The Navvy Jack House: Past, Present and Future

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1768 Argyle Avenue, West Vancouver
Navvy Jack House, 1957. Photo courtesy West Vancouver Archives

Jane Williams kindly gave me a tour of her parent’s house at 1768 Argyle Avenue last week. Her father, Lloyd Williams died in April at the age of 96, and she was getting ready to hand the keys over to the District of West Vancouver. Lloyd and Jane’s mother Bette paid $50,000 for the house in 1971, before the seawall was installed and when the next-door John Lawson Park was still a field with a few scattered houses.

1768 Argyle Avenue, West Vancouver
Lloyd and Bette Williams, 1990s. Photo courtesy Jane Williams

The District has owned the “Navvy Jack” house since 1990 when the Williams’ made a deal in exchange for life tenancy. It’s the last one following a council decision in 1975 to buy up the 32 houses along the Ambleside waterfront between 13th and 18th either through land sales or expropriation. With the exception of the Silk Purse, the Ferry Building, and the Navvy Jack house, the others have been bulldozed back to nature.

The Hollyburn General Store, post office and Navvy Jack’s house at 17th and Marine Drive in 1914. Photo courtesy Vancouver Archives

Depending on the source, the Navvy Jack house was built between 1868 and 1873. It was shifted from its original location at 17th in 1921 to allow for the opening of Argyle Avenue. While it’s not the oldest house in Metro Vancouver, it’s pretty darn close.

Originally from Wales, Navvy Jack (John Thomas) came to Canada to seek his fortune in the gold fields. Instead, he operated an unscheduled ferry service in 1866. The following year he bought 32 hectares of waterfront land from 16th to 22nd Street and founded a gravel hauling business on the Capilano River (a sand and gravel mix is named for him).

Navvy Jack’s house on the wedding day of John Lawson’s daughter in 1914. The house was white with a veranda that ran the entire width held up by Victorian brackets on turned columns. The exterior is moulded cedar siding.  Courtesy West Vancouver Archives

Navvy Jack married Rowia, granddaughter of Chief Kiepilano and raised four children in the house. By the 1890s he was broke and lost the house in a tax sale.

John Lawson, who was known as the “Father of West Vancouver,” and namesake of the John Lawson Park, bought the house in the early 1900s. It changed hands a few more times until the Williams’ moved in.

1768 Argyle Avenue, West Vancouver
Jane standing in the kitchen. Bette made a  kitchen hutch and a fireplace from the hatchboards from schooners that washed up on the beach. Eve Lazarus photo, 2017

Lloyd was born in Kitsilano in 1921. He met Bette at Kitsilano High School, and later became a salesman for Simonds saws. Jane says her father’s passion was the garden that faced the ocean and overflowed with sweet peas, roses and vegetables.

According to the Statement of Significance, Lloyd’s uncle Alfred lived in West Vancouver in 1891. He was rescued from drowning at the mouth of the Capilano by Navvy Jack’s son.

How fitting that a couple of Vancouver pioneers would buy a house filled with so much history and then become its caretakers for over half a century.

1768 Argyle Avenue, West Vancouver
Eve Lazarus photo, 2017

The house is in rough shape. Over the last 140+ years it has been renovated, changed, and neglected. While it’s on the heritage inventory, it is not on the very small list of designated properties, which means that it has no protection. Hopefully that will soon change.

The District’s Jeff McDonald tells me that while nothing is confirmed, the plan is to turn the house over to the West Vancouver Streamkeepers Society to be run it as a nature house.

1768 Argyle Avenue, West Vancouver
Navvy Jack house in 1988. Courtesy West Vancouver Archives

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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6 comments

  1. What tremendous history. The William’s were caretakers of the house and land. They shared it and loved it. What a place of magic and a little bit of heaven. Thank you for a bench mark stake in our Vancouver history from the past to moving forward and having Navvy House continue to be part of it. Be wise, be smart and continue to be part of history. This being Canada’s 150th anniversary would be a very good reason to save such a place! Continue to be a steward of our history.

  2. What a great article Eve. Thank you Jane for providing me with the privilege of meeting your Dad and spending some time at the house.

  3. A most interesting story. I hope the house does become an interpretive centre. It would be most fitting.

  4. Thank you for this article! This home has brought so much joy to many lives and I’m honored to have met Lloyd Williams in this slice of paradise.

  5. Thank you for this very interesting story. I’m confused about the 2 photos dated 1914. One is of the General Store and Post Office and the other of the wedding of John Lawson’s daughter. Is one of these years incorrect because the house and surrounding area look very different in both? Or maybe the wedding photo is at a different house?

    I did find a 31 Dec 1914 marriage record in West Vancouver for Elizabeth Catherine Lawson (father’s name is John) to musician William John Pitman so if that’s a picture of their wedding, then it’s correctly dated. If so, then the one with the General Store might be later since there’s a sidewalk, road, fence, fewer trees, and other buildings around the house which also looks very different especially along the roof line, the position of the chimney, front door, windows, etc.

    I read that the house underwent many renovations and changes so maybe it’s possible but the wedding photo was taken on the very last day of 1914 and that picture looks older than the other one.

    Thank you,
    Patti Jackson

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