TIME WINDOWS: Macao to Capilano: A Life Journey, Part 2

This is the story of Bryan Mahon’s grandmother, told in five installments.

The Rebbeck children in Victoria after the birth of Waller (on left). Gundrid is on the right

In the first installment, we witnessed the meeting of James Rebbeck and Lili d’Abbadie at her brother’s trading establishment on the Red River, in what was French Indochina. At the time, James was employed in Hong Kong with a company that built steamships and provided other transportation infrastructure, such as the Hong Kong Peak Tramway. The couple fell in love at first sight, and kept in touch with regular correspondence, while James struggled with the design of safety brakes for the steeply-inclined railway. There were also practical concerns to be dealt with before their marriage could take place.

As the impediments to the marriage of James Knight Rebbeck and Elizabeth (Lili) d’Abbadie were being breached, James took on a new position as a manger of the Green Island Cement Company at Macao, where he secured a house for their use after the prospective wedding. It was run down and the property overgrown by vegetation, but James again neglected his regular writing to make it worthy of his bride-to-be. They were married in Hong Kong on the morning of May 21, 1888. A couple of days later they took the mail steamer to Macao, forty miles to the west, and moved into the house James had prepared. The Peak Tramway started operations a week after their wedding day.

On March 20, 1889 Elizabeth gave birth to a girl they named Lilette (for “little Lili”). Officials arranged for a band to play God Save the Queen and the Portuguese national anthem under their open bedroom window in honour of the occasion. Another child, a girl named Rose Marie followed, but died in infancy. James attributed the loss to the unhealthy humid climate and decided to sever his connection to the Orient. He brought his family to Devizes, Wiltshire, the place of his youth. Here they saw the birth of another child on Dec. 29, 1891, a boy they named Brian, who died of respiratory complications on Feb. 21, 1892.

They also spent time with Elizabeth’s relations in France. James, however, was searching for better employment opportunities and after looking over promotional material, he decided to travel to BC to check out work prospects. During this time, Elizabeth completed her book on French Indochina. On Oct. 29, 1893 James was joined by his family in Vancouver, where he had secured a position with BC Iron Works. The family grew when Gundrid was born right in their rental house at Twelfth and Main on April 27, 1895.

Two years later the family relocated to Victoria, where James had secured a position as mechanical superintendent with Albion Iron Works. Here, their last child, Waller, was born. The Rebbecks loved the new setting. The house they were now renting was located within walking distance of the factory, which Elizabeth had insisted on:

As a rule I come home to lunch, and before we took the house the possibility of doing this had to be ascertained before my wife would throw her casting vote into the balance in favour of the house.

James was soon caught up in the Klondike frenzy. He observed the mad scramble of eager prospectors northward in September 1897 and thought many would perish from starting so late in the season. As the year turned, the ironworks took on the contract of building the first all-steel sternwheeler destined for service in the Yukon. James’ expertise was utilized in the engine design, which was based on “the introduction of Rider’s expansion valve worked from the engine crosshead.”

He keenly observed the scramble to secure the Alaska-Yukon boundary and could not refrain from commenting on previous devastating decisions wrought by gutless politicians:

It is to be hoped that the British Ministers will not make such unmitigated asses of themselves over this frontier question as they have hitherto done with BC. These Americans are individually and collectively a set of unscrupulous rogues and are ready to “jump” any claim. I do not believe there is any principle or honour in the people or their legislature and their greed and insolence are beyond description. … The Columbia River would have been the southern boundary of British Columbia but for the unblushing affrontery (“Gall”) of the Yankees and the idiocy of the British statesmen and now it’s to be hoped they will both have learnt better, bad learners tho they both are.

Many historians would agree with his sentiments about the border, as it should have been negotiated for the territory west of the Rockies.

To be continued …

Walter Volovsek’s website can be found at trailsintime.org

Previous installments in this series

Macao to Capilano: A Life Journey, Part 1

The Old Glory weather observatory

David Thompson: Mapping our region

Echoes from Savary Island

Reappraising the Franklin Expedition

Connecting with Albert McCleary

A story behind a photograph

Tribute to a photographer

Farron summit industry

Farron memories

Ben Shaw: Myth and reality

Lilette Mahon: Art in living

Lilette Mahon: A mentor’s gift

Edward Mahon: Searching for a legacy

Edward Mahon: A stimulating childhood

Ole Skattebo: Fishing legend

Ingenuity: Milking the river

Intrigues: Castlegar’s lacklustre childhood

Perceptions: Adrift on the River of Life

Local history interwoven with rivers

Drawn into the currents of time