Helmcken House

Now known as the Helmcken House Historic Site the Helmcken house, which was originally built and owned by John Helmcken, is the oldest house in Victoria.  The house is considered to be significant for two reasons the first being its illustrious first inhabitant John Sebastian Helmcken and the second being its proviing an excellent example of the evolution of wooden houses in the British Columbia of the late 1800’s.

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Helmecken House in 1935; photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

As discussed in Tuesday’s post, John Helmcken was a British-born physician who travelled to Vancouver Island in the late 1800’s as an employee of the HBC where he eventually setled in Victoria and went on to be a major player in both the establishment of British Columbia as a province of the Canadian Confederacy as well as the establishment of many of B.C.’s longest serving medical institutions.

When Helmcken liven in this house, between the years of 1853 and 1920, it was a one story squared-log house covered in shingles and it remains one of the few surviving samples of piece-sur-piece building in the province.  Piece sur piece construction is the method of building small houses which are made of heavy rectangulas shaped timbers where each timber is laided horizontally with a dovetail notch at both ends in order to form an interlocking grid.

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

The view of Helmcken house from the street. Photo via http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Somewhere around 1856 the building’s dining room was added on which is clad in cedar shingles and provides an excellent example of vernacular post and beam construction.  This building method is unique in that it uses heavy timbers rather than a type of dimensional lumber (such as 2”x4”) and was typically used in situations where a structure is constructed out of logs or tree trunks without the avaliablity of high tech saws.

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

A slightly later photo of the Helmcken house dating to 1971. Image from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Another addition added in 1889 saw the building further modified for the youngest daughter of John Helmcken with the construction of a two-story frame complete with the home’s front verandah.  Unlike the pervious aspects of this building, this latest addition was built professionally out of mass produced drop siding.


At the time of its original construction, the home was built directly next to Helmcken’s in-laws and while James Douglas’ home has since been demolished these two homes were important as they were some of the first to be built outside of the HBC’s Fort Victoria and marked the beginning of the area of James Bay as Victorias’s earliest residential area.

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from www.flickr.com

A more modern view of Helmcken house. Image from http://www.flickr.com

Helmcken House was bought by the provincial government of British Columbia in 1939 marking it as the first provincially owned historical site in B.C.

John Sebastian Helmcken

Born in London, England on the 5th of June 1845; John Sebastian Helmcken would eventually travel to British Columbia through the same channel as many of his contemporaries, through his employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

John Helmcken in 1854. Image from wikipedia

John Helmcken in 1854. Image from wikipedia

Apprenticed as a physician in London’s Guy’s Hospital he became a ship’s surgeon in 1847 on board the HBC ship ‘Prince Rupert’, apposition which allowed him to travel through both India and China.  On his return to England his initial plan was to leave the HBC and join the British navy, however, the company managed to retain his services and convince him to travel to Vancouver Island in 1849 to fill a position of physician and general clerk.  Helmcken had the opportunity to prove his capabilities for the former of these positions even before arriving on the continent of North America when smallpox broke out on board the ship transporting him to his new country.  Despite less than ideal circumstances and access to a very limited amount of resources, the physician managed to pull the occupants of the ship through the crisis with a remarkable level of success; losing  just one individual to the outbreak.

The doctor around 1880. Photo from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

The doctor around 1880. Photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

After this rather adventurous start, Helmcken arrived on Vancouver Island in March of 1850 where he immidiately reported to his first posting at Fort Rupert.  It didn’t take long for him to be promoted to the position of magestrate; a role in which he was tasked with settling a dispute between the company and coal-miners in the region who had gone on strike due to their desire to leave the miner’s life and go south to join the California Gold Rush.  Six months after this crisis, John was directed to Fort Victoria in his capacity of physician in order to attend to the ill Governor Richard Blanshard.  Here he meet his wife, Cecila (who happened to be the daughter of soon to be governor James Douglas) and settled permanently.

Cecilia Helmckan, the daughter of Governor James Douglas; image from  www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Cecilia Helmckan, the daughter of Governor James Douglas; image from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

Possibly due to his connection to then-Governor, James Douglas, Helmcken was elected to the the first Legislateive Assembly of Vancouver Island as the representative of Esquimalt in 1856; a position which he held until the Island merged with mainland British Columbia in 1866.  Until the province joined the Canadian confederation in 1871, he remained a Speaker of the Legislative Council of British Columbia.

While Helmcken had initially been in absolute favor of  the province joining the Canadian confederation, over time this view began to reverse until, by the time the idea was seriously being considered in 1870, he had determined that it was an idea which was against the financial interest of the colony.  While he repeatedly denied being in support of annexation to the United States he did state that he felt the eventual absorption of the province (and the whole of the rest of Canada for that matter) into its southern neighbour was an inevitable future.

On Vancouver Island; photo from www.biographi.ca

On Vancouver Island; photo from http://www.biographi.ca

Regardless of his own personal feelings regarding the confederation, Helmcken was one of three individuals sent to Ottawa in order to negotiate the terms of the colony of British Columbia joining with the country of Canada; the outcome of which ended up being very favorable directed towards B.C.

Photo fron  victoriahistory.ca

Photo fron victoriahistory.ca

Once the details of confederation had been settled, John Helmcken retired from politics and became a member of the board of the Canadian Pacific Railway but, despite his less prominent role, he continued to significantly impact the development of the fledgling province:

  • He had a role in moving the capital from New Westminster to Victoria
  • He secured lucrative public work contracts for Victoria companies
  • He was a founding member of the British Columbia Medical Society (1885)
  • He helped found the Medial Council of British Columbia
  • He was the physician on the provincial jail
  • He sat on the board of the Royal Jubilee Hospital

John Sebastian Helmcken died in Victoria on September 1, 1920 at the age of 96.

On a side note; doesn’t he just look like a lovely man?

John Helmcken in 1910; photo from www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca

John Helmcken in 1910; photo from http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca


A 15 Minute Trip Around the World via the Internet

Rationality's no fun! Image from Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/442267625879536937/

Rationality’s no fun! Image from Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/442267625879536937/

Weekly Web Links:

Historical Book Review for the Week:

Wedlock: the True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes By Wendy Moore

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

After becoming the richest heiress in Britain on the death of her father when she was just 11 years old, Mary Bowes was unsurprisingly courted by some of the more unsavory, ambitious individuals of her time. While she ended up avoiding too disastrous a match with her first husband, the ninth Earl of Strathmore, it was only the period after his death that this book really focuses on.  Of all the eligible men-folk who began swarming around the widow before her husband’s body was officially old in the ground, the most effectively manipulative of them was a young army captain by the name of Andrew Robinson Stoney who, in short order:

  • Fought a duel in Mary’s honor
  • Claimed (and had verified by doctors) that he had been mortally wounded
  • Asked, as his dying wish, to marry her – which she did 4 days later
  • Staged a sudden and miraculous recovery
  • Took control of her fortune
  • And locked her away in the house while he went mad with money spending power

Well Mary turned out to be a bit of a badass and she managed to escape in a style that wouldn’t have been entirely out of place in a Hollywood action movie, but that wouldn’t be the end of her struggles.  In the twisted societal standards of that time, Mary was viewed as the individual in the wrong as well as being completely helpless when it came to matters of the law.  Regardless of the fact that, before their marriage, she was the individual of far higher standing and that all of the wealth of their relationship was hers, she was still completely under the power of Stoney and divorce was not a thing that was done.

A well written book which wonderfully explains the story of a remarkable women who would not like be known about otherwise, this was a fantastic snapshot of history and a rather bleak reminder of how restricted women (even ones with the benefit of societal rank and money) have been even in relatively recent history.


The Bastion

The oldest structure in Nanaimo, on which construction was started in 1853 and completed in 1855, is the octagonal shaped Bastion. It is one of only two historical buildings with this shape in British Columbia (the other is Pachena Point Lighthouse) and the only original wooden bastion still standing in North America.

The Nanaimo Bastion; image from www2.viu.ca

The Nanaimo Bastion; image from www2.viu.ca

Built to defend the Hudson Bay Company’s coal mining operations in the region, this three story building is often referred to as Nanaimo’s premier landmark due to both its distinctive shape as well as its high visibility from both land and sea.

Over the years, the site has undergone several changes – both in location as well as in structural maintenance. The most outwardly obvious of these changes is that the location of the building was changes twice for a multitude of reasons which has included preservation purposes, politics, and land deals; once in 1891 and again in 1979.  The original location of the site is actually now the parking lot of the Dorchester Hotel.  With the problematic conditions of the Pacific Northwest Coast rearing their heads again, the entire Bastion was renovated in the summer of 2010 with rotting beams being replaced and additional stabilizing beams being installed.

The building itself was designated as a local heritage site on December 12, 1985 and it has the distinction of being the first site in British Columbia to be preserved under the threat of demolition.  Today it is under the supervision of the Nanaimo District Museum which has continued on the tradition of firing the canon at noon every day during the summer.

Interesting Additional Facts:

  • the original structure was built without the use of nails
  • it is the oldest surviving HBC building of its type
  • during the early years of the settlement at Nanaimo, the bastion acted as an icon of civilization in the midst of the wilderness for the European population arriving in the area
  • the building represents the province’s first foray into heritage preservation
  • the Bastion is open to visitors 7 days a week from the May long weekend to Labour Day
The Nanaimo Bastion; photo from searcharchives.vancouver.ca

The Nanaimo Bastion; photo from searcharchives.vancouver.ca

**On an interesting side note, the oldest octagon shaped building in the world is the Tower of the Winds located in Athens which dates to 300 BC**

10 Facts – Nanaimo

Located on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, and occasionally known as both ‘the Bathtub Racing Capitol of the World’ and ‘Harbour City’ (I know which title I’d prefer), the city of Nanaimo has played an important role in the development of both Vancouver Island as well as British Columbia as a whole and, to honor that, here are ten historical facts about the city:

  1. The area where Nanaimo would eventually appear was originally occupied by the Coast Salish Peoples who called it Snueymuxw (Snuh-NAY-moo)

    The Indigenous People of Nanaimo; image from wikipedia.

    The Indigenous People of Nanaimo; image from wikipedia.

  2. It is the third oldest city in British Columbia
  3. The first Europeans to arrive in Nanaimo Bay were with the 1791 voyage of the Spanish Juan Carrasco
  4. The city began as a trading post in the early 19th century
  5. It was called Colevile Town until 1860 when the name was changed to Nanaimo; at this time the name Colevile was stricken from all maps and records
  6. In its early days the town was know chiefly as an exporter if coal

    The Nanaimo Dunsmuir Coal Warf. Imagr from www.historytothepeople.ca

    The Nanaimo Dunsmuir Coal Warf. Imagr from http://www.historytothepeople.ca

  7. In 1853 the Bastion was built in order to protect the harbour and its surrounding area

    The Nanaimo Bastion; image from www2.viu.ca

    The Nanaimo Bastion; image from www2.viu.ca

  8. The first immigrants arrived in 1854 and they arrived from London by way of Honolulu
  9. Near the end of 1854 the first census was order which determined that there were 151 people in the white population, 32 dwelling houses, 3 shops, 6 outhouses, 1 school with 29 students; no one was over 60, 15 people were between 50-60, and nearly 1/2 were under the age of 20
  10. In the 1940’s lumber finally supplanted coal as the number 1 industry
Nanaimo in the 1940's. Image from www2.viu.ca

Nanaimo in the 1940’s. Image from www2.viu.ca

For more information check out the City of Nanaimo site and Tourism Nanaimo website.