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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?