article is an introduction to some of the research done by the RE Living
History Group into daily life in the Detachment. More detailed information
can be found by following the links on our Index page.
Histories of British Columbia usually treat the deeds of the Royal Engineers
with awe. And the accomplishments of these soldiers, both in engineering
and in public service, were indeed remarkable. Yet often the Engineers
themselves are portrayed as Victorian-era supermen, a "Noble band of British
Heroes" transforming the wilderness. Such reverence is obvious in the
idealized 1967 Rex Woods oil painting of the
Engineers at work, which can be seen on our homepage.
examination of the letters and journals of the Engineers puts a human face on
these heroes. Officers often squabbled, enlisted men sometimes drank or
deserted, and the work was plagued by accidents, often fatal. An
1859 photograph of the real Engineers at work,
also on our homepage, provides a striking contrast to the romanticism of the
What follows is a glimpse
into the daily lives of the soldiers and their families – our attempt to show
something of the real people behind the legend.
In 1858, when the
Columbia Detachment of Royal Engineers was created, each of the 160 members
was handpicked from volunteers. There
were several compelling reasons why these 'sappers' (as Engineer privates
were known) opted for service on the far side of the world.
First, each man would receive 30 acres of free Crown land in British Columbia
upon completion of service, later increased to 150 acres in appreciation of
the men's work. 30 acres, let
alone 150, was an astronomical windfall which no labourer could hope to attain
at home in England.
Third, as in California in 1849 and Australia in 1851, the Fraser River gold
rush of 1858 produced a worldwide “gold fever” which was likely a
motivation for some. At least 11, and possibly as many as 15, soldiers of the Detachment
deserted within six months of arriving in British Columbia.
So our heroes were drawn to British Columbia by some very mundane motives,
including ambition, familial attachment and (for a few) greed for gold.
List of Merchant Vessels says:
to the annual volumes of Lloyd's Register of Shipping for
1857/58 through 1865/66, the British ship THAMES CITY was
built under Lloyd's Register of Shipping Special Survey at
Sunderland, in 1856. 557 tons; 142.0 x 29.5 x 17.5 feet
(length x beam x depth of hold). Her master was J. Glover, she was
owned by "R'nthwte" (a name I cannot expand), and
registered in Sunderland. Only the annual volumes of Lloyd's
Register volumes for 1857/58 and 1858/59 give a destined voyage;
in both cases, this is to India. The entry for the THAMES
CITY in the annual volume of Lloyd's Register for 1865/66
is posted "wrecked". I cannot find any reference to
this wreck in Palmer's Index to the Times (London), but the ship was
not an important one.
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List of Merchant Vessels can be found at http://www.geocities.com/mppraetorius/