Robert W. Service

Robert Service

Robert W.Service, 1909

I have no doubt at all the Devil grins

   As seas of ink I splatter;

Ye Gods, forgive my “literary sins” —

   The other kind don’t matter.


From Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, Robert. W. Service, 1912





Robert W. Service, 1876-1958, was a British-born poet and writer who came to Canada at the age of 21. Service is said to have written his first verse at the age of six while still living in Scotland. By the time he came to Canada, he had several poems to his name. A number of these were published in 1900 in the Victoria Daily Colonist while Service was working as a store clerk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. Service also worked briefly for a bank in Victoria, B.C. before being transferred first to Kamloops, B.C. then to Whitehorse, Yukon in 1904, and finally to the Dawson, Yukon branch of The Canadian Bank of Commerce. By the time Service arrived in Dawson the Klondike Gold Rush was over. Still, he met many of the old-timers (sourdoughs) and heard many of their stories that inspired his verse.

Bank clerk by day, raconteur by night, Service would recite many of the popular poems of the day (Casey at the Bat, Gunga Din) at local establishments and church venues. Prompted by one town official to create his own tales, Service was said to have overheard some bar-room chatter and the phrase “A bunch of the boys were whooping it,” came into his head. The Shooting of Dan McGrew was the result.

Later, after overhearing the tale of a prospector having cremated his claim partner who had died out on the trail, Service wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee to the delight of the locals.

In the spring of 1907, Service sent a bundle of his verse to his father who was now living in Toronto along with a cheque to cover expenses and asked his father to find a printer to publish the works.

William Briggs, Book Steward of the Methodist Book Room (as The Ryerson Press was then known) agreed to publish the work and Songs of a Sourdough and Ballads of a Cheechako by Robert W. Service were published by The Ryerson Press in 1907 and 1909 respectively. These works have been reprinted dozens of times over the years.

The following letter written in December, 1908 depicts a shrewd yet keen Robert Service outlining his plans to his publisher.


Service letter 7th Dec 1908

Dawson, Y.T.

7Th December, 1908

To William Briggs, Publisher


Dear Sir:

            I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letters enclosing 1 royalty cheques up to 30th Septr. I was gratified at the returns, and must thank you for the splendid way in which my book has been handled.

I have Mr. Walker’s letter offering me a 15% royalty on my next book, to be published at your expense. I agree to let you have the publication of it, on the condition that the copyright is in my name, and the retail price of the ordinary edition shall be one dollar. Also I retain the right to terminate the arrangement by giving the customary notice.

I have decided to call the book “THE BALLADS OF A CHEECHAKO.” A cheechako is the very reverse of a sourdough, and means a new-comer. It is taken from the chinook jargon, and is a widely known term out here. My reason for choosing this title is that the book will really be a sister one to my first one, and the two will sell concurrently, and the sale of the one will help the other. The only weakness is in their order. The cheechako one should come first, but I will get over that in a small preface. I think that those who possess the one will want to have the other too, and thus from a business point of view I will be fortunate in my choice of a title. But apart from that I think I would have used it, as it is odd and characteristic, and to the Western mind means a great deal. Some day I hope to publish both books in one volume, but that will not be till they have ceased to find a ready sale in their individual form.

I would like it if you could have a characteristic cover design for the new book, something typical of the North and bold and striking. I would also like to suggest that these ballads be printed in a smallish, clear type, with generous margins. I want to see them printed as “Vividly” as possible.

If I hold the entire manuscript till it is completed it will be the end of February before it leaves here. But I think I will send you the bulk of it by the end of January, and I can send you the few remaining poems that complete it when I return the proof sheets. There will be a lot of time lost in transit of the proofs, so that I think it would be a good idea if I sent you all I had done up to the end of January, and during the interval between the dispatch of the manuscript and the arrival of the proofs I would have time to finish up the remaining poems which I could leave to your proof-reader to correct. This will be a gain of a month, and I would like if the book could be on the market by the end of May.

I am going to write Messrs Stern & Co. by this mail to find out if they desire to handle it in the States. I expect there will be a big demand for it as a souvenir book at the Alaska-Yukon Exhibition, next summer. You might be able to sell a large number of the Canadian issue there, if you have any agents in Seattle. It is worth while keeping in view.

Yours very truly

Robert W. Service

Please let me hear from you as soon as convenient


Robert Service continued to write verse and with the royalties was able to quit his banking job and relied solely on his royalties for the rest of his life.

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William Briggs published Service’s first novel, The Trail of ’98, 1911 and The Ryerson Press continued publishing Robert W. Service into the 1930s. The volumes of verse include Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, 1912, The Pretender, 1914, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, 1918, The Roughneck, 1923, and The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service, 1932.

Robert W. Service moved to Paris, France and married Germaine Bourgoin. They had one daughter, Iris. Robert Service died in Lancieux, Cotes d’Armor, France in 1958.


About The Ryerson Press Archive

My name is Clive Powell. I worked for McGraw-Hill Ryerson for 35 years. Recently I was asked to find a home for 3000 publications that represent the Ryerson Press Archive. I am happy to share my discoveries.
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2 Responses to Robert W. Service

  1. cathieellis says:

    Great! Can’t help wondering about the cover design for Cheechako. Was it “something typical of the North and bold and striking”? Also wondering if they were printed “vividly”, lol!!

    • Cathie, thanks for the note. The cover image in the slideshow is not the “First Edition” so it’s hard to know what that printing looked like. Same with Sourdough — not very striking. But I have another couple of cover shots to add to the slideshow — and they used the same image but on a different title. The original reuse and recycle, I guess.

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