ExtendedPublished by Webmaster on 07/21/2003 (50435 reads)
Born in Preston, in the English county of Lancashire, at the head the estuary of the river Ribble, on January 16, 1874. He grew up in the Scottish town of Kilwinning. The first born child of a bank cashier wed to the daughter of a wealthy distillery family, Sarah Emily Parker. Emily, age 17, married Robert Service, age 35, a Scottish bank clerk on October 21 1872 in Ormskirk, Lancashire, England in 1872. Robert was the first of 10 children, 7 sons, and three daughters. His six brothers were: 1) John Alexander 2) Thomas 3) Joseph 4) Peter H.W. 5) Stanley and 6) Albert. The three girls were: 1) Jane 2) Agnes Ann and 3) Janet Isabella.
Five years later, with four younger siblings now vying for parental attention, he went to live with paternal grandfather, in Scotland where three maiden aunts waited to dote over him! He composed his first poem there - on his sixth birthday.
God bless the cakes and bless the jam;
Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham;
Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes,
And save us all from belly-aches. Amen
1882, age eight
Today there is a brass plaque outside a senior citizens home at the Kilwinning Main Street location where their house once stood. The plaque mentions the poem, because you see he became the celebrated bard of the Yukon, Robert William Service, who told us of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", "The Cremation of Sam McGee", "The Harpy", "The Spell of the Yukon".
By 1883 the Service family had moved from Preston, Lancashire north of the border to Scotland's largest city, Glasgow. So, Robert, now nine years old, rejoined the family circle which now had eight or nine younger brothers and sisters.
He first attended the old Church Street primary school, then went on to Hillhead High School which opened in April 1885 and soon earned a reputation as Scotland's finest. Robert loved mischief, and books! Authority irked him. His sense of humor and his easy ability and facility with words, manifested in his public recitations, afforded him the attention he craved and made his company enjoyable! Even tho in his autobiography he sees himself as "not popular" and "not good at games", he played fullback on the school's rugby team.
Robert avidly read adventure stories; worked at keeping fit, on his own rather than in team sports. He observed and noted his father's frugal and creative idiosyncrasies which allowed him to support a large growing family on a modest income. Such resourcefulness proved invaluable to Robert later in life.
By thirteen he dreamed of going to sea. This ambition thwarted by his parents, he took his first job in a shipping office. The insecure operation, rarely if ever solvent, eventually failed. Robert showed up for work one morning to find the office furniture and files gone and his employer nowhere to be found!
After discussing the experience with his father and mulling it over, Robert decided to follow in Dad's footsteps and he accepted engagement at the Stobcross suburban branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland. You may imagine his father's pride, but for Robert the move rested on pragmatic and mercenary motives; banks had money and he would receive his pay regularly and attain respectability to boot!
At the bank from 9:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, he now had time at home to write and added to his modest twenty pounds a year bank salary by selling his verses. He also continued reading, even while walking to and fro or any time that he noticed the accountant's eyes focusing elsewhere. He read the English poets Browning, Tennyson, Thackerey and Keats.
During this period of his life Robert discovered Glasgow's Music Halls; his ear picked up the vernacular, the common speech, he quickly developed a penchant for the ugly over the beautiful and began to see vice as more interesting and much more attractive than virtue. He also dreamed and longed to go on stage himself, the legitimate stage that is!
Elocution lessons led to his reciting poetry, the adolescent dreamer appeared at church hall concerts, in walk-on roles in plays and then a speaking part in a local production of "Rob Roy"
The University of Glasgow beckoned next. Robert took to the formal study of English Language and Literature so well that after Christmas time examinations he stood 4th in a class of 200, most of whom he saw as "poor boobs to be pitied".
In the New Year term, in an essay on Ophelia of William Shakespeare's drama "Hamlet", Robert dared to question the heroine's purity. The lecturer wrote at the bottom of the paper "This is a perverse and obscene bit of work, unworthy of a student of this class." Stung to the quick Robert issued a challenge to a round of fisticuffs, which went unaccepted. Disenchanted and disappointed Robert left the university in high dudgeon.
Out on his own again our hero read from Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. He dabbled with Socialism and read from the biographies of adventurers and world travelers, particularly those who had found fame and fortune or, perhaps more significantly, found their own true selves.
Meanwhile at the Service household a frail younger brother of Robert's came home for a visit after spending months working on a Fifeshire farm, now suntanned, muscled and proud of the outdoor physical work that he'd learned to do. Robert was very impressed. Then a transfer from the Stobcross branch into the city centre brought with it a gigantic triple salary increase.
Robert began working on his physical condition while socking money away and he dreamed of being a cowboy in Western Canada!
So in 1895 he turned 21 years of age and announced his intention to his incredulous family and eventually resigned from the bank. His father went to an auction sale and bought his son a Buffalo Bill Cody circus type costume with sombrero, high leather boots, fringed leather jacket and all!
Robert left Glasgow with a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Amateur Emigrant", a letter of reference from the bank, his Bill Cody outfit and a suitcase full of clothes and personal effects to sail steerage to Montreal.
From the Saint Lawrence port he took the train across Canada. Each day selling off goods and chattels for money and meals until he reached Vancouver Island! Yes, Vancouver Island, not Southern Alberta or B.C.'s Cariboo Country, where ranches and cowboys are found!
He went to work for a Scottish family in the Cowichan Valley. For six months he learned to milk cows, pick rocks, weed turnips, make hay, work with his axe and cross cut saw, pick apples, go harvesting and ride horseback!
Robert then moved to a more remote place to live and work with a rugged old time loner he calls Hank in "Ploughman of the Moon", his autobiography. Mostly Robert kept Hank company and helped with chores about the place; Hank ran about 20 head of cattle on his place. He taught Robert to bake bread and told him stories about travels in California. Robert described Hank as "...garrulous, bent and bearded, a black sheep, and a Casanova!"
At Hank's place Robert found a stack of Harper's Magazines which he "devoured" he says in his book. He also found a battered ol' 5 string banjo and he learned enough chords to accompany himself while singing such songs as "Nelly Bly" and Stephen Foster; songs interspersed with recitations from Rudyard Kipling and others.
After a year Robert left Hank to become "a cow juice jerker", his term for a dairy farm hand. His new employer is George Treffry Corfield from Cornwall in the south-west of England. Corfield ran a large operation, a working day sometimes lasted 16 hours.
Hank's travel tales sometimes occupied Robert's waking hours and his night time dreams until, in 1897, now 23 years old, he set off to Victoria then by ferry to Seattle and on south to San Francisco and the Barbary Coast, where occasionally men were still Shangied! But not Robert, he took up rambling, became a bindle stiff, drifted; occasionally working; tunneling, picking oranges, washing dishes and for a spell, a gardener and handyman at a house of ill repute where someone gave him a six string guitar!
Robert then returned to B.C. and back to a dairy farm. His employer also ran a general store, and post office with "everything from pins to chamber pots". Robert eventually became the storekeeper, a position he kept for 4 years, trading with the Siwash and others
When he tired of the experience, having saved $200, he decided to try to return to university studies and handed in his notice. He failed French and Algebra in the entrance examination so it did not matriculate.
At a loss of what to do next, standing one day outside the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria, an acquaintance from his storekeeping days, a biscuit or cookie salesman, hailed him and ended up encouraging Robert to go into the bank and apply for a job, which he did. Using his reference from the Scottish bank along with some other references he was eventually hired.
A transfer to Kamloops, in the B.C. interior, was followed by a transfer to Whitehorse in 1904. Robert got room and board with one bank employee at the home of the bank manager and his wife. He attended the Anglican church, entertained at church socials, reciting Rudyard Kipling and singing songs to banjo accompaniment. The Whitehorse Star editor suggested to Robert that he write something original, something about life in the Yukon! Robert used to keep up his physical conditions with long walks. After returning one evening, he heard a noise emanating from one of the bars and thought to himself, "A bunch of boys are whooping it up!" The line stuck in his mind for future use.
Then Robert heard a tale about a prospector who had cremated his partner. He heard other stories of people who complained about the winter cold, and particularly those from the southern United States such as Tennessee. Working in the bank one day Robert spotted the name of a customer; Sam McGee! Well again Robert's creative writing muse went to work. "The Cremation Of Sam McGee" joined other verses in a collection which he packed up after receiving a $100 bonus from the bank. The collection was sent to his dad in Scotland asking him to arrange a small vanity publishing for gifts to family and friends. Robert then received a reply back from the publisher at the same time returning his cheque. They offered him terms for publication rights, and of course Robert was walking on air!
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