Our History: Island helped shape Robert Service

Before achieving fame as North America’s beloved “Bard of the North,” the British poet Robert Service spent seven years on Vancouver Island, from 1896 to 1903, working at a variety of jobs from farm hand to road builder to bank clerk. In this excerpt from Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon, Ontario author Enid Mallory draws from local sources and Service’s own memoirs to reveal details from the bucolic years he spent with the Corfield family of Cowichan Bay as manager of their country store. Though he would later regret the time lost during this period to idle rural pursuits, it was clearly a formative time in the young poet’s life.  

 

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The name Cowichan comes from the Coast Salish word khowutzun, which means “back warmed by the sun.” The city of Duncan and the surrounding Cowichan Valley area have warmer year-round temperatures than any other place in Canada. Today, it also claims the largest number of artists per capita in the country. If a would-be poet had to feed pigs at the turn of the century, this was not a bad place to do it.

Two rivers, the Cowichan and the Koksilah, run down from the mountainous backbone of Vancouver Island into Cowichan Bay. On the alluvial land between the two streams, George Corfield had established the biggest farm in the district and had diked the watery meadows to pasture his Holstein cows and plant fields of grain.

For three years, Robert Service served as storekeeper on the Corfield ranch. Looking back, he saw himself leaning against the store porch, his pipe in his mouth and his hands in his pocket. In fact, he performed all the duties necessary for managing a country store and post office.

He spent two hours a day on a wagon pulled by a pony, collecting milk cans for the creamery and delivering the mail to the station, then stopping again on the way back for the incoming mail. He also had the butchering to do to keep the crew of eight farm hands and the family of nine in meat. He learned to kill and dress a sheep in 12 minutes. To communicate with native customers in the store, he learned Chinook, the traditional trading language of the Northwest coast.

George Corfield also hired Robert to tutor his sons. This work had to be fitted in around customers and took place when the boys were not in school. What his young charges could still remember more than 70 years later was the storytelling skill of their tutor.

“He told some wild-and-woolly ones to us boys and anyone else who would listen,” remembered Norman Corfield.

Fred Corfield recalled a story in which Service claimed that, on a trek, he had made a fire on a stretcher and carried the flames to keep the wolves at bay. Fred was the eldest son, and the nearest in age to Robert — about 15 when Robert was 25. They often worked together and went to theatricals and dances in local schoolhouses and halls in Duncan.

Fred also introduced Robert to the ritual of a frigid morning dip in the nearby river. When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Fred enrolled in a volunteer reserve unit in Victoria. A morning swim was part of the training, and when he came home, he persuaded Robert to join him in the Koksilah River. Robert quit when Fred found it necessary to break the ice before they could swim, but by then he had acquired the habit of bathing in cold water.

While still a teenager, Robert had, presciently, written a poem that described the trauma of a morning dip in Scotland (It Must be Done was published in the Glasgow Weekly Herald at the time). Now, in his storekeeping days, in honour of his and Fred’s early-morning escapades, he sent it to the Duncan Enterprise, which reprinted it in 1903.

Looking back, Service saw his four years at Corfield’s as time wasted; he was being indolent, too lazy or insecure to get on with establishing himself in life. His days were agreeable, even idyllic. He had a horse to ride; he was popular at theatricals and dances, where he performed with a borrowed banjo.

He sang in the choir of St. Peter’s. In 1901, he joined the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club — the earliest such club in Canada, established around 1887 on the Pimbury farm and later relocated to the Corfield farm.

The young Cowichan men found time in the summer to hunt for grouse and pheasant in the woods. Mallard, widgeon and teal gathered in the pools of the bay flats, the air clamorous with their cries on moonlit nights. There were trout in the rivers and abundant salmon in the bay. Robert had a dugout canoe that he took out on Cowichan Bay, even in stormy weather, confident that if it capsized he could get the water out and climb back in.

He later wrote that he made no music and composed no verse during those years — which perhaps accounts for his sense that it had been time wasted — but this is scarcely true. Several of his poems appeared in Victoria’s Daily Colonist after an editor on the paper named Charles Harrison Gibbons met him while on a fishing trip to Cowichan.

The Yukon Archives preserves a newspaper clipping by Gibbons that vividly recalls a weekend when trout were “leaping to the lure of March Brown and Silver Doctor and the blue grouse drummed on his hollow log or chirred thicketward.” Then, as “velvety darkness” fell on the hills, he sat in the old store and talked poetry with the young clerk. When Robert showed him some lines entitled The Christmas Card, which he had written about the Boer War then raging in South Africa, Gibbons begged to have the poem to print in his paper.

If his days were adrift with idleness, they might not have been altogether wasted, because the country store was a perfect place to practise listening, an art he perfected in the Yukon as he collected and assimilated the stories of the Trail of ’98. His nights of reading were not wasted either; John Spears, a neighbour on land adjoining Corfield’s, recounts that Robert knew the meaning of — and could spell — every word in the dictionary. John remembered Robert as a humble person but sensed in him an awareness of a destiny better than his role at Corfield’s.

With the Corfield boys, Robert rode his borrowed bicycle or walked to the nearby town of Duncan to whatever hall or schoolhouse was holding a dance on Saturday night. Fred Corfield, when he was in his 90s, recalled some of the fun they had.

“Service and I worked together on the dairy part of the farm — the churning of milk, with the old hand separator, and while doing that we’d whistle a tune and practise dance steps. We’d go to the agricultural ball, or the bachelors’ ball, or some other ball, in starched shirts, bow ties, tail coats, head for Duncan, a four-mile walk, over the railway trestle bridge, and get back at 3 or 4 in the morning in time to change to go to work.”

Then, one snowy December night at a Duncan dance, there was a new face in the crowd, and Robert fell in love.

 

Excerpt from Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon, by Enid Mallory, Heritage House Publishing. ©2008 Enid Mallory.

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