The sailors of Her Majesty’s Ships on the Pacific Station evidently felt very strongly that their shipmates left behind should receive a decent burial and be properly remembered. Through the efforts and largess of the various ships’ companies a number of fine monuments were commissioned and erected in the Old Burying Ground (Pioneer Square). The southwest corner (corner of Quadra St. and Rockland Ave.) became known as the ‘Naval Corner’ and it was there, for the most part, that the remains of the deceased sailors were interred and/or memorialized.
To understand how the Old Burying Ground came to be the final resting place for over fifty British sailors and marines one needs to know a bit about the operations of the Royal Navy on the Pacific Station in general, and in the waters of southern Vancouver Island, in particular.
As early as the 1820s the Royal Navy had ships operating on the west coast of South America – usually headquartered at Valparaiso, Chile – protecting the interests of British trade and shipping. When the Hudson’s Bay Company established trading posts in the Pacific Northwest navy ships were sent north to show the flag in those areas. HMS Modeste entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca in August of 1844 and made contact with HBC officers at the newly-established Fort Victoria. Annual visits were then begun and the charting of Victoria and Esquimalt harbours commenced in 1846. By 1848 naval ships were able to enter both harbours, although Esquimalt remained the preferred anchorage. At first the ships only visited during the summer and wintered in the Sandwich Islands or Valparaiso, but the Crimean War with Russia (1854-56) persuaded naval authorities to establish a more permanent shore base at Esquimalt. Over the ensuing years it was not uncommon to have a squadron stationed at Esquimalt. However, for the purposes of this narrative, we are only concerned with the period 1846 to 1868.
The earliest recorded naval burial was that of Benjamin Topp of HMS Cormorant, a corporal with the Royal Marines. He was interred in the Fort Victoria Graveyard (corner of Johnson and Douglas Streets) on 22 October 1846. This site saw four more naval burials before the Old Burying Ground (Pioneer Square) opened in 1855. Eventually, it was decided to move the remains of all those interred in the Fort Victoria Graveyard to the new cemetery. In response to a letter from Governor James Douglas, the Navy Commander-in-Chief sent the following:
“To His Excellency, James Douglas, Esquire, CB, Governor, Vancouver’s Island
[HMS] Ganges in Esquimalt Harbour, 15th December, 1859
Sir, In reference to your letter of the 7th instant, respecting the removal of the remains of those persons belonging to the Royal Navy who have been interred in former years in the old Burial ground at Victoria, I beg to inform Your Excellency that having caused the necessary inquiries to be made, I find that the remains of one officer, and three seamen are interred there, and as soon as the weather will permit, I will meet Your Excellency’s wishes giving direction for their removal.
I have the honour to be Your Excellency’s most obedient Servant,
Robert Lambert Baynes, Rear Admiral and Commander-in-Chief”(Royal BC Museum, BC Archives Colonial Correspondence (GR 1372) – File Navy – HMS Ganges – 1212A/33)
In the mid-1850s the Royal Navy commenced burying some of its dead on Deadman’s Island (Brothers Island) near the entrance to Esquimalt Harbour. According to the commemorative plaques in the chapel at Veterans Cemetery, some eighteen officers and men were interred there between 1855 and 1863. Some accounts say that only lower-deck ratings were buried there and the officers were interred at the Old Burying Ground but that practice was not consistent. The rationale remains unclear.
The naval burials at the Old Burying Ground were attended by officers and men from the ships in Esquimalt who marched or rowed to town. The funerals were conducted with pomp and ceremony even for non-commissioned personnel. Quite often, one of the ships had a band which accompanied the cortege to the cemetery. Most deaths were accidental, but a few were caused by diseases contracted in foreign ports. Drownings were frequent and often the bodies were not found until days or weeks later, or not at all. At least one individual was murdered and two committed suicide.
Naval burials continued at the Old Burying Ground and Deadman’s Island until 1868 when the Royal Navy authorities instructed the Admiral to purchase a plot of ground near Esquimalt for the purposes of a cemetery for deceased officers and seamen belonging to the Fleet. This plot, consecrated on 14 July 1868, was situated on the old road to Skinner’s Farm (Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company’s farm). When the threat of another war with Russia arose in the late 1870s the remains of those interred on Deadman’s Island were removed to the new cemetery to make room for a gun emplacement. Veterans Cemetery is now a beautifully maintained sanctuary, complete with an historic chapel, totally surrounded by the Gorge Vale Golf Course.
From available records and newspaper accounts it seems that there were at least five substantial memorial monuments erected in the Naval Corner by various ship’s companies, plus a number of smaller ones. These men then sailed away secure in the knowledge that they had left behind lasting memorials to their deceased shipmates. Sadly, this was not to be – only one monument remains more or less intact. Further information on each of the men listed below is available in the database.
- HMS Thetis Memorial c1866
HMS Thetis Memorial – Thetis was on station during 1852 when four of her sailors were drowned. John Miller drowned in Esquimalt Harbour on 2 June 1852 at the age of 22. James Smith, aged 31; Charles Parsons, aged 35; and W. R. Plummer, aged 23, all drowned on 22 August 1852 between Victoria and Esquimalt Harbour. All four were initially interred in the Fort Victoria Graveyard. In 1908, while cataloguing the remaining Old Burying Ground (Pioneer Square) markers, Edgar Fawcett recorded the following about the Thetis marker: “This headboard is wood, and although nearly fifty years old, is in splendid preservation, painted white with black letters, which stand out as plain as the day they were put on.” The headboard was likely older than 50 years as it was undoubtedly first erected at the Fort Victoria Graveyard and then moved to the Old Burying Ground. No trace of it remains today
- HMS Satellite Memorial HMS Satellite Memorial Satellite visited Esquimalt between 1856 and 1860. Originally there were twelve names on the monument, chiselled out on three sides. In a letter to the editor in 1884 the writer stated that the marker was very conspicuous and bore the following inscription “Erected by the Captain, Officers and Ship’s Company of Her Majesty’s Ship Satellite, June 1860.” Edgar Fawcett recorded the following names from the marker in 1908: “Daniel Evans, John Stanton, James Butland, John Willmore, Richard Stone – all drowned on 6 June 1860; William Brewer, died 1856; John Blackler and William Kett, died 1859; Richard Brown, died 1857; William Stout and William Bell, died 1858; and George Kembery, died 1860.” Two of these were buried on Deadman’s Island, six were interred in the Old Burying Ground and the bodies of the other drowning victims were not recovered. The marker is of sandstone, only a barely identifiable portion remains at the Old Burying Ground
- HMS Plumper Memorial HMS Plumper Memorial
Plumper, a survey vessel, was in our waters between 1857 and 1861. The ship’s company erected a five foot tall, pink sandstone marker with the following inscription: “Sacred to the memory of Jas. D. Trawin, R.M.L.I. of HMS Plumper who died at Victoria, V.I. on the 12th of Jan. 1858, aged 32 years – Also to the memory of George Williams, Sailmaker, of the same ship who died at Royal Naval Hospital Esquimalt on the 4th of Feb. 1858 – Also Robert Coombes, Musician, aged 26 years, died Jan. 2, 1861 – Erected by their shipmates”. The remains of this marker are stored at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria
- There is also a separate marker for the master of Plumper: “In memory of John Augustus Bull, Royal Navy, Master of HM Surveying Vessel Plumper, who died at Esquimalt, on the 11th day of November, 1860, aged 27 years.” His was a very formal military funeral. You can read his death notice in the database. This large sandstone tablet marker is in good condition and is stored at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria.
- HMS Tribune Memorial
Tribune was a steam frigate and was here in 1859 and again during 1864-66. According to Edgar Fawcett there was a monument to the men of HMS Tribune but there is no evidence of it now. He may have been writing about this marker: “Sacred to the memory of Andrew Emery, Leading Stoker of HMS Tribune, died Dec. 2nd 1865, aged 33 years. Erected by his shipmates”. This is a sandstone marker stored at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria. There is a photo on page 9. Also of Tribune was Benjamin Davis, Able Seaman, died 15 March 1866, aged 25
- HMS Sutlej Memorial 2009
HMS Sutlej Memorial – Sutlej was at Esquimalt during 1863-67. This naval monument is the only one still standing in the Old Burying Grounds. The following item appeared in the Victoria Colonist dated 3 Dec 1866: “The officers and men belonging to HMS Sutlej have contracted with Messrs. Swigert and Teague for the erection of a monument to the memory of those of their number who have departed this life since the ship arrived on this station. The pedestal will be of freestone, 16 feet high, and the names will be carved on the sides. The name of the little Indian girl, Maggie Sutlej, who was captured during the Indian outbreak on the West Coast in 1864 (adopted by Mrs. Joseph Denman, wife of the Admiral) and who afterwards died at sea, will be included in the list
- Originally there were a number of names engraved on panels surrounding the monument but these have all flaked away. Edgar Fawcett recorded these names in 1908: George Lush, John Guff, Edward Tiller, Joseph Neckless, Thomas Depnall, John Reese, George Crute, William Douglas, Albert Gilbert and Alexander Borthwick. He didn’t mention Maggie. A writer to the Colonist in 1884 wrote that the Sutlej monument “… chronicles the drowning of four, five buried elsewhere and six buried here”. In 1962 the Municipal Chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) commissioned a white marble tablet, which still lies at the foot of the monument, clearly reiterating the words of the Colonist news item of 1866.
Sometimes there was only one member of a ship who died while his ship was at Esquimalt. In that case, an individual monument was often erected in his memory. Fawcett recorded the following in 1908:
- Monument to Benjamin Topp, HMS Cormorant, died 22 Oct 1846, age 40 (obviously moved from the Fort Victoria Graveyard)
- Monument to William Johnson, HMS Hecate, died 3 Jan 1862
- Monument to John Dearden, Chief Engineer of HMS Sparrowhawk, died 1866
- Monument to Henry T. W. English, Paymaster of HMS Devastation, died 21 Aug 1864 (stored at Beacon Hill Park) (photo on page 9.)
- Monument to Commander Charles R. Robson of HMS Forward (stored at Beacon Hill Park) (photo on page 9.)
- Monument to Michael Charlton, Engineer of HMS Topaze, died 1861
- Monument to Dr. James Farrelly of Royal Naval Hospital Esquimalt, died 15 Jan 1866, aged 28 (stored at Beacon Hill Park) (photo on page 9.)
Others without Markers
There were a number of other sailors and marines, not listed above, who died while at Esquimalt and who, seemingly, didn’t get a marker. Most likely there had been wooden markers which were gone when Fawcett compiled his inventory in 1908:
- Alexander Jeffrys, HMS Pylades, Paymaster, died 1859, aged 32
- George Marshall, HMS Ganges, Sergeant, Royal Marines, died 1859, aged 35
- Michael Farent, HMS Ganges, Royal Marines, died 1860, aged 24
- William Matthews, HMS Pylades, Sapper, Royal Engineers, died 1860, aged 35
- Richard Mitchell, HMS Topaze, Assistant Engineer, died 1861, aged 28
- Ferdinand C. R. Wither, HMS Topaze, Assistant Paymaster, died 1861, aged 19
- Thomas Lewis, HMS Charybdis, 2nd Engineer, died 1862, aged 40
- William Johnson, HMS Hecate, Boats Mate, died 1862, aged 42
- Edward Collins, HMS Charybdis, cox’n of launch, died 1865, aged 32
- Henry Stevens, HMS Forward, Able Seaman, died 1866, aged 45
- Joseph Clancy, HMS Scout, Able Seaman, died 1866, aged 33
- Mr. Kelly, HMS Sparrowhawk, Able Seaman, drowned 1866
- Thomas Rowe, HMS Malacca, Gunner, died 1866, aged 39
- Alfred Primmer, HMS Malacca, Able Seaman, drowned 1867, aged 25
- William Hurd, HMS Forward, Able Seaman, died 1867, aged 33
- John Storey, HMS Malacca, Able Seaman, died 1867, aged 28
- Thomas Dawson, HMS Sparrowhawk, Able Seaman, died 1867, aged 37
- John Hannaford, HMS Zealous, died1867, aged 17
- William Thompson, HMS Zealous, died 1867
- Mr. Aimeford, HMS Zealous, died 1867, aged 39
- Charles F. Parker, HMS Forward, died 1868, aged 25
Unfortunately, as was the case with the rest of the cemetery, the Naval Corner was allowed to deteriorate rapidly, especially after 1873. Every few years, outraged citizens wrote to the newspapers decrying the abysmal state of the cemetery and the monuments. A Colonist article dated 23 June 1899 clearly states the condition of the Naval Corner: “The Esquimalt correspondent of the Naval and Military Record says: ‘Naval men are, as a rule, somewhat sensitive with regard to the respect paid to their dead, and many will regret to learn that in a prominent position in Victoria there is an old cemetery, now disused, which shows every sign of neglect. The wooden railings around it are guiltless of paint and tumbling down, while inside the place is so overgrown with broom (which some enthusiastic person introduced into the island as a remembrance of home, but which has now become a nuisance), that only the tops of gravestones, or the highest monuments can be seen above it. The state of the graves is even more distressing. The place seems to be the dumping place for refuse from the neighbouring houses – old tins, bones, the skull of an ox, rags and other refuse being strewn about – while children wander over the place picking the wild flowers that grow there. Some of the graves are only marked by the sinking of the ground. But what more closely affects the navy is that one corner is devoted to the graves of officers and men principally from the Sutlej, Topaze, Plumper and Satellite. Their shipmates have erected handsome monuments to them, and that of the Satellite, dated 1860, is very conspicuous from the road, with its inscription relating to ‘Her Magusty Ship’ which has been altered as far as possible to the correct spelling. This cemetery does not seem to have been used since 1873, and the naval graves are all within the 1860’s, but although dating so far back it seems a pity that they should be allowed to be dishonoured in this manner, when doubtless a small subscription would ensure their being kept in proper order. Even if the civil authorities, who are responsible for the maintenance of the place, are content to have such an eyesore in their city no doubt they would consent to this naval corner being railed off and maintained at the expense of the navy.” Edgar Fawcett and others continued to echo these sentiments in the newspapers of the day, but to little avail.
Eventually, only the Sutlej monument and the base of the Charles Rufus Robson monument remained standing in the Naval Corner.
The Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria has removed a few of the smaller naval markers to Beacon Hill Park for safekeeping in the hopes that one day they can be returned to the Old Burying Ground and be erected in an appropriate setting.
In 1993 the Victoria Branch of the Royal Canadian Naval Association commissioned a large granite marker to be erected in the Naval Corner. On both faces are listed the names of many of the Royal Navy and Royal Marine men who died here while their ships were on station. The attached bronze plaque reads: “This monument is dedicated to the memory of 55 men of the Royal Navy and one City of Victoria Police Constable who died while serving the Crown during the years 1846-1868 – WE SHALL REMEMBER – Commissioned, erected and dedicated by the Royal Canadian Naval Association; Victoria Branch – 12 Sept. 1993”
It is gratifying to see that navy men still look after their own. Even though every one of these British sailors has been dead for more than 140 years, each Remembrance Day a wreath in their memory is placed around the anchor atop the monument. BRAVO ZULU
An excellent photo, taken about 1866-70, showing part of the Naval Corner looking southwest towards the old Anglican Church that was situated where the Law Courts now stand. The photo shows the HMS Sutlej monument as it appeared when new with the names clearly inscribed on the panels. In front of the Sutlej monument is the marker for Leading Stoker Andrew Emery of HMS Tribune. To the immediate left of the Sutlej monument is a marker that appears to be for someone from HMS Zealous and to the extreme left is the HMS Thetis monument. These wooden headboards were originally erected in the Fort Victoria Graveyard and then moved to the Old Burying Ground about 1860. (Royal BC Museum, BC Archives Photo)
This is another photo of the Naval Corner looking towards the old Church. This one shows the ornate grave site of Lt. Charles Rufus Robson, Commander of HMS Forward. The broken mast signifies a sailor’s life cut short. Robson was only 36 in 1861 when he died of injuries received when thrown from his horse. Only the base remains in the Naval Corner. The remnants of the broken mast have been removed to Beacon Hill Park.
Behind and to the left of the Robson monument is the HMS Satellite monument. Several other unidentified naval markers are also evident in the photo. (CVA M00485)