John McMurphy

"Yes, Johnny they were fine-looking lot of men.  There were tall men and short men, round, plump men, and thin men; men with black beards, men with red beards, and others with no beards at all; young fellows, some of them, not then out of their teens.  And there was one man with a grey beard, a man who had been in many wars and had over six medals.  You know who I mean, Johnny?  Oh, but (McMurphy) was a grand old man."

Daily Columbian,

Wednesday, October 13th, 1909

For Sgt. John McMurphy, the road to Cariboo began in 1840 when he enlisted in the Royal Engineers.  It was the start of a 23-year career that would make him the most decorated soldier in the Columbian Detachment. 

1841 found McMurphy in South Africa under siege by the Boers.  In his old age he could still describe vividly a night raid on enemy trenches, "bayonets fixed and faces blackened with candle grease."  He also recalled with pride his feat of swimming with a line across a swollen river which had already drowned three unlucky soldiers.

The next decade saw McMurphy in the Crimean War, now laying siege to the Russians in Sebastopol, where he wins himself a medal for bravery under the fire of Russian guns.

In the Pathless West with Soldiers, Pioneers, Miners and Savages by Frances Herring, published in London in 1904, there appears what Woodward describes as 'a somewhat fictionalized account of the Columbia Detachment's journey to BC and its work here.'

It is clear that Miss Herring knew members of the Detachment intimately.  She quotes extensively from the Emigrant Soldier's Gazette, several years before it was published.   In her foreword she thanks Wolfenden for loaning her the originals!  There are anecdotes that have the feel of old stories she has heard from the men of the Detachment. 

The following scene sheds new light on our good Sergeant McMurphy.  It is so much like the account of McMurphy's Crimean exploits which appear elsewhere it is quite probable that  the story came from his own lips.  The scene is the deck of the Thames City one evening:

"There were those whose hair was beginning to whiten in the service of their country, and who had been all through the Russian campaign.  One of them, Sergeant McMurphy, was a quiet man of medium stature, but erect and military in every move, not a favourite either, for his discipline was very strict, not to say austere.  He had never been court-martialed or in the guard-house once, and couldn't "see what the young fellows wanted, getting put in there."

It being a festive occasion, he wore his medals, seven of them: one for long service and good conduct Sebastopol; one from the Turkish Government; another 'Balaclava'; the Cape of Good Hope; 'Inkerman'; and a small bronze medal from the Emperor of the French.

(Note: although Balaclava and Inkerman were clasps to the Crimea medal, not separate medals, the description is otherwise correct.)

The men talked of old times, of narrow escapes, of comrades cut off or disabled, and the women and children lingered on deck, loath to go below till 'Lights Out' sounded.

'Mac', as he was called, seldom spoke of his past, but a young fellow whose good conduct had won the Sergeant's regard, asked him why the Emperor of the French had given him a medal.

'Mac' took his pipe from his mouth, and in his quiet, unruffled manner, said

"It was just this way.  I was working in the trenches, laying a mine towards the Redan.  The Russians were firing from their forts in front of us, when I looked over the earthworks and saw a man of the 90ths, who had been on my party, wounded and lying exposed to the Russian guns.  'I can't stand that,' I says to Dave Simpson, 'I'm going to fetch him in.'

"'You'll get killed,' he says.

"I can't help it.  If I do get killed and you go home, tell the wife the last word I spoke was her name."  He glanced somewhat shyly at the fine, large-built woman who sat near him on a coil of rope, with a small child leaning upon her knees.

"I went out.  The Russian guns were firing and the man was heavy, more than my own weight.  I got him on my knees first; shots were raining all around us.  Then between lifting and dragging I got him inside the works.  Such a shout as went up all along our line I shall never forget.  General Simpson, he came and said, 'It was well done.'  Captain Wolseley, of the 90ths, at that time attached to the Royal Engineers, came up too, and said, 'I know that man, don't I?'

"'One of your men, sir' I said.

"'By Jove! so it is!,' and he called the man by name, for he knew every man under his charge. 'You'll hear of this again.  What's your name?'

"I told him; and sure enough, I did hear again, for the Queen sent me three pounds, I got special mention, and this medal from the Emperor."

"Did you ever get wounded, Sergeant?"

"Never had blood drawn on me.  I was standing behind the rockwork of a fortification when a cannon-ball knocked down the wall, and gave me such a blow on the head I went down with it, but," with a shake of his head and a smile, "up and at it, up and at it, no time to stop and think there."

In "The History of the Royal Sappers and Miners", the following is an official report of the above action.

Extremely brilliant was the night of the 26th of July, 1855; nevertheless an average quantity of progress was made in the foremost trenches.  Grape and shell fell so tightly into the saps, that the men were in frequent alarm; and of the 90th regiment alone, 30 men were killed and wounded.

Corporal McMurphy was in charge of 130 men of different regiments scattered in the advances.  Thirty of the number, allotted to the approach from the first parallel to a rifle-pit on the right, were under the foremanship of privates Moncur and Joseph Fitzgerald.  The work was about 200 yards from the proper right of the domineering Malakoff, and the left was of the ambitious Redan.  From the latter an active fire was opened on the little batch of pioneers, and also from four embrasures on the right flank of the Malakoff. 

For a time nothing touched them.  Shells and grape whizzed over the works, shaking many a nerve and swimming many a head.  Few could keep cool in such danger, and picks and shovels were used with timid vigour; but the steadiness of the two overseers was the record of the day.  At length the range of the trench was so accurately obtained, that the shells plunged into the very gabions the sappers were filling, and broke them up in explosions.  The wavering of the party was now very apparent, and corporal McMurphy, an old soldier who before had been in a hot siege of thirty days at Natal, exerted himself manfully to keep the men at their tasks. 

A few tardy efforts was the measure of their reluctant obedience, when one of the party being killed by the corporal's side, the entire detachment ran from the trench, leaving the three sappers ahead bent to their work.  McMurphy followed, entreating them, if they intended to abandon their posts, at least to return and carry away the dead body of their comrade.  Too craven to perform even this touching duty, the corporal repaired with an undismayed pace to the sap, and with the assistance of his two intrepid overseers, bore the shattered corpse to the rear amid a tempest of fire, escaping without a stroke.  

For their gallantry on this occasion the commander-in-chief presented the privates with two sovereigns each and the corporal with three, who, subsequently, was decorated with the French military war medal"

-- The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, 1857.
Pgs. 406 -407

The award on the medal was not the end of this Serjeant's tale.  Francis Herring continues McMurphy's tale told on board the Thames City:

McMurphy continued, "I felt rather low-spirited the night before the taking of the Redan, sitting in the trenches and thinking of the missus there."  The wife turned an approving glance upon him from her bright, dark eyes as she sat with her strong arms folded over the broad expanse of clean brown holland apron.  He nodded to her and continued, "So I got one of the candles we used to make in camp, just fat run into a little box with a piece of rag twisted in for a wick, and set to work to write and tell her what was to be done tomorrow, and---"

"Yes!" she interrupted, "a nice letter it was too. He said if he fell to-morrow, I was to be sure the last thought would be for the little ones (we had two of them) and me. I was very near my confinement with my eldest daughter, and it was troubling him if I should get through all right.  He told me to be sure and bring Johnny, that's our eldest son, up to do his duty, and he'd fight his best to-morrow, whatever happened, for his Queen and country.  I was in Woolwich at that time, and we had an old aunt who used to go out nursing among the Court ladies.  She was very good to me then, and used was, and though he didn't write half often enough.  She liked to get his letter, she said; the 'letter made her feel so bad!'

"Just when this letter came to me she was nursing Lady Emily Seymour with her eighth baby.  She wrote and sent me some money, and complained John hadn't written to her.  So I just took this letter of his and sent it right to her.

"When she walked into the sick-room her ladyship saw she'd been crying, and said, 'What is it, Nurse Henry? You've been crying what's the matter?'

"She told her ladyship she'd had a letter from her nephew, written in the trenches before the Redan; such a nice letter he'd written to his wife, but she was afraid he'd never come out of that battle alive; and began to cry again.

"'Let me see the letter, Nurse, I'm sure his wife won't mind.' So after a little reluctance the old lady gave it to her.  She read it and she said, 'I shall keep this, nurse, and show it to the Colonel when he comes home.  He's going to a Drawing Room to-morrow, and he'll give it to Her Majesty.'  Aunt, she was quite alarmed at this, but the lady was firm, and the letter reached the hand of the Queen.  She in turn read it," and the Sergeant's wife brightened and expanded, "Then Her Majesty said, 'This is a brave soldier and a good husband; that wasn't all, either, for she gave the letter to her secretary and told him to send me five pounds. 'The poor woman will want some nourishment after her confinement,' she said.  Her Most Gracious Majesty thought of nourishment for me!  I've had two children before, and no one troubled themselves about 'nourishment!'

"When the money came to me I felt so proud and rich.  Much as I needed it, the good words of Her Majesty were more to me!"

He would also save the life of another young soldier, Sapper Charles Digby, who lay wounded in a hospital tent.  Ordered to give Digby a poison draught to end his sufferings, McMurphy refused.  Surgeons were amazed when the young man survived.  Digby would also join the Columbian Detachment in 1859, and amazingly would marry Annie McMurphy, daughter of his saviour.

McMurphy volunteered for Service in British Columbia with the Columbia Detachment.  He and his family sailed the BC on board the Thames City.

"One thing I'll never forget," relates Mr. John McMurphy (Son of Serjeant McMurphy) in recalling the voyage of the Thames City, "was the shower baths.  Every morning, fair weather or foul, during the entire six months every man, woman and child on the ship was made to take a shower bath on the deck.

The shower was improvised from a sail with water pumped by hand from the ocean.  It was often cold and disagreeable, but it saved us from any serious ill-ness."

-- 12th April, 1939
The Daily Province

Upon landing in the Colony on the 13th April, 1859, the Women and children were posted off to the newly completed barracks at Derby.  After a time they were then sent to the Camp, which was under construction at New Westminster.

"I was too young to recall much of the voyage (on the Thames City)," relates Mrs. Turnbull (daughter of Serjeant McMurphy). "But I won't forget the mosquitoes that first summer in New Westminster. We lived in tents while land was being cleared for our barracks. All lumber had to be sawn by hand. Instead of fighting Indians we fought mosquitoes."

-- 12th April, 1939
The Daily Province

Once in B.C., McMurphy spent time in the Cariboo laying out the route for the wagon road.  He loved this new country, remarking in his journal how abundant grouse and the streams swarming with trout "bring me back to my young days on the moors in Scotland."

A serjeant's Regimental Pay per Diem was 2s. 10 1/2d. plus Working Pay per Diem 3s. to 5s. 

He soon caught the eye of his Company  Officer, Captain Grant, who passed his name along to Colonel Moody.

New Westminster, 20 Dec. 1859


I wish to bring to your notice for favourable consideration the case of Sergeant John McMurphy RE whose great zeal and exemplary conduct have been specially reported to me by Captain Grant, under whom he has been serving as Senior Non-Commissioned Officer of the Detachment lately employed on the Harrison and Lillooet Road.

During this time, he has not only been acting as Sergeant Major of that Detachment, but has been performing the duties of Quartermaster Sergeant and general Superintendent of the works in the construction of the Road.  For these services he has been receiving 5 shillings per diem Colonial Pay, alike with the remainder of the Non-Commissioned Officers of this rank.  Whose duties were but trifling in comparison with those which he was called upon to perform.

Under these circumstances, I solicit your Excellency’s sanction to the addition of 6 pence per diem to his Colonial Pay being granted during that period as some slight acknowledgement for the valuable services thus rendered by him.

The amount of such grant will be four pounds, 9 shillings and 6 pence.

I have the honor to be, Sir, Your most obedient, Humble Servant

 RC Moody, Col. Comd.

Sergeant John McMurphy inspected the road from Lillooet to Fort Alexandria.  He had a journal and would write an entry about the roads he inspected.


Sgt. John McMurphy
the Cariboo Wagon Road


May 29, 1862: "Sunday.  Very Hot, Mosquitoes very troublesome."

June 10, 1862: "...a case of Brandy and a box of preserves for our Gruel arrived as we complained having nothing to eat but Beans & Bacon three times a day which is a very good thing now and then, but 21 times a week is too often..."

Sept. 1, 1862: "The Frost is pretty severe at night.  Ice 1/2" thick on water buckets at my Tent Door."

May 6, 1863 : "...slept at the [Alexandria] mission last night, my horse run away out of the field and I had to tramp home a distance of 26 miles."


Sept. 25, 1862: "Snow, hail & Rain.  The work is progressing satisfactorily there are about 195 men employed on this end of the road.  The Chinamen pay is rose to 46 Dollars [per month] as they work on Sundays.  The white men is offered 54 Dollars to work on Sunday.  They are considering it. "


Sept. 18, 1862: "One of the workmen got his leg broken this morning, he was chopping a Tree and in the fall it swung around and caught him in the leg breaking it below the knee, an express has gone to Lillooet for the Doctor."

Oct. 27, 1862: "...on my arrival in Camp found that a serious accident had taken place by the explosion of a pistol belonging to Corpl Woodcock which he had left in a Bag with part of his clothes...

The packer, a poor man named Latrae...was taking the Bag out of my Tent, he threw it on the ground and the ground was so hard with the frost that it exploded and Bullet entered his may have injured him seriously."

Aug. 31, 1862: "One of our workmen took ill on Friday night and died this morning and was buried in the evening... he could not be kept longer as the smell from his body was so strong."


July 10, 1862: "...the handsome manner Capt. Parsons spoke of my trouble in bringing the Road thro such a difficult part, and the marked improvement seen on the Road since I joined, made me think that my care and trouble was all as nothing since I had got my Officer's Approval."


Upon retirement, McMurphy opened an inn, christened Lochlomond House, at the 74-mile post on the Wagon Road.  His advertisement in the British Columbian newspaper stated proudly: “The Bar will contain civility and the best liquors and cigars.”  McMurphy’s growing family of six boys and five girls helped run the hostelry. 


JUNE 9TH, 1865 - Cariboo Sentinel

THE ROAD SIDE HOUSES.  --There are now a great number of hotels established along the waggon road from Yale to Soda Creek, many of which are exceedingly well kept, but we regret to say not a few of them are far from being creditable to the enterprise of their owners.  We shall give a full list of those we visited as soon as our space will permit, distinguishing those we found up to the requirements of the times.  We must not omit however to just pay a passing tribute of praise to the following for their good cooking, excellent beds, and sumptuous fare, viz: Mr. & Mrs. Kayes'; Sergeant McMurphy's; Mr. & Mrs. Walters'; Blair Bros'.; also, Mr. & Mrs. Hamilton's, at Beaver Pass; and Mr. McCaffery's at Van Winkle.

Sadly, in the fall of 1865 while McMurphy was in Victoria on business, miners found Lochlomond House deserted and looted it of everything valuable. 

New Westminster
30th October 1866


Mrs. McMurphy desires me to reply to your letter of the 20th ult. Requesting to be paid into the Lands and Works Department rent due for the Dwelling House she at present resides in, and begs me to ask you to allow her further time for payment of the same, till her husband returns from Cariboo, (who she now expects every boat), she being unable to meet the demand.---

I am Sir,
Your obdt Servant

H Benney

The Hon. J.W. Trutch

The McMurphy family retreated to New Westminster, where Jock’s service record helped him find work as a clerk and sheriff.

In October of 1869, George Leggatt, captain Luard's brother-in-law, was in the Pitt Meadows area of the Colony looking for a spot to start a cattle ranch.

21st October - Just as we were starting, a man came up, an old sapper (Serjeant John McMurphy ex-RE), who told us he had just located his claim at the head of the slough.  Could give us no information himself but said his partner could, so went up with him, saw his partner, Foster, another old sapper, located there, who could only tell us it was all taken up about there.  He evidently did not want neighbors.  Found out that the maple ridge seen by us on the 17th Inst.  Was as we supposed on the Lillooet creek that the country was good but that this man had just taken it up.

24th October – Remained at Newton’s all day.  Took a walk out at the back of his place in the afternoon.   Followed the timber round as far as our old camp of the 21st Inst.  Saw Foster’s and McMurphy’s shanties in the distance.  Day Fine.

--From the 1869 Journal of George Leggatt

1875 Voter's List

Name: McMurphy, John Sr.
Residence: New Westminster
Profession, Trade or Calling: Clerk
Nature of Qualification: Resident  (i.e., not landowner; paying at least $40 per year for lodging)
District: New Westminster, NW City Polling Division
Name: McMurphy, John Jr.
Residence: New Westminster
Profession, Trade or Calling: Shoemaker
Nature of Qualification: Resident
District: New Westminster, NW City Polling Division

1877 BC Government Employees' list

John McMurphy - $3.00 as a special constable for the BC Court of Appeal.

1878 Patients Admitted into the Royal Columbian, New Westminster.

Age: 62
Social Condition: Married
Occupation: Clerk
Birthplace: Scotland
Date of Admission: 15th Jun 1878
Date or Result: 27th June 1878
Last Abode in Province: N. Westminster
Last Abode out of Province: Scotland
Nature of Disease: General debility
Religion: Presby

Cause and Date of Becoming Non-effective

Served in Canadian Militia from April 1874/6 (?)
Militia Service -- Lost left eye while marking for (Battledor?) Competition Sept 30, 1881

A. Peak, Captain, New Westminster Rifles

1898 Voter's List

Name: McMurphy, John Sr.
Residence: 1027 3rd Avenue, New Westminster
Profession, Trade or Calling: Janitor
District: Victoria, Victoria City Polling Division
Name: McMurphy, John Jr.
Residence: 1027 3rd Avenue, New Westminster
Profession, Trade or Calling: Carpenter
District: Victoria, Victoria City Polling Division

 The Detachment’s senior soldier died one of the Royal City’s most beloved citizens.

Memorial tablet to the Royal Engineers.
This tablet is on a Memorial Cairn.  See photographs nos. 647 and 648.  Although the Memorial Cairn was erected in 1926 (see front), the unveiling of the cairn took place on November 19th, 1927.  Attending these ceremonies was Mayor A. Wells Gray.  The unveiling ceremony was performed by Mrs. William Turnbull; daughter of Major John McMurphy R.E.  She was born aboard the "Thames City" which brought the Royal Engineers to B.C.  The ceremonies took place just below the grounds of the B.C. Penitentiary.  (See "The British Columbian" November 19th, 1927 for a full report.)