Victoria Bookseller James Carswell and the Mythical Connection with Toronto’s Carswell Legal Publishing

I was recently contacted by someone who is writing a biography of Robert Carswell, founder of the legal-publishing firm Carswell Company in Toronto in the mid-1860s. She wondered, just as I once did, if there was any connection between her subject and my Victoria bookseller James Carswell, a partner in Hibben & Carswell from 1858 to 1866.

Both of us had come across claims, like one here, that after dissolving his partnership with Hibben, James had moved to Toronto to co-found the legal-publishing firm. However, based on newspaper articles from the time and various archival records I’ve collected, I have concluded that this is not true.

In 1867, just a few months after leaving Hibben, James was reported to have opened a general store in Cowichan:

(Daily Colonist, May 24, 1867)

James was still in Cowichan in March 1868, when he made the news for capsizing his canoe in Cowichan Bay:

By 1871, James had quit BC for Glasgow, where his wife, Elizabeth Ferguson (and likely he himself), was from. In a letter published in the Colonist, Reverend Thomas Somerville (a minister from Glasgow who had been with the Presbyterian church in Victoria) reported that James had set up an agency business there.

On October 19, 1872, James died in Glasgow. Although the local BC newspapers reported (with the same Rev. Somerville as the source) that James had “cut his hand severely and bled so freely that he never recovered,” his Scottish death certificate records the cause as epilepsy. It also states that he was 47 years old and a restaurateur at the time of his death.

Although it seems highly unlikely that James could have fit in the co-founding of Carswell Company in Toronto, I thought there might still be a familial connection between the two bookish Carswells. However, finding any evidence of this has also proved elusive.

We know from James’s marriage and death certificates that his parents were John and Anne (Finnie) Carswell, and that he was born in about 1825, whereas Robert was born in Colborne, Ontario, in 1838, to Hugh and Margaret Carswell, both originally from Glasgow.

So they weren’t brothers. But perhaps cousins or uncle/nephew?

Maddeningly, I haven’t been able to find a birth record for James Carswell in Scottish archives. However, John Carswell and Anne Finnie are recorded as having multiple children, including a son named Hugh in February 1825. Huh. James Carswell was 47 in October 1872, so I concluded that his birth year was 1825. Were James and Hugh twins? One and the same person? Or was James’s age perhaps recorded incorrectly at his death?

I still don’t know, but even so, this Hugh Carswell would have been too young to have fathered Robert Carswell in Colborne in 1838. And there the mystery still remains…


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.