There were times, Virginia Cooke admits, that she wanted to embellish the story.
The 71-page report that she had to source from often didn’t paint a colourful picture of Langley pioneer Philip Jackman.
But it did reveal historically accurate information that has now been weaved into a book for the enjoyment of residents throughout B.C.
Philip Jackman: The Last of the Royal Engineers, was officially released on July 12 at an intimate ceremony at the Langley Centennial Museum in Fort Langley.
“There were times when I couldn’t get it to be as interesting as I wanted and I toyed with making some stuff up,” Cooke told a small audience made up of local dignitaries, museum staff and descendents of Jackman.
“That would really be fun — I could make up some stories, throw some drama in. But I want you to know that I kept myself from doing that. So as far as we know, this is based on accurate information.”
The book follows an exhibit the Centennial Museum showcased this past winter titled The Life and Times of Philip Jackman.
Jackman was a Royal Engineer of the Columbia Detachment, who arrived in B.C. in 1859 after taking a six-month voyage from his small farming village of Northlew, Devon, England.
He and other engineers created the first infrastructure for the province by building the capital city of New Westminster, surveying and constructing towns and roads, and altering rivers for safer passage.
Jackman participated in the Cariboo Gold Rush, worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, was a proprietor of a saloon, general store and post office. He patrolled the streets of New Westminster as a night-watchman and the Fraser River as a fisheries guardian, and sat at the head of Langley’s municipal council as Reeve.
Cooke calls him the “Jackman of all trades” for the number of roles he played in the early days of British Columbia. Before moving to the west coast, Jackman was a farm labourer who had no prospects for owning his own land, she said. It was a “real step up” to join the Royal Engineers.
“Jackman was a part of all of this, and these engineers were not selected primarily because of their military prowess,” she said.
“They were selected because of their wide range of abilities and what they might contribute through peace time to the development of the province.
“And it is absolutely remarkable what they did.”
Cooke, who is a retired English professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, became involved in the project after offering the Centennial Museum her editing services for brochures and similar materials. Instead, she was given the task of editing the arduous Jackman report, then turning it into a book.
“Reports make rather dry reading most of the time by their very nature … But I had read the report and I knew there was a story there,” she said.
“I didn’t know how much I could make it come to life, I knew it was a challenge. Philip Jackman didn’t keep a diary, there was nothing there to give me a sense of his voice or his personality, particularly. But the story of the Royal Engineers in British Columbia is a compelling one, as I was to find out. His story reflected so much of what they did in this province and in the Fraser Valley. The valley is dotted with the names of these Royal Engineers who came over with Jackman and settled and made significant contributions to the Fraser Valley.”
The book was a collaborative effort between Cooke and the staff at the Langley Centennial Museum, who poured over censuses, directories, council minutes, newspapers, theses, monographs, correspondence, oral histories and other archival records for the project.
“It was a little bit tricky because … we kept finding out more and more stuff right through to the end, so she (Cooke) kept having to make more and more changes to her book,” said Kobi Christian, arts and heritage curator at the museum.
“I feel that it has come together in a great package.”
Philip Jackman: The Last of the Royal Engineers is available for purchase at the Langley Centennial Museum, 9135 King St. Call 604-532-3536 for more information.