English Bay in Vancouver’s West End is an intersection of city, sea and forest. The beach lays at the foot of the neighbourhood, backing partially onto Stanley Park and opening up to the ocean. Originally home to the Coast Salish peoples, presently, apartment blocks and restaurants fill the streets bordering the shore. The old and the new mingle here, with the ivy-covered walls of the historic Sylvia Hotel surrounded by glass high-rises and mid-century walkups. English Bay is popular with tourists and residents and the West End itself is home to roughly 50,000 people. But before the housing renaissances that saw mansions become apartment buildings, and now, apartment buildings becoming crystal skyscrapers, there was a tent on the beach and in it lived a man named Joe Fortes.
There is a photograph of Fortes standing proudly in front of his home. A length of wood holds up the centre of his tent. A small porch extends from the opening of fabric, supporting chairs and a table draped in white cloth. There are buckets and a broom and a line holding what appear to be blankets, towels or quilts. And there is Joe, with his hands on his hips, cutting a handsome figure in his pants, shirt and vest. Hard-packed sand is at his feet and, behind him, woodland.
He was born Joseph Seraphim Fortes in February of 1863 in Port of Spain, Trinidad to a Barbadian father and a mother of either Spanish or Portugese descent. His early life seemed to be one of adventure and survival. Leaving his home country as a teen, he would work as a deckhand before settling in Liverpool, England for a number of years. He would learn to swim--the skill that would define so much of his life and legacy--at St George’s Baths (the first publicly owned baths in the United Kingdom) and later tour with a swim team and receive recognition for his life-saving abilities.
In 1885, he would sail to Vancouver and carve out a life for himself, working as a hotel bootblack and saloon bartender. Amid the Great Vancouver Fire of 1886 that destroyed much of the city, Fortes would save the lives of a mother and son--an early indicator of his noble character. But it would be in the beautiful, briny waters of English Bay, aside the old growth forest and burgeoning metropolis, that his place in Vancouver history would be forged.
Joe Fortes was a seeming religious swimmer, reportedly spending hours a day in the water and residing during the summers in his aforementioned beachfront tent. As English Bay became more and more popular, the rotund Fortes, donning his swimming costume, would teach visiting children to swim, ultimately educating thousands in the course of his life. Along with serving as a volunteer instructor, he was also the resident volunteer lifeguard and would save many lives in the Bay, including one young John Hugo Ross, the son of an MP, who would drown in the sinking of the Titanic as an adult. Fortes was a fixture of English Bay, a figure prominent in the lives of Vancouverites and a man of considerable grace and spirit.
Despite his years of service, it was not until either the end of the nineteenth century or dawn of the twentieth, that he was recognized and rewarded by the city of Vancouver. Appointed as an official lifeguard and special constable, he was finally paid and noticed for his important work and, around this time, would build himself a rose-covered cottage in the West End, not far from his beloved English Bay.
His death in 1922 would see Vancouver’s largest funeral service, attended by thousands, including citizens and civic officials. Moments of silence were held in city schools and in 1927, through fundraising, a fountain would be erected in his honour, featuring the inscription, “Little children loved him.” It would be sculpted by local artist Charles Marega, who would go on to design the iconic lions on the Lions Gate Bridge. In time, a library branch would be named for Fortes, as well as a Vancouver restaurant. He would be named Citizen of the Century and even be featured on a Canada Post commemorative stamp.
Though so much of Fortes’ life reads like legend, he was indeed a real man who undoubtedly experienced prejudice alongside his admirations. Canada is a country with its own dark history of racial discrimination and it seems foolish to think that Joe Fortes escaped its shameful reaches. Still, through such an era, he was a man whose kindness, whose love of the sea and dedication to others was profound--a man whose legacy marks an amazing chapter in the story of BC history.