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.
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
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.
from Reminiscent of
Pioneers, a speech written by Corporal
Wolfenden and published in the Daily Columbian, Wednesday,
October 13th, 1909
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."
I do, Johnny, and wasn't she a regular old tub?"
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?"
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?"
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
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
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?"
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?"
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."