I grew up in and near Banff, Alberta, so Revelstoke is a familiar name to me. Familiar enough that I never really stopped to wonder where it came from.
If you drive the Trans-Canada Highway west into British Columbia, over the Great Divide at Kicking Horse Pass, then up and over through Glacier National Park (the Canadian one) and over the Rogers Pass (don’t do this when it’s snowing if you don’t have to), Revelstoke is the first town (technically a small city) that you come down to, ranged up slopes on one side of one of BC’s endless mountain valleys. It’s about halfway from Banff to Kelowna, distance-wise (not stress-wise). As you continue to Kelowna, you’ll pass through Sicamous, Enderby, Armstrong, and Vernon, so you probably won’t stop to think about where the name Revelstoke came from. It’s just another one of those place names, you know?
Besides, it seems appropriate. From the perspective of an Albertan, all these BC interior towns are places to go to the ski hill and get stoked in powder and revel in the steep and deep – maybe at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which boasts the greatest vertical drop of any resort in North America (and Revelstoke holds the record for the snowiest winter in Canada) – and later to go to the cabin and stoke the fire and revel all night long with a bottle of whatever you brought, which might be a flavoured whisky named Revel Stoke (not made in Revelstoke).
So while I appreciated the obvious party-cabin overtones of Revelstoke, I never really paused to consider where that name actually came from. Not until today, when someone I follow on Twitter, @EbThen, tweeted, “I’m trying to figure out where the title of Baron Revelstoke came from. Like what the hell does ‘revelstoke’ mean? It’s not the name of any of the places or estates or…”
And I thought, wait, who is Baron Revelstoke?
At first I thought maybe this was the name of some character in a TV show, perhaps named after the town. So of course I looked. And no. Exactly not. Baron Revelstoke is a member of the English peerage. We are now on the seventh Baron Revelstoke, Alexander Rupert Baring, who turned 50 on April 8, 2020. The first Baron Revelstoke was Edward Charles Baring, 1828–1897, and it was in honour of him that the town of Revelstoke was named, as thanks for his bank helping to save the Canadian Pacific Railroad (the reason all these towns are even there) from bankruptcy in 1885 by buying up its unsold bonds.
His bank? That’s the other thing that was named after him – or, well, after his grandfather, Sir Francis Baring. Have you heard of Barings Bank? It was a large and prominent institution. It’s forever associated with one of the great teachable moments in banking: in 1995, a bloke named Nick Leeson, the head of futures trading (a form of legal gambling on which far too much of the world economy relies) at the Singapore branch of Barings, went rogue and made some rather bad judgement calls on derivatives and, oops, torched nearly a billion pounds, double the bank’s entire available trading capital. At which point the bank collapsed.
But in Revelstoke, the only banks that might collapse are those of the Columbia River, and they probably won’t either. Revelstoke was sited where the Illecillewaet flows into the Columbia, and at first it was named Farwell. Arthur Stanhope Farwell, a government surveyor, seeing that the railroad would be coming through, bought up a bunch of land and started a townsite, which of course he named after himself. He charged the Canadian Pacific Railway quite a bit of money for running the tracks across his land; they determined that they sure weren’t going to pay even more to put their station on his land, so they put it (and yards, repair shops, and a whole town) farther uphill, starting an Upper Town and Lower Town divide that persists to this day. And, as mentioned, they named it after Lord Revelstoke. And, in the long run, the town fully said farewell to Farwell, whose gamble did not pay off – he did not get so far or do so well.
OK, fine. But why is Lord Revelstoke called Lord Revelstoke?
This turns out to be harder to pull back the veil from than you’d expect.
Normally, if you go to the Wikipedia article for a member of the British peerage, you’ll find out right away where they got their name. And often enough, it’s not hard to work out anyway – one Canadian newspaper publisher, when he got his peerage, became Lord Beaverbrook (after not just any beaver and not just any brook, but a small community near where he grew up). Another (formerly) Canadian (former) newspaper publisher became Baron Black of Crossharbour, after a place in the docklands of London, near where his offices were. But Revelstoke?
You go look. Wikipedia doesn’t say where it’s from. It just says Edward Charles Baring was Baron Revelstoke of Membland in the County of Devon.
And then, if you look up Membland, it explains that it’s a historic estate near Plymouth, purchased in about 1877 by Edward Baring; after Baring had financial difficulties, he sold it in 1899, and the house ultimately became derelict and was demolished in 1927, although there are still some buildings there, plus a gate put up in 1889 by Baring featuring a bull and a bear. The article gives just one clue about Revelstoke: “Membland, in about 1877, and the manor of Revelstoke were purchased by Edward Baring (1828–1897), who in 1885 was elevated to the peerage as ‘Baron Revelstoke of Membland’.”
The manor of Revelstoke? It doesn’t explain and it doesn’t link.
I mean, come on.
Fortunately, the internet is a big place and we have Google to help us. And so I managed to find this:
“REVELSTOKE parish has it church on the sea coast, near Stoke Point and Bigbury Bay, but most of its inhabitants are in the large fishing village of NOSS MAYO, which lies in a low situation, on the south side of a creek from the mouth of the Yealm, opposite Newton Ferrers, nine miles S.E. of Plymouth. Crabs, lobsters, herrings, and other fish are caught at Noss Mayo, where the villagers suffered severely from cholera in 1849, when about 50 of them died, and more than 200 were afflicted with the dreadful malady. . . . The parish had 613 inhabitants in 1841, and contains 1470A. 2R. 19P. of land. The manor of Revelstoke was long the property and seat of the Revells, and was sold about 12 years ago, by Sir J. Perring, to its present owner, Robert Robertson, Esq., of Membland. W.W. Pendarves, Esq., owns the manor of Lambside, and part of the parish belongs to a few smaller owners. The Church is an ancient structure, with a small belfry and two bells; and in Noss Mayo, is a small Chapel of Ease, erected in 1838. The benefice is a perpetual curacy, consolidated with the vicarage of Yealmpton. . . . ” [From White’s Devonshire Directory (1850)]
So. Revell plus stoke. It is now very easy. I will unravel each part in sequence for you.
Revell, as it happens, is a name associated with something quite close to where I live now: Toronto City Hall, which was designed by Viljo Revell. But Viljo Revell was born Viljo Rewell in Finland; he changed the spelling to Revell (perhaps because he was tired of hearing his name mispronounced by English speakers or perhaps because he was tired of seeing it misspelled by Finnish speakers; I don’t know). And I can’t trace much farther back on his family name, but there are quite a few Rewells in Finland and I have nothing to tell me if there’s any connection to Rewells and Revells from farther west in Europe.
I do, however, have plenty to tell me where the Revells of Revelstoke, Devon, got their name: from Norman French, like many of the English gentry. There is some suggestion that the name is related to French reveler, ‘reveal’ (which comes from Latin meaning ‘pull back the veil’), but the more common view is that it is really the same word as revel. As in party. It ultimately traces back to Latin rebellare, also the source of rebel (as in go rogue). In other words, cut loose. Partying is the hallmark of rebellious youth, after all. Mountain resort towns are no strangers to it, and apparently neither are country piles in Devon.
And stoke? Does it have to do with putting logs on a fire?
…Yeah. But not quite directly.
When you see -stoke in an English place name, such as Basingstoke, it comes from Old English stoc, which in discussions of place names is generally treated as meaning ‘outlying settlement’ or ‘stockade’, but basically is a name for a place, a home, a stump to call your own – in fact, one of its meanings is ‘tree stump’. It’s the old form of the modern word stock in all its senses: ‘tree trunk’, ‘length of wood’, ‘stored goods’, ‘capital raised through the issue of shares, subject to trading on exchanges’ (hmm). It’s also from the same root (ha ha) as stoke, meaning ‘put another log on the fire’.
So. Yes. Now we have gotten our Barings, I mean bearings: Revelstoke means ‘party cabin’, when you come down to it. Which, at the end of the day, you will.
The moment I saw Revelstoke in this article I was hooked. As a young artillery officer, I had a subaltern’s dream job one winter: snowpunching.
Every year, the Canadian Army supplies a howitzer detachment to the Rogers Pass avalanche forecasters. In effect, the task is to deliberately start an avalanche by firing a round or two at precise mountain locations, thus triggering potentially dangerous accumulations of snow before they become too unpredictable. As a lieutenant, I essentially commanded an independent detachment, far, far away from the regiment and that annoying old adjutant! I took my orders directly from the chief avalanche forecaster.
I’d been married for less than a year when I went out to Rogers Pass and in that time had been away on one duty or another five out of 11 months (including a spell in northern Norway). Since the officer was accommodated in a comfortable, fully-furnished apartment in the Parks Canada complex, my wife came out and stayed with me for about three weeks. We had a great time in the mountains!
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