Biography of a pioneer bureaucrat

The Eventful Life of Philip Hankin: Worldwide Traveller and Witness to British Columbia’s Early History
by Geoff Mynett

Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2023
$26.00 / 9781773861197

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh


Biographies are often about great achievers, great personages or even great evildoers. Think American biographer Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson or British biographer Robert Service’s hefty tomes on Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. In this case, Geoff Mynett has chosen a lesser life. Indeed, an all-but-forgotten middle man.

Philip Hankin held many positions in the early governments of both Vancouver Island and British Columbia in the 1850s and 1860s. He was the government administrator, the superintendent of police and for a short time, he was even the colonial secretary, the top job in the 1860s.

He went from penniless ex-British Navy man to influential roles in the new colony increasing his annual salary with each step up. Not of aristocratic birth – his father was a squire only and not a wealthy one – he had to work for his fortune. He was a vagabond who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Vancouver-based historian and author Geoff Mynett. Photo Stephen Mynett

Part of his success was his affable personality. He got on well with most people, including our first governor James Douglas, the redoubtable Hudson’s Bay factor, but early on he ran into trouble with one of his naval captains. His cruel father had enlisted him at age 13 and didn’t seem to care if he failed or succeeded. He just wanted rid of him.

During the Navy years of his youth, part of young Hankin’s job was to chase down slave ships trading off the coast of Africa. Mynett is gifted an opportunity here to expand on the role of the British Navy once Britain banned slavery. Eventually, Hankin changes ships and captains as he makes his way to BC. There he thrives. But not at first.

The gold rush beckoned and a brother had scored a job at the pioneer gold rush town of Barkerville. Philip arrived but was not a capable gold miner. Instead, he found work cooking for others in a mining camp dwelling and apparently succeeded well enough to head south to Victoria.

Barkerville, Williams Creek, Cariboo, before the fire that destroyed most of the town on September 16, 1868. Hankin spent a few months here in early 1864 and tried his hand at mining.
Image A‑00355 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

He had been there before as a Navy surveyor plying the islands around Georgia Strait and further out to sea. He made many friends and acquaintances and learned several First Nations languages, a skill that would put him in demand. “Hankin liked people and seemed to have an ability to make people like him,” Mynett writes. He also joined the Freemasons. 

Philip Hankin as a young man, in approximately 1857.
Image G‑00361 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Writing about great men and women often seems an easier task than piecing together the lives of the virtually unknown, but Mynett acquits himself well here. He reveals Hankin rising through the social ranks using charm, hard work, and persistence.

He is never elected to a political position and yet he manages to serve as a high-level bureaucrat to colonial leaders. At one point, however, he encounters an enemy. It is Frederick Seymour, governor of BC, who seems to despise the young man because of his low birth. Seymour makes life difficult for Hankin until the governor dies.

Nevertheless, Hankin succeeds in powerful positions overseeing the law, order, and good government mandate set by the Colonial Office. He perseveres despite opposition from some parts of the fledgling society.

One incident known as the Kingfisher affair helped catapult him to the top. It was in 1864. Members of the Ahousaht First Nation lured a vessel called the Kingfisher off course and murdered several people. Admiral Joseph Denman was to capture the murderers and bring them to justice. Hankin acted as translator and, according to his own account, minimized the damage a warship would have done to the Ahousaht village had he not advised caution and leniency.  

The caption with this photograph in the BC Archives states that these were “Members of first Legislature in front of Birdcages, Victoria after the union of the two colonies. From l. to r., on porch: W.A. Franklin, house messenger; Henry Holbrook; W.O. Hamley; E.G. Alston; P.J. Hankin; M.T.W. Drake; J.M. Trutch (sitting on porch at top of steps); T.L. Wood; H.M. Ball; E. Dewdney; A.T. Bushby; Charles Good (clerk, not shown). From l. to r., in foreground: Amor de Cosmos; H.P.P. Crease; D.B. King (seated on steps, with dog); T.B. Humphreys; John Robson.” However, Hankin’s position in the place of importance in the centre of the picture suggests that it might be from when he was colonial secretary between 1869 and 1871. Image C‑06178 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives

Mynett takes advantage of such incidents to discuss colonial efforts to stop the indigenous slave trade described in BC historian Barry Gough’s book Gunboat Frontier. He later dealt with other lawlessness through his role as colonial administrator. “Hankin enforced the laws rigorously,” Mynett writes, “Particularly those against rum-running.”  

Reviewer Ron Verzuh mentions the book discusses “colonial efforts to stop the indigenous slave trade described in BC historian Barry Gough’s book Gunboat Frontier.” Gough’s book was released in 2007 by UBC Press

In a way, Hankin’s life story reads a little like one of American writer Horatio Alger’s tales of poor but honest young men who work their way up the social ladder. But Mynett is not writing a novel or creative non-fiction.

Through his own hard work he has uncovered several sources, among them Hankin’s memoirs, that enable him to quote liberally from the horse’s mouth. In one entry, Hankin describes meeting the explorer David Livingstone. Another source is the letters of Sophia Cracroft, the niece and travelling amanuensis of Lady Jane Franklin, the widow of lost Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.

Hankin seems to have won the hearts of the two women in travelling with them up the Fraser River and elsewhere. “Hankin had charm, a great sense of fun and a taste for practical jokes. All three qualities won him a place in the Cracroft letters home and possibly did him no harm at the colonial office in London.

After leaving BC with his wife Isabel (nee Nagle), they travelled widely and he assumed a colonial secretary’s position in British Honduras (Belize) before eventually settling in the mother country where they lived on Hankin’s pension. He was by then a captain.

Throughout his life he seems to have cherished the BC years where he was a pioneer of sorts. He died in 1923 of heart failure and “senal decay” at 86, after having “done little but wander from place to place” following Isabel’s death in 1903.

Historical biographies can tell as much about a place or event as they do the individual subject and Mynett does so here through many vignettes of Hankin’s life as a “rolling stone” who has “gathered some moss.” Along the way, we derive much of value about our early history from the perspective of Hankin’s perch as an overseer of the development of official BC.

The colonial secretary’s office in Victoria, where Hankin’s offices were located.
Image A‑00841 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives


Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. He has recently written two essays for The British Columbia Review regarding British Columbia links to the film industry: Hello Oscar, Eh! and When Hollywood Calls. He’s recently reviewed books by John Farrow, Andrea Warner, Barry Gough, Elaine Ávila, Ken McGoogan, Mostafa Henaway, for BCR; he also contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

2 comments on “Biography of a pioneer bureaucrat

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This