The Fraudulent Postmaster of Vancouver Island

John D’Ewes was a scandalous figure in early Victoria history who in a few short years made  a mess of the postal system and defrauded the public and the government of their money.

He came to Victoria in 1859 and accepted the job of Postmaster of Vancouver Island. It is unclear who recommended him for the position or if anyone was aware of the fact that he had been dismissed from his previous post as a Police Magistrate in Ballarat, Australia because he accepted bribes,

Ironically, his salary was raised to £200 per year, the amount which the previous postmaster had requested and was denied. His charm may have played a role: David Higgins described him as ‘a happy-go-lucky, hail-fellow-well-met sort of person, very polite and pleasant in his manners, and as jolly a companion as you would care to meet.’

D’ewes carried on his job without any oversight from the Treasurer, who himself was revealed to be a dubious character.

In the Spring of 1861, Michael and his brother Joseph saved up their money from working in the Nanaimo coal mines and deposited it with Postmaster D’ewes in Victoria. From there they left to seek their fortune in the Cariboo. As soon as they arrived however, Joseph became ill and returned to Victoria, leaving Michael to prospect for gold. Several weeks later Matthew wasn’t having any luck and decided it would be better for him to return to Victoria and join his brother with the intent that both could safely get through the winter on their combined savings of £100.

The only problem was, D’ewes had already left Victoria and with him went Heppel’s money. D’ewes had told everyone that he was taking a short leave of absence to go to the Columbia River for a ‘shooting trip’.

He never returned.

After several weeks, people began to make inquiries. Michael Heppel left Victoria to go look for him. Finally, in the fall of 1861, bits and pieces of the puzzle presented themselves and it was realized that D’ewes had up and left for good, taking with him untold amounts of money and leaving a long trail of personal debts. An auditor later discovered that D’ewes never kept any books and personally took the cash that people paid for their envelopes. Rarely did D’ewes use stamps; instead, he hand-stamped the envelopes with the Victoria Post Office seal and sent the letters on their way.

Our Postmaster Gone. We are pained this morning (Oct 17, 1861) to announce that Mr. John D’Ewes, Postmaster General of Vancouver Island is a defaulter to the Government, and that he has taken his departure from San Francisco for Panama, en route to England, as is supposed. Five weeks ago, Mr. D’ewes left here by the steamer Pacific, ostensibly on a shooting excursion to the Columbia River, but, as it now appears, really to avoid the payment of a large number of debts which he had incurred during his residence in this Colony, and also to escape a settlement of the accounts of his office with the Government…

After leaving San Francisco, D’ewes was next heard of in San Francisco where he told people that he was on business connected with the mail subsidy. The Alta newspaper, which printed the names of ship passengers, noted that D’ewes left on the steamship Uncle Sam, bound for Panama.

Heppel never returned to Victoria either and it was believed that he was so in despair at his situation that he took his own life. His family appealed to Governor Douglas to look into the matter, which he promised to do.

According to the ‘Writing on the Steamer’ blog, It was believed that D’ewes made his way to Homberg in Germany where he gambled his ill-gotten gains from the Victoria Post Office. There, he shot himself.