Writing By The Steamer – Part One

Stories From The Early Mail Service Of Victoria

by Paul Parizeau

Old Victoria

We are going to venture back in time to old Victoria, to days of long ago that may be difficult to visualize now. The time is 1859, and we will have to allow our imagination to transport us beyond the days of our parents’ youth and of their parents, a full one hundred and twenty-six years to the youthful days of our great-grandparents. And then we will have to imagine that we are seeing the world through the eyes of twelve-year-old Edgar Fawcett arriving here with his family from San Francisco just as the miners were thronging to Victoria in their thousands to try their luck in the newly-discovered goldfields of the Fraser and Cariboo country.

LaBouchere’, Hudson’s Bay Company Steamer

Victoria was a very different place then, with its stockaded fort anchored by two bastions and defended by nine-pounder cannon. All ocean-going vessels landed at Esquimalt town and their travel-weary passengers, the Fawcetts among them, were ferried to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Wharf below the fort where they and their baggage were off-loaded.

Through the grounds of the fort they plodded carrying their belongings, out of the east gate and onto Fort Street. Here they encountered either a river of mud or a tract of dust depending on the season, with only a primitive two-plank sidewalk for refuge. As he passed this way with his family, young Fawcett noticed a flourishing apple orchard just outside the gate. It would become a favorite target for future raids with his friends.

Soon they reached Douglas Street which was lined with a collection of non-descript tents overflowing onto Johnson Street and perilously bordering the ravine that descended to the harbour. Here, a motley crowd of miners from all parts of the world mingling with Indians and the occasional settler lined the walkway eyeing the new-comers, or simply leaned or sat on anything convenient and passed the time of day with their neighbours. Beyond Douglas Street there was nothing more then a wilderness trail as Fort Street petered out.

Bastion Fort Victoria

The Fawcett family established itself in the new colony, and soon young Edgar and his friends would walk along this very same trail, past the rush-bordered lake where View St. now intersects Quadra St., and on up the hill to the log Colonial School on the site of the present Central Middle School. The school was located in a pleasant grove of oaks, and the trail wound its way through pine and fir and meadowland brilliant with wildflowers in the spring.

Many a night Edgar and his family would be awakened by the wild yells of the hundreds of Songhees and their visiting friends as across the inner harbour on their reserve they would uncork the white man’s poisonous ‘tanglefoot’ whisky and celebrate a potlatch in their longhouses.

Mr and Mrs Edgar Fawcett

Fawcett remembered all of this and much more when fifty years later he had retired from a career with the Customs service. While recuperating from a serious illness he noted down his recollections in a book entitled ‘Some Reminiscences of Old Victoria!’ published in 1912. It is with this book that we are going to explore the early history of mail service in Victoria, with occasional references to the writing of David Higgins, a good friend of Fawcett, and to other written records of the day.

About sixteen years of mail service of a primitive nature preceded the arrival of the Fawcett family in Victoria, but it was in 1858 that the great influx of miners began, and in 1860 the first postage stamp was used in the colony of Vancouver’s Island. These two events marked a turning point in the postal history of the region, although for many decades yet to come, Victorians would ‘write by the steamer’ as ships calling here on a somewhat irregular basis formed their lifeline to the rest of the world.

Incidentally Edgar Fawcett came by his interest in the postal service quite honestly, as his father and Sir Rowland Hill were first cousins, and it was on the advice of Sir Rowland that the senior Fawcett took his young bride to Australia where Edgar was born, in 1847. Edgar’s brother was christened Rowland in honour of his illustrious relative.

Part Two >

Scroll to Top