On Christmas Day, although by then said to be seriously ill, George Milne was charged with incendiarism and placed under house arrest.
In an age of wooden buildings, open fireplaces and poor firefighting capabilities, fire was every frontier community’s worst nightmare.
That which destroyed Walter Akenhead’s two-storey frame building on Victoria Crescent, Nanaimo, Sunday evening, Dec. 5, 1886, created further sparks for its tenant, curios importer, dry goods merchant, grocer and architect(!), George Milne.
At an inquest before Stipendiary Magistrate J.P. Planta, stage driver Henry Thompson testified that he and Akenhead’s son were among the first to respond. Upon forcing entry to Milne’s living quarters, they searched each room without finding the smoke’s source until they opened a cupboard beneath the stairs and "the fire burst out in my face". He threw a can of water at it and retreated.
Thompson said the fire seemed to "come from the floor – it was burning all over. The flame appeared to be in the middle of the stairs."
Salesman J. Young, hailed by an excited Mrs. Akenhead as he returned from church, broke in through a window, only to be turned back by thick black smoke. He recalled a strong smell of kerosene.
Mary Ann Akenhead who, with her husband and two sons, shared occupancy of the building, couldn’t recall any unusual smells.
Neither could Walter Jr. who’d helped Thompson try to locate the seat of the fire.
Store owner George Milne said he’d been at Webb’s hotel when he heard the fire bell and he helped volunteers rescue some of his merchandise.
He’d worked in the store that day, with a small fire in the stove, and left about three hours before the fire was detected. He said he had two cans of kerosene for his own use, stored in the room behind the stairwell cupboard, that his business and household insurance totalled $1,680. Most of his stock was paid for, some of his ledgers were saved and were in the hands of the underwriters.
Mary Akenhead said outright what others were thinking: "Mr. Milne, what a job you have done – you have left us in the street without a hat to our head or a bed to lay on – you have ruined us."
Milne, who said he was not well, after being questioned about his whereabouts immediately prior to the fire, and the general state of his premises, was repeatedly grilled about his inventory and its insured value.
A competitor whose adjacent store was also consumed bitterly estimated the full value of Milne’s merchandise to have been $80! Teamsters and freight clerks testified that Milne had never ordered anything near the inventory that he claimed to have lost. Only firefighter John Scales offered slight supporting evidence with his observation that the store’s shelves "seemed pretty well filled up with tins of stuff".
It did Milne no good. On Christmas Day, although by then said to be seriously ill, he was charged with incendiarism and placed under house arrest.
Six months later, on the very day he was to go to trial, he died of consumption. His wasn’t the only death in the affair, landlord Akenhead having predeceased him as had George Montgomery whose store was also consumed.
Did Milne burn down his own store for the insurance money? At the Spring Assizes the Hon. H.P.P. Crease said that he owed it to Milne’s memory to state that, "After a careful perusal of the depositions, [I] consider… they [do] not show any great evidence of guilt, and the principal charge against him, told more against the Insurance Company" for not having confirmed the value of his inventory at the time of his buying a policy than it did Milne.