Thomas Argyle

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Lighthouse Keeper Thomas Argyle

Lighthouse Keeper Thomas Argyle

Thomas Argyle was born in Birmingham, England. As a lad with a strong, adventurous spirit, he joined the Royal Engineers of the British Army and volunteered for service in developing the unorganized territory of New Caledonia, later to become the province of British Columbia.

New Caledonia, at that time, was a fur-bearing region of profit for the Hudson’s Bay Company who held it under an exclusive licence of trade. Beaver skins were the only money; natural waterways, Indian and fur brigade trails the only ways of travel.

Suddenly, in 1858, the gathering cry of gold went out and a horde of fortune hunters, 30,000 strong, shattered the silences of New Caledonia. To hold on to this rich section of Canada, it was necessary for Great Britain to show the colours; to bring in a force of law and order to retain its sovereignty and influence.

A force,150 strong, of picked Royal Engineers, volunteers to a man, sailed from Gravesend on October 10, 1858, in the ship, Thames City, 557 tons. After a six month journey the clipper ship dropped her anchor in Esquimalt Harbour on April 12, 1859. For the next five years, 1859-63, the Royal Engineers were kept busy surveying land and building wagon roads up the Fraser Canyon and on through Yale to Clinton and the Cariboo. When it came time for the Engineers to re-embark for England on November 11, 1863, only 15 sappers stepped up the gangplank. The rest, including Thomas Argyle, declared to remain in British Columbia. Each of the Royal Engineers who elected to remain in British Columbia was given a free land grant of 150 acres. Tom Argyle chose 150 acres of prime waterfront property at Rocky Point in Metchosin. At that time, Rocky Point was practically without white settlement. On taking his discharge from the Engineers, Thomas Argyle met and married a young lady, Miss Ellen Tufts. In 1867, Thomas Argyle was appointed chief keeper of the Race Rocks lighthouse, 10 miles below Victoria.

The Argyle Family

Thomas Argyle and Ellen Argle with six of their nine children Grace, Ellen, Louisa, Jennie, Anne, and Fredrick. Maude, Thomas and Albert (not in photograph)

An early incident of rescue without search occurred in 1877. From his lighthouse lookout, Tom Argyle saw two figures bobbing precariously on a makeshift raft in the Race Rocks waters. He managed to rescue them, pull them ashore and revive them. They turned out to be two seamen deserters from Her Majesty’s navy vessel, H.M.S. Shah. They were floating in the tide on two logs temporarily lashed together. Later, the unfortunate Mr. Argyle was charged with having aided and abetted deserters from Her Majesty’s ships. He was fined $100; so much for the rescue service of 1877.

Thomas and Ellen Argyle retired from Race Rocks lighthouse in 1888 and went to live on their Rocky Point farm. From there, his young children used to drive by horse and buggy to the little Metchosin School. The Argyle home on the Rocky Point waterfront was a popular place for visitors. Many of the pioneer families of Victoria took their children out to the Argyle estate and set up their tents for a summer’s camping. Evenings would find Argyle at the piano, leading his guests in singsongs with gusto. Thomas, by all accounts, was a bit of a martinet. Brought up in the English tradition, he was King of his Castle, and demanded a great deal of service and attention from his household, like having his own special chair, and comforts of the “bring me my slippers, dear” type.

Source: As printed in “The Islander”, February 20, 1977, George Inglis