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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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