Finding B.C.’s premiers
By Stephen Harrison
In the spring of 1887, Premier William Smithe was seriously ill.
A Cowichan Valley farmer, Smithe had been making plans to bring his family to a new home in Victoria. Instead, he found himself on a private train car to the capital as part of a last ditch effort to get well.
Smithe was taken to finance minister John Robson’s home at 506 Government Street, where he died two weeks later at the age of 44. The province had lost a premier for the first time.
Soon after Smithe’s passing, a funeral procession of “over fifty carriages” left Robson’s home for the old St. James church on Kingston Street, and a “special train” later returned his body to Cowichan for burial.
Smithe was the first sitting premier to die in office, but he wasn’t the last.
For the past several years, I have been researching our premiers’ final moments and documenting their memorials around the province, across the country, and on the other side of the Atlantic.
Ross Bay Cemetery
In 2010, I had just moved to James Bay when I went for a summer’s walk along Dallas Road. I wound up in Ross Bay Cemetery, where I stumbled upon the grave of Herbert Anscomb.
“Hey,” I thought, “I know that guy!”
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Anscomb led the B.C. Conservative party, and he served as deputy premier and finance minister in a coalition government with the Liberals.
Being something of a B.C. history nerd, Anscomb’s grave had me wondering how many premiers were buried there. One of my first stops was findagrave.com, where users had documented many B.C. premiers’ memorials. Using the City of Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery search tool I found a definitive answer: there are twelve B.C. premiers buried in Ross Bay. Which led me to my next question: where was everyone else?
B.C.’s premiers got around
As of June 2017, 34 different people have served as premier since B.C. joined confederation in 1871. When I started my research, 24 had passed away, which meant I had some work to do.
While most burial locations were documented online, some grave markers were either unphotographed, or the location was unknown.
To fill in those gaps, I headed to the University of Victoria’s basement to comb through old newspapers on microfilm, using online databases as well. Usually I was able to discover a burial location using obituaries and funeral information.
Some deaths didn’t make the local papers, however.
B.C.’s first premier, John Foster McCreight, held office for thirteen months from 1871 to 1872; he died in England over forty years later. McCreight lived on Michigan Street for twenty years, and served in the Supreme Court following his exit from politics. Yet his death in Hastings in 1913 seemingly failed to inspire a single story in Victoria’s newspapers.
No cemetery or churchyard for his burial was listed in any online, print, or archival source I could find, so I contacted the largest local cemetery in Hastings, which seemed like a good bet. The helpful staff confirmed that B.C.’s first premier is buried in Hastings Borough Council Cemetery, near England’s southeast shores.
Most of B.C.’s deceased former premiers are buried here in the province, but not all of them. Besides McCreight, John Duncan MacLean (1927 – 1928) is in Ottawa, and John Turner (1895 – 1898) is in London, England, at Kensal Green Cemetery. There are four memorials for premiers at Royal Oak Burial Park in Saanich. Both the Bennetts’ memorials can be found in Kelowna; Joseph Martin’s (1900) grave is in Burnaby; Charles Semlin (1898 – 1900) is in Ashcroft; and William Smithe (1883 – 1887) is near Duncan.
Armed with this information, my next steps seemed obvious: I wanted to visit these sites myself, photograph the graves that hadn’t been photographed, document everything I could, and update those online grave-finding websites.
Digging up the past
I took a piecemeal approach over the next few years. I stopped in at the Mountain View Cemetery near Duncan to visit Smithe’s grave when I was headed up-Island; my partner and I took detours to cemeteries in Hastings and London while visiting relatives in the U.K.; and I enlisted family and friends to scope out graves in Ashcroft and Ottawa when I thought I wouldn’t be able to visit.
If you want to find a grave, the Internet can be a great place to start. Findagrave.com is a handy resource, particularly for notable individuals, and billiongraves.com may be useful as well. Individual cemeteries often have their own searchable databases.
The B.C. Archives website allows you to search death registrations, which can yield useful information; however, for records that haven’t been digitized, you might need to make a follow-up trip to the microfilm room. Newspapers can also be a great resource if you know when and where someone died. For the microfilm-averse, issues of the British Colonist from 1858 to 1950 are available online at http://www.britishcolonist.ca.
If you’ve narrowed your search to a particular cemetery and need to find the exact burial location, staff are usually happy to look through their records if you provide key details (i.e., name and date of death) and enough time. Staff at every institution I’ve reached out to have been unfailingly helpful. When I didn’t have a plot number for “Fighting” Joe Martin, buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Burnaby, staff checked their registers, remarked excitedly “There are so many Joseph Martins!” and walked with me to look for the late B.C. premier.
A total of five of B.C.’s premiers have died while in office, with three of them dying one after the other.
A. E. B. Davie (1887 – 1889) succeeded William Smithe, only to die two years later. A procession left his Michigan Street home for his requested “plain and unostentatious” funeral at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Ross Bay Cemetery.
Davie’s successor was long-time James Bay resident John Robson (1889 – 1892). The “top of his little finger” was crushed by a carriage door in London, England, where he died a short time later of blood poisoning.
After Robson’s death, finance minister John Turner received what the Daily Colonist called “A Letter from the Dead,” written not long after Robson had arrived in England. “So far,” wrote Robson, “I have found neither rest nor improvement in health. If I respond to all the invitations, social and business engagements, I shall certainly find no rest in London.”
Robson’s body arrived in Victoria a month after his death. He was returned to his James Bay home before a private funeral at St. Andrew’s and Ross Bay Cemetery.
The legislative chamber has also hosted its share of state funerals.
Premier H. C. Brewster (1916 – 1918) died of pneumonia while in Calgary in 1918. His body was returned to Victoria, and “was taken through the main entrance to the Legislative chamber, where it rest[ed] immediately in front of the Speaker’s dais.” An estimated 3,500 people came to pay their respects before the start of the “most impressive processi[on] ever seen in [the] Province.”
Brewster’s successor, “Honest” John Oliver (1918 – 1927), was the last B.C. premier to die in office. He was given the same honours as Brewster, lying in state at the legislature. Oliver is buried in Royal Oak Burial Park, in what the Daily Colonist described as “a commanding position on the highest part of the park.”
When B.C.’s premiers died in office, it was understandably big news. Compare that to the passing of Amor de Cosmos (1872 – 1874), B.C.’s second premier. Although his name lives on in B.C.’s history books, his funeral was a muted affair when he died in 1897, 23 years after his premiership.
The Daily Colonist wrote of the former premier: “to all intents the deceased had been dead to the world for some years.” They added: “The few who formed the cortege was a sad commentary on the evanescence of public gratitude.”
Where is W. J. Bowser?
When I sat down to write this piece, one name stood out: W. J. Bowser, premier from December 1915 to November 1916. Bowser died years later in the middle of the 1933 election campaign while in Vancouver, where he was cremated. The Daily Colonist reported that “the ashes [would] be forwarded to Victoria to lie beside those of his wife.”
While it’s not uncommon for an individual who has been cremated to have their remains interred in a cemetery, as was the case with many former premiers, there were no readily-available records indicating Bowser was in a Victoria cemetery.
Earlier this year, I decided to try again. My first step was to look up the obituaries for Bowser’s wife, Lorinda Doherty, who died in 1928. If I found her, I thought, I might find her spouse. That’s when things took a turn for the confusing. She died in Victoria, at Royal Jubilee Hospital, but according to the Colonist, her body was “forwarded to Vancouver for burial.” That contradicted the Colonist’s reporting on W. J. Bowser.
Death registrations held by the B.C. Archives said the Bowsers had both been cremated, allegedly at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. Perhaps they were buried there as well? Not so: according to staff, in the first half of the 20th century, all cremations at Vancouver Memorial Services and Crematorium — a separate entity from the cemetery — were registered as taking place at “Mountain View.” The Bowsers are not buried there.
Where to next? I took a peek at W. J. Bowser’s will in the B.C. Archives, but he didn’t include any funeral wishes. I tried a few other avenues, including registering for a pricey Ancestry.ca account to see if I might find any additional information. I also reached out to the crematorium and the branch of the United Church where his funeral was held in Vancouver, but at the time of publication I’ve had no leads.
It seems this project isn’t quite finished.
It’s 2017. Do you know where W. J. Bowser is?
Dates in office are from Elections B.C.’s Electoral History of British Columbia 1871 – 1986. In addition to archival newspapers, I consulted and referenced: Portraits of the Premiers, by S. W. Jackman; The Dictionary of Canadian Biography; and Wikipedia. This project has also benefited from the advice, knowledge, and assistance of: cemetery and archival staff; Maria Della Zazzera; Patricia Harrison; Robert Harrison; Laura Ishiguro; Sylvie Okros; Flora Pagan; and Andrew Patrick.
August 11th, 2017: Photo captions may not be visible to mobile users. Captions have been reproduced below.
John Foster McCreight
13 November 1871 – 20 December 1872
Hastings Borough Council Cemetery, Hastings, United Kingdom, CB D18
Amor de Cosmos
23 December 1872 – 9 February 1874
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, A-68 E 32
George Anthony Walkem
11 February 1874 – 27 January 1876; 25 June 1878 – 6 June 1882
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, A-73B 74 E 32
Andrew Charles Elliott
1 February 1876 – 25 June 1878
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, H-73 E 16
13 June 1882 – 27 January 1883
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B-96 E 3 and 96 W 36
29 January 1883 – 28 March 1887
Mountain View Cemetery, Duncan, OS Block 3, Plot 8
A. E. B. Davie
15 May 1887 – 1 August 1889
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, C-5 W 29
2 August 1889 – 29 June 1892
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, H
2 July 1892 – 2 March 1895
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, C-21 W 29
John Herbert Turner
4 March 1895 – 8 August 1898
Kensal Green Cemetery, London, United Kingdom, Square 191 Row 2
15 August 1898 – 27 February 1900
Ashcroft Cemetery, Ashcroft
Joseph “Fighting Joe” Martin
28 February 1900 – 14 June 1900
Ocean View Burial Park, Burnaby, Dominion Section, Plot 42
15 June 1900 – 21 November 1902
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, H-67 E 27
Edward G. Prior
21 November 1902 – 1 June 1903
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B-24 E 32
1 June 1903 – 15 December 1915
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, R-77 W R
Harlan Carey Brewster
23 November 1916 – 1 March 1918
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, R-100b101 W P
“Honest” John Oliver
6 March 1918 – 17 August 1927
Royal Oak Burial Park, Saanich, G-195-E
John Duncan MacLean
20 August 1927 – 20 August 1928
Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa, Section 19 Lot T648
Simon Fraser Tolmie
21 August 1928 – 15 November 1933
Royal Oak Burial Park, Saanich, E-120-J
Thomas Dufferin “Duff” Pattullo
15 November 1933 – 9 December 1941
Royal Oak Burial Park, Saanich, Garden of Remembrance, C-6
9 December 1941 – 29 December 1947
Royal Oak Burial Park, Saanich, I-149-8
Byron “Boss” Johnson
29 December 1947 – 1 August 1952
Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, T-34 W
1 August 1952 – 15 September 1972
Kelowna Memorial Park Cemetery, Kelowna, D-WAC WAC BEN
22 December 1975 – 6 August 1986
Kelowna Memorial Park Cemetery, Kelowna, D-WAC WAC BEN