Dr. Johnson’s Stout Waters a Distant Shore, Part I

From Thameside to the Pacifiic

Based on our researches, leading up to WW I the population of greater Victoria, B.C. was c.50,000, small in relation to Canadian cities of equal prominence in that Victoria was and remains the capital of British Columbia.

Today, Greater Victoria is about seven times that number and the city itself, only some 85,000.

Yet, Barclay, Perkins & Co., the venerable London porter and ale brewery, targeted Victoria as a market early in the 1900s. There is evidence in numerous, substantial ads appearing in Victoria’s Daily Colonist from prominent grocers such as Copas & Young and Hudson’s Bay.

Whether Barclay Perkins paid for all or part of the cost is unknown but it seems not unlikely. Ads for Guinness Stout sometimes appear, usually a single-line listing, or Meux from London, also for Whitbread ale, but the large box ads of Barclay Perkins in Victoria are unique.

I checked available digitized newspapers in Vancouver and while ads for all these beers can be found, Victoria’s prominent notices for Barclay Perkins’ beers stand out.

This ad, in Victoria again, lists beers in a fashion more similar to Vancouver ads I’ve seen, serially without a special “push” behind one brand. Note that a Carnegie Stout from Copenhagen is included. Perhaps this was Carnegie Porter from Sweden (Gothenburg, then) as known in export markets but may have been an illegitimate imitation, or knock-off.

This 1910 ad is typical of the “dedicated” Barclay Perkins type – about 18 sq. in. here. Numerous similar ads appear between 1909 and 1917.

London stout, oatmeal stout, and Russian Imperial Stout were advertised in pints and sometimes nips. This ad described the Imperial Stout as Russian Porter (“very rich”). Three main types were offered despite variant terms used: London or brown stout, oatmeal stout, and Imperial stout.

Ads for the oatmeal stout depict a handsome bottle with a plaid label, see here, suggestive therefore of a Scottish origin for the oats. For what it is worth, this 1913 ad stated there was a difference of flavour between this oatmeal stout and the brown (or regular) stout.

So important was this market that some wartime ads recite that the lately increased Canadian tax on malt liquors will be absorbed by the supplier, e.g., here, in 1915:

Important Announcement

To the People of British Columbia

Since 1781 the famous London firm of Barclay, Perkins & Co.has been manufacturing stout and ale for the entire British Empire and the world at large.

During that time this firm has established a reputation for dealing fairly with the public, not alone in making THE BEST STOUT and ALE on the market, but in selling it at a price within the reach of every family.


Since the war the tax on malted beverages in Canada has largely increased, but, in order to more thoroughly introduce their STOUT and ALE, Barclay Perkins & Co. have decided to ABSORB THE ENTIRE WAR TAX on their products and will continue to sell, for a limited time, OATMEAL STOUT and ALE at the same price as before the war.

Interestingly, this ad demurs on the question of selling the best, insisting more on the excellence of its price.* But some ads rely heavily on tradition with the implication of quality, as those which invoke Dr. Samuel Johnson’s association with the brewery.

Famously, Johnson when selling the brewery as a co-trustee described the rewards promised as “beyond the dreams of avarice”. Barclay Perkins was still bustling, in its way, around the edges of empire in the 1910s to fulfill that prediction.

The question is, why the focus on such a small and distant market? I think a number of reasons explains it. First and foremost, even though British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871 Victoria retained a strong association with the British Isles in habits and customs that endures to this day.

The Empress Hotel in the city was famous for its afternoon tea service throughout the 20-century, and perhaps still. This cultural background derived from the many British retirees who settled in Victoria in the last century, and their descendants’ enduring attachment to British mores and habits.

Second, nearby Esquimalt facing the Pacific to the west hosted the Royal Navy’s Pacific Fleet throughout the 19th century. A complement of British officers, ratings and support staff was a ready market for London porter. Many probably stayed on to work or retire in the city after the Royal Canadian Navy took over Esquimalt from 1910.

The city enjoyed a realty boom in the Edwardian years, as well as being a hub for trans-Pacific and coastal trade. Prosperity never hurt the ability to indulge a foreign luxury.

In fact, all these factors together may suggest Barclay Perkins viewed the city as a depot for trans-shipments to U.K. possessions or other markets in Asia.

The building that housed Copas & Young still stands, a handsome, corner building you can see here.

See Part II of this post, here.

Note re image: the image above, of Victoria, B.C. early in the 1900s, is believed in the public domain and was sourced from Flickr here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Rereading the ad, I think perhaps an implication of superiority was meant in quality terms as well. The term “alone” may have meant simply “just”.



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