Robert Rylatt

It is rare indeed to have a  journal of one of the enlisted men of the Detachment.  This document, though written in 1885 (25 years after the events), and dealing entirely with the 1870's, does have a few tidbits about Rylatt before and during his time in the Columbia Detachment.  We allow the good Serjeant to have the floor and describe his life.

My father was a laboring man: a boatman, or freshwater sailor, if the term applies.  My birthplace Lincoln, Lincolnshire (born 2nd November year unknown).

At the age of 7 years, my parents were fortunate enough to have me entered as a Blue Coat School boy.  So until I became 14 years of age, I was entirely off their hands: our family was a large one.  I being the oldest of 11.  I believe I was but a dull scholar: for I remember well the headmaster remarking to me on the night previous to my leaving the school, that he should miss me for nothing but my singing.

I was then apprenticed to the trade of Stone and Marble Cutting, for another 7 years or until I became 21.  My master was cruel and unjust.  There were two other apprentices, whose parents were in easy circumstances, and they were the favoured ones.  I, a poor boy, was made the drudge of and had more cursings and blows than I deserved.

So unbearable did my life become, I ran away a year before my time expired, and after working at several places for limited periods, I finally enlisted in the Royal Engineers.  And the Crimean war shortly afterwards claimed me.  I became attached to the Turkish Army under Omar Pasha, on the Danube and elsewhere, then to Crimea in time for the battle of Inkerman (November 5th, 1854).

Having served through the whole of this bloody war from beginning to end, a matter of 2 years, I returned to England, was promoted to Serjeant, and wore on my breast 3 medals and a clasp.

While stationed in Kent I married my first wife.  Came out to British Columbia, still a soldier, served 5 years and was discharged after 11 years service, with an Exemplary Character.

--From opening pages of Rylatt's Journal, 1855

On his wife, whom he married in Kent when he returned from the Crimean Campaigns:

"First then, with your Mother.  One of several children - the parents in very moderate circumstances.  The father a clerk in the employ of a large ship owner.  Her maiden name - "Fanny Morrison" - birthplace, Hull, Yorkshire.  Having the misfortune to loose her mother at a very early age, she was destined to come under the control of a harsh stepmother, who, having a son from a former husband, had no love for the helpless ones she had adopted.  The consequence was, your mother was placed in service at the tender age of eleven years: and after service with several families, at length aspired to the position of cook, and as cook in respectable families she remained until married to me at the age of 34 years. "

--In the opening pages of Rylatt's Journal, 1885.

A portion of the stores and provisions for the detachment was sent out in the barque Briseis, which sailed from the Downs on 27th October, 1858.  It had been intended to send on her four married men of the detachment under Corporal William Hall, but when the vessel was loaded it as found that there was not sufficient accommodations for them.  This was fortunate, as the Briseis was burned at sea, and the passengers and crew suffered many hardships before reaching safety.  The remainder of the stores and provisions was sent out on the ship Euphrates, which sailed from London Docks on the 3rd of January, 1859, and arrived at Victoria on the 27th June, 1859. 

Left England for British Columbia, January 1859 - on barque Euphrates - Captain Scorgie of Aberdeen, Scotland - Length of voyage via Cape Horn was 6 months and 3 days - calling in at no place until Victoria, Vancouver Island was reached.

Corporal Wm Bowden, RA, Wife and Children
Corporal Wm Hall, RE, Wife and Children
Private James Hall, RE, Wife and children
Private Daniel Deasy, RE, Wife and Children 

The wife of Private James Keary and child (son), being under my charge during the passage.

One child was born to Mrs. Wm. Hall during the voyage."

-- In flyleaf of notebook. Written 16th May 1885, Montesano, Washington Territory, Robert Rylatt.

Rylatt arrives with his small party and is made Commissariat.  He tells a tale of the early days soon after the detachment arrives at New Westminster.

8 September 1872 - I remember well, when we (The Sappers) first came out from England, we were all anxious to see Bruin in his wild state and by our camp fires we were a brave set.  This was in 1859, and so it happened, that I, together with four or five of my comrades were out in the woods, along a trail that had been made, and were probably a mile or so from camp, when somehow I got ahead of the others, and knowing none of them had firearms, something put it into my head to try and scare them.  Getting off the trail therefore, I crouched down behind some underbrush, and as they came abreast of me, I growled as deep as I could, and then gave a short whining grunt, then another deep growl.  It is likely they had not noted my absence, however that might be, they took alarm, and let out towards camp at a terrific rate.  I stood and laughed after they were gone, enjoying the joke immensely, and seating myself on a log by the side of the trail, I commenced filling my pipe.  Suddenly a cracking in the timber behind me caused me to turn and through the thick undergrowth I could see his bearship nosing his way directly towards me, unconscious of my presence I make no doubt.  Just about that time I had no curiosity to see Bruin in his native wilds, although I had repeatedly expressed such a wish.  I was off that log and dancing along that trail at a lively rate, more frightened I dare venture than those other fellows.  Just as I panted into camp I met a dozen coming out armed for a bear hunt and instead of letting them go on a wild goose chase and laughing in my sleeve, I joined them, but we did not get him.  He heard or scented us and made off.


--From Rylatt's Journal

Rylatt uses his acting skills in other ways and when the RE complete their first Season in the Colony, they take false beard and wig in hand and open the Theatre Season.

Theatre Royal

At this institution on Friday evening the 8th Inst., the Dramatic club of the Royal Engineers gave one of their theatrical entertainments.  The house was filled both with civilians and soldiers .  The performances commenced by the presentation of the romantic drama in two acts entitled "Ben Bolt".  The principal characters in this piece were Ben Bolt, Ivan Ironlink and Reuben Rags, sustained respectively by Messrs. Osment, Rylatt and Woodcock.  The latter gentleman as Reuben Rags was highly amusing , and received from the audience his due need of applause.  He adds to his other accomplishments that of comic singer, and is quite a favorite with the audience generally, frequently setting them in a broad grin by his ludicrous representations.  The former gentlemen played their roles very successfully, showing that considerable attention and study had been bestowed on the parts.  Between the pieces a number of songs and glees were sung by several of the members of the Glee club, followed by a dance, by Mr. Colston.  The evening's amusements closed with the laughable farce of "Box and Cox".  Captain Luard in the character of Box and lt. palmer in that of Cox, were decidedly entertaining and played with a good deal of spirit throughout the piece, giving the impression on the minds of the audience of their possessing a very fair conception of the play.  Doctor Seddall as Mrs. Bouncer was rather in the background, having very little room for displaying himself to advantage.  He however, acquitted himself in the character assigned to him very well.  It is hoped he will have something more prominent where he will in fact have more room to spread himself.  We cannot close these remarks without expressing our thanks to the club for not having forgotten us in issuing the invitations.

--13th February, 1861
The British Columbian

In March 1861 Lady Franklin and her niece Miss Cracroft visited the Royal Engineer's camp at New Westminster.  During their visit the acting contingent of the Royal Engineers put on two plays, "Ben Bolt and "Sent to the Tower".

Royal Engineer's Dramatic Club

This popular Club gave a special entertainment on Saturday night in honor of lady Franklin. The Theatre was crowded, and the performance went off well. We have not room to criticise the different parts, but would mention the names of Woodcock, Turnbull, Colston, Rylatt and Franklin, as having aquitted themselves with great credit.

-21st March, 1861 - The British Columbian

British Columbia - 13th Dec 1862

Dramatic - The second Dramatic entertainment of the season was given last evening by the Royal Engineers' Club.  The beautiful drama entitled "Don Caesar De Bazan" was most successfully played to a very good house.  The leading characters were very well sustained.

    As Don Caesar, Corporal Howse was most successful, carrying the audience with him all through.  Serjeant Osmet made a capital Charles II of Spain, and was exceedingly well dressed.  J. Turnbull took the character of the old Marquis de Rotondo for which he was splendidly dressed, and which he delineated in the most happy manner.

    The more prominent character of Don Jose (the King's Minister) was very well rendered throughout by W. Deas, and C. Sinnett made a most charming Lazarillo.  The ladies - perhaps we ought to have mentioned them first - Serjeant Rylatt, as Maritana, and J. Meade as Countess de Rotondo, performed their parts very creditably.

    A number of songs and a farce entitled "Cool as a cucumber" closed the evening's entertainment.

Royal Engineers Theatre

On Wednesday evening the members of the Royal Engineers' Club gave a dramatic performance for the benefit of the Royal Columbian Hospital Fund, on which occasion the pieces performed were Douglas Jerrold's Domestic Drama of "The Rent Day" and Poole's amusing farce "Deaf as a Post".

The Rent Day is too well known to need much description.  It may suffice to recall its features to those not present if we say that the interest centres in the endeavours of Martin Reywood (W. Deas) to keep the farm of his forefathers from the grip of the unjust steward, Old Crumbs ( W. Harvey) of his absentee landlord.  There are various complications introduced, owing to the discovery made by two highwaymen that the steward is an "ex-minion of the moon" for whose apprehension there is a reward of 50 Pounds.  Owing to the power they consequently possess over Crumbs, they obtain permission to enter the Squire's house, where they propose to rob a guest.  The guest is saved from their attempt on his property by the courage and devotion of Rachel Heywood, Martin's wife (R.M. Rylatt) and proves to be the absentee landlord himself, Squire Grantley.  Of course, with so powerful a Deus ex machina, everything is easy.  Martin keeps his farm, the unjust steward is dismissed, the highwaymen punished, and, as the old fairy tales conclude, everybody lives happy ever afterwards.  We would particularly notice the acting of R.M. Rylatt as Rachel, W. Deas, W. Harvey, and H. Dransfield, whose drolleries in the character of Bullfrog, an appraiser and creature of Old Crumbs, were very amusing and well rendered.

The plot of the farce is very simple.  Tristram Sappy (J. Woodcock) is engaged to be married to Miss Sophy Walton.  This young lady, as is not uncommon to young ladies, we believe, prefers a lover of her own choosing.  Captain Templeton (J. Turnbull) to the husband of her father's selection.  Thus favored the captain introduces himself at the inn where Sappy is entertaining at supper his future wife and her father, and by pretending to be "deaf as a post" induces an amusing series of mistakes, the ill consequences of which fall on the head of the ill-fated Sappy.  He effects a compromise with the author of the mischief, and resigns his fiancee to the fortunate Captain.  Sally Mags (R.M. Rylatt) chambermaid at the inn, delivered her sneers at Sappy and his meanness in the matter of fees to chambermaids, with great relish and effect.  The appearance of R. Colston in the interlude, dressed as a ballet girl, created perhaps more laughter than anything else in the evening.  There is so much caricature in the mere fact of a man being dressed in the short gauzy skirts of a fille be ballet, that the real excellencies of his dancing may not have been quite appreciated.

--21st March, 1863
From The British Colonist.

Royal Engineers' Theatre

The Dramatic Company of the Royal Engineers Club gave their last entertainment on Wednesday evening, forming the ninth of the series with which we have been amused during the winter season.

On this occasion were presented "The Sergeant's Wife" and "The Artful Dodge".  The former is of the style which Mr. Wilkie Collins delights to terrify us with.  An old house in the centre of France is the scene of operations, where Dennis (W. Deas) and his confederate rob and murder any unsuspecting travelers who may fall in their way.  The particular attempt at murder with which the audience is concerned of course fails, owing to a rescue at the last moment.  Lisette (R.M.Rylatt) played her part with great care and skill, but it must have been difficult to struggle with the natural weakness of the play.

The farce of The Artful Dodge was more successful, as it deserved to be.  The Hon. Frederick Fitz-Fudge (R.M.Rylatt) was so well played that it gives cause for regret that so good an actor should be forced by the exigencies of the Company to assume women's parts, the difficulties of which are necessarily great.  J. Woodcock, as Demosthenes Dodge was as funny as usual, reasoning so ably and clearly on the social advantages of dodging, ie., swindling, that we feared for a moment the moral perceptions of the audience might be blunted.  The author, Mr. E.L. Blanchard, is a well known burlesque and pantomime writer, accordingly the dialogue bristles with puns, which were generally well delivered.  We would, however, venture to suggest to Mr. Hughes for his next appearance that he should eat his breakfast, and not send it away un-tasted as he did.  By doing so he certainly destroyed the vraisemblance of the part, and failed to give complete effect to some of the turns in the dialogue.

In dismissing this notice we must tender one word of thanks to the RE Club for the amusement they have afforded us and our fellow citizens during the winter; amusement that would be acceptable anywhere, and is particularly so in a town like ours - at present too small to encourage the continued presence of any professional caterers for the public.

-- 2nd May, 1863
From The British Columbian

In 1863, Rylatt elects to remain in the Colony.

In the mid-1800s, a serjeant's Regimental Pay per Diem was 2s. 10 1/2d. plus Working Pay per Diem 3s. to 5s.

Rylatt and Alfred Hawkins RE, become partners as masons and bricklayers.

In 1868, Rylatt is elected to managing committee of the New Westminster Library (created out of the 200 books left behind by the Columbia Detachment Library).

According to Frances Woodward, Rylatt receives military grant Lot 253, Group 1, New Westminster District, Barnston Island, 150 acres.

In 1871 Rylatt embarked on a new career as an agent of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Survey, searching for a route that would join British Columbia to the rest of Canada.  He kept notes of his two years of expeditionary work, which he later revised and expanded, adding numerous colour sketches and line drawings.  His memoirs were compiled in a leather-bound journal, which remained in the family for over a century before being discovered and then published by the University of Utah Press in 1991.

A surveyor under Walter Moberly as part of 'S' party leaving civilization in 1871 returning 1873, Rylatt left 'S' party when he received word that his wife had died.

The following are taken from Rylatt's Journal from 1871 to 1873.  We have focused on the entries which mention his time in the Columbia Detachment or other RE comrades.

29 Aug 1871 - Jack Cox reminded me that 6 years ago to day he was married, and it brought to me the fact that my poor wife and I were at the wedding.  Jack was also a Sapper and Miner.

14 September 1871 - At Wild-Horse creek I came upon an old friend, "James Normansell" and we spent a few happy hours together.  Dear "old Jim", he was then constable at Wild-Horse.  We had gone through many ups and downs together, were together through the Crimean War, belonged to the same company of Sappers at Shorncliffe in England, came to British Columbia together, and spent our five years in the Royal Engineers, and taking our discharge together, finally went our separate ways.  The last I heard of my old Chum, he was in the far North attached to the Hudson's Bay Company.  Jim was a Birmingham man.

2nd October 1871 - Day before yesterday we started down the Columbia river (no longer a stream) on rafts and in canoes.  It is astonishing how soon this stream assumes proportions, fed by tributaries from the mountains on either side: it was at our starting point a respectable river.  The raft I was on contained Jack Cox, Jas. Malloy, myself and two Douglas Indians.  All went well for some time, but coming to some rather dangerous rapids, which took a somewhat sudden turn in their course, we were forced too near shore on our unwieldy craft, and being in danger from projecting snags, and while straining to our utmost, we broke an oar: this caused some confusion, lessening our chances of getting into midstream again, onward we were borne, and before we could avoid the danger, came full tilt against a fallen tree, half submerged, and projecting out into the current.  All leaped for dear life when close upon it, and clung desperately to the slimy log.  Jas. Malloy leapt short however, and he and the raft were both sucked under.  We never saw him again: in all probability he was held down beneath the surface by snags and sunken underbrush.

17 November 1871 - ... I had a nice improved Winchester Rifle in the tent, which I prized, as it was a gift from my old friend Jim Normansell...

25 February 1872 - ...There are 7 or 8 roughs in our midst who are bully's of the first water, and would as leif cut a throat as a purse I take it, as however, is very frequently the case with bully's, they are, I am certain, cowards at heart, for so I proved them to be...Finding I bore their taunts, and that they could not incite me to retaliate, they waxed bolder, and as I always take my meals after they have left the table, today they collected in a body around the cook house door: Roberts, the ringleader, big Reilly, Jackman, Reynolds, Rainier (a Greek), Keating and Joe Reuff (a Bavarian).  They were evidently waiting for me, and I knew things had about come to open rupture...They told me I had best look out for myself, as they had a heavy score to settle with me.  I told them I didn't care for their threats, I'd do my duty, did the devil himself stand in the way.  I passed into the cookhouse, when Jack Cox, the cook, an old Sapper like myself, told me big Reilly had snatched the fry pan off the fire and thrown my steak out of doors.  I asked the great ruffian what he did it for?  He answered, damned if you shall eat unless you let us go through the Store (room), and see for ourselves (what is there).  I told him I'd see about that, and told Cox to dish me up some Beans and bread: he went to comply, when Reilly tried to stop him; I snatched up a hatchet, and told him if he didn't stand back, I'd brain him: he glared at me, but thought it safer to keep off.  Cox placed my plate on the table, when Roberts said, there are 7 of us and we will see you damned but you shall not have it, and he thrust his hand for ward to take the plate.  I was thoroughly roused now -- down came the hatchet, and he left portions of his fingers on the table: I guess I aimed for the whole hand, but he was too quick, yet not quick enough, the hatchet passed through them clean, and buried its edge in the pine board, such was the blow I dealt.  I now rushed for Reilly, hatchet raised but the whole cowardly crew escaped to the door.  Roberts they led away crying like a big boy, while they threatened me with some choice oaths.  I ate my breakfast, and taking the Hatchet with me, left for my hut: after an hour or so they came down in a body and told me Roberts had lost much blood, was very weak, and asked me for medicine and bandages.  I gave them what they wanted, when they asked me to go and dress his hands, I told them they should leave that to them, he was one of their gang, I wasn't!  Reilly had an axe in his hand, and as it appeared their object was to get me out of the way, he said, come boys, let's smash the store door in! if he won't open it.  I jumped back, got hold of my Henry Rifle, and as Reilly was then at the store door (not 15 yards away) I leveled the piece, covered him, and told him to throw down the axe instantly, or I would shoot him dead, and God help me, I would have done it.  He took in his chances at once and threw down the axe.  I told them I had stood it as long as I could and that the next of their number who insulted me, or used threats to me, I'd have his blood on my hands.  They knew I was a sure shot, having seen me shoot Duck in the river with this same rifle and they concluded I meant it.  They left slowly taking their hang-dog countenances out of my sight...I subsequently found out that the man Reilly had served a term in the chain gang at Victoria, BC and that Roberts had been a convict in Australia.

May 2nd 1872 - My chum Jack Cox had some bad news - his house being burned down; his wife, it would appear, was enjoying herself at a Ball, leaving her children with a neighbour...The house being isolated, he lost everything.  Cold comfort Jack.

May 2nd 1872 - My time honoured friend, Jim Normansell, writes me from Wild Horse Creek, stating he has noticed I have had no letters from my wife (Jim is Post Master among his other duties).

June 29 1872 - The goods being now all brought forward from the last camp, the same was vacated, save by four of the worst of the malcontents, to wit, Reilly, Roberts, Reynolds and Jackman.  Moberly told them he would take them no further.  That sufficient food would be left them to suffice until the trail was cut through the bottom, and the mule trains were in and ready to return.  They would then be sent on to Wild Horse Creek and turned adrift, that the pay of Roberts and Reilly would cease from the date of their breaking out into Mutiny; that of Reynolds and Jackman from the present date.  In the case of the first named, I felt only that it served them right.  For the other two, I felt sorry - sorry they should have been so foolish.  Reynolds was quite useless anyway, but he was getting on in years, and Jackman had been an old Sapper and had a wife and family.

30 June 1872 - On the 10th June a Mail arrived, but brought no letter for me.  Jim Normansell sent me a couple of papers from Wild Horse, and a few lines telling me not to be downhearted.  He is now in the service of the Provisional Government and is Collector of Customs at Joseph's Prairie and for which place and duties he was just setting out.

19 October 1872 - ...I was informed that there were (no letters) for me.  I brooded over this for some time while preparing to leave and finally asked Rheume again, "Are you quite sure there was not a letter for me?".  He said he was quite sure, he heard all the names called.  Presently I said, "Rheume, this is becoming unbearable.  If I had left a healthy wife I should have felt bad enough, but I must do something.  He then said, Jane has joined us, he knows you, and gave me a message for you.  Jane was an old Sapper, and a fine straightforward man - John Jane being his full name.  He was a surveyor, an officer in Mohons Party and in that capacity had joined us.  Asking Rheume for his message, he handed me a slip of paper upon which were written the following words, "Dear Rylatt, the papers state your wife has passed the stream of time.  Don't be too cut up, dear fellow."

30 October 1872 - I came across a Victoria Colonist paper containing the announcement of my wife's death; it bore the date of 31st July 1872 and ran as follows: "Mrs. Rylatt, wife of Mr. R. M. Rylatt, formerly of the Royal Engineers, and now engaged on the Canadian Pacific Survey, died at new Westminster, on Wednesday morning last, after a lingering illness.  The funeral took place on Thursday, Rev. Russ officiating."

13 May 1873 - The task was a difficult one but I was ably seconded by my packers, who were men well up to their duties and as I turned into the Blankets between Jane and Rheume, who would have me sleep with them last night, we were like schoolboys I felt.  I felt regret at having to turn my back upon such comrades.

To order Surveying the Canadian Pacific: Memoir of a Railroad Pioneer by R. M. Rylatt, please click >here<


R.M. Rylatt "Leaves from my diary" two years with the Canadian Pacific Railroad Survey, Rocky Mountain
Division"  Typescript, Provincial Archives 258 pp.; July 25, 1871-1873.

Sunday, December 15, 1872, p. 147 (WGE):
"Last night while we three sat smoking in the cabin, quite a severe shock of earth-quake was felt.  The oscillation made us quite dizzy and at first each man looked at the other, thinking a feeling of dizzyness had come over himself, but a low mumbling sound, not very distinct, nor very near apparently, and the sight of the several pairs of new boots hanging from the walls overhead, and gently swinging to and fro convinced us of the fact.  The shock was quite long, probably more than two minutes and was from East to West.  Half an hour another shock was felt, but not so heavy, and accompanied by little or no rumbling.  I fancy it gave us all a scare..."

(The above was written while Rylatt was on a survey from Fort Edmonton and his locality at the time is given as the Henry House.  The coordinates for Henry House are given in text as 53 degrees 19" latitude and 113 degrees 48'-10" longitude.  The location of the Henry House according to the map of J. Aimesworth which has been reprinted by the Surveys and Map --Branch, Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, MCR2304-- indicates that the correct latitude or the correct location of Henry House is 118 degrees 6'.  In the typescript, the longitude in degrees is 113 degrees and 113 is written in pencil there but that appears to be an erroneous entry by some later proof- reader or someone who put that in there because the correct locality that Rylatt probably wanted to write down there was probably 117 degrees 48' 10".  Henry House is located about 10 miles due north of Jasper The Henry House is an old trading post of the Great Northwestern Trading Company located in the vicinity of Athabasca and Leatherhead Passes, WGE).

Especially gripping, and the most vivid pure adventure, is the last fifth of the diary describing the trip homeward in May of 1873 when, with three horses and a companion, he travels from Jasper across the Continental Divide and down the Thompson River to Kamloops.

To learn more about the December 14, 1872, earthquake please see:
1872 North Cascades Aftershock Fore- and Aftershock Sources\