What were they like, these men and women of the Columbia Detachment?  They were chiefly born in rural England, Scotland or Ireland, the children of miners and tenant farmers.  All belonged to the working class of Charles Dickens’ Britain.

Recruits for the British Army, Ireland, 1854

     What set these soldiers apart from the rank and file of other regiments was the Royal Engineers' expectation that each man know a trade - stonemason, carpenter, wheelwright or tailor, for instance.  This made them an elite within  the army: men used to independent thought and action.  This would be of first importance in British Columbia, where much of the work of surveying and roadbuilding would be done by small groups of three or four, perhaps under a sergeant or corporal, days away from the nearest officer.

     The progress of the voyage from England was recorded in a 'newspaper' read aloud each Saturday on board the Thames City.  There were lighthearted moments, to be sure.  Sergeant Lindsay would pass the time baiting loaves of bread with hooks in order to catch albatross.  Amateur theatricals took place monthly, with the men playing women’s roles to the delight of the assembled crew, wives and children.

Excerpt from Reminiscent of Pioneers, a speech written by Corporal Wolfenden and published in the Daily Columbian, Wednesday, October 13th, 1909

"I say, Hughie," said Johnny, "do you remember when we came out with our fathers and mothers in the Thames City?  We were only little chaps then."

"Yes I do, Johnny, and wasn't she a regular old tub?"

"Well, perhaps she was an old tub, Hughie, but didn't she bring us safely there, and didn't she behave like a thoroughly good ship when she came round the Horn?"

"Oh, yes, she was a safe old boat Johnny.  I say, do you remember that night when the hatches were battened down, when we all though we were going to the bottom of the sea?"

"Yes, Hughie, and didn't the women and children scream, and weren't the men all huddled together in their hammocks, perhaps some of them preying 'God save us'?  They were all as silent as the dead."

"Yes, Johnny, and weren't all of us youngsters afraid to sleep that night, and weren't our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers, and all the men, thankful when morning came and the wind had somewhat calmed down, and the hatches had been uncovered, the men sang and whistled for pure joy?"

     However, as the exceptionally slow six-month crossing dragged on, tempers frayed.  One 'female' performer, Hospital Orderly Henry Hazel, was ridiculed in a string of increasingly cruel letters to the editor which questioned his masculinity.  Hazel was eventually arrested and court-martialed, perhaps for lashing back at his tormenters.

Excerpt from Reminiscent of Pioneers, a speech written by Corporal Wolfenden and published in the Daily Columbian, Wednesday, October 13th, 1909

"Yes Hughie, but he was a clever fellow for all that, and wasn't it great fun to listen to his scraps of poetry on 'Matilda,' the fellow who was the Doctor's assistant, and who used to lead a little black cat around the ship with a blue ribbon round its neck?"

"Yes, but my! Johnny, didn't Matilda give it him back hot and strong, and weren't we all sorry when the two fellows couldn't accept each other's banter without quarrelling, so that the Captain had to stop them, and we lost a lot of fun?"

"By the way, Hughie, why did they call that fellow 'Matilda'?"

"Oh, it as because he was more like a woman than a man, with his finicky ways."



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