Facing English Bay, the Vancouver beach where he saved scores of lives and taught hundreds of children to swim, is a simple monument to a kindly, barrel-chested Negro named Seraphim (Joe) Fortes.
For more than a quarter of a century, English Bay Joe was lifeguard at what was then the city’s finest bathing beach.
The monument to him is an ornamental fountain on the edge of Alexandra Park, by the beach. It was erected by the Kiwanis Club in 1927. five years after his death. A bronze plaque depicts a full-face likeness of Joe, underlined simply by his last name. Beneath this, three cherubs splash in the surf.
Tens of thousands of people stroll by the monument every year, few of them knowing who Joe was or why he is honored. Obscured from their view is an inscription on the reverse side which tells his story and which concludes: “Little children loved him.”
It is estimated that Joe saved at least thirty swimmers from certain death and rescued hundreds who were in danger of drowning. To thousands of children he was a friend and a hero.
Joe was born in the British West Indies and went to sea as a youth. In 1885 he arrived in Gastown, the pioneer settlement that a year later became the City of Vancouver.
At first Joe worked as a handyman and bartender in a leading hotel. He assumed squatter’s rights at English Bay and built himself
a cottage. He swam every day and drank a daily cup of sea water. Soon he found himself serving as the unofficial lifeguard and he quit his hotel job and lived by casual labor.
About 1897, he was appointed a special police constable and placed on the civic payroll at eighty dollars a month. In 1898 he was proposed for a Royal Humane Society medal but was refused because he w'as a paid lifeguard. In 1908 the Vancouver Athletic Club struck a
gold medal in tribute to him.
When he died, on February 4, 1922. The Vancouver Sun said, “The death of the old colored lifeguard whose constant vigil and unselfish devotion to duty kept many a family circle unbroken will throw' a sadness into almost every home.”
Joe got a grand civic funeral. Every seat in Holy Rosary Cathedral was filled: hundreds of people were turned away. "Old Joe was the living example of broad-minded, Christian brotherly love," said Father O'Boyle, the officiating priest. There were sobs as the organist played Old Black Joe.
Thousands stood silently in the streets to watch the funeral procession. led by a mounted policeman and the Elks’ brass band. Six uniformed policemen, the pallbearers, marched beside the hearse. Behind it came Joe’s lifeboat, mounted on wheels and filled with flowers.
“Great financiers, worthy statesmen and captains of industry have been honored in the past by public demonstration and pompous funeral,” the Sun commented, “but seldom by the universal and genuinely heartfelt tribute of affection which marked the laying to rest this morning of Vancouver's Joe.”
In the schools, the children stood in silence for two minutes and then, in each classroom, the teacher spoke of their friend Joe. “I would like the teachers to mention,” said the school inspector in ordering this tribute, "that true worth is recognized above creed and color.” - KAY GARDNLR
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