"I'm English Bill,
Never worked and never will;
Get away, girls
Or I'll tousle your curls."
This bit of doggerel verse was sung with gusto on the Cariboo goldfields by the miners about one of their own, Billy Barker, a pioneer who struck it rich, gave his name to a town, died penniless and was buried in Victoria's Ross Bay Cemetery in an unmarked pauper's grave.
Not much is known about Billy's early life. For many years, it was thought he was born in Cornwall, England and his nickname was "Cornish Bill." But that epithet belonged to another Billy Barker, while the Billy Barker of Cariboo fame was born in Cambridgeshire in March 1817. His father was a waterman on the barges in Norfolk, but with the advent of rail travel, Barker and his family were rendered jobless. Billy married Jane Lavender in 1839 and they had a baby girl. Around 1850, he left his wife and child without support and went to the United States to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. This venture was a dismal failure, so he took up pottery and failed.
In desperation, Barker became a seaman, and then heard of the Gold Rush in the Fraser Valley. He seized the opportunity, jumped ship in Victoria in 1858 and made his way to Lillooet. Around this time, his wife, whom he had never contacted after his emigration, died in abject poverty in a workhouse in England. No one knows what happened to his daughter. His search for gold was unsuccessful and each winter he returned to Victoria where on more than one occasion, he found his name in the newspapers.
Barker was short of stature and had a temper to match. He was always spoiling for a fight and when the notorious John Copland (who had created more than one disturbance among the city officials) locked horns with Barker, he met his match. On January 23, 1862, Copland brought a case before Magistrate Augustus Pemberton, claiming that he had not been paid for work he had done on Saltspring Island for Barker. But Copland had not prepared his case well and Pemberton threw it out. Copland left in a rage, vowing to return, but he was denied the privilege, because Barker returned to the goldfields - a little earlier than usual.
On this trip, he decided to try his luck further north. The previous year, William "Dutch Bill" Dietz had found gold in a stream, named "Williams Creek" in his honour. By the time Barker arrived, all the best claims had been staked around what became the town of Richfield. He staked six more claims below the canyon, where 4,000 miners had already exhausted all the possibilities and so became the butt of ridicule as an "ignorant immigrant greenhorn."
Months of hard labour yielded nothing and the scoffing continued. Unaffected by the taunts, he proceeded to stake eight more claims and along with five other miners, the "Barker Company" worked from dawn to dusk. They had sunk shaft after shaft and found nothing. Disillusioned miners drifted home and Barker decided to give up. Even his boundless optimism was exhausted. As he readied to leave, he encountered High Court Judge Matthew Begbie. Barker had gone to him in a penniless state for help to get out. Something about Barker impressed the Judge, who offered to support him in one more try.
With renewed heart, Barker returned to his last shaft, already 40-feet deep - much deeper than any of the experienced miners would go. He continued to dig another 10 feet but with no result. Feeling it was all in vain, he decided on one last try. Two feet further down, on August 17, 1962, he hit pay dirt. The richest claim to date, overnight Barker became one of the wealthiest men in the province. From a 600-foot-long segment he would earn about $1,000 a foot - over half a million dollars. In today's value, it would approach 10 million dollars.
Instantly, the word spread and 10,000 people poured into that lonely stretch of land and created "Barkerville" - the largest town north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. The Cariboo Gold Rush was on as men, women and children continued to struggle through the forbidding terrain in search of the precious metal that had made the stocky, bow-legged, quick-tempered Englishman rich.
Barker was now ready to enjoy his wealth, and returned to Victoria at Christmas 1862 to live in luxury. A fatal mistake, for it set in motion a chain of events that reduced this wealthy, successful miner to a penniless and broken old man. The announcement in a January 1863 edition of the Colonist newspaper seemed innocuous enough. "Married - on January 13, by the Reverend M. Macfie, at the Metropolitan Hotel, William Barker of Williams Creek, Cariboo, B.C., to Elizabeth Collyer, widow, late of London and passenger by the ship Rosedale from England."
Not much is known about Mrs. Collyer until this time, and some historians are of the opinion that her bad reputation has been exaggerated. However, the story has it that this merry widow knew exactly how to spend poor Barker's money in very short order. She accompanied him back to the goldfields, where men out-numbered women about 200 to 1. In order to keep her happy, and terrified he would lose her to a younger and more handsome man, he indulged her extravagant tastes. He squandered countless thousands of dollars on useless claims that she thought he should support. In Barkerville, Richland and other camps, he became known as a soft touch, aided and abetted it seems, by his spendthrift wife and scattered his money to all and sundry. Suddenly, the gold ran out and so did his wife.
He had to beg to pay his stagecoach fare back to Victoria. Here he worked in obscurity as a cook and at some menial jobs for about 30 years, and for many successive summers he would go back to the goldfields to try his luck. But he never found success again. Eventually, he developed cancer of the jaw and was unable to work. He ended his life in an old men's home, where he died on July 11, 1894 at the age of 77 and was buried as a pauper in an unmarked grave in Ross Bay Cemetery.
In 1962, 100 years after his celebrated gold strike, a memorial stone was erected over his grave. And here Billy Barker, the battling bantam rests.