Dr. Johnson’s Stout Waters Distant Shores, Part I

From Thameside to the Pacific

Approaching WW I the population of greater Victoria, British Columbia was c. 50,000. This was small in relation to Canadian cities of equal prominence since Victoria was, and remains, the capital of British Columbia.

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

Despite an ostensibly small market Barclay, Perkins & Co., the venerable London porter and ale brewery, targeted Victoria as a market early in the 1900s. Evidence appears in numerous, substantial news ads in Victoria’s Daily Colonist by prominent grocers such as Copas & Young, or Hudson’s Bay.

Whether Barclay Perkins paid all or part of the cost is unknown, but it seems not unlikely. Ads for Guinness stout sometimes appeared in the paper, usually a single-line listing, or Meux brewery from London, Whitbread’s, but the large box ads of Barclay Perkins in Victoria stand out by their size and detail.

In contrast, this ad in Victoria lists beers serially without a special “push” behind one brand. Carnegie Stout (aka Carnegie Porter) from Copenhagen, always highly reputed, is included

This 1910 ad is typical of the “dedicated”, Barclay Perkins style, about 18 sq. in. Numerous similar ads appeared between 1909 and 1917. London stout, oatmeal stout, and Russian Imperial Stout were advertised by pints and sometimes, “nips”. This ad described the Imperial Stout as “Russian Porter” (“very rich”).

Three main types of beer were offered despite variant terms used. These were the London or brown stout, an oatmeal stout, and the Imperial stout.

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

So important was the market that some wartime ads state that the supplier will absorb the lately increased Canadian tax on beer, e.g. here (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, the above demurs on the question of selling the best, insisting more on the aspect of price.* But some ads relied heavily on tradition with the implication of quality. Those which invoke Dr. Samuel Johnson’s association with the brewery are a good example.

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

But why the focus on such a small and distant market? I think there are a number of reasons. First and foremost, even though British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871 Victoria retained strong associations with the British Isles in habits and customs, something that endures to this day.

The city’s Empress Hotel was famous for its afternoon tea service through the 20-century, and perhaps still. This cultural background derived from the many British retirees who settled in Victoria in the last century. Their descendants retained an enduring attachment to the British cultural style.

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 authentic London porter. Many such personnel probably stayed on to work or retire in the city after the Royal Canadian Navy took over Esquimalt from 1910.

As well, 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 one’s ability to indulge in a foreign luxury.

These factors together suggest too, in our view, that Barclay Perkins viewed the city as a supply depot for shipments across the Pacific to U.K. possessions, or other markets, in Asia. Further work would be needed substantiate this, however.

The building that housed Copas & Young still stands, a handsome, corner building you may view 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 for quality as well. The term “alone” may have meant simply, “just”.