Robert Critchley: Historian and Collector

by John MacFarlane 2016

Robert Critchley

Robert Critchley (2016) (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Over the years I have met some truly exceptional marine characters and personalities. I consistently heard from many marine history buffs that Robert Critchley was the man to meet. He is a member of the British Columbia Nautical History Facebook Group and continually demonstrates an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of nautical history which is often unrivalled. When I finally met this generous and open man I was not disappointed. Although modest to a fault he opened up his collections to me and shared his vast array of knowledge. I wanted to share a bit of the picture I now have of this great resource that resides on Vancouver Island.

Robert Critchley is one of the vanishing breed of men who were once common on the coast. He is a jack of all trades and the master of several. At the age of 12 he travelled to school in his Dad’s wooden seine skiff powered by a flat head 6 cylinder Nordberg has engine. At age 13 he was running the family’s Lilac 2 a 1947 Wahl–built 32’ double–ended fishboat powered by a an Easthope 15–24 engine. In his free time he fished for crabs with a degree of personal freedom seldom experienced by a kid that age today. He comes from a family with deep roots on the coast with all the older members working in various canneries and having boats. From these relatives he learned to passionately love anything related to the British Columbia nautical scene: boats, builders, canneries .. you name it.

Boat Collection

Some of the boats that Critchley has saved and is working to preserve outside of his main cannery building. He is currently constructing a covered boat house in which to store the most important vessels under cover. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Robert says that he and his father, between them, have owned 55 boats. In a spirit split between the love for old boats and being entrepreneurs, they bought, refurbished or preserved them with a great passion. The family has been loggers, commercial fishermen and cannery men at various spots up and down our coast. Robert is married to Nancy Sacht who likewise has deep multi–generational family roots on the coast. Her grandfather was pioneer store owner Hans Otto Sacht. Her father, Mike Sacht, was a commercial fisherman and one of the first prawn fishermen in the Knight Inlet area. He was also an early exporter of prawns to Japan. In the 1970s he would set 1,200 traps per day, and harvested up to 30,000 pounds of prawns per month that he and his crew processed on his barge, the Tofco 3 selling to Japanese buyers who shipped directly to Japan. Nancy is now the General Manager of the Kelsey Bay Organic Resources property (the old BC Ferries yard) at Kelsey Bay. Her sister, Karalee Sacht, is the kitchen manager at K.B.O.’s "Straits View Cafe".

Canning Line

The building contains a canning line – including the furniture, machines, boxes and tins. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Critchley also had the foresight to pick up large quantities of correspondence, manuals, catalogues, and other ephemera that just doesn’t turn up any more. This yields a treasure trove of detail that fills in gaps in the official histories. Its all there, rosters of customers, lists of serial numbers of equipment manufactured, letterheads, records of orders and sales.

Band Saw

A large belt–driven band saw was converted to electric drive suitable for cutting major replacement pieces for refurbishing boats and buildings. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Robert Critchley has been collecting pictures and gear since he was a small boy. In recent years he has been able to realize a dream by moving the old cannery building from Alert Bay down to his home property. He has re–assembled some of his salvaged structures and created a cannery, net loft, boat shop, engine shop filled with his treasures. They are big treasures – Easthope engines, full sized vessels, fittings and gear of every description. Its a gigantic ‘man cave’ on a scale that can hardly be imagined.

Bristol Bay boat

Bristol Bay sailing fish boat, restored, and ready to be fitted out with the fishing gear it would have originally carried. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

A maritime museum would be envious of his holdings. It demonstrates what a man, on his own, fired by love and passion can accomplish – more than the large staffs of some established museums. Beyond that, he knows the provenance of each item, its significance and the surrounding background of its history and development. It’s really breathtaking. My eyes could not rest long on a view inside the buildings without being distracted by some new treasure, inconspicuously placed somewhere else on the walls.

Notched Beams

The notched beams were carefully disassembled in Alert Bay and reconstructed on the new site. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Wrought Spike

Spikes created by blacksmiths pinned the frame together (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Witness Mark

All the witness marks were all carefully preserved. These are the doodles and notes on walls and frames, and as in this image a sketch of Hitler made during the Second World War. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

The massive wooden floors still show the polish of use from nets or gear being pushed over them for years. The beams are all notched and fixed with hand wrought spikes and nails. The windows still have the original glass panes. There is still the waft (perfume?) of oil, varnish, paint, and all the cumulative odours and smells that brings back memories in a startling way. Wax, stale tobacco smoke, tar ... all the real industrial smells.

Bapco Paint Cans

Mint condition Bapco paint cans (still filled) illustrate local industries now regretfully disappeared. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

The ancient paint cans have been unopened, the hemp rope is still coiled on its shipping pallet as if awaiting the sail maker to cut the bindings. The wooden kegs of nails are full, as are bins of wooden deck plugs. Bundles of unassembled cardboard boxes, even the stampings left behind when tin lids were being produced are part of the collection.

Hook Display

Pacific Brand Hooks display card. These sorts of displays were left by salesmen who hoped that it would facilitate orders for new materials. The thinking was that samples were better than a printed catalogue. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

The walls are covered in sales displays: hooks, leads, plugs, cordage, nets, you name it. There are calendars, notes, spare parts on nails. Its the sort of ephemeral material that was commonly thrown away.

Radio Wave

One of Critchley’s boats, the Sather–built Radio Wave, on display at the waterfront next to the new restaurant in Kelsey Bay BC. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Critchley particularly has a passion for the small double–ended Japanese fish boats that are rapidly disappearing. He can’t resist saving the ones that still have some potential. Knowing of his interest people contact him in the hope he’ll take a boat on their property. The ones with original material and form still intact he considers for acquisition. The rest he regretfully has to decline ("The shipping cost to get them here is often beyond their value," he says.)


When he was removing the paint on the hull of this boat he began to detect the remnants of a wartime shipping control number. These would have been entirely lost had he not been going down through the paint one layer at a time. With this information the original identity of the boat will soon become clear, and a vital part of the vessel’s history has been saved. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Robert Critchley

Robert Critchley absorbed by the re–discovery of an item in his collection. There is so much around him I’m not sure how he is able to avoid distractions. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Robert is still a young man, and given enough free time I believe that he will achieve all his goals. His drive, focus and determination are constantly moving him closer as he gets more and more organized, and gets the infrastructure in place to preserve and protect all the fabulous heritage resources in his collection. He’s not "open the the public", this is obviously a very personal passion. He is very generous though with his time to answer questions and offer advice (within reason!) from members of the public.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2016) Robert Critchley: Historian and Collector 2016.

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