For four decades, resident and visiting anglers sought out Fox’s Cutlery in Victoria for quality fishing tackle and the advice of its proprietor, the esteemed Vancouver Island angler G.T. Fox.
A century ago on Vancouver Island, fishing tackle was not sold at specialty stores that catered exclusively to anglers. Instead, the sale of rods, reels, and other angling essentials was a sideline for sporting goods suppliers, gunsmiths, and cutlers. For four decades, the best-known supplier of fishing tackle in Victoria was Fox’s Cutlery, and every serious angler on Vancouver Island knew the name of its proprietor. George Thomas Fox was esteemed as an angler and sportsman, especially respected for his knowledge of fishing on the Cowichan River and Cowichan Lake. Visiting anglers sought out Fox’s for quality tackle and for the expert advice of its owner. When he died in 1924, the Victoria Daily Colonist observed that “[a]nglers and hunters living in all parts of Canada and the United States had met the late Mr. Fox, for nearly all his life had been spent in operating a cutlery and fishermen’s supply store in this city.”
G.T. Fox was born in Victoria in 1868; he was part of the first generation of children born in the city to the wave of settlers who arrived in British Columbia following the Fraser River and Cariboo gold rushes. His parents were English emigrants George and Margaret Fox who came from Sheffield, Yorkshire, which had been associated for two centuries with steelmaking and the cutler’s craft; cutlery means “things that cut.” In the 19th century, Sheffield surpassed London as the centre for the manufacture of cutlery and silver plateware that was exported around the globe as “Sheffield plate.” In 1850, George Fox, son of a grinder, and Margaret Lofthouse, daughter of a flax dresser, both aged 24, were married at Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. They lived in Sheffield where George appears in the 1851 census as a cutler and in the 1861 census as a spring knife cutler—one who specialized in the hand production of penknives, pocketknives, and folding knives. By 1861, they had four daughters, one of whom died later that year.
In 1862, George Fox arrived in Victoria, one of thousands drawn by the news of the Cariboo gold rush. Five years passed before he was joined by the family he left in Sheffield; in the interim one of his daughters died and another one was born. So far, no documents have surfaced to indicate what George Fox did for those first five years in British Columbia. Many young men went directly to try their luck in the gold fields but Fox was 36 years old and in possession of specialized skills—such as sharpening and repairing knives, saws, and razors—that were much in demand on the frontier. Possibly he stayed in Victoria or he may have set himself up in one of the mining boomtowns on the Mainland where he could charge a premium for his services. By 1867, he had accumulated sufficient funds to open a store in Victoria and send for Margaret and their three daughters—Helen Annie (known as “Annie”), aged 15; Harriet Amy (known as “Amy”), aged 6; and Catherine Georgina (known as “Kate”), aged 4. In April 1868, Margaret gave birth to their last child, George Thomas (known as “Thomas”)—their firstborn son and first child born in British Columbia.
The first business listing for George Fox appeared in 1868, after the arrival of his family, in the second edition of the Victoria city directory; he had a “store” on Yates Street near Government. In the following year, he was listed as a “cutler and saw sharpener” at Yates and Broad Streets. In 1870 the business expanded dramatically as Fox took over the vacated premises of the variety store owned by M. and Mme George Sandrie “on Government Street, two doors from Trounce Alley.” Since 1861, Sandrie’s had sold toys, candy, fruit, and tobacco but in 1869 its owners declared bankruptcy. The notice placed in the Colonist on July 10, 1870, by “George Fox, Cutler, Late Cutlery Manufacturer, Sheffield, England” promised that scissors, razors, and saws would be ground and sharpened “as before.” At the new premises, however, the public would also be able to purchase quality imported goods directly from the manufacturers in Sheffield—“pen, pocket and table cutlery, razors, scissors, files, real nickel silver forks and spoons, tea and coffee pots, cruets” as well as “crockery, glassware, coal oil lamps and fittings.”
In 1873, George Fox died suddenly at the age of 47 after a brief illness, leaving his widow, Margaret, with four dependents; he also left the business in trust to five-year-old Thomas. Until Thomas came of age, Margaret and Annie, then a young woman of 21, took over the running of the “Sheffield cutlery store.” Ads placed by “M. and H.A. Fox” soon appeared regularly in the Colonist. Thomas began working in the store while he was completing his education and first appears in the city directory in 1882 as a 14-year-old clerk employed by M. and H.A. Fox. By 1890 he is listed as manager and storekeeper. At around this time Margaret seems to have retired from the business; she died in 1900 at the age of 74. Amy and Kate did not become involved in the family business but embarked on lifelong careers as a music teacher and private schoolteacher respectively. Annie continued to work in the cutlery store until 1892, when she married lumberman and geologist William John Sutton. Soon after, Thomas hired a clerk—William Bell Christopher, a 14-year-old emigrant, newly arrived with his family from Dundee, Scotland. Christopher became indispensable to the Fox family business for the next four decades.
In April 1888, a small announcement began running in the Colonist, indicating that 20-year-old Thomas was placing his personal stamp on the family business. After the death of George Fox, Margaret and Annie had added “fancy goods” to the store’s stock of cutlery and lamps. The 1888 invitation to the public to call and examine the “large assortment of fishing tackle” recently received by M. and H.A. Fox marked an expansion in an entirely new direction. From this point onward, the Fox family business was listed as a supplier of cutlery and fishing tackle. For many years in the Victoria city directories, “M. and H.A. Fox” was the only classified business listing under Fishing Tackle, although several other businesses also sold tackle as a sideline. After Thomas assumed the proprietorship, advertisements for “Fox’s Cutlery Store” appeared regularly in the Colonist. However, directory and newspaper references to “M. and H.A. Fox” as a place of business continued right through the 1920s, many years after Margaret and Annie had ceased to be involved with the store. “M. and H.A. Fox” also appeared on items of tackle sold by the store, such as those now exhibited in a display case at the Royal BC Museum.
In the first decade of the 20th century, advertisements in the Colonist claimed that the fishing tackle at Fox’s Cutlery Store included “everything for trout, salmon and sea fish.” Most frequently mentioned were trolling rods, casts and traces, greenheart rods, spoons, and Scotch flies. Every spring Fox’s advertised a new shipment of Scotch flies for fishing the Cowichan River. In late summer the store featured rods and handlines for salmon trolling in local waters—a popular Victoria pastime from the mid-1890s onward. Fox’s also served customers farther afield who were not able to visit the store in Victoria. On March 23, 1906, an ad for “Scotch Flies for Cowichan River” specified that mail orders were promptly attended to—“Jock Scotts, all sizes. All sizes Trout Flies, Nos. 5, 7, 10 and 12 Hooks, eyed or on gut. Trout and Salmon Casts, 25¢ to $1.75.” Fox’s Cutlery Store was “the place for fishing tackle,” declared an ad in the Victoria Daily Times on April 2, 1908. “We have everything but the fish for every kind of sport fishing.” In September 1911, Fox’s was one of several local businesses that contributed to an exhibit by the Vancouver Island Development League showcasing the Island’s resources—the centrepiece of the Victoria Provincial Exhibition, according to a review published in the Colonist on December 17. Fox’s contribution “included fishing rod, line, net, creel, and specimens of mounted trout, and was [a] very handsome and tastefully arranged display.”
G.T. Fox was often mentioned in the Colonist’s regular reports of the fishing on the Cowichan, which was easily accessed from Victoria after the completion of the E&N railway line in 1886. Several fine hotels catered to the needs of sportsmen, and the railway offered special rates for weekend trips. On September 27, 1906, the Colonist listed some “distinguished disciples of Isaac Walton” enjoying “excellent sport on the Cowichan” and “all getting big baskets.” Taking both rainbow trout and spring salmon were Lord Hovick, Major Bradley Dyne, Mr. D’Arcy Hutton, Mr. William Monteith, and Colonel Andrew Haggard and Mrs. Haggard. “Among the most successful anglers has been Mr. Fox the well-known sporting goods provider of Victoria. One magnificent rainbow he captured while staying at Mr. Kenneth Gillespie’s, weighed over three pounds.” On May 23, 1905, the Colonist identified “Mr. T. Fox, of Fox’s cutlery, Government street, and Mr. Frank Bone, of T.N. Hibben & Co.’s store” as a pair of “lucky fishermen.” They “returned to the city yesterday with full baskets of handsome trout—fifty-five beauties being the result of their day’s outing at Cowichan lake. The ‘March Brown,’ ‘Jock Scott’ and ‘Professer’[sic] were the flies used, while the ‘double Tacoma’ was the spoon. The best luck in trolling was experienced in the vicinity of the island. Both sports speak in the highest praise of Mr. Frank Green, at whose place they put up.”
Thomas Fox’s advice on tackle and technique was sought by resident and visiting anglers alike. On May 12, 1907, the Colonist’s regular “Victoria the Beautiful” page in the Sunday Supplement featured an extract from an interview with Fox by H.F. Pullen, the paper’s frequent commentator on local hunting and fishing. Fox said that it was a delightful time of year for a trip to the Cowichan where he had been staying at the Lakeside Hotel in company with a number of people from Victoria and Duncan.
“The water is still rather high in the Cowichan,” said G.T. Fox when referring to a trip made by him on Friday and Saturday of last week. “The water is high but not high enough to interfere with the sport. I had a splendid time. On this trip I did what I never was lucky enough to do before. I hooked on three fish at one cast in a pool in the upper reach near Green’s. It is not often the fish are as easy as that. I used chiefly Jock Scott, March Brown, Orange Tip—a specialty of my own, Black Ant, and Old Ginger. My plan is to try a pool first with a small spoon about the size of a ten-cent piece. They take this quicker and in that way I find out whether there are plenty of fish there. As soon as I have tested this I use nothing but fly. Bait? Oh, no. Bait fishing is something like shooting a bird standing. One fish caught with a fly is worth twenty caught with a worm. As a rule sportsmen do not use bait. If they can’t use a fly they wait until they can. The best fish I caught was a three-pounder from the Siwash Rips, about four miles down from Lakeside Hotel. There were plenty of fish too in Gillespie’s pool, although they were not quite so eager here on this occasion as in some of the other spots. I did not try the lake and heard of no one else doing so. It is too early for lake fishing.”
Fox’s stance on bait fishing and sportsmanship was consistent with his position as an executive member of the newly organized Victoria Fish and Game Club. Significantly, too, he emphasized only his best fish rather than the size of his creel—a practice being promoted by elite anglers and fishing clubs to discourage overfishing.
By the early 20th century, the middle-aged G.T. Fox had become a respected member of Victoria society. In 1894 he married his recently arrived Manchester-born cousin Minnie Ellwood at Christ Church Cathedral; her mother was the younger sister of Margaret Fox. Thomas and Minnie had two children: Margaret Isabel, born in 1898, and George Ellwood, born in 1900. Thomas was active in several fraternal associations, holding executive positions in the Freemasons, the Oddfellows, and the Yorkshire Society. Having been born in the province, he was eligible for membership in the Native Sons of British Columbia and in 1905 was elected Grand Chief Factor of Post No. 1.
G.T. Fox died suddenly in 1924 at the age of 56. Although he had been unwell for three weeks, he attended a pioneer reunion that he had helped to organize. On Saturday evening May 10, the honoured guests at a reception in the Provincial Library hosted by the BC Historical Association were evacuated because of a small fire in an upper storey. G.T. Fox collapsed on the lawn and died from cardiac arrest. Both the Colonist and the Times gave prominent coverage to the passing of “one of the city’s best known pioneers.” The funeral service was held at St. John’s Church and Masonic rites were conducted at the graveside. Thomas Fox is buried with three generations of Foxes in the family plot in the Anglican section of Ross Bay Cemetery (A 76/77 E 31).
In 1924 Fox’s Cutlery was one of the city’s longest-established businesses; it had moved from Government Street to Broad Street. Three months after Thomas’s death, the store relocated to the Central Building on View Street. During the 1920s, the business was owned and operated by Thomas’s son, George E. Fox, who had returned from Whitehorse, Yukon, after his father’s death. W.B. Christopher, who had risen from clerk to manager, remained in the employ of the Fox family. In 1934, the business was sold to Major Roger Monteith, a veteran of the Great War and a former Civil Service commissioner. According to the Colonist’s report on June 13, Monteith was an expert fly fisherman and a hunter of note. He had served as secretary of the Victoria Fish and Game Association for twenty years. Under his direction and with W.B. Christopher remaining on staff, the Roger Monteith store on View Street, successor to Fox’s, no longer dealt in cutlery but added guns, ammunition, and a full line of sporting equipment to the fishing tackle for which Fox’s was already famous.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Gerry Buydens, Tim Couch, Linda Richards, and Leona Taylor for assistance with queries. I am grateful to genealogist Jan Bridget for sharing her research on the Fox family and a special thanks to Basil Fox, grandson of George Thomas Fox, for contributing family photographs and his knowledge of the family history.
© Diana Pedersen
Please cite as follows: Diana Pedersen, “‘Everything but the fish’ at Fox’s,” An Angler’s Paradise: Sportfishing and Settler Society on Vancouver Island, 1860s-1920s (blog), January 6, 2017, https://anglersparadise.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/everything-but-the-fish-at-foxs.