Category: Historical Nuggets (page 1 of 4)

Calico Kitten vs Bathroom Scale

Exploring her new domain, a calico kitten jumped on the bathroom scales. The needle moved. Kitten reared back, raised her front paw and gave that needle a good smack.

I applauded. I’ve often wanted to smack the scales. Being a writer, I started to wonder if I could use the incident in a book. Since I write historicals  and bathroom scales are a modern invention, the answer is probably not, but I’ll store the idea away for future reference.

Then I got to thinking about body shape in romance novels. Harlequin novels of a certain era used to spend a lot of words describing the heroine in minute detail from tiny waist to slim hips to curvy bosom. She had fine eyes and a cupid’s bow mouth, porcelain (or sun-touched) skin. Always slight enough for the hero to carry her in his arms.

Corsetry through the ages pinched and prodded women’s forms into many shapes to suit the taste of the day. Small waist, no waist, round hips, flat hips. It seems the female form always had to be constrained and manipulated.

Clothing too played a role in our view of the ideal feminine shape. From Jane Austen’s heroine with the waist right below the bust and slim body, to Victorian panniers and enormous sleeves, women’s forms have been hidden by clothing. However, a look at nude paintings of various eras will show that in the 16th century, the ideal woman was full figured with rounded hips and thighs and an obvious belly.

By the eighteenth century she was shown with small breasts and a flatter stomach. Raphael’s “Three Graces” is an example.

By the mid-nineteenth century, tiny waists were de rigueur. Scarlett O’Hara boasted of  a seventeen inch waist. Later in the century, Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry’,  measured 18 inches about the waist.

Moving into the 20th Century we see women of the flapper era going for a boyish silhouette, even binding their breasts to appear flat-chested. After the privations of the Great Depression and WWII, Christian Dior brought out his “New Look.” Once again, women were curvy. Liz Taylor’s 36-21-36 figure was the ideal. Skirts swirled wide at the hem, tight bodices showed off full breasts.

But fashion is fickle. By the 1960’s we had Twiggy and ulta-skinny was the shape du jour. By the 1980’s women were on the fitness bandwagon. Remember Jane Fonda’s workout video? Remember when Jane Fonda was a sex kitten?

Today’s woman is any shape she wants to be, although, in general, today’s twenty-something is larger than her grandmother at the same age. Better diet, in childhood is the most likely cause.

All of which brings us to the question of how historical romance writers should treat the depiction of women’s figures. Do we go with the style of the day and describe them as wasp-waisted. Do we dwell on their high, round bosom? Do we denigrate those who don’t fit the mores of the day?

In my own books, I don’t spend too many words of physical descriptions of the heroine. I’m more likely to pick one feature and use that as a touchstone throughout the novel. i.e. red hair is symbolic of temper and impulsiveness, so those character traits will be emphasized in the action of the story and be referenced to the hair colour.

In my latest book, Her One True Love, the heroine is a photographer. Portrait photos are usually meant to flatter the subject, often wearing her best clothes and posed before a pretty backdrop. My heroine, Louisa, says “Maybe I can make my career photographing women as they really are, strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

I think the modern romance reader has outgrown those dainty Harlequin heroines of a bygone era and would rather see their female protagonists as “strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

What about you, dear reader? Do you want a lot of detail about physical appearance? Do you want your heroines to come in many shapes and sizes? Can too much “reality” spoil the romance?

Leave a comment and your name will be entered in a draw for a free copy of “Her One True Love.

 

 

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Podcasts and the Well

Perhaps it’s the time of year or maybe it’s the time of life, but lately my inbox has been filled with blogs about “filling the well.” The phrase refers to Julia Cameron’s iconic, The Artist’s Way, in which she posits that to be creative the artist must have a deep well of experience and detail in order to pour out our creativity on the page. For many writers, this book is required reading, and re-reading.

One of my blog friends took a nature walk. I can definitely identify with that. Nothing like flowers and trees and water and the sound of birds to refresh the soul. Another learned a new skill — and perhaps a discovered a new hobby. Another technique endorsed by Ms Cameron.

A corollary to “filling the well” is the artist’s date. In this case, the writer takes herself on a date. She may go to a museum, take a walk, go window-shopping, take in a concert. The range of activity is limited only by the author’s imagination. The one rule for the date is that the writer must go alone.

While I understand that Ms Cameron’s thesis that the artist needs to be alone to avoid distraction, I don’t always agree. Sure, a walk on the beach with the wind and the waves, alone with your thoughts is a great refresher. But, as writers, we spend many hours alone. Sometimes, when I go on a date, I want company. I want to hear another’s voice, hear another’s thoughts, hear another’s laughter. The number of hours available for solitary well-filling is limited so I’ve hit on a compromise. When I really crave company, but want to open my mind to new things, I listen to podcasts.

In a way I’m still alone. I don’t have to answer any questions or smile politely or hold my tongue when I disagree, but I have the comfort of a human voice. Plus, it’s kind of like a free university. So many topics to chose from. I can get a new perspective on history. The Secret Life of Canada. I can get a music lesson. Ted talks is one of the best known broadcasts for new ideas, old problems and deep thinkers.

I’m a news junkie and a raving Canadian so CBC podcasts appeal to me. There are also many podcasts on creativity. Basically, pick your topic and someone has discussed it on the air somewhere, sometime, and you can listen in as mood and time permits.

I wouldn’t suggest podcasts can take the place of listening to a live concert, or attending a lecture or walking in a forest of tall trees. Those are all essential “fill the well” activities, but sometimes we need to look outside our own interests and try something new. A podcast may be just the spark to set your creative fires burning brightly.

P.S. Anyone care to recommend a favourite podcast? Leave a comment and I’ll send you one of my short stories.

 

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Notre Dame

courtesy cnn

Along with most of the world, I had a heavy heart on Monday morning. The film showing Notre Dame de Paris burning seems so impossible. This icon of France, monumental architecture of the medieval world, symbol of the Christian church, guardian of the city for over 1000 years is so etched on the public conscience it seems impossible that it can be lost. When I saw the spire topple I couldn’t help but sob.

Today, there are vows to rebuild and pledges of millions of dollars, to help with that effort. There is comfort in know all the world cares about this piece of history. I wonder though, will it ever be the same? Can a reproduction take the place of the original?

A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip through Europe where we visited castle after castle and cathedral upon cathedral. Nearly all had been severely damaged during WWII. They had been rebuilt using materials and techniques true to the original structure. The results were truly amazing.

One structure in particular, the Residenze at Würzburg, had been nearly 87% destroyed, yet many of the treasures had already been removed from the building — much as many of the art works had already been removed from Notre Dame. Between 1945 and 1987 the Residenze was restored at a cost of approximately €20m.

For me, the most spectacular room was the mirror cabinet . The walls were formed of glass and paintings were etched on them from behind! i.e. the artist had to build up the image backward. So in a face, the dot of light at the centre of the eye went on first, then the pupil, then the iris, then the white of the eye, then the lids, etc. The last touch put on the painting was the background. My mind boggled at the skill and knowledge required to achieve such an effect. 

Much as I appreciated seeing the treasures of Medieval Europe I couldn’t help but ask why a war-ravished country was willing to spend so much on old buildings. The population needed food, shelter, transport, schools, hospitals . . .  How did they justify the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars on historic buildings. The citizen I asked replied that their history was what they had to show to the world. In North America, she said, or Australia or New Zealand, we have landscape. In Europe, they have history.

While I love the vistas and open spaces of my country, Canada, I’m not sure we have a good sense of history. I’m glad that Europe does. Today Notre Dame de Paris is a shell, but it holds the heart of a people. I rejoice that it will rise from the ashes.                                                                                                                                                            

 

 

 

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Another Female First

This post was inspired by a blog from Jacqui Nelson on the first woman poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith.  Kudos to Jacqui for discovering this exceptional woman and a tip of the hat to Ina for creating her mark in the world.

A Canadian woman, Agnes Deans Cameron, has a similar story. Born in 1863 in Victoria, B.C. she became a trailblazer for women. At the tender age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate. Because she was so young, her certificate only allowed her to teach in a school where other teachers were employed. Her first posting was at Angela College, a girls school in Victoria. Later, she became the first female to teach at the Boy’s School  and then Victoria High School. It was here she ran into her first conflict with the mores of the age.

A male student, who’d already failed his course four times, refused the assignment she gave him.  The strap was the accepted punishment for such insolence, but this boy left school rather than submit to corporal punishment. He was suspended but his father complained. Eventually, Agnes was fired. The whole affair was written about in the newspapers, talked of on the street, and preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Agnes was a cause celebre.

Later she became the first female principal in British Columbia, with her appointment to that post at South Park School.

Deans Cameron was breaking new ground on other fronts as well. She attended the Chicago Worlds Fair, travelling by herself in an era when respectable women travelled with a companion.

She protested a pay raise for male teachers while female teachers were denied such an increase. As a principal the differing pay scales did not affect her but she felt “as citizens we have a duty to participate, a duty that we cannot relegate to others.” Her outspokenness led her into a conflict with the school trustees and, eventually, the department of education of the province. It was a long and twisting trail, but in the end, Cameron was fired, and her teaching certificate revoked. At the same time, the government was in the process of expropriating her home. As the sole support for her mother and sister, the loss of her living had huge consequences.

on Arctic trek with Jessie Brown

But Deans Cameron was not easily dismissed. She had already been writing columns for various newspapers. Now she embarked on a journey to the Arctic, riding on Hudson’s Bay trading barges and canoes, with her niece, Jessie Brown. As a result of this experience she became a popular speaker and writer. As well as the newspaper columns, she now penned a book, The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 journey through Canada to the Arctic. The book was a huge success and Agnes was much in demand as a speaker, in Canada and the United States.

One would think she’d had adventures enough but Agnes was always curious. She raced bicycles in her youth. Later she joined the Canadian Highway Association for a drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. Sadly, this was her last adventure. A few days after the rally she died of appendicitis.

Ironically, Victoria, which had vilified her during the education debates, now welcomed her home as a favoured daughter. She was buried from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one of the largest funerals the city had seen. The pallbearers, included the superintendent of schools.

If you’d like to read the full account of Agnes Deans Cameron’s life, her biography is called Against the Current and is available here.

 

 

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“Princesses”

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m keen on research. Even though my works are fiction, I believe it is important that they be “true” where non-fictional characters or events are concerned. Sometimes my research is a little dry — a task that must be completed, but not my favourite part of writing.

Sometimes the research turns into a page-turning read. Such is the case with Flora Fraser’s Princesses – the Six Daughters of George III.  The book is meticulously researched using letters and diaries written by the princesses and by their governesses and friends. Ms Fraser received permission from Queen Elizabeth II to delve into the royal archives for material. It’s a bit of a tome, 400 pages of close print, plus another 100 of footnotes, but each sentence is packed with detail.

In some ways, this is a sad story. Six lively, intelligent, educated women of the highest rank, whose lives were constrained, cabined and controlled. When they should have been enjoying parties and courtships, they were sitting attendance on their parents. The highlight of their days would be a walk outside. To go riding was considered a high thrill and slightly risque.

The book makes clear that the king’s daughters could have no degree of independence without marriage. Their father promised to find suitable matches,  but rejected every suitor offered, and, in the end, decided he couldn’t bear to part with his daughters so made no move to see them in their own establishments. Don’t forget, this is also the king who went mad.

Perhaps George III could be forgiven for his mistreatment of his daughters because of his mental illness, but Queen Charlotte had no such excuse. With her husband’s illness, she changed from a happy, social woman to a miserable and demanding shrew. She insisted that her daughters dance attendance on her and forbade them having any life that wasn’t under her thumb. Even when Elizabeth, at the ripe age of 46 talked of marriage, her mother spoke against it. A two year engagement was considered “rushed.”

Despite their circumstances, the princesses had distinct personalities–Princess Royal is managing and clever, Elizabeth is plump and pretty, Augusta is artistic and shy.   Sophia is passionate, Mary is good-humoured and Amelia is charming. Ms Fraser has drawn a comprehensive picture of their lives and their times.

For anyone writing of the Georgian or Regency era in Britain, I heartily recommend this book. Research that is fun to read, and one that expounds on the small details of a woman’s life. A common complaint amongst historical writers is that the history books contain world events like war and power struggles and shifting empires, but leave out the domestic details we need to make our female characters come alive in an accurate way. “Princesses” addresses that problem.

Anyone have a great research source for pioneer life in North America? I’d love to hear about it.

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Snowbound

I’ve been snowbound for a week — well maybe only two days — actually about four hours — but it seems like weeks. The first day felt like a holiday. After all “snow day” means we can read books all day.  I “had” to skip exercise class because the roads were dangerous. Another reason to like a snow day.

But, now I’m restless.  We haven’t been stuck in the house for days on end, but many of my activities have been cancelled. Saturday, my writers group had to give up its Valentine party because high winds and blowing snow made driving unnecessarily a foolish move. Made it to the pet store today for cat food — what’s my safety compared to the cat’s happiness? — but now we’re in white out conditions again.

I have television, radio, telephone and internet plus neighbours who can walk through the snow to visit. If I get cabin fever after a few days of semi-isolation, what was it like in the 1890’s on the frontier, the era of my Prospect series?

Frontier women in the north tell of parties that went on for days–isolated settlers were so glad of company from outside they would go without sleep just to hear music and see another face.

Some pioneers dealt with the loneliness through hard work — chopping wood, carrying water, feeding livestock– and artistic pursuits. Sailors carved scrimshaw to wile away hours of inactivity.  Some, usually men, took to whittling elaborate figures. Women could never afford to be idle. They turned their creativity to making quilts.

 

Some went mad.

In his short story, “One’s a Heifer,” Sinclair Ross writes

“You don’t know how bad it is sometimes. Weeks on end and no one to talk to. You’re not yourself–you’re not sure what you’re going to say or do.”

I remembered hearing my uncle talk about a man who had gone crazy living alone. And this fellow Vickers had queer eyes all right.

The heroines in my books always turn to hard work as a way to get through tough times. Perhaps that’s a nod to my farming background. There is always work to do — and productive work will keep you sane.

Anyone else with snow day tales to tell? Leave a comment and receive a free copy of my short story “Faith” about a woman whose plans are overset by a snowstorm.

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Nineteenth Century Internet?

Driving in the last spike

 

In 1886, the time period for my first book in the Prospect series, there were no railways through the rocky mountains in Canada.

Lottie Graham, the heroine of the first book, The Man for Her, had to travel by stage and boat and horseback to reach her destination in the mountains. The journey took months. By the time her sister, Louisa arrived in the latest book, Her One True Love, the railroad had been pushed through at incredible cost, but what a feat of engineering it was. Tunneling through solid rock, skirting along river banks and crossing fantastic trestles, the Canadian Pacific Railroad helped to bring B.C. into Confederation, brought down the government of Sir John A. MacDonald and made the trip from Toronto to Vancouver in four days.

Banff Springs Hotel

To put it into modern terms, the railroad was like the internet of its day. Newspapers could be delivered in under a week. Where Grey North, the hero of Her One and Only,  read of his father’s death weeks after the event, railroads meant telegraphs and communication across the world in mere hours. Goods could be shipped year round, not just during the summer months when waterways were open. Tourism boomed. The railroad brought thousands of wealthy visitors to the spectacular lodges in Banff and Lake Louise. New industry flourished and railway towns such as Field B.C. sprang into existence.

In my current work-in-progress, Prospect is still on the edge of the wilderness, but it is accessible to anyone with the price of a railroad ticket. Hopeful Adams, and his donkey have come from Louisiana to join the hoards of gold seekers. Scarlett, a saloon girl, comes from the deep south of America. The heroine, Verity Chance, has come from Ireland, and the hero, Dr. Nordale hales from Montreal. All have come together in Prospect to seek their fortunes—some on the creeks, others in the town. It is an exciting time to be in Prospect.

Gord Lightfoot is a well-known Canadian folk singer. One of his iconic songs concerns the building of the railroad. The opening line is”there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” He goes on from there to describe in music and poetry the building of “an iron road running from the sea to the sea” It is one of my favourite history lessons. You can listen to it here.

Some years ago my husband and I took a rail journey from the Pacific Ocean, across the mountains, the prairies, Ontario and Quebec, the Maritimes and arrived on the Atlantic coast. We had to change trains twice. There was no steam engine but the excitement of boarding the train is something I’ll never forget. The tedium of airport security, the cramped, airless conditions on board a jet plane has made air travel lose its appeal for me, but the thundering of steel wheels on a steel track makes my heart beat high.

It saddens me to see tracks abandoned, or even torn up in our modern age. Roads and transport trucks have replaced the freight cars but they are not nearly as efficient or as clean energy as a locomotive. Not to mention that the railroad cemented our disparate colonies into one nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the Arctic.  In later years thousands of immigrants peopled the prairies, arriving by train.  There’s romance  in riding the rails, falling asleep to the clacking of steel wheels and eating breakfast in a luxurious dining car.  If one has time, it’s the best way to travel.

What about you, dear readers? Do any of you have a railway story to share?

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Doors to History

A visitor to Victoria today is greeted with all the accoutrements of a building boom.  Cranes dot the skyline. Streets are torn up, traffic diverted and sidewalks are barred with portable fencing. On a recent trip into downtown I discovered that most of the antique stores I intended to visit, had closed up shop.  Welcome to the twenty-first century.

 

I guess today’s Victoria is somewhat reminiscent of the days when gold-seekers swarmed the streets. It all began on Sunday, April 25, 1858 when townsfolk were returning from church.  The “Commodore” – a wooden side-wheel American steamer, entered Victoria harbour and 450 men disembarked – typical gold-seekers, complete with blankets, miner’s pans and spades and firearms. Within a few weeks a town of approximately 230, had been invaded by over 20,000 adventurers and gold prospectors.

While the great majority of these people were transients, the rush of gold-seekers transformed the sleepy village of “Fort Victoria,” into a bustling centre for commerce.  A wild land-boom followed.  Lots that had languished on the market for $25.00 were snapped up a week later for $3,000 each.  For most of the nineteenth century, Victoria remained the largest city in British Columbia and was the foremost in trade and commerce.

I’m sure the original residents felt as bewildered as I do at the sudden and drastic change to their home town. Suddenly there was building everywhere. And what building it was!

The Empress Hotel greeted travellers arriving by water. Rattenbury had designed the elegant legislature building to replace the burned down “bird cages.”

Banks created cathedrals of finance, complete with coats of arms. Church spires dominated the skyline.

Victoria looked the part of a jewel in the British Empire.

Subsequent building booms have seen many historic buildings torn down and others altered dramatically. But there are still hints of Victoria’s Imperial past.  You find it in funky doorways. 

Morris Tobacconist

Many of the original rounded entries, with curved windows on the side have been modernized in the interests of economy and efficiency, but a few remain.  Look for them in “old towne” along Government and Wharf Street.

 

 

These are just a few of the treasures I found.  Do you have a favourite doorway in Victoria?  In your hometown?  Why do you like it?

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Mingling Fact and Fiction

While thumbing through the just returned books at the library I stumbled upon The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie, by Cecily Ross. Proof of my theory that the best library books are the ones someone else chose.  I snapped up “The Diaries” and was soon immersed in the world of Britain and Canada of the mid-nineteenth century.

Susanna Moodie is best known to every Canadian school child for her most important work “Roughing it in the Bush,” the biographical tale of a genteel Englishwoman trying to stay alive in the Canadian wilderness. Susanna and her husband, John Moodie, are truly babes in the woods.  Neither has any idea of the physical aspects of clearing land and farming.  John Moodie in particular, a half-pay officer from the British Army, is entirely unsuited to the life they have chosen.  He emigrated with dreams of living on a country estate with others to do the manual, back-breaking work of carving a farm out of the bush.

I remember first reading Roughing it in the Bush, as a child and marvelling at how mis-informed or wilfully ignorant the British upper classes were about homesteading. As a farm-girl, I knew the long hours, hard work, knowledge and skill required to turn forest bottom into fertile hay fields. I knew that livestock had to be tended every day, fed and watered regardless of the weather or the farmer’s personal agenda. John Moodie had none of those attributes. He was a jovial fellow, convinced that wealth in the New World would fall into his hands.  In truth, he and his family would have starved to death in their first winter had not the local First Nations tribe provided them with food.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie is a work of fiction, as the author makes plain, but it is based on real characters. The facts of their lives are well-known from previous research and from Susanna’s letters and literary writings as well as from accounts in the local newspapers and official documents. 

This is one of those instances when fact and fiction mingle to make an entertaining tale while keeping the historical record intact. From reading her own works, I know that Susanna was a pessimist and John and eternal optimist. I know he was a poor business man.  I know that Susanna made enough money from her writing to keep them going – barely.  What the author has done is write of Susanna’s thoughts and emotions — that turns the historical character into a multi-dimensional woman, thus bringing history alive for a modern reader.  It’s a fine line to tread. One I’m cautious of in my own work. Too much fiction, and the author distorts history.  Not enough fiction, and many readers turn away from an instructive discourse rated as too dull. In my view, Cecily Ross has struck the right balance. And I have a new empathy for Susanna Moodie, daughter, sister, mother, wife and writer, who struggled mightily to maintain her “self” in an age that considered her an appendage of her husband.

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Gold Fever

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.

Her One True Love, the third book in my Prospect Series, has encountered many obstacles on the way to publication not the least being the sudden demise of my cover artist. However, the end is in sight, so it’s time to get in the mood.

As the series name says, this is a set of books set in the fictional gold rush town of Prospect, B.C, where fortunes are made and lost and lost and lost.  Many more falling into the latter category than the first.  As an object lesson in gold fever I bring you the real life story of Billy Barker.

 

An Englishman who had already tried his luck in the California gold-fields and on the Fraser River, Billy Barker (1817-1894) staked the most famous claim of the Cariboo near William’s Creek in 1861. Many legends have grown up around the man so it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction, but legends usually have a grain of truth in them.

One such is the story of Billy’s recurring dream that included the number 52. Although he had been partners in a company that eventually struck it rich, Billy had sold his shares in it and gone on to stake a claim in an unlikely spot on Williams Creek. He was convinced that an ancient river had run deep underground at that spot. While others scoffed, he kept drilling. They came up dry at 10 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and even 50 feet. Any reasonable man, so the theory went, would have abandoned the project, but Barker kept drilling and at 52 feet, just like in his dream, he struck pay dirt, taking out $600,000 in gold dust and nuggets. Calculations of current value vary but in today’s terms that would amount to anywhere from $17 million to $2.5 billion. Whichever figure you use, he had acquired an enormous amount of wealth.

By this time Billy Barker was a widower, his first wife died in the poor house in England. He left the gold fields and came to Victoria where he met and married Elizabeth Collyer, a widow who had recently arrived from England on the Rosedale. The following summer they returned to the gold creeks where a free miner’s licence was issued in her name. Come winter, they again returned to Victoria, ready to spend the winter enjoying their wealth. He enjoyed a party and is reputed to have sung this ditty while dancing a jig whenever he entered a saloon.

“I’m English Bill,

Never worked and never will.

Get away girls,

Or I’ll tousle your curls.”

 

Another legend holds that Elizabeth was extravagant and helped her husband spend or give away his fortune. Whether she did or not, the fact remains that by the time of her death in 1865 Billy Barker was broke, He returned once again to the gold fields to try to recoup his fortune.

This time, luck did not smile.  He embarked on several ventures, but barely eked out a living as a prospector, resorting to working as a cook for other miners. By 1894 he was suffering from cancer and living in The Old Men’s home in Victoria. He died in July of that year and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though he lost his wealth, Billy Barker left a legacy in British Columbia. The town of Barkerville in the Cariboo is named in his honour. Billy Barker Days in nearby Quesnel is a major tourist attraction. And, it seems, Billy was rich in friends. Although he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay cemetery, his final resting place is marked by a stone erected by his friends to honour his memory and his place in the history of the province.

This monument reads, in part, “”Like many miners, he was soon broke, but Barker continued to mine and prospect throughout the Cariboo for the rest of his life.  The fabulous wealth of the Cariboo mines laid the foundation for British Columbia.  With this monument, Billy Barker is honoured as a builder of the province.  He died poor in wealth, but forever rich in friends.”

 

 

 

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