Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site is an 8-acre heritage park set on the scenic banks of the Fraser River. The site is the original location of early canning, fishing and boatbuilding operations. Arranged along a wooden boardwalk, the unique landscape and collection of heritage buildings tell the stories of the diverse community of people who lived and worked in Steveston over the past 150 years.
Britannia Shipyards is part of a 3km stretch of shoreline known collectively as Cannery Channel, extending from Garry Point in the west to London Farm in the east.
The main Britannia Shipyard building was constructed in 1889 as the Britannia Cannery. It was built in the distinctive L-shaped plan that characterized most early canneries, with fish processing typically done in the short wing of the building. The proximity to the water made it easy for the fish to be unloaded onto the wharf and into the cannery.
By 1900, Britannia Cannery was among fifteen canneries operating along Cannery Channel in addition to hundreds of other industrial structures associated with canning, fishing and boatbuilding. The Britannia Cannery and neighbouring Phoenix Cannery were owned by the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company Ltd (ABC) founded by Henry O. Bell-Irving.
As the fishing industry grew, Steveston became home to immigrants from across the world, displacing the Indigenous people. In the early days of salmon canning, canneries employed an ethnically diverse labour force, with different groups often working and living separately. Throughout most of the twentieth century, jobs in the canneries were racially divided, with cannery foremen, mechanics and administrative jobs given to people of European descent, and Indigenous, Chinese and Japanese employees doing harder labour on the processing lines.
The Britannia workforce included European, Japanese, Chinese and Indigenous workers, many of whom were housed on the site. In early days, Indigenous people came from along the BC coast with Indigenous men fishing for the canning companies, while Indigenous women were employed as workers inside the cannery.
In addition, there were about 1,000 Chinese immigrants working in local canneries. Japanese fishermen began arriving in Steveston in the late 1800s and by the 1930’s, there were approximately 3,500 Japanese people, often with many family members employed in the fishing industry.
Beginning in 1901, the salmon output of canneries along the Fraser River district went into a slow decline. This decrease was due to both overfishing and greater competition from other canneries. After the annual salmon run failed due to blasting operations at Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon in 1912-13, many canneries closed or were converted to other uses, including Britannia.
In 1917-18, Britannia was converted into a shipyard and maritime repair facility for the ABC’s fleet of fishing boats. Conversion to this new use required some changes to the building, including a large opening for a boat slipway for vessels to be hauled directly from the water into the building.
During the 1930s, other significant boat building facilities were added to the site. The Murakami Boat Works was a small shop constructed and operated by Otokichi Murakami on property rented from the Phoenix Cannery. The Richmond Boat Builders, run by Saeji Kishi, focused on building the popular wooden gillnetter -sometimes up to four at a time. Both of these operations changed ownership in 1942 during the Japanese Internment and subsequent hardship.
After the Second World War, many site buildings were torn down or relocated. The once bustling community connected by a labyrinth of boardwalks became sparse, as space was focused instead on fishing gear storage and vessels under repair.
In 1969, the Canadian Fishing Company purchased the Britannia Shipyard. Ten years later, in 1979, BC Packers purchased the property and officially shut down operations by 1980. The closure of the Britannia Shipyard was felt across the community, and many local residents have since shared their fond memories of Britannia as a great place to work and the sadness they felt when the doors closed.
After sitting empty for a number of years, the site was donated to the City of Richmond through a land exchange agreement with a development company. There was renewed enthusiasm for the historic Britannia property, and plans formulated to breathe new life into the site. A Britannia steering group was formed and the property was designated as a National Historic Site in 1992.
Today, the buildings that compose the Britannia Shipyards site tell the stories of the diverse residents and workers that supported Steveston’s fishing industry. Originally a complex of over 90 structures, the site is now a sampling of buildings illustrating the industrial activities and living arrangements of a typical twentieth-century cannery and shipyard on Canada’s west coast.
These buildings include:
Boat building and repair
First Nations Bunkhouse
Fishing industry support buildings
Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site is owned and operated by the City of Richmond with support from the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site Society. The Society’s mission is to preserve and to celebrate the history of the Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site through collaboration with the City of Richmond and the community. The Society supports program development, fund raising, site volunteer activities, the preservation of wooden boats, and the promotion of the general knowledge, enjoyment and understanding of the Site.
5180 Westwater Drive
Richmond, BC V7E 6P3