The unlikely rise of an English sailor
A former lieutenant in the British Royal Navy who moved to Vancouver Island with few prospects, Philip Hankin lived in BC before it was a province of Canada.
November 02nd, 2023
Coming to Victoria as a “working man,” no one could have predicted Hankin would become the Colonial Administrator in five years.
by Tom Hawthorn
After 15 years in the Royal Navy, which he joined as a lad of 13, Philip Hankin decided to leave his native England in 1864 to return to a bucolic land he had enjoyed during his service. The journey back to Vancouver Island took weeks.
He endured third-class passage to Panama aboard a West India packet steamer, arriving to discover he had just missed the steamer to San Francisco. Twelve days of tropical heat and insect misery passed. Conditions were little better when he finally steamed north. Steerage passengers ate while standing at a swinging table to which knives and forks had been chained to avoid thievery. Robbery and pickpocketing were constant threats aboard ship.
Hankin eventually arrived in Esquimalt, then made his way to nearby Victoria, which he had left several years earlier. Friends greeted him warmly, though he realized “there was a difference between being a Lieutenant in the Navy and a working man trying to make a living.” He was determined not to become one of the city’s dissolute failures. “I would never be seen in a drinking saloon, or be persuaded to play cards,” he wrote in his memoirs. Unable to find work, he took the last of his dwindling savings and made his way across the Strait of Georgia and up the Fraser River to Fort Yale. Out of options, he was going to seek a fortune by working the gold streams of the Cariboo.
At Yale, he could not afford the stagecoach, so he began walking. He carried two blankets, a haversack of bread, cheese and cooked meat, and drinking water from the Fraser or springs along the way. At night, he slept on the roadside, his boots and coat serving as a pillow. When opportunity arose, he’d grab a meal of beans and biscuit with thick coffee at a roadhouse.
After 20 days tramping, he arrived in Barkerville with a half dollar in his pocket. He spent it on bread and butter, which he ate with coffee while sitting for hours beside a stove. There was still snow on the ground at that elevation in May and he would have to sleep outdoors, as he could afford no hotel bed.
Months later, he would return from his sojourn in the gold fields just as he had arrived—penniless. Yet, in a remarkably short time, through hard work, a charming personality and lucky timing, he rose in just five years to become the administrator of the entire colonial government of British Columbia.
His unlikely rise is told in entertaining and informative style in Geoff Mynett’s wonderful, understated and thoroughly enjoyable biography, The Eventful Life of Philip Hankin (Caitlin Press $26), which uses Hankin’s memoir as a building block.
Mynett, a retired English-born lawyer who has written several well-received British Columbia biographies and histories to his credit, including Murders on the Skeena (Caitlin, 2021), has done the hard slog of filling in the details as best as possible in a remarkable life filled with surprising cameos.
Here is Hankin cooking curry for the Queen of Hawaii. Here is Hankin escorting Lady Jane Franklin, the world-famous widow of the Arctic explorer, up the Fraser River. Here is Hankin in India befriending the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, who presents him an autographed photograph.
And here is Hankin aboard the screw frigate HMS Sutlej to negotiate the surrender of the members of Ahousaht who were suspected of having killed the captain and three crew members of the trading sloop Kingfisher. The showdown ends in bloodshot and death.
Mynett has a lawyer’s attention to detail and a writer’s appreciation for the telling anecdote. When Hankin once told an admiral he was thinking of quitting to become a waiter in San Francisco, where real money was to be made, the senior officer thought him mad to resign a commission as a Royal Navy lieutenant for a task so menial as food service. To keep him in the navy, the admiral set off a series of favourable appointments where Hankin wound up as first lieutenant of the paddle steamer HMS Hecate, which was to be the primary surveying vessel for the Colony of Vancouver Island (at that time not joined with the Colony of British Columbia).
The maritime aficionado will find much here to enjoy about 19th-Century ships and their operation, while those like me who are not immersed in the subject will not object to these informative digressions.
Today, a Hankin Island rests in Barkeley Sound and a Hankin Range runs between Nimpkish and Bonanza Lakes on northern Vancouver Island, but otherwise Hankin has been a forgotten figure. The names of many of his contemporaries grace streets in downtown Vancouver and Victoria.
From chasing slavers off the coast of Africa to hobnobbing with royalty, Hankin’s incredible, improbable, yes, eventful life is well captured in Mynett’s biography.
Tom Hawthorn is the author of The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country (D&M, 2017) and Deadlines (Harbour, 2012). His anecdotal history of baseball in Vancouver will be published next year.