LITERARY LOCATION: Robert Service Memorial Park, Cowichan Bay. DIRECTIONS: When you're driving on Cowichan Bay Road towards the village, just past the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club, at the little bridge on the right, you can find a Robert Service memorial bench, near the intersection of Cowichan Bay Road and Bench Road.

Although he's mainly associated with the Yukon and the Klondike gold rush, Robert Service, one of the most successful and widely known poets or 'rhymsters' of the 20th century, also lived for four years near Duncan on Vancouver Island, having emigrated from Glasgow in 1896 with $15 in his pocket. He arrived on Vancouver Island with visions of becoming a cowboy.

According to the Cowichan Valley Museum, Robert Service worked for the local Corfield family doing all kinds of jobs but he was best known for working in the Corfield Store on the Koksilah River. He also served as a part-time school teacher for the children on the Corfield farm and participated in local theatricals. The "Canadian Kipling" published his poem while in the Cowichan Valley, on December 5, 1903, in the Duncan Enterprise--a poem about the local swimming hole. Service reportedly wrote twenty-five poems while in the Cowichan Valley. Before his worldwide notoriety as the Bard of the North, Service had spent seven years on Vancouver Island, from 1896 to 1903.

A cairn and two benches mark the former site of the Corfield Store where Service worked. The stone cairn, erected in 1958, recalls pioneers who arrived on the H.M.S. Hecate in 1862. A stone bench was built for Robert Service in 1959. A year later a second stone bench was added to recognize early pioneer women of the Cowichan Valley. This memorial park was created by the Prevost Post of the Native Sons of B.C. to recognize the early European settlers within the Cowichan Valley.

In Scotland, Service had dabbled in Socialism and worked in a bank. Eager to test himself and become physically stronger, he saved his money, quit his banking job at age 21 and sailed steerage class to Montreal, carrying with him a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Amateur Emigrant, a letter of reference from the bank and a Bill Cody outfit.

After working on farms in the Cowichan Valley area, mostly as a 'cow juice jerker', and learning to play the banjo, Duncan visited San Francisco, drifted throughout the west and learned to plunk rudimentary chords on a guitar that was acquired when he worked as a handyman in a house of ill repute. The balladeer was generally uncomfortable with high society. Later in life, when he was living in Monte Carlo, he told a friend, "Somerset Maugham was a neighbour of mine but I'm scared of these big fellows. I like eating in pubs and wearing old clothes. I love low life. I sit with all the riff raff in cafes and play the accordian for them."

Robert Service returned to British Columbia from California and enrolled in the University of Victoria in 1903, planning to become a teacher, but he failed in two courses. Destitute, he was only able to get work as a teller in a bank at Fort and Government. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in Victoria sent him to Kamloops in 1904, then onto their branch in Whitehorse where he often entertained at church and social events, reciting poetry. A friend suggested he write his own.

According to Service, the famous opening line of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, "A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon" just popped into his head as he was passing a Whitehorse bar on Main Street. He supposedly went to the bank and stayed up all night finishing the poem.

Service sent his collection of poems to a publisher of hymn books in New York, expecting to order only a limited printing for friends. When the pressmen began laughing and reciting the poems on the job, the commercial possibilities of the rhymes became apparent to the printer. Later editions of Songs of a Sourdough include a dedication page that reads, "To C. M." Contance M. McLean was a young woman in Vancouver with whom Service had fallen in love while he was working on Vancouver Island. The Beatrice Corbett Papers at Queen's University, Kingston, include letters from Service to McLean that have established the identity of "C.M." [For more on the unrequited love affair, see article below.]

In 1908 Robert Service was transferred to Dawson City where he wrote his second popular book, Ballads of a Cheechako.

Robert Service left the north in 1912 to visit the Balkans as a correspondent. He married a French girl named Germaine Bougeoin in Paris in 1913. During World War II he was a correspondent and stretcher bearer. After the war he lived for a time in Monte Carlo.

During World War II, when Service lived mainly in Los Angeles, he appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich in a 1942 Hollywood film called The Spoilers. Some of Service's novels and his Dan McGrew poem were used as the basis for movies. Service's output included some 2,000 poems, not all of which have been published. His published work included 13 poetry books, six novels, two volumes of memoirs and a book on physical fitness.

It was Robert Service who advised Robert Swanson to write his bunkhouse ballads about the logging camps of the West Coast. Swanson took the advice, duplicated Service's sing-song yarns and became British Columbia's bestselling poet of the 1930s and 1940s.

Service was born in Preston, England on January 16, 1874. He died in Lancieux, France on September 11, 1958.

Carl F. Klinck and Keith Richardson published a biography, Robert Service, in 1976. Other biographies include James MacKay's Robert Service: Vagabond of Verse and G.W. Lockart's On the Trail of Robert Service. The most extensive collection of manuscript sources and 'Serviciana' is at the Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow. The Yukon Archives in Whitehorse also has considerable holdings. Pierre Berton, whose mother was once asked to dance by Robert Service in the Yukon, interviewed Service for three days in Monte Carlo shortly before Service's death.

Robert Service's rustic cabin in Dawson City is preserved as a heritage site. Very few people know his presence on Vancouver Island has also been commemorated. His early work is in the public domain in the U.S. but in Canada the copyright will remain in effect until 70 years after Service's death, or until 2028.

Despite his enormous popularity, Service maintained an inferiority complex that extended to his writing. Although he was a voracious reader with an extensive library, he rarely bothered with poetry. He considered himself merely a skilled rhymster whose work belonged to simple folks. In 'A Verseman's Apology' he wrote:

The classics! Well, most of them bore me
The Moderns I don't understand;
But I keep Burns, my kinsman, before me,
And Kipling, my friend, is at hand.
They taught me my trade as I know it,
Yet though at their feet I have sat,
For God-sake don't call me a poet,
For I've never been guilty of that.

Although Service earned his notoriety with some unforgettable ballads, he also wrote hundreds of clunkers. For instance, in 'The Spell of the Yukon' within Songs of a Sourdough, he wrote:

There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting;
It's luring me on, as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting,
So much as just finding the gold.
It's the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.


1907 Songs of a Sourdough - verse (The Spell of Yukon in the U.S. version.)
1909 Ballads of Cheechako - verse
1910 The Trail of Ninety-Eight: a northland romance
1912 Rhymes of a Rolling Stone - verse
1914 The Pretender: A Story of the Latin Quarter - popular fiction
1916 Rhymes of a Red Cross man - verse
1921 Ballads of a Bohemian - verse
1922 The Poisoned Paradise: A romance of Monte Carlo - popular fiction
1923 The Roughneck: A Tale of Tahiti - popular fiction
1926 The master of the microbe: A Fantastic Romance - popular fiction
1927 The House of Fear - popular fiction
1928 Why Not Grow Young? - popular fiction
1930 Collected Verse - verse
1933 Complete poems - verse
1939 Twenty Bath-tub Ballads - verse
1945 Ploughman of the Moon - autobiography to 1912
1948 Harper of Heaven - autobiography, later years
1949 Songs of a sun-lover - verse
1950 Rhymes of a Roughneck - verse
1951 Lyrics of a Lowbrow - verse
1952 Rhymes for my Supper - verse
1954 Carols of an old codger - verse
1956 Rhymes for my rags - verse
1957 Cosmic carols - verse
1960 Collected Verse
2003 The Best of Robert Service (Hancock House)


Mallory, Enid. Robert Service: Under the Spell of the Yukon (Heritage House, 2006). 1-894384-95-4 $32.95

[BCBW 2006] "Klondike"