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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, this unique landscape and collection of heritage buildings tell the stories of a diverse community of people which gathered in Steveston over the past 150 years.


The British Columbia salmon canning industry began in the 1870s, and by 1890, the year the Britannia plant opened for business, there were already two salmon canneries operating at Steveston, and over thirty operating in British Columbia.

In 1890, the Britannia Shipyard Property was constructed as a cannery, and retained this function until 1918, when it was adapted for use as a boat repair yard. Cantilevering over the water, the shipyard overlooks Steveston Channel at the mouth of the Fraser River. The Shipyard is part of three-kilometre stretch of shoreline known collectively as Cannery Channel, extending from Garry Point and the Gulf of Georgia Cannery on the west end, to London Farm in the east.

The Britannia Shipyard is the oldest surviving structure on the Steveston waterfront, and the oldest shipyard building in British Columbia. The Cannery was built in the distinctive L-shaped plan that characterized most early canneries. Fish cutting was typically done in the short wing, and the rest of the canning operation took place in the long 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. High lofts in the building were used for storing empty cans and nets.

Stacks of salmon cans piled on floor of historic cannery
Britannia Cannery 1895 Pack. #1991-0002-00025

By 1900, seventeen canneries were operating along Cannery Channel. In addition, hundreds of industrial structures associated with both canning and fishing lined the shore. Many tall ships moored in Steveston every week during canning season to export canned salmon to world markets.

Mergers between firms began to take place, and one of the first examples was the formation of the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Company Ltd (ABC) in 1891. This merger, which sought to increase efficiency and profits, brought together nine salmon canneries, including two at Steveston: the Phoenix and the Britannia.

Henry O. Bell-Irving founded ABC, and the company quickly grew to account for more than one quarter of British Columbia’s total salmon pack. ABC sold huge quantities of canned salmon to the US government during the Spanish-American war in 1898, and initiated the shipping of salted, dried fish to Japan in December 1900. The company remained in the Bell-Irving family for three generations.

At the turn of the twentieth century, cannery work was very labour intensive, with workers using hand-soldering devices. The labour force employed in the fishing and canning industries was ethnically diverse, with different groups often working and living separately. The Britannia cannery workforce included European, Japanese, Chinese and First Nations workers, many of whom were housed on the site.

In the early days of the Britannia Shipyard, there were about 1,000 Chinese immigrants in the local area working in the canneries. Most foremen, mechanics and bookkeepers were European, while First Nations, Chinese and Japanese employees worked on the processing lines. Many residents lived along pathways and boardwalks that served as a main street for the Steveston waterfront. Workers, cyclists, school children, and supply carts shared this narrow boardwalk built on piles above the marsh. During winter months, the boardwalk was often drenched by high tides.

The current buildings that compose the Britannia Shipyard property tell the stories of these diverse residents and workers. Originally a complex of over 90 structures, the site now illustrates the industrial activities and living arrangements of a typical Steveston cannery and shipyard of the early 1900s. Often each cannery supplied housing for each ethnic group in its workforce, with structures built on pilings to raise them above the level of the mud flats.

An interesting example is the Chinese Bunkhouse, which is the last surviving Chinese Bunkhouse on the west coast. The building, originally located in Knight Inlet, was relocated to its current location in the early 1950s. This bunkhouse was home to 75-100 Chinese cannery workers who were employed through Chinese contractors to work on the canning line. Accommodations were bare and extremely cramped.

The Japanese Duplex building was once part of a complex of 16 buildings used by Japanese workers at the Phoenix Cannery. The two-storey structure originally served as housing. Constructed in the 1890s, it is the last building of its kind on the Steveston waterfront.

The land on which the Britannia Shipyard sits is the traditional territory of the Musqueam First Nation. While First Nations men fished for the canneries, the women were employed as workers on its processing lines. Built in 1885 to house native cannery workers from many coastal communities, the First Nations Bunkhouse is similar to traditional nineteenth century longhouses providing seasonal accommodation for extended families.

Other significant buildings on the site include four stilt houses, which were built in the late 1800s as fisherman’s dwellings. John Murchison, Steveston’s first police chief and customs officer, purchased the Murchison Houses in 1895. Today, these two stilt homes are open to visitors as the Manager’s House and Customs House. Additionally, the Men’s Bunkhouse depicts living quarters of single fishermen and the Point House provide interpretation of the Musqueam Point family who lived at what is now called Garry Point Park.

After 1901, the salmon output of canneries located along the Fraser River district went into a slow decline. The decrease was due to both overfishing and greater competition from canneries based in the state of Washington. After the annual salmon run failed due to blasting operations four years earlier at Hell’s Gate in the Fraser Canyon in 1917, many canneries closed or were converted to other uses. 1917 was the last year for which the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Co. purchased a canning licence for the Britannia.

However, the Anglo-British Columbia Packing Co. continued to operate a number of canneries in British Columbia, including the Phoenix, located next door to its Britannia plant. In 1918-1919 the Britannia site became a conveniently located shipyard and general maritime repair facility to fix the company’s fleet of fishing boats. Conversion to this new use required some alterations to the exterior of the Britannia structure; a large opening for a boat slip was made, allowing vessels to be hauled directly from the water into the building, and the wharf was widened.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Murakami Boatworks was in operation at the site, built by Mr. Murakami on property rented from the Phoenix Cannery. One or two gillnet fishing boats were constructed each winter and the Murakami family fished in the summer. At launching time, temporary tracks were placed over the boardwalk to roll the boat out.

Murakami House, next to the boatworks, was built in 1885 on piles over the marsh. The Murakami family, consisting of ten children and their mother and father, lived in the residence from early 1929 to 1942. After the family’s evacuation in 1942 to a sugar beet farm in Manitoba, the building was used to store lumber for the Britannia Shipyard and has since been restored.

Saeji Kishi and his employees constructed the Richmond Boatbuilders facility on piles above the marsh in the early 1930s. The facility was designed to accommodate up to four 30-foot fishing boats at one time. Gillnet fishing boats, 24’ and 26’ in length, with drums and Easthope engines, were the main product of the shop. The Kishis lost their boat works in the World War II internment of Japanese Canadians.

The surrounding environment of the Britannia Shipyard site was originally a treeless marsh. However, the vegetation changed significantly in the 1950s when the marsh was filled with sand dredged from the Steveston Channel. Now, the inter-tidal zone marsh is an important fish habitat and is a protected area for migratory birds and a family of swans. Shady Island, across the channel, was once a small sandbar that provided only minimal protection from storms. A wooden bulkhead was built in the 1930s to protect the dyke from storm wave erosion. Part of the original dyke can be seen in front of the Britannia Shipyard building and large stones can be seen in the marshes. Some of these ballast stones are from early schooners and clippers.

In the late 1960s, the Canadian Fishing Company purchased the Britannia Shipyard, and continued to use the facility into the 1970s, vacating it in 1980. In 1990, the site was donated to the City of Richmond by the Triple “R” Lands Corporation, and the property was designated as a National Historic Site in 1991. By 1994, the Britannia Heritage Shipyard Society had received grants and other donations totalling over $1,000,000 to restore and upgrade buildings, repair wooden boats, and reconstruct the wooden bulkhead beside the dyke. Today, the Britannia Heritage Shipyard National Historic Site continues to represent an important cultural landscape for both Steveston and the City of Richmond as a whole.

This collection of buildings has national value and was designated a National Historic Site in 1992 by the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board.

Operating Partners

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 support program development, volunteer activities, the preservation of wooden boats, and the promotion and understanding of the Britannia Shipyards NHS.


5180 Westwater Drive
Richmond, BC  V7E 6P3
Phone: 604-238-8050 
Fax: 604-238-8040