Reverend Oliver Thorne’s first church, St. Bartholomew’s at Aiyansh. Photo by Jim Thorne

The Rev. Oliver Thorne

Bibles and bandages

I never really knew my grandfather, the Reverend Oliver Thorne.

He lived in North Surrey near Vancouver when I was growing up in Victoria. So as a toddler I rarely saw him and he died when I was just six. Since then the mystery of who he was has slowly been revealed.

Oliver was born in Cornwall in south-west England during the 34th year of the reign of Queen Victoria when England’s empire was supreme. At that time (1871) India, Australia and even Canada were distant imperial dominions.

Oliver was from a middle-class family. His father, William Wade Thorne, did service in the Great Houses as an estate carpenter. Besides my grandfather there were eight other mouths to feed – he had two brothers and six sisters.

Oliver’s older brother Dudley was killed serving as a member of Queen Victoria’s expeditionary force in India in 1887. His loss was a big blow to the family. Then came the Great War (World War I, 1914-1918) in which Oliver served. He survived but brother Nicholas did not.

After the war Oliver emigrated to Canada. Like many soldiers, he was walking wounded, certainly exhibiting what today we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In Canada he needed a job so he signed on as a part-time labourer for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad, a job which he combined with taking some university classes.

Unfortunately, he was badly injured in a work-time derailment while working near Montreal.

With a badly crushed hip and already at almost 40 years of age, Oliver began his long-term hospital rehabilitation.

The hospital was a Catholic one in Montreal and it was there that he rekindled his interest in religion. The staff urged him to become a Catholic but that fell on deaf ears – he would remain true to the Church of England.

Believing he had a calling from the Lord, he switched his university focus to divinity classes at McGill, and after graduation, the Reverend Oliver moved west to Strathclair, Manitoba. In his first posting as a 44-year-old student minister he became engaged to and married 30-year-old Gertrude Winstone.

After their first two boys were born and a stint of ministering in the small rural parish of Glanforth in Southern Ontario, Oliver and Gertrude heard the call of the North. There was a need for a missionary in the far-off Nass Valley in Northwest B.C.

It would be a huge sacrifice, trading a comfortable life in Southern Ontario for one of uncertainty in the wilderness where they would have to act not only as leaders in faith, but also as educators and even providers of limited medical services. But the Lord was calling and they would just have to have broad shoulders.

Getting to the Nass was an adventure in itself. From Ontario they travelled with their belongings on the Grand Trunk Pacific (today’s CN) line to Prince Rupert which had only been operating for a decade.

They were met by Anglican Bishop Du Vernet, after which they took passage on a fishing boat water taxi to the Nisga’a village of Kincolith. While in Kincolith the Thornes stayed with Dr. MacDonald and family.

Dr. MacDonald was the only physician serving within Nisga’a territory and he was able to further prepare my grandfather for the challenges that lay ahead.

He also was able to arrange transport up the mighty Nass on a high tech gasoline boat right through the lava canyon at Gitwinksilkw to remote Aiyansh, or Gitladamiks as it was known.

They just trusted in the Lord and overlooked the perilous concerns like winching the boat through the treacherous canyon.

On that river voyage the Thornes and their two boys, Walter and Francis, had their first glimpses of the wild grandeur of mountains, moose, bears and fish. What an adventure that must have been.

They arrived at the beach at Gitladamix late on May 17, 1921, a fine spring day with a raging river filled with the mountain snowmelt. Perhaps they would have even rung the giant brass bell at the Saint Bartholomew’s church on their arrival. We can imagine there would have been quite a scene as they disembarked with all their trunks and supplies.

Over the next five years Reverend Thorne became part of the fabric of life in the Nass Valley and we would like to think that his services and influence helped his new First Nation’s friends.

During their tenure there they added a further son, Guy, who arrived in January of 1922, and then a daughter, Helen Elizabeth, who was born in 1924. Betty, as she became known, added a new dimension to the family of three active boys.

Chief Gideon reportedly bestowed the name Cleoah on her which we are told meant “flying away with something in claws”.

In their roles as educators both Oliver and Gertrude taught classes and, with the nearest doctor being in Kincolith, nearly a day downriver, they also dispensed medical advice and triage treatment of injuries.

One of Reverend Thorne’s passions was growing plants and even beekeeping. His garden really flourished in the rich Nass River loam deposited by centuries of flooding.

Oliver’s rhubarb, raspberries and vegetables were legendary. He also became an accomplished fisherman, no doubt learning a lot from the Nisga’a. Needless to say, salmon was a staple in their diet.

By 1926 the Thornes were ready for other opportunities, so when the posting in Kincolith became available Reverend Oliver enthusiastically applied. He liked that he would still be in Nisga’a territory.

That spring, the Thornes migrated downriver to their new home. By then the boys were all that much older and were sent off to boarding school in North Vancouver, to be followed eventually by their sister Betty.

But summers when they returned north were popular with them, what with endless fishing and a cabin upriver at Mill Bay near the seasonal cannery. It was the life of Tom Sawyer, much to be enjoyed.

The Thornes stayed on the Nass until 1940 when they migrated south to North Surrey where they bought a rural property overlooking the Fraser River, much as his beloved home in Aiyansh had overlooked the Nass.

Francis Thorne, my father, was forever singing the praises of the North. In our home in Victoria, he would often tell us stories of the Nass.

Perhaps that is what inspired two of us, (Walter and Jim) to pursue careers in Kitimat, close by the inviting and mysterious Nass Valley.


Walter Thorne’s grandfather, the Reverend Oliver Thorne. Photo supplied.

The mouth of the Nass River. Photo supplied

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