Long before the North West Mounted Police came on the scene
(the original name of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police),
there were the Royal Engineers. According to those in
the know — historians, mostly — the engineers did more
in a few short years to bring civilization to the colonies
of New Caledonia and Vancouver Island than the RCMP ever
Todd Birch is working to change that perception.
The Merritt resident and amateur military historian is a
member of a loosely formed group of people travelling the
province in authentic period dress, with authentic period
armaments, and authentic period accoutrements, informing
British Columbians and visitors to the province about their
Taking on the persona of Sgt. John McMurphy, the actual name
of one of the Royal Engineers who served in British Columbia
in 1862, Birch tends to his weapons and his duties much like
McMurphy would have done. And when a member of the
public from the 21st century intrudes upon the British
Columbia of the 19th century, Birch is polite and answers
Providing a living, breathing example of what life, and hard
work, was like for the men in the Royal Engineers is the
best way to educate the public about the valuable role these
members of the British Military performed.
But according to Birch, the ones who need the most education
are those who live here.
"Canadians are the worst ones when it comes to
knowledge about their own country," says Birch.
"They see the red tunic and automatically say 'RCMP.' I
turn around and say: 'And who would you be talking
While staying in character, Birch gently prompts people to
understand the Royal Engineers of 1862 had no knowledge of
the RCMP for the simple reason the paramilitary organization
had not yet been formed.
The Royal Engineers, like much of the British Army, wore red
— a style the RCMP borrowed when it was formed a decade
The accomplishments of the Royal Engineers in British
Columbia are many, from protecting the colonists from the
American hordes to the south, to providing an official
presence of the Queen, but undoubtedly their greatest
contribution to the colony came from doing what they did
best — building roads.
Building the most dangerous stretches of the Cariboo Wagon
Road to the goldfields of the new colony, to be specific.
Then there's the intangible contributions of the engineers,
such as the ones made to the fabric of society of their
day. Sgt. James Lindsay (ably portrayed by Tim Watkins
from Maple Ridge) went back to England in 1863 where he
finished his 21 years of service to the queen, but returned
later to become the Chief Constable of the Cariboo and the
sheriff at Barkerville, where he is buried.
As a member of the Royal Artillery assigned to the
engineers, Lindsay is one of the few military members of the
group not wearing red, but he has the most colourful
nickname: Whispering Jimmy, so named for his rather
talkative nature, especially when he'd imbibed perhaps a bit
After his service to the Crown had been discharged, McMurphy
remained in British Columbia, as did Capt. Henry Luard
(portrayed by Simon Sherwood). They married, settled
down, raised families, and helped populate the province, all
before the colony had joined Confederation.
A fascination with military history is what attracted Birch
to joining the group of historical re-enacters, but Sherwood
is quick to point out it's almost like they joined him.
He explains Sherwood and John Harper (portraying Dr. J.
Vernon Seddall) met while providing historical material on
the set of Hawkeye, a television show being filmed in
Vancouver — they later brought their colourful passion for
history to life. David Funk, who portrays land
surveyor and early entrepreneur Joseph Dispard Pemberton,
can be seen in the movie Gunfighter's Moon playing the
Later, when Birch found out about the group, he joined
immediately as the Nicola Valley resident had previously
attempted to form a group on his own.
"With all due deference to Sgt. McMurphy," says
Sherwood, speaking in character. "McMurphy tried
to form the company 16 years before this group
On the Canada Day weekend the royal engineers were in
Barkerville, re-enacting their role in the development of
Barkerville, and have previously been in Victoria at the
Fort Rodd Hill artillery battery. Soon they'll head to
the San Juan Islands to provide a royal engineers presence
at the infamous Pig War, settled without a shot having been
fired when the current border was drawn between Canada and
the United States.
It's the Canada Day weekend — correction, Dominion Day
holiday — that is one of the special occasions for the
group. It's a time when Canadians pay particular
attention to all things Canadian and the engineers can get
their message across; as a result, the royal engineer re-enacters
pay particular attention to the details.
Photographer Francis Claudet (Stewart Goodin) planned on
travelling to Barkerville with his tailboard camera (so
named because it would fit on the tailboard of a
wagon.) The working model of an ambrotype camera
creates photographs on glass plates, using a collodion wet
plate system that was developed only a decade earlier (in
It requires Claudet to transport a darkroom with the camera
and necessitates photographic subjects to remain motionless
for approximately half an hour, but he says the wet plate
process was used right up to the 1920s — he has glass
plates depicting the Tulameen area taken in the 1890s.
"I'm one of seven photographers in North America that
are still able to do the wet plate process," says
Goodin, stepping out of character for a moment.
"Being able to understand how the process works means
we're able to understand why nobody appears to be smiling in
the photographs — they couldn't hold the exact same smile
for the entire length of up to a 30-minute exposure."