Writing By The Steamer – Part Two

Stories From The Early Mail Service Of Victoria

by Paul Parizeau

Larceny In Victoria’s Colonial Post Office

The years from 1858 to 1861 had been especially trying for Governor Douglas. No sooner had gold been discovered on the Fraser River than a veritable horde of miners, drifters and opportunists from all parts of the world descended on the sleepy little colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Compounding this sudden inconvenience the Americans decided they had had enough of the Hudson’s Bay Company on nearby San Juan Island and landed a military force to assert their rights. Douglas, faced with this huge and menacing influx of outsiders was understandably nervous and preoccupied with means of keeping the situation under control. No wonder he had little time for establishing the postal system of the colonies on a firm footing.

Sir James Douglas

Deputy Postmaster for Victoria at this time was Peter Tuite, an American who came to Victoria during the early period of the gold rush. He had faithfully discharged his duties for the modest salary of 200 Pounds per annum, but when in 1859 he applied to the governor for an increase of 100 Pounds it was refused and Tuite promptly resigned. Shortly thereafter John D’Ewes, a former Police Magistrate from the goldfields of Ballarat, Australia who had lost this job for accepting bribes, was employed with the title of Acting Postmaster for the Town of Victoria also at 200 Pounds per annum. At the time, Governor Douglas was unaware of D’Ewes penchant for supplementing his salary by whatever means were at his disposal.

About six months later, a new Treasurer was appointed for the colony of Vancouver Island, by the name of George T. Gordon, to succeed Captain William Gosset. Gosset, a man of considerable experience with the British Colonial Service before coming to Victoria, had very definite ideas on how the postal and financial affairs of the colony should be administered. Unfortunately for the colony he and Governor Douglas were at odds from the very start, and Douglas’ negative attitude to his suggestions finally forced Gosset to quit in exasperation.

Treasurer Gordon was not particularly concerned about the accounts in the Victoria Post Office, and John D’Ewes was left to manage things pretty much as he saw fit. He hired occasional help, but soon was told in no uncertain terms that he must get by on his own, with only 60 Pounds per year allowed for casual help on incoming mail days. At least he did receive a raise in salary from 200 Pounds to 300 Pounds per annum. Apparently most of the colonists including Governor Douglas were of the opinion that in D’Ewes they had the ideal postmaster, – friendly, helpful and attentive to his duties. David Higgins, author of ‘The Mystic Spring’ was a young man at this time and knew John D’Ewes personally. He describes him as ‘a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met sort of person, very polite and pleasant in his manners, and as jolly a companion as you would care to meet.’ And D’Ewes did nothing to discourage this perception of himself and his work. In fact, he did have to contend with some very unsatisfactory arrangements with the U.S. postal authorities and steamship owners for the delivery of mail to and from San Francisco. He seems to have done his best to negotiate better terms with the Americans who had finally become fed up with carrying the mails to Victoria for free and were demanding exorbitant rates merely to bring them by steamer from Fort Townsend.

The Fraser gold rush had subsided after about two years of frantic activity and Victoria’s fortunes had declined with it, the little town returning to its former doldrums. Then during the final summer of D’Ewes’ incumbency as Postmaster, gold was discovered in the Cariboo and the whole wild, mad process started over again. The mail increased from a trickle to a flood and D’Ewes in his own snug little corner of the colony saw his opportunity as clearly as a miner could spot a nugget on a stream bed. He worked unceasingly all during the summer of 1861, then taking advantage of a lull in business and the services of a casual employee, D’Ewes took a ‘temporary’ leave of absence from Victoria, never to return.

Higgins continues his account: ‘The revenue (of the Post Office) was considerable, rates of postage being very high, as much as a shilling being charged on a letter to England and the States, and newspapers paid four cents each. No one ever knew what was taken at the Colonial Post Office under D’Ewes. – Then Mr. Robert Ker, at this time Colonial Auditor – got possession of the office and it was speedily found that the postmaster was a serious defaulter. For how much no one ever knew, but as he had taken everything that came in for two years and paid little or nothing out, he must have got away with several thousand dollars. His books – well, he kept no books.’

Not long after D’Ewes departure, Treasurer Gordon was arrested in connection with another matter, charged with embezzlement and jailed for a short time until he finally escaped. About the same time, the Acting Harbourmaster of Victoria was dismissed because of ‘irregularities in his accounts’. The gold rush it seems was not confined to the wilderness rivers of British Columbia. Finally, Douglas was able to stem the loss of precious colonial revenues by appointing Henry Wootton, a hard-working, honest former employee of the East India Company as Postmaster and Harbourmaster of Victoria, and this capable retired sea captain held the postal position until his death in 1875.

And what of John D’Ewes? It seems he made his way to Homberg in Germany, a fashionable resort of the day. Here he apparently gambled away his ill-gotten gains from the Victoria Post Office, and in a state of severe depression he shot himself. And how did he accumulate such a lot of money in so short a time? Well, there is evidence that he made liberal use of one and probably two of the hand-stamp postal franks used prior to and even after the arrival of adhesive postage stamps in the colony. He sold very few of the newly-arrived 2 1/2 pence stamps. He was able to frank and sell over the counter as many envelopes as he wanted without accounting for them. Also, outgoing mail was franked and charged for on the spot.

In effect, the pre-occupation of Governor Douglas with more serious matters, the proven dishonesty and even possible collusion of the Treasurer with D’Ewes, and the general ho-hum attitude prevailing amongst the colonists at the time made for an open season on colonial revenues. The handstamps proved to be veritable little money machines, and John D’Ewes was just the man who knew how to use them.

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