, and at the Lytton ranch.
He died in 1952 aged 89.