Ever wonder how Lulu Island (on which the City of Richmond now sits) got its “fanciful” name? Lulu Island was named after a showgirl, but not just any showgirl. Miss Lulu Sweet was a young stage actress from the US who, along with the theatrical troupe to which she belonged, performed in Colonial British Columbia in the early 1860s. Lulu Sweet appeared locally on stages in New Westminster and Victoria. Much praised in the press, her demeanor, acting, and graceful manners were so admired that even Colonel Richard Moody, Commander of the Royal Engineers stationed in New Westminster, was smitten. As it was he who named the largest island in the estuary of the Fraser River after her.
Not much is known about Miss Lulu Sweet, but I was able to cobble together a little bit about her and the story of the naming of Lulu Island. The exact details sometimes vary or are vague, according to several sources (including Thomas Kidd, Chuck Davis, Chad Evans, Art Downs, Richard Wolfenden and the Daily British Colonist) the basic story is as follows:
Miss Lulu Sweet was a member of the Potter Troupe, an American Music-Hall troupe from San Francisco. The troupe “of fifteen Ladies and Gentlemen of acknowledged talent and respectability” first appeared in Victoria on October 8, 1860, at the Colonial Theatre. Miss Lulu Sweet (about 16 years old) and her mother Mrs. E. Sweet were in the cast that performed that evening. The troupe arrived in Victoria from San Francisco aboard the steamer, Brother Jonathan.
Miss Lulu Sweet, something of a child star in San Francisco in the late 1850s, was a theatrical triple threat. In the press she was extolled as “the beautiful Juvenile Actress, Songstress and Danseuse”– who became the darling of the Victoria and the New Westminster theatrical scene (such as it was).
Praise for Miss Sweet in the press from the other side of the border:
Miss Lulu Sweet, familiarly known as “Sweet Lulu”, though quite young has already earned a flattering reputation as songstress and danseuse – Oregon Argus, June 16, 1860
Miss Lulu Sweet is well known to the people hereabouts; she has improved much since we last saw her, and grown womanly. Instead of seeing her as in days before, la petite Lulu, we see her as a grown and accomplished actress, with all the charms incident to her beauty – Red Bluff Beacon, 13 July 1859
I liken her popularity in colonial British Columbia to that of a young Mary Pickford, who was one of the most popular film actresses of the 1910’s and 1920s.
After a three-month theatrical run in Victoria, the Potter Troupe set sail on December 20, 1860, for New Westminster and the Pioneer Theatre. Capt. John T. Walbran, who wrote British Columbia Coast Names, noted that the Potter Troupe was the first Theatrical troupe to ever appear in New Westminster.
It is important to note at this point in the story that Colonial British Columbia was a rough and tumble place and mainly a land of men (and not necessarily gentlemen). With nothing of a society to speak of, I imagine having talented, young gentile ladies (actresses) coming to town would have been quite a big deal to those socially starved residents (like the officers in the Royal Engineers). Her appearance in the area, according to Thomas Kidd, no doubt added to “the gaiety of that part of the British Nation”.
This first series of appearances of Miss Lulu Sweet and the Potter Troupe in New Westminster ended January 11, 1861. According to Chuck Davis, Lulu Sweet became one of the favourite performers of the Royal Engineers, who were stationed in the Lower Mainland and built much of the infrastructure of the young colony on behalf of the British Empire.
After their successful engagement in New Westminster, the Troupe (including Miss Lulu Sweet) then traveled back to Victoria on January 12, 1861,aboard aboard the steamer Otter. It was on this trip that the tale of how Lulu Island got its name took place.
While the steamer Otter (some accounts name the steamer Emily Harris*) was en route to Vancouver Island. Colonel Richard Moody of the Royal Engineers (Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works in the Colony of British Columbia), was also on board the steamer. It seems that Col. Moody had been to several of the Potter Troupe’s performances at the Pioneer Theatre (in late December 1860 and early January 1861), where he had become quite enamored of Miss Lulu Sweet, “the lovely ingénue who had captured the heart of New Westminster”.
The story goes that Col. Moody accompanied Miss Lulu Sweet on deck as the Otter (or Emily Harris) traveled the Fraser River on its way to Victoria. While he was pointing out various landmarks to her, they passed by a large island. Miss Sweet asked him what it was called. The Colonel replied that it had no name, “but in tribute to you we shall call it Lulu Island”. It has also been suggested that Colonel Moody exclaimed: “By Jove! I’ll name it after you”. Whether by Jove or in tribute, several accounts corroborate that Lulu Island was indeed named in honour of Miss Lulu Sweet. By 1862 (1863) Lulu Island was officially on the next British Admiralty chart of the area.
Col. Moody was only one of Lulu’s admirers. “Come back to us” noted the Daily British Colonist Newspaper, August 25, 1862. “Lulu Sweet or ‘Sweet Lulu’ as the Oregonians appropriately call her, arrived on the Oregon and will appear this evening as Pauline… Lulu is a charming little actress, and used to take Victoria by storm a year and half ago.”
“Her conduct, acting and graceful manners gave great satisfaction” Lieutenant-Colonel R. Wolfenden (of the Royal Engineers under Col. Moody) assured Captain John T. Walbran, “and were appreciated to such an extent by her friends and patrons that the island was named after her”. Capt. John T. Walbran wrote British Columbia Coast Names originally published in 1909, reprinted in 1971.
Lulu Sweet (actress) is listed in the San Francisco city directories (1862-64) as living at 30 John Street. Sweet stayed with the theatre until 1865 when she married Mr. Smith in San Francisco. She died in 1914 in Burlingame, California.
Fun Fact: Early residents (farmers mainly) of Lulu Island used to be known as Mudflatters. Much of Richmond was muddy and swampy, and their greatest concern was the building of dikes and obtaining potable water.