What’s In A Name?

a053546-v8 - A Main Street in NW, 1886
A main street in New Westminster, 1886. Photo by the Geological Survey of Canada. Library and Archives Canada (PA-053546).

Once I decided to start a site, my venture needed a name. Calling it the Royal City something or other, in deference to the city’s well-known regal nickname, seemed a bit too obvious. But it also seemed to strike too celebratory of a tone for my liking. I wanted to find a pithy quote or memorable phrase someone had once said of New West to capture the grand, but perhaps-not-quite-fulfilled ambitions of the one-time colonial capital.

Two options, “Mosquitotown” or some variation on “Stump City,” were suggested by Barry Mather and Margaret McDonald’s New Westminster: The Royal City (J.M Dent & Sons, 1958), an informal history published by the City on its 100th anniversary. The authors quote the Victoria British-Colonist (September 8, 1862) dubbing New West as “Mosquitotown,” and they quote numerous early visitors and residents complaining about innumerable tree stumps pock-marking the landscape and presenting a barrier to development.

But mosquitoes seem no worse here than anywhere else, and the tenor of these comments seemed more reflective of the enmity directed at New West from Victoria, one of many barbs traded between the communities as they jockeyed for preeminence on the West Coast. In British Columbia: A History (Macmillan, 1958), Margaret Ormsby recounts another instance of folks in Victoria (via the British Colonist) calling New West “a pimple on the face of creation” (Ormsby, 223).

Of course, New West also had its defenders, too. During the controversy about where to locate the capital of the now-united colony, Governor Seymour called New West “the most respectable, manly and enterprising little community with which I have ever been acquainted” in a July 13, 1867 letter (Ormsby, 222). Just two years earlier, however, Seymour had expressed an entirely different impression of the city. “I had not seen even in the West Indies so melancholy a picture of disappointed hopes as New Westminster presented on my arrival,” he wrote on March 21, 1865, shortly after his arrival from a previous imperial posting. “Here, however, there was a display of energy wanting in the tropics, and thousands of trees of the largest dimensions had been felled to make way for the great city expected to rise on the magnificent site selected for it. But the blight had early come. Many of the best houses were untenanted. The largest hotel was to let, decay appeared on all sides, and the stumps and logs of the fallen trees blocked up most of the streets. Westminster appeared, to use the miners’ expression, ‘played out.'” (A condensed version was given in Ormsby, 202.)

Although the phrase “a picture of disappointed hopes” matched my desire to pull a site name from a direct quote about New West, it seemed a bit too dour in the same way Royal City seemed too bright.

The next option I considered came from the Rev. John Sheepshanks first impressions of New Westminster. “Along the horizon there arose no spires of venerable churches; at the end of any vista nothing but sky and water and the eternal and interminable timber, with glimpses of the snow-clad summits of the Cascade Range,” he wrote in Bishop In The Rough (E.P. Dutton & Company, 1909). “There were few neighbours, no proper roads, no streets of solid houses.” (A condensed version of the quote is in Ormsby, 201-202.) However, the reference to “sky and water and the eternal and interminable timber” seemed a bit wordy.

Finally, in Ormsby’s passing reference to the words of a turn-of-the century historian, I came across what seemed to encapsulate both the community’s rough-and-tumble origins as well as its promise. I went digging for the full, original quote. “The men therefore were put to work cutting trees, and soon a field of stumps appeared outnumbered the houses built for twenty years and more,” Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote in History of British Columbia, 1792-1887 (The History Company, Publishers, 1887). “To this imperial stump-field was given at first, and until her majesty should indicate her royal pleasure, the name Queensborough; but when such pleasure was known, it was called New Westminster.”

Brief and tongue-in-cheek, “this imperial stump-field” struck me as entirely fitting as a title. So I’ve kept it.

Addendum:
Stumbling through a Google search, I realized that in Royal City: A Photographic History of New Westminster, 1858-1960 (Heritage House, 2005), Jim Wolf used “The Imperial Stumpfield” as the title of a chapter. While I recall flipping through the book at one point, I haven’t yet procured my own copy. So, although his book wasn’t the source of my site’s title, I must acknowledge that he was first to recognize the aptness of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s words.

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