The Irrepressible James Carswell of Hibben & Carswell, Victoria

I just received this image of James Carswell, Thomas Hibben’s early bookselling partner in Victoria, from the Royal BC Museum and Archives. Newly digitized from a plate glass negative, it is the only one I have found so far of James. I felt a rush at finally seeing the face of someone from the distant past who I feel I’ve gotten to know, at least a bit, through my research of BC’s early booksellers.

James Carswell of Victoria bookseller Hibben and Carswell, 1858 (image G-05397 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives)

One of the stories that told me the most about James’s personality was an episode that started on May 27, 1865, when a notice appeared in the Daily British Colonist offering a reward for James, who had evidently gone missing on May 24.

He was still missing on May 29, when the newspaper covered the story of his disappearance in a long column.

“The search for this unfortunate gentleman is being prosecuted with the utmost vigor, several parties having left the city by both land and water for the spot,” the article read.

“The bush for some distance around the spot where Mr. Carswell was last seen was again pierced through and through yesterday by the party…but not the faintest clue could be found upon which to base any conjecture as to what had befallen the unhappy man. It is the opinion of men accustomed to the brush that Mr. Carswell could not have lost himself in the section of country where he is supposed to have strayed without some mark or trace being found to show where he had passed, and a faint hope is therefore not unreasonably entertained that he may still be alive.”

“A faint hope is…entertained that he may still be alive.”

By May 30, the reward had increased to $1,000, a huge sum at the time.

And then, hurrah, came the headline on May 31: “Mr. Carswell Found!” What’s more, he was reportedly in good condition and spirits.

It seems James had taken a wrong turn on the Sooke trail he had been following after leaving a steamer at Robertson’s Landing. He had “endeavored to save time by making a short cut through the woods, but had not gone far before he found himself bewildered in the thick underbrush.”

When dusk fell, he managed to build a fire and make a bed out of fir boughs that he cut down with a pocket knife. The next day he tried again to find his way, but once again darkness forced him to set up a camp for the night. “His matches having given out, this night he suffered very much from cold.” He found plenty of water in the woods, but only a bit of chewing tobacco in his pocket kept his hunger at bay.

The next two days were more of the same. He periodically heard the shouts of the search party and tried to answer, only to become “completely baffled by the echoing of the reports through the forest.”

By now feeling “feeble and dispirited” and very hungry, he persevered for yet another day, but to no avail. “As evening approached his spirits sank, and he began to fear that his escape from this horrible position was hopeless. He accordingly with great presence of mind took a white pocket handkerchief and wrote on it some directions as to his affairs, and then raising his umbrella, which he always carried with him, he fixed it over his head so as to present a conspicuous mark, and lay down to what he must have thought was his last sleep.”

There he remained, dozing fitfully, for the next 36 hours. Waking up “considerably refreshed,” he tried yet again to make his way out of the thick forest. At last, this time he found the trail, and it wasn’t long after that when he came across some members of the search party.

In Some Reminiscences of Old Victoria, Edgar Fawcett recounted what happened next. When the searchers told James that they were glad to have found him, he replied, “‘Found me! Why, I am on my way home!'” When James learned that his partner Thomas Hibben had put up a reward for his discovery, “Mr. Carswell objected to pay,” wrote Fawcett, “protesting that [the search party] had not found him, but that he had found himself, and was on his way home when they met him. It caused a great deal of merriment, and was a standing joke for some time.”


Thomas Napier Hibben Starts One of Victoria’s Longest-Running Bookstores

When Thomas Napier Hibben opened his bookstore in Victoria in October 1858 (buying out William Kierski’s establishment on Yates Street), he likely could not have imagined that he was starting one of the longest-running bookstores in Victoria’s history.

Thomas Napier Hibben was a partner in the Noisy Carriers’ Book & Stationery Company of San Francisco prior to becoming the dominant bookseller in Victoria. (Horace Bushnell, California: Its Characteristics and Prospects, 1858)

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1827, Hibben had already amassed several years’ experience as a bookseller in San Francisco by the time he set up shop in Victoria. Hibben had been among the other “forty-niners” drawn by the California gold rush in 1849, but after trying his hand as a prospector, he had turned to the book trade (a story similar to that of early New Westminster and Vancouver bookseller Seth Tilley) (1).

Unlike his predecessor, William Kierski, or his remaining competitor in the Victoria book trade in 1858, W. F. Herre, Hibben actively marketed his new business, placing ads in almost every edition of the Victoria Gazette and later the Daily Colonist. (Perhaps his stint at San Francisco’s so-called Noisy Carrier had taught him a thing or two about promotions!)

A typical ad for T.N. Hibben in late 1858 and early 1859. (Victoria Gazette, December 25, 1858)

At first, Hibben called his store the Express Bookstore, a reference, perhaps, to his location next door to the express company Freeman & Co. But in 1859, the business’s name appears as Hibben & Carswell in recognition of partner James Carswell.

On July 20 of that year, Hibben & Carswell announced their presence in a new brick store they called Stationer’s Hall. Their ad is also an impressive call to buy books. Of all the ads I have seen in my research of BC bookstores thus far, this has to be my favourite.

Hibben & Carswell’s ad in the July 20, 1859, issue of the Daily Colonist.


(1) British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present: Biographical, vol. III (Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914), 694.


W. F. Herre: Victoria Bookstore and…Gambling Den?

Appearing in Victoria at almost the same time as William Kierski, W. F. Herre’s “book and paper stand” was located on Yates Street between Wharf and Government (1). A Jewish Frenchman who came to Victoria after first operating a book store in San Francisco (2), he announced his presence in Victoria on August 3, 1858:

(Victoria Gazette, August 3, 1858)

While researching Herre (whose first name I have yet to discover), I came across this amusing newspaper report from May 22, 1860:

A case was called on in the Police Court yesterday morning, which attracted a great crowd thither. It seems that Sergeant Carey has had the bookstore of W. F. Herre, on Yates Street, under his surveillance for some time, suspecting that gambling was being carried on in the rear apartments. On Sunday night last, Carey, in company with officers Dillon, Andrews, Whalen, and Druren, went to the rear of the house, and having peeped through the blinds, discovered a party of men playing cards. The posse then proceeded to the front door and demanded admittance, which being denied, the door was broken open and the following named parties arrested: W. F. Herre, proprietor of the house; N. Koshland, E. Marks, Hennry Barr, and E. Vaenberg. (3)

Herre was charged with keeping a gambling house and fined £20 (4).

Herre’s sideline business was also reported in the San Francisco papers: “Herre…vends newspapers and periodicals ostensibly,” the article read, “but privately he has a very nice little back room, where, in spite of the law and the excessively obnoxious penalty attached thereto, gentlemen have been known to lay down more than they took up cards” (5).


(1) Victoria Gazette, August 3, 1858; First Victoria Directory (Victoria: Edward Mallandaine & Co., 1860), 72.

(2) Madge Wolfenden, “Books and Libraries in Fur Trading and Colonial Days,” British Columbia Historical Quarterly 11, no. 3 (July 1947): 163; Cyril Edel Leonoff, Pioneers, Pedlars, and Prayer Shawls (Victoria, Sono Nis Press, 1978), 17; Daily Alta California (April 15, 1855): 1.

(3) “Interesting Case,” Daily Colonist (May 22, 1860): 1.

(4) Ibid.

(5) “Victoria, Vancouver Island,” Daily Alta California (March 22, 1862): 1.

Books for Sale · New Westminster · Victoria

At the Bookstore, 1861: Chambers’s Information for the People

(British Columbian, February 21, 1861)

Chambers’s Information for the People, one of the volume sets featured in an 1861 ad for Seth Tilley’s Colonial Book Store in New Westminster, offered everything “that is requisite for a generally well-informed man in the less highly educated portions of society”—or so claimed the book’s preface.

“Designed in an especial manner for the People, though adapted for all classes,” the preface continued, “the work will be found to comprise those subjects on which information is of the most importance … The ruling object, indeed, has been to afford the means of self-education, and to introduce into the mind, thus liberated and expanded, a craving after still further advancement.”

Astronomy, geology, meterology, geography, botany, zoology, natural philosophy, mechanics, optics, acoustics, electricity, chronology, chemistry, textile manufacturing, mining, metals, the steam engine, engineering, architecture, agriculture, animal husbandry, health, food preparation, and more: all these were covered in volume 1 alone, which ran to a hefty 824 pages:

(Source: Hathi Trust.)

Volume 2 packed a similar wallop, covering topics such as history, language, society, military and naval organization, countries, the human mind, phrenology, logic, theology and major religions, morality, political economy, commerce, education, social statistics, grammar, mathematics, drawing, gymnastics, indoor amusements, rhetoric, printing, engraving, and household hints.

The regularly updated reference work was edited by brothers William and Robert Chambers and was targeted at the working and trade classes. It played a role in the increasing influence of science and philosophical thought as a challenge to religion. To put the 1860 edition shown above in context: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published only one year before, in 1859.


William Kierski: First Bookseller in Victoria

“The first bookstore in Victoria was Kierski’s,” wrote Glennis Zilm in her 1981 thesis about the history of trade book publishing in BC in the nineteenth century (1). “Little is known about Kierski’s,” she added, and with that, Kierski’s story seems to have rested in silence ever since.

And little wonder. Unearthing anything about Kierski has been a bit tricky, even in this Google age.

In her thesis, Zilm included an image taken from an 1858 issue of the Victoria Gazette in which Kierski’s first initial is shown as “L.” But flipping through the original pages of the Gazette at UBC Rare Books and Special Collections (a marvellous experience that I highly recommend), I discovered that his initial appears as a “W” in all later instances. Hmmm.

The Victoria Gazette of August 3, 1858, shows Kierski’s first initial as “W.” Previous issues show him as L. Kierski. (UBC Rare Books and Special Collections; Lana Okerlund photograph)
Kierski’s ad in the September 3, 1858, issue of the Victoria Gazette. (UBC Rare Books and Special Collections; Lana Okerlund photograph)

With the “Wm.” to work from (see the above ad), presumably short for “William,” I started googling and trying every source I could think of. Soon I found evidence of Kierski & Brother, booksellers and stationers in San Joaquin County, California, around the same period. It couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought.

Kierski &  Brother, I then learned, were William and John S. Kierski, immigrants of Prussia who started their American lives in New York before setting up shop in Stockton, California, in about 1856 (2).

No mention of a stint in Victoria, though.

Fast-forward over months of periodic yet unsuccessful searches for more information, and a grainy online image from an October 1858 issue of the San Joaquin Republican finally provided the missing link. William Kierski’s time in Victoria had been brief (about four months), but there is no doubt that the Stockton bookseller is the same person as the first bookstore owner in Victoria:

The article in the San Joaquin Republican proving that the Stockton Kierski and the Victoria Kierski are one and the same. (San Joaquin Republican, October 23, 1858, p. 2)

“BACK AGAIN,” the article reads. “Our old neighbor, Mr. Wm. Kierski, has returned from Fraser river, or rather Victoria, where he has been engaged in business for some months. He went at the right time, and has done a good business as a newspaper dealer, and what is more, had wit enough to sell and return at the right time. Mr. Kierski brings some eight or ten ounces of the different varieties of gold dug from Hill’s, [unclear] and Murderer’s Bars. The specimens are [unclear], though not as bright as the gold dug upon the lower bars in this State. He intends to return when he learns of the discovery of dry diggings and [coarse?] gold. The only specimens of the latter that he has seen in that country are the [unclear] stamped with an American eagle.”

The sale referred to above of Kierski’s Victoria business was to T.N. Hibben, whom the Victoria Gazette announced as the successor to W. Kierski on October 9, 1858. The San Joaquin Republican may have felt that their man Kierski was wise to get out of Victoria when he did, but Thomas Napier Hibben would go on to become the premier bookseller in British Columbia for the next several decades.

Meanwhile, William and John Kierski remained in the book and stationery business in Stockton until at least 1875, judging by ads in the San Joaquin Republican. They also published a number of maps, such as Map of the City of Stockton and Environs in 1861 and A Map of the Seat of the War in Europe in 1866 (3). There is no evidence to suggest that either of them ever returned to Victoria for those “dry diggings.” John died in 1894 (4) and William in 1903 (5).


(1) Glennis Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia in the 1800s with Checklists and Selected Bibliography related to British Columbiana” (master’s thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1981), 59.

(2) Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), 349.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Obituary in San Francisco Chronicle (May 30, 1894): 10.

(5) Obituary in San Francisco Chronicle (July 23, 1903): 10.