Every so often — not often enough! — a Chronicles reader steps forward with a story of their own that’s so well told that there’s little I need to do to improve it.
Such is the case with today’s column, courtesy of Brian Excell, an up-Island, online reader. In December, he wrote that he’d enjoyed my column of several years ago about my ‘namesake,’ the Hon. T.W. Paterson. (Alas, all similarity ends there: that T.W. was rich and better looking.)
Here, in Brian’s own words, is the story of his somewhat tenuous but fascinating link with B.C.’s lieutenant-governor of just over a century ago…
“This [T.W. Paterson] brings to my mind how a chain of events can dramatically affect the direction of one’s life, for as it turns out this gentleman, without ever knowing it, did just that to mine.
John Spenlove Bennett arrived from England to settle in Victoria around 1911 with wife Louise and one small child; two more would be added by 1914. John had experience in the manufacture and selling of furniture so used this background to open an auction house in the 1100 block, Fort Street.
It was slow going at first, but by the spring of 1915 he had gradually built up the business to near profitability. For his May auction he received a consignment of a fine sterling silver canteen from a Mrs. Marie L. Brown who had recently moved from Victoria to Vancouver. The winning bid of $274 was from the Hon. T. W. Paterson who had recently retired as British Columbia’s lieutenant-governor.
It turned out, however, that Mrs. Brown never received the proceeds from this sale. Bennett’s excuse that the cheque was lost in the mail did not sit well with Mrs. Brown who subsequently sued him. Paterson verified in court that the cheque he paid for the lot was his, proving that Bennett had duly received the money, but had not sent payment to Mrs. Brown.
The presiding magistrate, Judge George Jay, ignoring Bennett’s plea that he would make restitution, sentenced him to six months in the local [jail]. To Jay, “…it was one of the most contemptible cases that had come before him,” according to a newspaper account. Therefore Justice appeared to have been served.
In hindsight, perhaps this sentence was overly severe, for it may have had something to do with the Old Boys’ network—a former lieutenant-governor should never be so compromised.
However, this had a profound effect on Bennett’s young family for his wife and children were now without financial support. One drastic solution was to place the youngest child, year-old Leslie, into the local Protestant Orphans’ Home with the hope of retrieving him once the Bennetts got back on their feet.
But after two months had elapsed it was agreed that he would be given up for guardianship to a childless couple in the Cowichan Valley by the name of Excell. Horace Excell had arrived in New York State from England around 1880 and in 1893 married Blanche Chalker (of an old upstate family). Horace and Blanche left New York for Montana—Horace to work in a Butte copper mine, then around 1909 on to Duncan, Vancouver Island to work at the [Mount Sicker] copper mine there.
Despite never having been legally adopted (meaning a change in surname) young Leslie was raised as their own. He assumed the name ‘Excell’ and was so known for the rest of his life.
Around the same time, Magistrate George Jay was facing his own challenge. Jay’s eldest daughter, Constance (Connie) was in the middle of divorce proceedings in 1921. She was the wife of the local businessman and sportsman, Bernie Schwengers. Prior to the First War Schwengers had made a name for himself as a high profile all-round athlete; he had won the Canadian tennis open, was a member of Canada’s first Davis Cup team, played Major League level baseball, was an accomplished golfer, soccer player and set records in track.
Schwengers, it seems, was always on the go and perhaps occasionally absent from his domestic obligations. It appears Connie sought solace outside of marriage. The divorce was finalized leaving Connie with little support for her and their three children.
It was decided that the oldest, a son, would remain under the care of Bernie who enrolled him as a Shawnigan Lake School boarder. Bernie and Connie’s two daughters, Helen Naomi and Olga Beverly, were taken in and raised by their grandparents, magistrate Jay and his wife, Emily. Olga graduated from Vic High in 1935 and subsequently found work in 1936, through a connection of the Judge, as a clerk stenographer in Duncan.
It didn’t take long for Olga Schwengers to meet Leslie Excell one day in the Duncan post office; they were married in Oak Bay in 1940 (also the year of her grandfather’s death). George Jay, Olga, Leslie and their respective families would never know anything of Leslie’s connection to George Jay’s court sentence of 25 years earlier.
As you may have guessed, Olga and Leslie were my parents.
This has prompted me to ponder the chain of events, starting with the Hon. [T.W.] Paterson, which eventually led to my birth. It’s a sobering thought that my great grandfather sentenced my grandfather to penal servitude. As for Leslie, he retired as a sergeant in the RCMP.
[Sometimes] the acorn does fall far from the tree. My parents were married for 58 years, until Leslie’s death in 1999. My thanks again to the Hon. T.W. Paterson.”
And my thanks to Brian Excell for a great story.