Writing By The Steamer – Part Four

Stories From The Early Mail Service Of Victoria

by Paul Parizeau

Victoria’s Post Office, The Early Years

Nowadays a new city such as Kitimat, B.C. or Thompson, Manitoba is planned ahead of time on the drawing board in much the same way as a shopping center or an airport. It is not necessary to build fortifications, or induce colonists to settle or cope with an unexpected influx of thousands of strangers who simply do not fit into the overall picture as originally envisaged. One hundred and forty or so years ago planning was not nearly so cut and dried. The amenities of civilization we take for granted such as water supply, sewage disposal, police and fire protection, and road construction to mention but a few usually evolved in a rather haphazard way as dictated by the needs of the moment. The establishment of Victoria’s Post Office was no exception.

Vancouver Island Issued 19 Sep 1865 Watermarked Crown and C.C. Perf. 14

If you visit the Leafhill Gallery at the southwest corner of Bastion and Langley Streets, you are standing very close to the site of Victoria’s first facility for handling the mail. Perhaps it should not be dignified by the title ‘post office’ for it was simply a counter in a corner of the accountant’s office, situated in the main store building inside the fort enclosure. It was here that Hudson’s Bay officials and employees as well as independent settlers picked up or dispatched their mail, the latter from 1845 paying $1.00 per half ounce and 25¢ for each additional half ounce on outgoing and possibly also on incoming letters. Mail delivery and pick-up was spotty, with an occasional mail ship or warship from England and a fortnightly H.B. Co. express canoe from Fort Nisqually near present-day Tacoma. From Fort Nisqually an overland route existed as far as Fort Vancouver on the Columbia.

As in so much of Victoria’s early history, gold played a large if indirect part in the growth of the mail service here. In 1849, the great California gold-rush began and the U.S. Government met the demand for communications with the thousands of miners by initiating a regular mail steamship service to San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama. Ultimately this was linked to Portland and Olympia and thence by the Hudson’s Bay Company’s express boats to Victoria. From that time onward for about nine years most of Victoria’s mail was carried in this manner.

Beginning about 1850 the old charge of $1.00 per half ounce etc. for letters received or dispatched by ‘strangers’ (independent settlers) was dropped and for some time the Hudson’s Bay Company arranged to have the mail carried to and from the United States free of charge. As late as July, 1855 Governor Douglas frankly informed the Secretary of State for the Colonies that ‘no general postal arrangements have ever existed in this Colony.’ He went on to explain to the Secretary details of the flimsy system.

British Columbia 1867-1871 Watermarked Crown and C.C. Perf. 14

By the following year slight rumblings of discontent were heard among the few hundred colonists regarding a number of matters, not the least of which were the postal arrangements. It was suggested by a member of the new House that a Special Committee be appointed to inquire into postal services and to determine ‘whether capable of improvement.’ A ring of familiarity lingers in those immortal words. The Committee’s report consisted of about nine lines, and ended with ‘Your Committee are of the opinion that the Post Office ought to be removed to an office more private and more secure.’ Governor Douglas replied with three lines, endorsing the Committee’s suggestion. (One cannot help wishing that this Committee and Governor Douglas were still around today, conserving paper and attending to matters of civic urgency.)

Accordingly the ‘post office’, was moved from its cramped quarters in the fort store to a small cottage just inside the front or harbour gate of the fort enclosure, about where 502 Fort St. is today. This cottage was built by James Yates who was its first occupant. By the time it served as Post Office, Captain James Sangster, former master of the Hudson Bay sailing ship ‘Cadboro’ was in residence. To preserve the privacy of his home Sangster had a window removed and replaced by a grill where postal customers could transact business. History does not record what protection from the elements was provided, but contend1ng with the weather seemed to be more equally shared by carrier and receiver in those days.

Post Office and Custom House Erected in 1858 and housed the Victoria Post Office until 1873, except for 1861-66 when the Post Office was located on Wharf Street.

Sangster’s tenure as postmaster had lasted scarcely one year when the tidal wave of miners arrived in Victoria to seek their fortunes on the Fraser River. The resulting flood of business required yet another move for the infant Post Office and this time it acquired its own building, a one-store, wooden structure on the west side of Government St. about half way between Yates and Bastion Streets. The building consisted of three rooms, of which the largest was in front serving to house the Post Office and the , Customs Department. The office was equipped with one delivery-wicket and forty lock-boxes.

Post Office On West Side Of Government Street Near Yates Street, 8 Dec 1890

This brings us to the period already recorded in a previous article in this series when Peter Tuite and then John D’Ewes were virtually in charge of the Victoria Post Office. Also to the interval when the Post Office was moved to Wharf St. with Henry Wootton as postmaster, where it competed rather unsuccessfully with Wells Fargo and Francis Barnard’s B.X.

Finally let us take a look at the Victoria Post Office circa 1865 through the eyes of Edgar Fawcett in his book ‘Reminiscences of Old Victoria’, ‘The staff then consisted of Mr. Wootton and J.M. Sparrow, with occasional extra assistants, say on the arrival of an English mail. The ‘whole staff’ had to work hard then, and long hours, even into the morning. I have seen a line of letter hunters reaching from the post-office up Wharf Street nearly to Yates, waiting for the mail to be sorted and the wicket to open, I especially remember one evening in 1865. The San Francisco steamer had arrived in the afternoon at Esquimalt, and at eight o’clock there had not been a letter delivered, although the staff had worked like beavers to get the mail sorted. The mails from Europe arrived about twice a month, and not regularly at that. The ‘Colonist’ would state that ‘there was no mail again,’ but that it might be expected to-morrow. It was a day of importance when it did arrive, and people naturally were anxious to get their letters, even if it necessitated their standing in the street in line, maybe at ten o’clock at night. Many a time a dollar has been paid for a favourable place in line near the wicket by someone whose time was considered too valuable to spend waiting for his turn.’

British Columbia 1867-1871 Watermarked Crown and C.C. Perf. 14

‘A good deal of banter was indulged in by those in line. The anticipation of hearing from friends at home made them good-natured, and brought out the best that was in them. And, oh! when the wicket was at last opened, distribution commenced and the line moved on and up, there was a shout of joy and satisfaction.’

‘I remember when the post-office was on Government Street again, this time where Weiler Brothers’ building now stands, still in wood, and in no more pretentious a building than former ones. From there it was moved again up Government Street to the old site opposite the C.P.R. telegraph office, until that place got too small, and a final move was made to its present location and a large addition is soon to be made to keep pace with the rapid growth of the city’ (the present Customs Building).

‘On the death of Mr. Wootton, I believe Mr. Robert Wallace was next to fill the position (of postmaster) which he did for some years. On his retirement the position was offered to the present incumbent, Mr. Noah Shakespeare, who so ably fills it. Today the staff, including letter carriers, numbers forty- eight (1908). The registered parcels and letters for last year were just twice the year before, with a large increase in money orders, and to show the large increase in letters, in one evening at Christmas, 12,000 were received and cancelled in the post-office.’


It was my earnest intention to conclude this series of articles by presenting you with a small but impressive set of up-to-date statistics with which to compare those of 1908. In view of the limited time available before the deadline for Guideline mailing, I finally had to give up trying to get them. But it does seem that somewhere in the inner recesses of postofficedom, well beyond the fringe territory of the commissionaires, deep in amongst the acres of sophisticated machinery and sorting facilities there lurks a shadowy figure who has all the answers to my questions. Many post office people I approached referred me to this enigmatic individual but nobody could or would give me his name.

The only conclusion is that the ghost of old John D’Ewes, forever condemned, wanders aimlessly through the maze of Canada Post, paying the eternal penalty for his earthly sins against Vancouver’s Island, and occasionally relieving the monotony by thrusting letters backwards into the machinery, or playing his frustrating little games with prying amateur reporters like me.

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