Sapper

Charles Digby

"Digby, you not dead yet?"

--by Lorraine Harris
granddaughter of Charles Digby.

Sources for the below include Mrs. Belinda Digby Spear, daughter of Charles Digby.

Charles Digby, like all the Royal Engineers who arrived in British Columbia in 1859, has a place in B.C.'s history.  He arrived in New Westminster in April 1859 and remained with the Royal Engineers until they disbanded in 1863.  His activities were many and varied.

Born in Braintree, Essex, in 1840, he was a Crimean war veteran and one of the thirty who scaled the Walls of Redan and one of nine who returned, from whence came his nickname, "Redan Charlie".  He had an unusual experience in the Crimea where there were not medications to return to health those who were sick or badly wounded.  The medical men did the best they could easing pain and administering medicines to make the way "across the bar' easier and quicker.  Such was the experience of Charles Digby when he became ill and was taken to the hospital tent where he was given medicine which Corporal John McMurphy seized and poured out.  Next morning the doctor making rounds looked startled on seeing Sapper Digby and blurted, "Digby, you not dead yet?"  He regained his health and was one of the survivors of the Crimea and of the shipwreck on their return to England where they were met by their beloved Queen Victoria.  This great lady met them at the docks and shook the hand of every veteran as he came ashore, making each one a more devoted servant than before.

Charles Digby was a bricklayer and when the call came for men to come to BC to protect and open up the Crown Colony, he and his brother Corporal James Digby volunteered, and with the Royal Engineers, made the journey on the "Thames City".

Sapper Digby was a quiet, good natured man about 5 feet 8 inches tall, fair complexion, with a beard and moustache so fashionable in his day.  His word was his bond and fairness and justness were his code; anyone interfering with either had to answer to him.  He was quietly rigid in attitude when convinced he was right.  He went out on the building of the Cariboo Road up the Fraser Canyon and was with the group who surveyed the towns of Hope, Yale and Douglas.

As a Sapper Digby's Regimental Pay per Diem would have been 1s. 2 1/2d. plus Working Pay per Diem of 1s. to 4s.

When the Royal Columbian Hospital was built in 1861 on its present site in Sapperton, he went as hospital Steward and did everything but "mix medicines"; he assisted the doctors with the operations, gave anaesthetics, tended patients and generally administered the six-ward, 48 bed hospital.  The operating room was heated by an open fireplace and the instruments were boiled in an enamel bowl on the kitchen range.  Hospital help consisted of one cook and one male assistant.  He also dug and planted the garden, filled the root cellar which supplied the hospital with the year's fruit and vegetables, and kept hogs and chickens for meat, poultry, and eggs for the hospital larder.

By 1863 the Detachment was disbanded and the men given land grants. Charles Digby has acreage in Pitt Meadows which he farmed.

 On the 24th August, 1871, Digby married Elizabeth Ann McMurphy, daughter of the Serjeant who saved his life in the Crimea and who had also come out to BC. The married at Pitt River Weslyan Methodist Church. They were married the day before she was sixteen and he was then thirty-six years old.  They lived in Pitt Meadows, later with a growing family moved to New Westminster, where he became steward of the Royal Inland Hospital, then situated at Fourth and Agnes streets.  As steward he was in full charge and with one assistant, Mr. Devoy, another Sapper, he ran the hospital, tended the sick and assisted the three doctors, Dr. Edan Walker, Dr. Fagan, and Dr. Bently.

The Digby family lived in a house beside the hospital (this recently burned when it was being used as an intern's home at the present Royal Columbian Hospital) and when the youngest of the nine children was born prematurely in 1897, little hope was held for her survival.  Weighing two and one half pounds, she was rubbed with cod liver oil, wrapped in cotton batting and placed on a pillow in the oven of the hospital stove for two weeks.  This ingenious incubator tended by her father kept the baby alive.

About 1900 when the Royal Columbian Hospital became a general hospital taking men and women patients, Charles Digby left as doctors and nurses took over.  He retired and took his place among the aging Royal Engineers in New Westminster.

Charles Digby died in 1907 at the age of 72 (47 years after brother James) and was buried in the New Westminster cemetery which overlooks the hospital.