By Jean Sorensen
Real estate brokers do more than simply sell property; their transactions are a legacy of social and economic change that shape any area or city. Commemorating its 125th anniversary in business, Victoria’s Pemberton Holmes Real Estate recently turned over its historical records detailing the growth and development of B.C.’s capital city to the Royal British Columbia Museum.
“They were very happy to receive them,” says Michael Holmes, the brokerage’s fifth-generation president. Holmes says many of Victoria’s old business records have not survived over the years and there are “surprisingly few records from that long ago.
“Commerce is what has caused the growth of Vancouver Island and the records are able to shed some light on how it happened,” he says. It will also explain to future generations why streets, parks and even a B.C. town bear the Pemberton name.
“I believe we are one of the oldest real estate companies in North America – certainly the oldest family-owned real estate company,” Holmes says. The company also has one of the oldest telephone numbers, which started as 8124. As the city grew, more digits were added until today it is (250) 384-8124.
The story of Pemberton Holmes can be traced back to 1850, when the British Home Office, which oversaw Britain’s colonies, suggested the Hudson Bay Company in Victoria set out a plan for the colony’s development and growth. It needed a surveyor and 29-year-old Britain Joseph Despard Pemberton responded to the notice. He set off on a four-month journey to Victoria, traveling by mail steamer and, for part of the route, by canoe to arrive in the colony in early summer 1851.
The colony’s population was 150. Pemberton was appointed colonial surveyor for the Colony of Vancouver Island, later becoming the surveyor general for the province’s colonies in 1859. The work he performed included laying out Victoria’s town site (plus the current Legislative Buildings), surveying land from Sooke to Nanaimo and providing a detailed analysis of South Island topography and natural resources. He later became a member of the first Legislative Assembly.
Pemberton saw the potential for growth, as did many early pioneers. “He bought up a lot of land throughout B.C. and started an agency to buy and sell land,” says Holmes. The town of Pemberton, near Whistler, is named for the early surveyor.
In 1887 Joseph Pemberton, along with eldest son Frederick (Fred) Bernard Pemberton operated Pemberton & Son – Engineers, Surveyors, and Real Estate Agents out of the family home, focusing mainly on surveying and engineering. But, a year later, the agency moved to Fort Street on the southwest corner at Broad Street, where Joseph had a building to stable his horses.
It became a natural extension to move into the mortgage business, serving as a land broker, and eventually providing insurance, arranging an agreement in 1893 with Sun Insurance Co. By this time, Joseph was in his early 70s and had spent nearly five decades shaping the development of B.C. A year later, he would die from a heart attack, leaving the business he had built to his 28-year son Fred.
Fred would guide it through the First World War and into the Great Depression. Under his direction he grew the business, establishing an office in Vancouver (later sold as a separate entity). But his legacy went beyond the business world. He is credited with beginning the process to preserve Cathedral Grove, a natural landmark of large first-growth timbers. He was renowned for his prize-winning Clydesdale horses and his internationally known gardens of roses (visited by the King of England in 1928) and Christmas holly.
Fred’s wife, Mary Ann Dupont Bell, was involved with developing the local hospital and in 1896 directed funds from Joseph’s estate towards the Royal Jubilee Hospital for the construction of an operating theatre used for 30 years. It followed the guidelines of Joseph Lister (who visited the theatre) and advocated dedicated and sterilized operating rooms and instruments.
“It was built as a round structure because it was thought that germs could not gather in its corners,” says Holmes. The operating theatre still stands today but is no longer used for surgeries.
Social and economic success could not stop the great tragedy that the First World War brought Fred’s family. His two sons did not return from the battlefront, leaving the family with two daughters. Fred built a new office, the Yarrow Building, but there was no immediate successor. When Major Henry Cuthbert Holmes, an Oxford graduate, married Fred’s oldest daughter Philippa Despard Pemberton upon returning from the war, he joined the company and later became president in 1921. Eventually the company was re-branded Pemberton Holmes. Henry became a strong voice for the capital and regional planning, advocating for green spaces and establishing a city university.
“Philippa was my grandmother,” says Holmes. Their son Philip Despard Pemberton Holmes joined the firm in 1945, after serving in the RCAF in Europe and became the company president in 1965. A year later he took on the presidency of CREA and in 1975 served as world president of the International Real Estate Federation, the first Canadian to receive this honour. During this time, the firm opened offices in Sidney and Ganges on Saltspring Island.
“Before my uncle died, he had sold the company to his nephew Phil Holmes and he sold it to me and my brothers (Richard and Peter),” says Holmes. Phil Holmes had joined the firm in 1983, became general manger in 1987 and president in 1988. He specialized in land management.
Michael, a lawyer, left a Victoria legal firm to take over the company. Now Richard and Peter serve as “silent partners” with Richard operating Pemberton and Son, a commercial real estate company that restores and then rents out heritage structures. Peter is known for designing world-class equestrian jumping courses.
“My niece is now in the business and she is the sixth generation,” says Holmes. Nicole Lee is in charge of conveyances.
While the family ownership has changed over the years, so has the business.
“We have been through many changes and periods of growth and decline,” says Holmes. The mortgage portfolio was sold and property management became more of a focal point. The brokerage also moved to a set fee system for agents.
This system works better for both the brokerage and agent, says Holmes. Under the “old model” of a percentage of agent’s commission, it is becoming increasingly harder to survive, he says. It’s a change that has served the brokerage well. “In the last 15 years we have gone from 25 agents to 250 agents,” he says.
The same growth has been seen on the property management side. The legislation and regulations that now apply to tenants are “becoming increasingly complex,” says Holmes, leading to more demand for property management services. Much of the ownership is offshore, making day-to-day management difficult for owners. “They have bought here and plan to retire here in the future,” he says.
Pemberton Holmes now has four offices in the Victoria area and three other offices in Mill Bay, Duncan and Saltspring Island. While retirement resettlement has been a major boost to the Vancouver Island population, it has slowed since 2008, says Holmes. Victoria is emerging as a tech centre with Microsoft recently opening an office. Service centres are emerging up-Island. “Vancouver Island is on a continuous growth pattern,” Holmes said.
The Pemberton Holmes records are in the provincial museum to prove it.