What’s in a Name – Lulu Island

The City of Richmond is an island city, built on islands formed over millennia by the action of the Fraser River. The largest of these islands is Lulu Island, home to the great majority of the city’s population, farmland and industry. Even though it has been part of the Corporation of the Township of Richmond since 1879, people who were born and raised on the island will tell you that they are from Lulu Island, not Richmond, the name appearing on birth certificates, in telephone books up into the 1960s, in business names and even as an official mailing address through the 1950s. Where did this likeable if somewhat whimsical name come from?

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This map was sent by Col. Moody to BC Governor James Douglas and was dated June 29, 1860. It shows trails that were existing at the time, trails that were under construction and trails and roads that Moody recommended be built. It also shows the names of Lulu and Sea Islands, added at a later date in different handwriting. (City of Richmond Archives digital files)

The person responsible for naming Lulu Island, and many other features of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, was Colonel Richard Clement Moody, a pivotal figure in the history of British Columbia. Moody was made the Commander of the British Columbia detachment of the Royal Engineers in 1858 and was sworn in as the Chief Commissioner of Land and Works and Lieutenant-Governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia in 1859. Under his command the Royal Engineers located and surveyed defendable town sites, surveyed country lands, built roads,  examined harbours, and reported on mineral deposits, fisheries and other resources. Although police work was not part of the detachment’s mandate, they also took on the task of ensuring that the rule of law was upheld in the fledgling colony.

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Colonel Richard Clement Moody, Royal Engineers, one of the most influential people in early BC history. (BC Archives photo A-01722)

Moody selected New Westminster as the site of the Colony’s capitol, mostly due to its strategic location on the north bank of the river, defendable from an attack from the United States and able to be resupplied from Burrard Inlet through North Road, which was also built by the Engineers. By 1858 the New Westminster town site had been cleared and the streets were not even finished being laid out before town lots were being sold. No frontier town would be complete if some enterprising individual did not open a saloon, and so Mr. J.T. Scott opened the Pioneer Saloon in New Westminster, to which he soon built an addition “in the shape of an extended wooden shack” and called it the Pioneer Theatre. Into this rough frontier town in 1860 came the Potter Dramatic Troupe, who were dropped off on Burrard Inlet and had to walk to New Westminster along the trail which would become North Road, carrying all their costumes and set materials with them. The company’s leader, John S. Potter, was a well-known figure in early American theatre, having opened theatres and managed dramatic companies in virtually every corner of the United States. From 1855 to 1865 he operated in the Northwest, from California to British Columbia, and from October 1860 to May 1863 he was the most important figure in theatre in Victoria.

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Moody’s capital, New Westminster, ca. 1864. A frontier town on the river. (City of Richmond Archives photo 1977 2 25)

 

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Travelling theatre troupes often had to operate on a shoestring budget. Potter was held in custody in Victoria for an unpaid bill of $250 he left in Sacramento. A benefit performance for the relief of his debt was held, featuring members of the Stark Theatrical Troupe as well as members of his own company, including Lulu Sweet, and her mother and father. (The British Colonist, Feb 11, 1861)

Travelling theatrical troupes in the frontier lived a rigorous and hazardous existence. They performed in some of the most primitive theatres one can imagine, in front of audiences consisting of pioneers who were starved for entertainment, often well lubricated at the saloon to which the theatre was often attached. The troupes lived temporarily in boarding houses and cheap hotels, often had to eat poor food and were subjected to the social prejudice that was associated with theatrical people, especially actresses, during that time period. Travel was usually difficult, time consuming, and all the equipment for the shows had to be carried with them, leading to standardization of sets and costumes. A company would carry several sets, painted on canvas, such as a landscape, a fancy interior, a plain interior or a street scene. Costumes would also be adapted to serve for many roles with little attention to historical accuracy. Even the actors would play stereotypical characters for which they had developed a talent for portraying, regardless of the age or gender of the person.

Potter’s troupe played in the Pacific Coast States and Washington Territory, appearing in Vancouver Washington, Portland Oregon and many small California towns. They also performed in theatres in San Francisco and in 1860 made the sea voyage to Victoria, where the troupe boasted about “Being composed of Fifteen Ladies and Gentlemen of acknowledged talent and respectability, they are enabled to present a better series of legitimate entertainments than ever yet attempted in this city.”

The star of Potter’s troupe was young Lulu Sweet, “The Beautiful Juvenile Actress, Songstress and Danseuse.” Lulu, who was born around 1844, was accompanied in her travels with the troupe by her mother, Mrs. E. Sweet who was also an actress, and her father, Dr. John D. Sweet, a physician. Starting around age 12 Lulu was a child actress in the San Francisco Theatre circuit, performing with a company of 27 “juvenile comedians.” She had joined the Potter troupe by 1860, traveling to the western states with them and then to Victoria, where they performed to good reviews for several weeks before taking the trip to New Westminster for a three week engagement. Music for the production was taken care of by the Royal Engineers Band and performances were attended by all the local dignitaries, including Colonel Moody, who was apparently quite a fan of Miss Sweet’s.

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Lulu Sweet, ca. 1865, actress, singer and dancer who gave her name to Lulu Island. (City of Richmond Archives photo RCF 21)

The Potter Troupe played in Victoria and made three trips to New Westminster during their stay in the colonies. It was on the trip back to Victoria on the steamer Otter in January 1861 that Lulu Sweet asked Colonel Moody the name of the large island they were passing. He told her that it had no name and then exclaimed that he would name it after her, and Lulu Island it has been ever since. It appears that Moody had second thoughts about the name he had chosen. A map he sent to the Colonial Office that same year had the name “Lulu” overwritten with the name “Palmer”, most likely hoping to rename the island after one of his officers, Lieutenant Henry Spencer Palmer but Lulu Island it remained.

 

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This photo of Lulu Sweet was taken in 1863 at a studio beside Maguires Opera House in San Francisco, a theatre in which she performed for many years. She never returned to BC after leaving Victoria, and never set foot on the Island that was named for her. (Image from the City of Richmond Biography Files)

Lulu Sweet and the Potter Dramatic Troupe left the colonies in 1863 and returned to San Francisco where she continued to act, sing and dance in venues such as Maguire’s Opera House. She was a successful actress whose name shows up in many playbills and newspaper ads for theatres in San Francisco through 1865 as well as later newspaper articles about the history of theatre in San Francisco. Around that year it appears that she married a Mr. Smith, had four children, later divorcing. She lived with her daughters in Burlingame, a suburb of San Francisco until her death in 1914.

 

 

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