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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

It will always be Jimmy Chickens Island

News Item: When Charlee the American bulldog was spooked by Halloween fireworks in Victoria, she took off. Rather, she swam to Mary Tod Island off Oak Bay. I’m pleased to report that she was soon reunited with her owner, but that’s not my story which is about one of my favourite pioneers

Maps show the wooded isle off Oak Bay as Mary Tod Island but to those who know their history it will always be Jimmy Chickens Island.

This amazing eccentric and his wife Jenny lived there in their little shack during the rare intervals between enforced stays “inside the precincts of the durance vile on Cormorant Street or the brick mansion on Topaz Avenue” (the city and provincial jails).

Jimmy and Jenny, you see, were slaves to demon drink

Time and again the aging couple was to be seen, the worse for wear, staggering arm in arm down a city street until hustled from view of sensitive eyes by a man in blue. Then would come a brief appearance before a magistrate and a sojourn in the city lockup or the cold confines of Hillside Jail.

Finally came the sad day when Jenny died and Jimmy was alone, and in his grief “even the effervescing firewater had no pleasures for him”. But with time, his old habits returned and once again the friendly old aboriginal could be seen making his weary way towards Oak Bay.

If forced by heavy weather, or a heavy load, to remain overnight, the good-humoured Jimmy would merely shrug and curl up under a board sidewalk for the duration.

Ever a favourite of police and jailers
He was a model prisoner, working hard, his eternal grin a ray of sunshine in the dreary cellblocks. Always trustworthy, he was often released during the day to run errands, always returning upon the appointed hour.

Even magistrates liked the old character, often suppressing a chuckle each time he proffered one of his amazing legal arguments. Once, he’d been heavily fined for possession of a quart of whiskey; subsequently tried for having a pint of the same, Jimmy argued that it was only fair that he should pay half the fine for half the whiskey!

Between sentences, Jimmy returned to his little island shack, fished for salmon and dug clams until he could again afford to worship at the shrine of Bacchus–and again find himself in the prisoner’s dock.

His unholy career nearly came to a premature end in 1899 when, overcome by loneliness, he slipped into the Songhees village and away with a young “bride”. Four angry relatives in hot pursuit, he made it almost to his island before the posse caught up, rammed and sank his canoe. Struggling ashore, the old man hid in the trees until the girl’s rescuers retired.

This close call effectively ended Jimmy’s romantic adventures

Two years later, he died alone in his shack and Victorians mourned the loss of one of their most colourful and best loved characters.

Once, a court official who’d taken the trouble of tallying up Jimmy’s remarkable record, estimated, after careful study…that it has taken more than three gallons of ink and four boxes of steel pins for the city’s clerk to register the entries in which the classic name of Jimmy Chickens appears, while the liquor that Jimmy and his wife have punished so far in their lifetime would fill the Esquimalt [dry]dock three times, floating two such boats as the Westmore, or keeping 18 dudes of normal capacity, drunk for a decade!”

For all his foibles, Jimmy had been loved by all; 100 canoes escorted his casket to the island where he was buried beside his darling Jenny.

If nothing else, Jimmy Chickens had possessed a sense of humour beyond price although there had been those who’d have disputed the point. Such as the early, early morning that he loudly knocked at the door of the Mount Baker Hotel, awakening one and all.

When alarmed proprietor John Virtue threw open the door, expecting an emergency, he was met by Jimmy’s soft-spoken, “You got a match, Mr. Virtue?”

Mercifully, history has drawn its curtain up Mr. Virtue’s reply.

–Excerpted from Capital Characters: A Celebration of Victorian Eccentrics, T.W. Paterson


  1. Very interesting reading , The Causeway Battle 1944 part 2
    I am looking for part 1. We lived in Holland during that time, and my sister still lives there in Walcheren in Domburg on your map.
    I searched for part 1 of the story. But could not find it , when wasit published.
    We were also liberated by CAnadians . Not totally sure which regiment. We were evacuated from Arnhem after the Battle of Arnhem , Sept 17 1944. Also known as one Bridge too Far. This battle in Walcheren took place after Arnhem had failed.
    Thank you
    Jan & Olga Ytsma , Chemainus

    • Hi: If you haven’t found your copy of the Wednesday (Dec. 3) Citizen let me know and I’ll email you the first installment. There are four more to go, beginning Wed., Dec. 9th. You obviously have a great story to tell of your wartime adventures.
      Arnhem Rd. off Lakes Rd. takes its name from this famous battle, by the way. –TWP

  2. Hi Tom – sorry, I couldn’t find an email address for you on this site. I’m asking if you have any leads for a mapping source that shows coordinates for formal benchmarks used in the geodetic survey of the area. An hour or two searching using all sorts of terms including those above, has gotten me nowhere.

    The specific benchmark I’m seeking is the one about 60 feet west of the cross on Mt. Tzouhalem. It is a round brass item about 3 inches diameter set into the mountain stone. I’d like to know who and when it got there, and how precisely it’s position is known. There is line of sight to the sea, so altitude was easy to determine there. There is line of sight to most of the valley too, so presumably that benchmark is directly tied to others benchmarks around the valley.

    My wife and I have moved out to Duncan area February 2015 from Darkest Toronto. We are enjoying your columns in the Cow Citizen.

    Steve Nazar
    250 597 7880 landline

    • Hi, Steve: Sorry that I just saw your query. I’ve seen many of these brass buttons over the years; there’s one in the middle of the road at the top of my driveway. I should think that the Geodetic Survey office would be the best source of info on these markers. They might even make a good column. Glad you and your wife have joined us in the wonderful Cowichan Valley. Please keep reading ‘Cowichan Chronicles’ in the Cowichan Valley Citize. –TW

      • Hi again TWP,
        Enjoyed reading your many articles and this is my third and last note to take up your column space.
        The brass buttons used to be called “Bench Marks”. They were installed by a surveyor, drilling a hole by hand into rock with a “star drill”, and then cementing the bronze disk into place for posterity.
        Then they would install a tripod with a plumb bob centered over the button ,then a theodolite on the tripod to take reading of various directions, elevations, etc, for the area.
        In the city, that was it, a permanent location and elevation marker to be referred to at any date in the future.
        When used in map making, after the readings, a “tripod tent” was erected over the brass marker on many BC mountains such that surveyors from 20 miles away could see visually, and read that specific location, and tie it into the grid through their theodolites.
        Enough said and sorry I have rambled to your readers on a simple question.
        Thank you for enriching my day and memories. The instruments we used were WILD T2’s.
        TODAY, Satellites do it all in a few seconds.

  3. I believe it’s Jimmy Chicken Island. Not ChickenS. That’s what my Oak Bay friends and I grew up calling it and other historical sources call it.

    • Hi, Andrea: My apologies, your query almost fell through the cracks. I see contemporary (online) references use the singular, Jimmy Chicken. The island isn’t listed in the ‘B.C. Gazzetteer’ but my research in the old Victoria Colonists for my book, ‘Capital Characters,’ must have referred to Jimmy the man in the plural. But my files for Victoria characters are in storage so I can’t readily access them to confirm the ‘s’.
      Again, sorry to have overlooked you for so long. –TWP

      • I appreciate your writings and stories. My father YELKATTSE, knew about Jimmy Chicken being Indigenous from the Tsawout First Nation. I have a request of you, have you researched a sacred tree and stream that provided miraculous healing properties with a location in what is now Oak Bay. HI’SWKE (thank you) for your response

        • Thank you for writing, Calvin. The only tree to my knowledge that meets your description was in Cadboro Bay beside the so-called Mystic Spring. Journalist D.W. Higgins told its story in his 1904 book which he named for the Spring. I wrote about it in one of my 2016 columns in the Cowichan Valley Citizen, Duncan.
          If you wish to read it (it’s a shorter version of Higgins’ story) I can forward a copy by email. Cheers, TW
          PS: Jimmy Chicken is one of my favourite historical characters. I first wrote about him in my book, Capital Characters and I’m going to do so again in a forthcoming history of Victoria’s Hillside Jail.

  4. Hello Tom,

    I enjoyed reading your recent column in the Cowichan Citizen about men from the Cowichan Valley who went to war. I was born and grew up in the Cowichan Valley and have information on some of my ancestors who served in the the first and second world wars. I can send you some pdf’s if you give me an email address.

    • We have established contact, Brian, and you’ve sent me some great biographical material and photos. As I informed you by email I need to catch up (and catch my breath) over this week after 3 months of overtime and stress to get my newest book, ‘Cowichan Goes to War, 1914-1918,’ to press. I wish every family had the interest and took the trouble to record their own histories as you are doing. Ah, well… –TWP

  5. Funny, but I read a story like this and I can’t help but smile. To know that there were folks such as this who by today’s standards would be considered losers and not worthy of a second glance, but this couple for all their downfalls in life were actually the salt of the earth who over their period of time in this world garnered the respect and friendship of so many people in the small city of Victoria. For all his faults Jimmy Chicken was still an honest and trust worthy human being who could not be faulted other than he could not stay away from drink. What a lovely story and what makes it ever greater is the fact that he was escorted by those who respected and admired this man to his long lost wife Jenny so they could once again be together.

    • Thank you, Brian, for the most generous, kind hearted response to one of the thousands of articles that I’ve written in years!
      Today, the Joneses would be looked down upon as ‘street people,’ ‘winos,’ ‘bums,’ when, in their own way, they were quality human beings. In fact, Jemmy is one of my historical heroes–and for all of the people I’ve written about in my career, I don’t have many real heroes. Because so few have had the rare quality of what I would term nobility. I don’t mean nobility as we apply it to royalty, but as it realates to the human spirit.
      Every so often, I think of Jemmy’s “Got a match, Mr. Virtue?” and I chuckle for the hundredth time.
      It’s writing about people such as Jimmy and his wife that makes writing, for me, not just a joy but, sometimes, almost a privilege in that it allows me to, if only briefly, shine the spotlight on someone from long ago who has been forgotten but whose passage on this earth is worthy of remembrance.
      As the subtitle of my book, Capital Characters, says, it’s a celebration of these men and women from long ago who, with the exceptions of the likes of Boone Helm, are worthy of an historian’s respect. Thank you again, TWP

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