It All Began With Gassy Jack...

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His Treasured Chest

      John Deighton who we more often refer to as Gassy Jack was first and foremost a sailor. His name is found in the Register of Seamens Tickets in the Public Record Office in England. We get some information about a youthful Gassy Jack from this seamen’s ticket which was issued when he was 16. His height was described as “growing,” his hair as “brown," his complexion as “fresh,” and his eyes “hazel.” (Years later when he was in his forties, Gassy Jack’s complexion was no longer “fresh” but described in a contemporary account as being “green, muddy , deep-purple“). It was noted that he could write and that he first went to sea as "1st boy”. His capacity at the time of the ticket issuance was described as “appe” which is apprentice.

      If it had to be this way - how appropriate then that the only known artifact pertaining to Captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton is a trunk - a sea chest - now in the Vancouver Museum. He mentions this chest in a letter to his brother Tom saying that if anything happens to him he wants Tom to have it. But what its actual history is after Gassy Jack’s death we don’t know. However, we do have some information available. The following photographs and description of the trunk have been provided courtesy of the Vancouver Museum. The trunk was donated to the Museum by the Vancouver Public Library.


      The trunk was most likely made in England c.1850. It is 50cm in height, 54.3 cm in depth, and 105 cm in width. The wood used could be camphor or oak. A brass nameplate nailed to the centre of the lid reads “John Deighton.“ There is a decorative brass inlay on the lid and front of the trunk. The corners of the decorative inlay form a fleur-de-lis. The Museum description notes that “sea chests of this type were often supplied with corner blocks to keep the bottom of the trunk off wet surfaces. The wide brass piping around the trunk’s edges was known as the kick strip, a device used to reduce wear and tear on the wood." However, on Gassy Jack’s trunk most of the brass kick strip is missing. There is some further wear and tear. “The lid does not sit squarely on the trunk. There are some missing parts - one hinge, one handle, the locking hardware. The surface is stained, dented and scratched; the wood has cracks from slight to moderate degrees.” The trunk inside is unfinished and has no dividers.

      Now if only Gassy Jack’s trunk could talk what stories would we hear?


Gassy Jack and His Times

      Sin on The Island Captain John “Gassy Jack” Deighton was a seafaring man and as such sailed the local waters. One of his frequent ports of call was Victoria whose image then in the 1860's was different from the prim and proper picture we have of it later. In the 1860's Victoria was booming. Governor Douglas had made it a free port, giving it a much resented commercial advantage over New Westminster, where import duties had to be paid. (It should be remembered that at this time Vancouver Island and British Columbia were still separate colonies.) Prosperity, and the constant passage of thousands of footloose men questing for gold changed the character of Victoria dramatically. The formerly quiet, and decorous Victoria became the sin city of the West Coast. Indian prostitutes often bedecked in elegant European-style costumes probably supplied by unscrupulous white men were frequently seen on the streets. It was a wide open town. (One suspects Gassy Jack must have enjoyed on a smaller scale the pleasures he had enjoyed in San Francisco.)

      The British Colonist on October 11,1860 grieved about the destruction the white man brought to the natives.“ The (Indian) tribes have much decreased since 1846. More than half the Songish are gone - these live here - their destruction occasioned principally by drink and dissolute habits. Those nearest the whites are worst. Slavery has increased. Female slaves are in demand. Women are purchased as slaves to let them out for immoral purposes. There is a white man, we trust not an Englishman, near Langley, who owns such slaves, and hangs out a sign over his door to signify the horrible iniquity there pursued.”

      Through the 1860 season, Gassy Jack continued steamboating, piloting first for one owner, then for another, as opportunity offered. But he could never get enough cash in hand to build or buy his own boat though his navigating skills were much in demand.


Awful Offal

      You can’t say that Gassy Jack wasn’t enterprising. When a guest complained about the absence of feather pillows in the Deighton House, the always enterprising Gassy Jack and his friends formed the Georgia Seagull Company. They planned to set up a long trough on the beach at Lulu Island (now Richmond) and fill it with fish offal and quicklime. The purpose of this was to trap gulls and then pluck the poor birds of their feathers for pillows at Deighton House. But the company fell apart when the capital assets proved to consist of a box of cigars and a half-empty bottle of whisky.


Life with Gassy Jack

      Gassy Jack’s first wife must have died somewhere around 1869 and 1870. Apparently before she died, she told her niece Qua-hail-ya or Madeline to marry Gassy Jack. Years later Madeline was to give the following description of her life with Gassy Jack to Archivist Major Matthews. "Gassy Jack was about your size (5’8 1/2 "); nice good man; then he come to Gastown, make great big hotel. After a while she sick; my aunt, Gassy Jack’s wife, and she die; I not stop long Gastown; be about 12 when I was GJ’s wife." Matthews says of Madeline that she was of "undoubted intelligence and character, gracious and kind." (for the portrait of Madeline by Mildred Valley Thornton click here)



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