Updated: Apr 18, 2022
On April 23, 1947, The Vancouver Sun carried the startling news that Britain’s most celebrated bomber pilot planned to fly to BC in his own plane and start a commune — at New Denver.
At 25, Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire had been the youngest group captain in the Royal Air Force, and after becoming the second RAF member to fly 100 bomber missions over Europe, he won the Victoria Cross for “careful planning, brilliant execution and contempt for danger.” The Oxford graduate also received the Distinguished Flying Cross and won the Distinguished Service Order three times.
“The captain has plans, fairly indefinite at the moment, but which may take shape rapidly once he lands in BC, of setting up a communal living colony, probably in New Denver,” Sun reporter Ray Gardner wrote.
Leonard Cheshire is seen in 1945. (Wikipedia photo)
The members would be ex-servicemen and their families — mostly English, but also some Dutch or French. Cheshire figured he could “make wartime camaraderie pay off in peacetime living.”
The previous year, Cheshire had started something similar for war veterans and widows at Gumley Hall, Leicestershire, on the grounds of an old estate. It was named VIP, for Vade in Pacem, or “Go in peace.”
“It is not a communal settlement, mind you, but an ordinary group of people who work either in or out of the settlement,” he said. “But if someone needs help with his crop, there is always someone to lend a land.”
To make it happen in B.C., Cheshire, now 29, figured he needed to raise $200,000.
He planned to fly to Newfoundland and then take his Mosquito bomber to Vancouver. If he found suitable land, he would return to Britain to organize the scheme, which also included a training school in Britain with Canadian instructors. His reconnaissance mission would inform the details of the organization and administration of the colony.
“I’ll have all the gen [information] right down to how many trees we will have to fell,” he said. “And I’ll try to bring back a complete picture of Canadian conditions, of the local scheme, the problems to be met — among them marketing problems, as it will be basically an agricultural colony.
“Then the settlers won’t land in Canada expecting to find a gold mine. They’ll have a plan and all the pre-knowledge it is possible to obtain in order to execute it.”
The Vancouver Sun, April 23, 1947
In addition to diversity in nationality, he hoped to recruit people of diverse skills and professions, in hopes that the colony would be self-supporting, with its own tradesmen, doctors, and lawyers.
An advance party might consist of 50 people, and the colony could grow to 300. It would be the first in a planned series of such communities throughout the world.
Two key questions were, at first, left unanswered: what inspired him? And why New Denver?
The first question was addressed in another newspaper interview a month later: he was “haunted” by the effect of the atomic bomb during World War II — he saw it tested in New Mexico and Bikini Atoll and participated as an observer with the Americans on the Nagasaki raid.
Now he pledged himself to the peace movement. He also worried Britain would be “doomed to defeat” in another war against a country with the bomb, and felt it imperative that its citizens should “disperse and emigrate.”
However, Cheshire was now seriously ill, and planned to spend time recuperating upon arrival in Canada, remaining in hiding until the end of his four-to-five month visit, when he expected to “give a lecture or two” in Vancouver on the atom bomb.
As for New Denver, there were two connections: it was the home of his friend, Eric Alp, a bomber-aimer who served with him in the No. 617 Dambuster Squadron, and of Hugh Embling, an Anglican bishop and friend of Cheshire’s father who had retired there, and with whom he would stay.
As his biographer Richard Morris wrote, Cheshire “walked in forests, climbed, swam, read, talked theology, recovered his appetite, and worked as a woodcutter.”
Cheshire himself said at the time: “In the peace and quiet of your magnificent Canadian woods, I cannot see how one could fail to get well. Within a few months I felt so well that I began work in a logging camp and, believe me, it’s the only life!”
Cheshire’s first biographer, Andrew Boyle, recreated the scene when Embling first picked up Cheshire and his poodle Vicky at the train station in Nelson.
Boyle’s grasp on local geography was shaky; he placed Nelson in the Rocky Mountains and New Denver on the west shore of Kootenay Lake, rather than the east shore of Slocan Lake. But as he described it, time “assumed a new meaning” for Cheshire during the “golden summer” that followed.
Often he would accompany the Bishop on his journeys to villages across the lake or beyond the valley. The people he met, young and old, accepted him as one of themselves. Farmers, miners, lumberjacks and storemen, carpenters, mechanics and local officials, all of them … Cheshire made friends in the valleys of the Selkirk hills.
Among them: George Pumphrey, “a storekeeper in the village of North Bend,” which Boyle thought was in the West Kootenay rather than the Fraser Canyon. To Pumphrey, Cheshire ultimately gave his poodle as well as the field-glasses through which he looked down Nagasaki.
“Money meant nothing to him,” Pumphrey said. “He loved good food, especially big salmon steaks, and had an enormous appetite. He was popular with everyone.”
Cheshire also got to know J.C. Harris and his son Sandy, of Bosun Ranch fame. But he was more apt to wander off alone into the forest to think about religion — and about how he might establish his veterans colony.
He walked to the Arrow Lakes, where an ex-serviceman he met in the Okanagan told him land was cheap and suitable for pioneering. Embling thought otherwise: “Whoever said that can’t know much about pioneering.” Cheshire returned “sunburned and dispirited,” having learned the hard way that Embling was right.
In the fall, with his wallet thinning, Cheshire went to work. He cleared trees for a new school annex. Jim Draper hired him as an assistant for his various delivery vehicles, including ambulance and hearse. However, “It was as a grocery boy and driver rather than as an apprentice undertaker that Cheshire proved his worth and willingness.”
Cheshire wrote to a friend: “I have been more fortunate than I can say in coming here. I lead a pretty simple life, earn my own bread and butter by working as delivery boy for the grocer, carrier for the coal and wood merchant … It’s the greatest possible fun, and I’m getting quite strong. By next summer, when my time is up, I should be very fit.”
Yet that winter Cheshire’s health took a turn for the worse. He was taken to Shaughnessy Military Hospital in Vancouver, which author Boyle thought was merely “several miles to the west.” Soon after his return to New Denver at the end of November, Cheshire heard that the VIP colony at Leicestershire was in trouble and in December he returned to England.
Before departing he publicly thanked Canadians for their hospitality and friendship and promised to return to soon. However, there is no indication this ever happened.
The VIP colony foundered and folded a year after his return. But Cheshire nevertheless earned a reputation as a philanthropist and humanitarian.
In 1948, he took a dying man into his home and nursed him. It was the start of a hospice that eventually grew into the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity, which provides support to people with disabilities around the world.
Cheshire was also known for lecturing on conflict resolution.
Among his post-war honours and tributes, he was made a life peer in 1991 as Baron Cheshire of Woodhall and in 2002, he was ranked No. 31 in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Cheshire died in 1992, age 74. Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to him in her Christmas message that year.
Hugh Embling died in 1965, age 79, and is buried in New Denver. Eric Alp later moved to Vernon, where he died in 2007.
“British VC pilot flying here to found vet colony,” The Vancouver Sun, Ray Gardner, April 23, 1947
“VC winner tells plan to combat atom bomb,” Edmonton Journal, Jack Sullivan, May 16, 1947
“‘Greatest bomber pilot in world,’ group Capt. Cheshire goes home,” Montreal Gazette, Dec. 12, 1947
No Passing Glory: The Full and Authentic Biography of Group Captain Cheshire, Andrew Boyle, 1955, p. 296-304
Cheshire: The Biography of Leonard Cheshire, VC, OM, Richard Morris, 2000, p. 245
With thanks to Greg Scott. A version of this story originally appeared in The Silver Standard, the newsletter of the Silvery Slocan Historical Society.