The First Home of the Columbia Detachment in British Columbia -


Three Royal Engineers at Derby, from the elaborately drawn 1859 sketch of Derby by Reverend William Burton Crickmer.

Early in 1858, some Victoria residents proposed to subdivide the land at present day Derby, and advertised it for sale.  Governor Douglas at once counteracted the move, declaring that no land had been sold to anyone there.  They had named the place Derby, and this name Douglas accepted.  He proclaimed that it would be future capital of a new British Colony.  Joseph Despard Pemberton surveyed it.

Governor Douglas chose the site of Derby as the Capital of the new Colony of British Columbia against the wishes of Colonel Moody.  That Moody had decided against the site at Derby before he had left England is evident from a letter which Captain Grant sent to Governor Douglas, now in the Provincial Archives.  In it Grant recommends “a site near the Pitt River, which is named by Colonel Moody in his instructions to me”, and in which Grant recommends “that no buildings be commenced, however temporary, at Derby until a true site is vindicated for the Capital”.

I never objected to the Langley site, but on the first day I reached Fraser River and found a Township was laid out and advertised for sale, I wrote to Governor Douglas begging him to stay proceedings until the arrival of the Commissioner and that in the mean time I would employ the 20 Surveyors I had with me in reporting on the various suitable sites in the neighbourhood for his consideration.  The offer was declined, Langley was sold and unfortunately condemned by the Chief Commissioner and hence of many blunders so commenced.

-- Major Grant, 15th April 1898

The Royal Engineer detachment arrived there soon afterwards.

The detachment of RE which landed at Esquimalt 8th November 1858, arrived at Derby on November 10th 1858.  This Detachment consisted of:

Captain John Marshall Grant RE
Bonson, Lewis F. Serjeant (Joiner and
Byers, William Lance Corporal
Alexander, Walter Sapper
Bruce, Henry Sapper (Carpenter)
Dawson, Samuel Sapper
Edwards, Wm. "Black Bill" Sapper (Carpenter)
Kennedy, James Sapper (Blacksmith)
Maynard, Joseph Sapper (Carpenter)
Manstrie, William Sapper
Allen, Frederick Sapper
Bowden, George Sapper

Or according to Dennys Nelson of:

Charles Eade, a second corporal, Henry Bruce, Walter Alexander, Fred Allen, Samuel Dawson, William Edwards, (alias Black Bill), Samuel Johnson, William Momstrey, (drowned at Harrison Rapids), Joseph Maynard, Lewis F. Bonson, Fred Thurgate, George Bowden, and William Byers.

Prior to this, Captain Parsons and his 20 man Detachment had arrived at Esquimalt but had stayed behind at the RE barracks of the Boundary Commission -- Pilgrim's Rest.

Royal Engineer Camp
Esquimalt 3 November 1858

My dear Sir.

    Referring to your Instructions to accompany you to Fort Langley with my Detachment and there to remain, I submit it is desirable that I should if possible proceed there before your Excellency for the purpose of ascertaining the exact condition of the buildings you intend placing at my disposal so that I may be prepared to demand such materials as may be necessary for rendering them fit for the occupation of Troops.- Should the time not admit of my proceeding you and returning to make preparations, I would suggest that my Detachment should not take up permanent Quarters on the occasion of you Excellency's visit to Fort Langley, but return to Vancouver's Island and acting on knowledge gained by personal inspection, prepare the requisite for suitable Quarters, then as early as possible make our residence at Fort Langley.-

    I am induced to think it absolutely necessary that the preliminary inspection should be made, from the accounts brought from Fort Langley by some Officers attached to Colonel Hawkins, who represent the fine weather as quite broken up as at that place, and, state that they did not observe any buildings that are at present fit for the occupation of Her Majesty' Troops;- I should have great objection to keep the men under Canvas in a wet locality for any period at this late season of the year, unless from pressing necessity, - indeed I hope to house and feed them that their efficiency may not be found impaired, when the season for active employment shall arrive. Waiting your Excellency's Instructions

I have the honour to remain,
Yours obediently,

The Men, rather than live under canvas in the wet and cold winter of British Columbia, were offered the HBC brig "Recovery", as their floating home while the barracks were completed.  This vessel was anchored at Derby on the Fraser River.

File   Item     Correspondent                                        Date

3      3        Memo of provisions required for two  11 Nov1858
                Captains and 31 men of the Royal
                Engineers at Fort Langley

Yale, James Murray, 1798-1871
Originals    1845-1871    2 cm
Microfilm (neg.)    1845-1871    35 mm    [A001653]BC Archives

On the 19th of November, the Royal Engineers made up the Honour Guard for the official ceremonies that formalized British Columbia as a British Colony.

Victoria Gazette, 25th November, 1858 -

"...On Thursday morning, (the 18th November) His Excellency and suite were conveyed by the Hudson Bay Company screw steamer Otter to the Company's steamship Beaver, which was lying moored within the mouth of the Fraser river.  Both vessels then proceeded in company as far as Derby, where the Otter disembarked a party of 18 sappers under the command of Captain Parsons, who immediately embarked on the Recovery revenue cutter, joining the command of Captain Grant, RE, who had previously reached this spot with a party of the same corps.  Both these gallant officers have recently arrived from England with small parties of men under their command.

On Friday morning, the 19th inst., His Excellency accompanied by his suite, and received by an honor guard commanded by Captain Grant, disembarked on the wet, loamy bank under the Fort, and the procession proceeded up the steep bank which leads to the palisade..."

Captain Parsons' party, according to Frances Woodward, consisted of:

Captain RM Parsons Captain (Surveyor)
McColl, William Serjeant (Surveyor)
Leech, Peter John 2nd Corporal (Surveyor)
Conroy, James Lance Corporal
Meade, John Lance Corporal
Turnbull, James Lance Corporal (Surveyor)
Breakenridge, Archibald T. Sapper (Surveyor)
Brown, Johnathan Sapper
Colston, Robert Sapper (Blacksmith)
Duffy, James Sapper (Surveyor)
Goskirk, Robert Sapper
Kennedy, David Sapper
Lomax, Thomas Sapper
Maclure, John Sapper (Surveyor)
McMillian, Murdock Sapper
Robertson, Alexander S. Sapper
Shannon, James Sapper
Armstrong, Robert Sapper

Or according to Dennys Nelson of:

William McColl, James Ellan, Robert Armstrong, A. T. Breakenridge, Jonathan Brown, Robert Colston, Robert Giskirk, James Duffy, David Kennedy, Murdock McMillan, Alex Robertson, Peter J. Leach, John McClure, Thomas Lomax, John Meade, James Conroy, Henry C. Benney, James Shannon, George Dobbs, and Andrew Munro. George Dobbs deserted at San Francisco and Andrew Munro deserted at Sapperton.

(Editor's Note: John Meade could not have been part of any of the early parties arriving in 1858 as he is clearly a member of the Thames City Detachment and mentioned numerous times in the ship's newspaper, The Emigrant Soldiers Gazette and Cape Horn Chronicle.)

Grant, who was senior to Parsons, took command of the Detachment at Derby.

The duties of the RE included appraising lands along the lower Fraser River for a suitable location for a Port of Entry and Colonial Capital.  Part of the detachment proceeded on the search, while a smaller section commenced construction of permanent barracks.

To inspire confidence, Douglas called for tenders on December 1, 1858, for the erection of a parsonage, church, courthouse and gaol, and these were built by E. L. Fell, under contract.11 Considerable correspondence between the new rector and Governor Douglas resulted in an enlarged parsonage. Judge Begbie, who held court in the barracks in early March of l859, criticized the courthouse plans which provided no jury-box and no stair to the upper floor. His letter is in the Provincial Archives.

The RE began the construction of the barracks while supervising the construction of the goal, courthouse and Church.

The Barracks was said by James Murray Yale of HBC Fort Langley, to be located on the HBC claim at the original fort Langley.  The HBC Claim consisted of the south half of Blocks 4, 13 and 24 and the North half of Blocks 3, 14 and 23 of the Derby Townsite.  (Gt. Britian, B.C. Papers, Yale to O'Reilly, 17 May 1859.)

As the RE celebrated New Years 1859 in the Colony, disturbances at Yale with Ned McGowan, forced the men from the comfort of the "Recovery" and into the slush.  Colonel Moody, while traveling to the disturbances up the Fraser, took with him Captain Grant and 22 Men of the Detachment.  Colonel Moody wrote:

" alarming and so urgent in their nature that I had no option but instantly to go there and to take the detachment of R.E.'s with me. The Magistrate implored military assistance...The Men (22 in number) of course delighted, looking up the locks of their Rifles and Revolvers - the Judge and myself grave and thoughtful..."

At the completion of the crisis, Grant and his men return to Derby and barrack construction.

The RE surveyed the Fraser River from its " Entrance to the Site of Old Fort Langley". The map they produced, usually called the 1860 Plumper map (from the hydrological survey done by the HMS Plumper, Captain Richards), shows 4 buildings parallel to the riverbank in the vicinity of the original fort.

In February 1859, with the acceptance of the proposal by Colonel Moody and Governor Douglas, New Westminster was to become the Port of Entry and Capital.  Work began immediately to clear land there for a major RE Camp.  The nearly completed barracks were to be finished and the wives and children of the Columbia Detachment, expected soon, were to use it as temporary quarters until the Camp was complete.

When Colonel Moody's party made its way from Victoria, they stayed at the not yet completed barracks.  Robert Burnaby, who is Moody's private secretary, describes it in a letter to his family:

22nd February 1859

"Our first destination was the new town of (Derby), where Captain Grant and a Detachment of Engineers are stationed.  It is a desolate looking spot, swampy and partly cleared.  We occupied rooms in the new barracks which are not yet finished, the Colonel and I in one small room, Nicol, Blake and Crease, a barrister, in another, all in the rough of course, just a wooden house, trestle bedstead, and some blankets.  We messed in the large barrack room, a long place with an open roof, much like a church schoolroom in the rough.  At one end a huge fireplace without grate, where great logs of wood were continually consumed.  Captain Grant is a very good, rough and ready, go ahead fellow, very kind to me and altogether pleasant.  We stayed at Langley till Tuesday. On Sunday we had service in the barracks in the morning and then pulled up to the Hudson Bay Fort."

References indicate that the barracks had sash windows with panes 10" by 14" "in the clear", and that bricks were used for the chimney (BC Royal Engineers Letterbook, Miles to Trounce, 28 February 1859)

The barracks at Derby played host to considerable activity - Reverend Crickmer had held church services in the barracks for the Detachment (Stackkouse {196?}:8);  Crickmer (and his wife and child) also lived in the barracks while the church and parsonage were being built (Crickmer n.d. :780) and Judge Begbie held a session of Court held there (Begbie correspondence, 10 March 1859)

Judge Begbie describes the barracks as the "best built and finest looking wooden building in both the lower mainland and Vancouver Island" (Begbie to Douglas, 20 March 1859).

With the arrival of the bulk of the Columbia Detachment on the Thames City on the 12th of April 1859, the barracks were used as the main living quarters of the Women and Children of the Detachment.

“...I have sent the women and children with twelve men to the barracks at Langley, there they will remain for the present, under the charge of Assistant-Surgeon Mitchell. Dr. Seddall goes up with them, and returns to Sapperton. You will be sorry to hear that one child is at the point of death, and not expected to survive the night. I have given orders that every care be taken of the poor little sufferer.”

- from a letter from Moody to Douglas, April 16, 1859.

The little invalid was the child of Sapper T. Walsh, said to have been a tailor at New Westminster later. The child was buried outside the present fort on the sloping ground north of it, and the remains were removed from there when the C.N.R. right-of-way was graded.

The main party of Engineers, numbering over a hundred was landed at the Camp to clear the site, the twelve men going to Derby to do what outside work might be required.

As time passed the new town of Queenborough rapidly took shape - to the detriment of Derby.

"...I have been up the Derby. They have barely a place there to build twenty houses but no more. If a town of delivery is requisite below Fort Hope, it will be better to go higher up the river. Any one who thinks favorably of that place ought to go over the ground. If the barracks remain there longer, it will be requisite to have a hospital alongside. I caught marsh fever for only one night's sleeping there."

-23rd April, 1859 - The British Colonist

The church was first used when on May 13, 1859, Rev. W. Burton Crickmer preached the first sermon to the Royal Engineers. It now stands at the corner of Laity Road and the River Road at Maple Ridge. The courthouse was removed to a new site near the second fort, and was the first home of Otway Wilkie after his marriage in 1884.

Upon the completion of the main barracks at the Camp, the barracks at Derby were abandoned.