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How the Englishman Pike Ward modernised Iceland. Who?

Edited by Katherine FindlayThe Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward is the fas­cin­ating diary of a Devon fish merchant who became an im­portant figure in creating modern Iceland. Katherine Findlay wrote the introduction and epilogue when his book was published.

Pike Ward's (1856-1937) contemporary records were found in his 1906 journal, telling how he mixed in Reykjavík society to how he bargained for fish on the remote coastal areas. He had to tra­v­el by pack horse and steamship through wild terrain and wild seas, while attempting to outwit his rivals and cope with the challenges of an isolated and unfamiliar. Clearly it was a key era in Iceland's history.

Now back to the beginning. There was a company founded in Devon by George Ward in the mid C19th as a joint venture with his in-laws, the Pike family. The com­pany was prim­ar­ily a ship broker, transp­ort­ing clay from the Newton Abbot mines, although George Ward also had interests in shipping insurance and the cod trade in Newfoundland. George and his wife Eliza were prom­in­ent people in Teignmouth, and George served on the city council.

Teignmouth shipping agents, Devon

They had connections to the Congregationalist Church and its trad­ition of religious and political dissent. Their eldest son Pike Ward worked for the ship broking company in Teignmouth, and by the time he was 25 in 1881, he was partner in his father’s firm. Over the next years he gained an extensive knowledge of both the Teignmouth Quay Co and the workings of the harbour.

When George died, Eliza Ward took over running the business and continued until c1912, when she was in her 70s. She was a clever, capable businesswoman who earned the respect of mine owners and sea capt­ains alike. But rather than following the fam­ily business, Pike travelled. He left Teignmouth in 1891 but within a couple of years the Newfound­land Banks in Canada had become over-fished.

Map of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland

So in 1895 he trav­el­led to Iceland. Why there? Iceland had long been a pl­ace of myth and legend but at that time, it was a rather poor country gov­erned by Denmark. Infant mortality was high, star­v­ation happened and the small community survived as best they could. The population was only allowed to fish close to shore; any excess fish had to be bartered with the Danish fishing companies for goods

It was there he became a very important figure in the found­ation of the fishing industry, and with it, a more modern, indep­endent nation. Pike's agent travelled first, to show Icelandic Fisherman how to prepare the fish for the English market. Then Pike revolutionised the Icelandic economy by buying for cash the smaller fish unwanted by the large Danish companies. Then he show­ed the local community how to dry, salt and preserve them because dried and salted fish was very popul­ar in England. Devon particularly loved Pike’s fish and made them into fish pies. Pike Ward’s skill as a ship­broker enabled the company to flourish and this in turn enabled a] the Icelanders to get a good price for the fish and b] Pike to be warmly valued for enab­ling the northern commun­ity to thrive for the first time in ages.

A blue plaque was unveiled by Ice­land's ambassador to the UK

In Iceland he became a leg­end in the fishing industry, especially Salt Fish production. And in the West of England, his reput­ation as a seafarer, adven­turer and a trader in the High Latitudes grew. At least until the threat of German Submarine activity in 1914!

During his time in Iceland, Pike became very fond of the ragged nat­ure and hospitable locals, spending extensive time travelling, col­lecting artefacts, learning the local language and becoming int­eg­rated into Icelandic culture and daily life. He was an amateur photo­grapher of everyday life.
This British man stayed in Iceland for 22 years. He learned to speak Icelandic and made warm friendships with local people. Many Icelandic people still regarded him as a key figure in the movement which fin­ally led to Icelandic independence from Denmark.

Icelandic whalebones, made into two huge arches on the Devon's sea­front

As WW1 started, Eliza retired and Pike returned home to take over the company. He brought back a host of Icelandic artefacts to his Teignmouth villa, incl­ud­ing whalebones that were made into two huge arches on the sea­front, and called his villa Valhalla. From then on, Pike Ward ran the family business until his death in 1937.

Two honours were given, before and after he died. In 1936 his contribut­ion was recognised in Ice­land. King Christian X of Denmark gave him Iceland's high­est hon­our, Grand Cross of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. And a plaque was created in his home town of Teignmouth. The plaque was unveiled by Stefan Johannesson, Ice­land's ambassador to the UK, in Old Maids Walk in the town.

Artefacts from the Pike Ward collection, the Nation­al Museum of Iceland (above)
Photo from the Pike Ward collection, the Nation­al Museum of Iceland (below)

Many decades later, a different honour has been opened. The hund­reds of typically Icelandic artefacts from Ward´s collection have been returned to Ice­land where the National Museum of Iceland pre­served and stored them in the Museum. But it was the discovery of his diaries and photo­graphs in 2016 by Katherine Findlay at the Devon Archives that re-sparked a the most interest in the story of the Englishman. His entire photographic collection from Iceland, including the scrap books and albums, totalled 1500+ pictures. An exhibition of his photographs has opened already at the Nation­al Museum of Iceland, displaying a selection of photos and artefacts from the Pike Ward collection. It will close on 20th Jan 2020.


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