BC Black History Awareness Society (BCBHAS)

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” - Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr.

banner for learning center3

Seraphim Joseph Fortes

Seraphim Joseph FortesSeraphim Joseph Fortes was most likely born in Port-of Spain, Trinidad, British West Indies on February 9, 1863. As a teenager, he shipped out on the Brigantine, Robert Kerr, to England about 1880. He lived a few years in Liverpool, where he showed his swimming skill by crossing a 1,200 metre span of the Mersey River, among other swimming and diving feats. Joe Fortes was again a crew member on the Robert Kerr, which sailed via Cape Horn to Panama and then on to Vancouver, arriving here in September 1885. His ship was badly damaged near San Juan Island, therefore the crew was discharged on arrival at Granville, an early name for Vancouver. He then worked at many odd jobs, but especially as a barman at the Sunnyside Hotel, Bodega Saloon, and Alhambra Hotel. Like many workers in places where liquor was sold, he discouraged heavy drinking. English Bay became his favourite part of the city and he swam there as often as possible. Initially, he was recognized as the unofficial guardian of English Bay because of the volunteer work he performed in maintaining cleanliness and orderly behaviour on the beach. In 1900, Joe became an official employee of the city and received a monthly salary. As guardian of English Bay beach, his duties included life guarding, swimming instructions and beach patrol as a special constable. In 1905, Joe's temporary tent near the beach was replaced with a new house at 1708 Beach Avenue, allowing him to devote his full attention doing what he loved. He is credited with saving at least 29 lives from drowning, including adults and children, as well as teaching three generations of Vancouver children to swim. He was especially popular with young people. Seraphim Joseph FortesHe died of pneumonia on February 4, 1922. His funeral, on February 7, was conducted at Holy Rosary Cathedral to an overflow crowd, and an estimated 10,000 persons lined Dunsmuir, Granville, Hastings and Main streets. Schools all over Vancouver observed a 5-minute silence, as his funeral procession made its way to Mountain View Cemetery. Because of his dedicated community service, Seraphim Joe Fortes has been honoured in numerous ways. In 1910, The City of Vancouver recognized him as the first English Bay lifeguard after the park board decided to create such a post and made him a special constable, qualifying him to carry a revolver. He was presented with a gold watch and certificate in recognition for his faithful service. Seraphim Joseph FortesIn 1927, a Memorial Drinking Fountain was erected at Alexandra Park facing the beach where he had served as guardian and swimming teacher for over 20 years. In 1976, the Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver City Library was established at 870 Denman Street, not far from English Bay and a tribute that would have pleased him, since it was put there for children to use daily. In1985, a restaurant at 777 Thurlow Street was dedicated to him, and in 1986 the Vancouver Historical Society formally declared Joe as “Vancouver Citizen of the Century.” In 2002 his life was portrayed in a short animated film by the National Film Board of Canada, and in 2013 a Canadian stamp was issued in his honour.