There were more sparks at the inquest than at the fire

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.

www.twpaterson.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ultra runner Jerry Hughes circles the track at the Cowichan Sportsplex as he nears the end of his six-day Canadian record attempt and fundraiser in November. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Six days on the Cowichan Sportsplex track for ultramarathoner

Record bid misses, but fundraiser a success

Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Doug Routley was passed up for a cabinet position by Premier John Horgan. (Photo submitted)
Nanaimo-North Cowichan MLA Routley left off the list of NDP cabinet ministers again

Premier Horgan opts for some newcomers in key positions over experienced MLA

Protesters stand in front of a truck carrying logs to the WFP Ladysmith log sort. (Cole Schisler photo)
Protesters block entrance to Western Forest Products in Ladysmith

Blockade cleared by Ladysmith RCMP around noon, December 2

Cowichan RCMP rally against gender-based violence. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Cowichan RCMP mark campaign against gender-based violence

16 days of activism runs until Dec. 10

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are inviting audiences into their home for ‘A Celtic Family Christmas’. (Submitted)
Natalie MacMaster coming to you through Cowichan Performing Arts Centre

Here’s your chance to enjoy the famed fiddler in an online show with her husband Donnell Leahy.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation at the legislature, Nov. 30, 2020. (B.C. government)
Hockey team brought COVID-19 back from Alberta, B.C. doctor says

Dr. Bonnie Henry pleads for out-of-province travel to stop

Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital took in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health as part of a provincial agreement. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria hospital takes in two COVID-19 patients from Northern Health

Royal Jubilee Hospital takes patients as part of provincial transport network

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Premier John Horgan on a conference call with religious leaders from his B.C. legislature office, Nov. 18, 2020, informing them in-person church services are off until further notice. (B.C. government)
B.C. tourism relief coming soon, Premier John Horgan says

Industry leaders to report on their urgent needs next week

An RCMP cruiser looks on as a military search and rescue helicopter winds down near Bridesville, B.C. Tuesday, Dec. 1. Photo courtesy of RCMP Cpl. Jesse O’Donaghey
B.C. Mountie, suspect airlifted by Canadian Armed Forces from ravine after foot chase

Military aircraft were dispatched from Comox, B.C., say RCMP

An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
“We can do better” — humans the leading cause of orca deaths: study

B.C. research reveals multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Most Read