Father of British Columbia: Come and Gone

Posted by Daniel on Nov 16, 2010 - 5 comments

Julie Ferguson writes:

November 19 marks the anniversary of the birth of BC, which British Columbians tend to overlook. It is also Douglas Day, a celebration of James Douglas, the first governor of what later became our province. If these occasions are rarely acknowledged, the death of James Douglas is never remembered. His funeral (in the photo above) was the biggest event Victoria had ever seen.

On August 2, 1877, Sir James Douglas took his customary carriage ride before breakfast, but late in the evening he became short of breath and complained of chest pains. His son-in-law, Dr. John Helmcken, hurried in from next door. While Sir James was chatting with his family, his head fell back and he was dead, two weeks short of his 74th birthday.


Lady Douglas agreed to pleas for a state funeral. The body of the retired governor of Vancouver Island and later British Columbia lay in the family parlour as hundreds filed past the ornate rosewood casket to pay their respects.


Victoria spent four days in frenzied activity to prepare a fitting farewell. Businesses closed, flags flew at half-staff, and black fabric draped buildings in readiness. On the appointed day, Marines and Royal Navy personnel formed an honour guard outside the Douglas home, while Bishop Edward Cridge of the Reformed Church conducted a private service for the family and intimate friends in the parlour. Four grey horses drew the hearse across the harbour bridge behind the troops. Mourners lined the streets five deep united in silent grief and respect.


At the church, the political elite and senior Hudson’s Bay Company officers carried the casket up the aisle followed by hundreds of First Nations mourners. As the hearse set out for Ross Bay Cemetery, the bells of the fire department and all the other churches began to toll. In the harbour, HMS Rocket fired its guns at one-minute intervals. The procession of sixty-three carriages and a multitude on foot wound its way to the family plot.


The flag-draped casket passed through ranks of sailors, Marines, and militia as it approached the vault, watched by a sombre crowd. Cridge presided over the last part of the day’s ceremonies, and after the choir sang the final hymn, the honour guard fired three blank rounds and it was over.


The Father of British Columbia was gone. No one could quite believe it.


© Julie H. Ferguson 2010