Going Inside T.N. Hibben & Co.

Picking up from my last post about the fantastic photo of Vancouver’s Clarke & Stuart, here’s one that takes us inside a 19th-century bookstore: T.N. Hibben & Co. of Victoria.

The interior of T.N. Hibben & Co., Victoria (Royal BC Museum and Archives, G-02974).

Here we can see all the wonderful books lining the walls (floor to ceiling, at least on the right) and displayed down the middle. I feel like I can almost smell their leather bindings.

Stationery and blank books, some of which we can see at the front right, were important parts of the business, as were items like photographs, maps, typewriters and office equipment, toys, and sporting goods, like the racquets hanging on the left.

Although the Royal BC Museum and Archives dates this photo as ca. 1891, I believe it was taken before January 1890, because that is when founder Thomas Napier Hibben died, and the man on the front right looks an awful lot like Hibben in the portrait below, with his distinctive white beard either side of an exposed chin.

Thomas Napier Hibben, ca. 1860 (Royal BC Museum and Archives, F-02887).


New Westminster

George Clarkson of Clarkson & Co., New Westminster Bookseller

After Seth Tilley sold his Colonial Bookstore in New Westminster to Victoria’s Hibben & Carswell in 1863, they took on a local partner named George Cubitt Clarkson, who operated the store as Clarkson & Co.

Born in Ontario

Born in 1843 in Ontario (or Upper Canada, as it was then called), George was the eldest child and only living son of William and Jane Clarkson. William was quite a well-known pioneer in New Westminster, arriving in 1858, with his family following shortly thereafter.

William and Jane Clarkson, with their children (l-r) Mary, Hannah, George, Sarah, and Kate, ca. early 1860s (New Westminster Archives, IHP0856)

William became the first president of New West’s municipal council in 1864 (he is sometimes called the city’s first mayor), and he remained politically involved throughout his life. He also ran the New Westminster House (a boarding house), acted as a real estate agent, owned an apple tree nursery, and amassed significant land holdings. Clarkson Street in New Westminster is named for the family.

A Five-Year Bookselling Career

George was twenty when he became a bookseller, and he reportedly did very well. He carried on the Columbia Street store much as Tilley had, advertising a large range of books, stationery, newspapers and periodicals, maps, musical instruments, toys and games, and other goods.

In March 1868, George added a circulating library to his store, and on June 10 that same year, the British Columbian applauded him for the “business energy and push” that had increased the circulation “of useful periodical literature throughout the mainland to double what it has been heretofore.”

The partnership between George Clarkson and T.N. Hibben & Co. was dissolved on June 20, 1868. At first George carried on Clarkson & Co. on his own, but by October, he had a new partner in his brother-in-law, John Stillwell Clute, who had married George’s sister Sarah in 1866.

Clute & Clarkson sold much more than books and stationery, operating more as a general store. Charles Major (another of George’s brothers-in-law, married to Mary Clarkson in 1867) joined the partnership too.

Called to the Church
George Clarkson, ca. 1872 (Chilliwack Museum and Archives, PP500453)

In 1870, George left business life when “the bent of his mind led him to adopt the church as his mission,” as his later obituary put it. He went to Ontario to attend Victoria College, where he prepared to enter the ministry. He also married during this time.

When George and his new wife returned to British Columbia, he served as a Wesleyan Methodist missionary in Chilliwack and Sumas. Now known as Reverend Clarkson, he remained in Chilliwack for two years.

The End of a Short Life

Voting records for 1874 and 1875 list George as a “trader,” so presumably he left the ministry and returned to New Westminster. In 1877, he was appointed as a customs collector in Burrard Inlet. He would not hold the position for long.

On May 15, 1877, George died of paralysis (likely meaning a stroke) at the age of thirty-three. “His upright and kindly disposition had implanted…great respect and regard in a large circle of acquaintance, by whom his loss will be surely regretted,” his obituary in the British Columbian read. “For his bereaved family and young widow, we know that the strongest sympathy is everywhere felt. Mr. Clarkson leaves no children.”



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.”