Robert Service’s attic suite
By Danda Humphreys
Poet Robert Service's lived for a short time in the attic of this former bank on Government Street
Today, it’s a Christmas shop. Yesterday, it was a bank, just one of several financial institutions lining Government Street. And 100 years ago it was home, for a short time, to well-known poet Robert Service.
Service was a long way from his beginnings in England’s northwest. Born in Lancashire in 1874, and raised in Scotland, Service showed no signs of his future leanings. He didn’t do well in school. English literature classes were fun, especially when they included stories of adventure, but he hated the confines of the classroom and answered discipline with defiance. Eventually, to his enormous relief, he was expelled.
After a few months in a shipping office, he followed his father into the banking business, and saved money for an adventure of his own—passage on a tramp steamer to Canada.
Crossing the country to Vancouver Island in 1896, he worked first as a farmhand, then as a clerk in a Cowichan post office. He threw himself into the social scene, taking part in amateur theatricals and reciting his never-ending rhymes. His poems were published in the Colonist and the Cowichan Leader. It was a small but significant beginning.
At 29, Service tired of being a drifter. He fancied himself a scholar, but university was not for him—he failed the entrance exams—and he decided against a college career. There was nothing for it but to go back to banking.
He applied to the Canadian Bank of Commerce and was sent to its city branch, which had opened 20 years earlier on the corner of Fort and Government streets. For the first time in years, he was earning a regular paycheque, and one of the many perks of his new post was free accommodation on the bank’s upper floor.
Less than a year later he was transferred, first to Kamloops, then to Whitehorse, then to Dawson City.
Thriving in the wild winter darkness, Service picked up his pen again. He wrote many rhymes, but two tipped the balance. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” didn’t please him, so he tucked it away in a desk drawer. Then, borrowing a name from a bank ledger, he wrote “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It was a hit, bringing the financial freedom he longed for. In 1909 he resigned from the bank to concentrate on his writing.
Working as a newspaper correspondent in France in 1913, he met and married Germaine Bourgoin. They had a daughter, Iris, and moved many times before settling in Monte Carlo. He died there in 1958, having produced a total of 28 books—novels, poems and autobiographies.
As far as we know, Service spent less than a decade on this island, then moved away, never to return. But long after he left Victoria, a woman called Lily, who lived opposite the bank, complained that a man was watching her from an upper window across the street. Police investigated. The stairs up to the bank’s top floor, where Service had once lived, were thick with dust. Clearly, no one had climbed them in years. Lily, they decided, was imagining things. Or was she?
Next time you’re Christmas shopping downtown, remember Robert Service, the bard who lived briefly at the bank on the corner. Look carefully at the upper windows. Maybe, like Lily, you’ll see him too…the man who isn’t there.
Robert Service is remembered in the Saanich street that bears his name, and is featured in one of Danda’s books about the early history of Victoria. www.-dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the December 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.