A date with destiny

Janus: Then and Now remembers Cranbrook's founder in Colonel James Baker, Part 2

Jim Cameron

James Baker lived a more academic and certainly less audacious lifestyle than his brothers Samuel and Valentine, yet he methodically carved his own lasting niche in the world. In the final analysis, it may be argued, he created the most notable legacy of all.

Speaking of arguments, there was a time in Cranbrook not so very long ago when one could create a stir within a crowd simply by mentioning his name. The resulting disputes generally assumed opposing viewpoints involving the selection of the practically non-existent town of Cranbrook as the site of the CPR depot, as opposed to the well-established Townsite of Fort Steele. There were many then, and some today, who saw James Baker as a man who misused his political position and connections in order to make himself a great deal of money and then get out while the getting was good. Before coming to a decision on the subject let us consider some of the basic facts as we know them concerning James Baker.

James was born in London on Jan.6 1830, the son of wealthy entrepreneur and businessman Samuel Baker. The youngest of four brothers, James appears to have taken his formal education more seriously than his siblings, who generally enjoyed a life of warfare, adventure, travel and occasional scandal. His advanced studies would come later, however. In 1845, at the age of 15, James joined Her Majesty’s Indian Navy as a midshipman. Promoted rapidly to Acting First Lieutenant, he spent time surveying the Arabian coast and suppressing the slave trade, illegal in most of the British Empire by 1833.

James later transferred to the British Army, enlisting as a cornet (lowest grade of commissioned officer) with the distinguished Royal Horse Guards Blue. He was intelligent, popular and an excellent horseman and therefore performed well while in the service. He transferred once again to the 8th Hussars and was sent to the Crimea, tracing the steps of his older brother Valentine, to support the Turks in the war against England’s Russian foes. It was here that James, by a stroke of fate, appears to have avoided the deadly and soon to be famous cavalry encounter with Russian artillery that came to be known as “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He went on to take part in other battles during the war, including Tchernaya and the siege and fall of Sevastopol, both of which saw thousands of casualties.

James’ thoughts turned towards more domestic matters following the Crimean War. He retired from the army carrying the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and on Dec.14, 1855, married Miss Sarah Louisa White, with whom he had four children over the next 11 years: Alice Hyde Baker, Louis Samuel Hyde Baker, Valentine Hyde Baker and Harold Hyde Baker. As his family grew, so too did his education. James was admitted to Magdalene College in Cambridge on May 29, 1859, at the age of 29, graduating with a Bachelors Degree in 1861 and a Masters in 1865.

While attending to his academic studies James exhibited a continuing interest in military affairs. During his time at Cambridge he joined the newly formed Volunteer Rifle Club as first commanding officer. In 1904, he received the honorary rank of Colonel in the organization which may account for his subsequent title of Col. James Baker during the duration of his lifetime. His time spent in the Rifle Brigade paralleled his interest in the British army volunteer program and the education of officers, subjects upon which he wrote extensively. This in turn brought him to the notice of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and Prince Albert (consort of Queen Victoria) who summoned him to Windsor castle to discuss his views. This in turn led indirectly to a position as private secretary to Roger Grosvenor, the 2nd Marquis of Westminster. In short James Baker found himself moving among the highest echelons of British power and in the process learning a great deal about managing large estates and the value of political influence.

In 1874, he returned to Turkey where he remained for three years, during which time he compiled and published an authoritative account of the country, including a close study of its military importance in regards to the threat of war from Russia against England, an issue of some concern at the time. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, among others, sought advice from Baker on the subject, further establishing his position in the political hierarchy.

James was also elected a member of the prestigious Athenaeum Club in London in 1882. Still very active today, the club was formed in 1824 for individuals known for scientific, literary or artistic accomplishments and includes an impressive list of members past and present. Fellow members during James’ tenure included Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Joseph Conrad. Others over time include Charles Dickens, Cecil Rhodes, Winston Churchill, T.S. Eliot and Alex Guinness. There is no doubt that James was well ensconced in all the best that the British Empire had to offer. He was wealthy, highly-respected, and moved among the most elite of English society.

Then, in 1884, at the age of 54, James Baker came to a decision. He packed up his bags and his wife and two of his sons and headed for the wilds of British Columbia for a date with a destiny he named Cranbrook.