More than 150 years ago, a "rather honest" sergeant on the Victoria Police Department decided to pick up his pen and ink and write a letter to the governor of the colony of Vancouver Island to tell him about the department's corrupt superintendent.

Harry Wilmer wrote that he had just been dismissed from the force, which he reckoned was because he had discovered that the department's superintendent, Horace Smith, was taking bribes from Victoria saloon owners in exchange for keeping quiet about all the illegal gambling houses popping up within the city's watering holes.

That was the start of more troubles for Wilmer, said Ember Lundgren, the preservation manager for the Royal BC Museum and BC Archives.

Lundgren added that the cop, who she described as someone who "seemed to be a rather honest individual," would go on to be jailed and sued by the superintendent before being vindicated.

Colonial correspondence put online

Wilmer's letter is just one of about 90,000 pages of similar documents from the 19th century that the Victoria museum has now scanned, digitized, and uploaded to the BC Archives' online collection for the public to access.

The records are the paper correspondence of the Government of Vancouver Island (1849-1866), the Government of the Colony of British Columbia (1858-1871) and united Colony of British Columbia (1866-1871).

It can be accessed by going to the BC Archives collections webpage and searching "GR-1372".


One of the pages relating to Victoria Police sergeant Harry Wilmer's correspondence with the former Vancouver Island government. (BC Archives)

Lundgren said this collection — which was funded by a grant from the University of British Columbia's Irving K. Barber Learning Centre — complements other primary and secondary sources that have already been scanned, which allows those who are curious to delve deeper into the characters and events they come across.

"I was able to read this letter from Harry and go, 'Wow, what's all this about?' " Lundgren said. 

"Then I was able to go to (the University of Victoria) and look at their colonial dispatches as well as the British colonist newspapers that have been scanned and look him up and look up the dates and find out what the story was to add to that one letter that I saw that made me go, 'What is this all about? Gambling? And saloons?' "

And whatever did happen to Wilmer?

After he sent his letter, he was detained and dragged in front of the police commissioner for questioning, and thrown in jail while superintendent Smith awaited trial, Lundgren said.

"Then to top it off, Horace Smith, it appears  — after the trial with the two hung juries — he sued some newspaper editors as well as Wilmer for defamation of character, so Wilmer had to then defend himself."

Lundgren said the records then indicate that Smith resigned from his position, but there are no records (not even a record of death in B.C.) to suggest that happened to Wilmer.

"Let's hope that he just sailed off into the sunset and got a job somewhere else and had a happy life."

With files from CBC's All Points West

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Royal BC Museum puts thousands of pages of colonial-era documents online