Robert Service — The Poet of the Yukon

A Short Biography of the Preston born Balladeer, Poet and Novelist

Robert with Marlene Dietrich during the filming of The Spoiler, 1942. Image: wikipedia

Having written about Jack London recently, and the new film version of his novel, The Call of the Wild, I thought it was time to take another look at Robert Service, the poet, balladeer and novelist who, like London, made a fortune out of the Yukon and Klondike gold rushes by their chosen forms of literature, and not gold prospecting, which they realised early on was a fools errand.

Both men were born within two years of each other (1874 and 1876), with Service the elder. Both writers grew up during a great flowering of American literature, with writers such as Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, and Henry James.

Although Service read Burns at a young age, each was influenced by Rudyard Kipling early: London discovering him in prison as a disruptive youth, Service by way of boredom working in a Scottish bank, with lunch breaks spent reading. Both men sought adventure and found it. Sadly, London died aged only fifty during WWI, with Service dying aged eighty-four at the height of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Jack London’s legacy lives on. Robert Service is almost forgotten. Surely, it must be time for a film about him: it’s a good story.

Service at his desk in the early 1930s. Image: Yukon Info

Robert Service’s father, also called Robert, was born in Glasgow in 1837 — the year of Queen Victoria’s succession to the throne — where, at the age of fourteen, he became a clerk at the Commercial Bank of Scotland. Eighteen years later, in 1869, with no prospect of ever becoming anything other than a clerk, he decided to move to Lancashire and the prosperous town of Preston, which had, with the end of the American Civil War, regained once more its place at the centre of the cotton spinning and weaving industries. It was also a centre for banking, having created its own bank, The Preston Bank, at 39 Fishergate in 1844. Robert was sure his prospects of promotion within the banking industry would be assured in Preston. He applied to The Preston Bank for the position of clerk and was accepted. The site is today occupied by the NatWest and the Abbey National.

Sadly, things were to be no different in Preston than they had been in Glasgow, and by 1873 Robert had given up any idea of promotion, settling down to the daily task of recording figures and serving customers. Although something of a loner Robert senior nevertheless enjoyed the hustle and bustle of Preston and took every chance he could to make his way out into the countryside where he’d walk for miles and perhaps read from a small volume of poetry he often kept in his coat pocket.

Emily Parker — Robert Service’s mother, whose family were originally from Liverpool — was born in 1854. Her father, James Parker, had been born in the Lancashire town of Clitheroe soon after the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Emily’s mother Ann, and her father were both staunch Wesleyan Methodists, who had met and fallen in love after a service at Clitheroe’s Methodist Chapel. They married in 1835, and moved to Preston in 1838 where James started a wholesale grocery and tea importing business, which had, by 1872, become hugely successful with impressive business premises on Church Street, and a large Georgian mansion in the prestigious Winckley Square.

The Parkers’ moved in the very best Preston social circles, with James becoming a Conservative councillor in the 1850s.

With the sudden death of Ann Parker, in 1872, Emily was at last free to look for a husband, and found him in The Preston Bank.

Emily was a pretty girl who had often been to The Preston Bank with her father, and it was probably on these visits that she noticed the rather portly, but rather distinguished looking Robert Service working behind the bank’s counter.

Emily set her sights on him and eventually won his heart, resulting in the couple eloping to Gretna Green to be married.

Robert Service was born in the Christian Road house, Preston, on January 16th 1874, but it would take his father six weeks to register the boy’s birth. Robert Service would later write of his father that there was an “…other-worldliness and irresponsibility about him…” that brought out both irritation and admiration in Robert Service the poet who would always have a soft spot for his old man.

On the 24th of November 1875, Robert’s maternal grandfather, James Parker, died of cancer, leaving, it was estimated by the Preston Guardian, anywhere between £50,000 — £100,000.

In fact, according to James Parker’s will, he only left £18,000 of which £4,000 went to his housekeeper, with £2,300 going to Emily, Robert’s mother. On the strength of this legacy the Service family moved from Christian Road to 27 Latham Street, a slightly more gentile address just a tad closer to the prestigious Winckley Square.

Robert’s father then gave up his position at the bank setting himself up as an independent insurance agent. As one might imagine things didn’t work out and in the spring of 1878 the family packed their belongings and caught a train to Glasgow, Robert senior’s home town, settling in the select, and elegant, Lansdowne Crescent, where Robert’s father had another go at selling insurance.

Elegant it may have been, but 29 Lansdowne Crescent was a very small apartment indeed, with the consequence that, with Emily again pregnant (the Services already had five children) it was decided to off-load the two older boys, Robert and John, onto John Service (their paternal grandfather)and his family, which included three maiden aunts, in the small town of Kilwinning where the boys would remain for the next few years.

As Service biographer, James Mackay, writes:

“…Kilwinning, a small burgh and market town of some five thousand souls, situated on the right bank of the River Garnock in north Ayrshire, about twenty-four miles south-west of Glasgow.

“ An account of Kilwinning in 1851 dismisses it as comprising ‘one street, a few lanes and a square called the Green…”

It would seem, even with a good deal of house building in the years from 1851 to 1878, the place still felt “…like a village…” and was full of Service family off-shoots, not least grandfather John Service — who was also postmaster of Kilwinning — and his wife Agnes, who raised the two brothers in the Post Office, as well as looking after the aunts whose company Robert seemed to enjoy.

The postmaster often talked of his own grandfather and how he’d been a friend of the poet Robert Burns, which, because of the age difference, seems unlikely, but nevertheless, as these things often do, the stories stuck, and was something of a fortuitous myth for an up and coming poet. Maybe it also encouraged Service to read Burns, and write his first poem — a grace — at the age of six?

The postmaster was an easy going sort of chap, until Sunday came along, when he metamorphosed into a very strict adherent to the Sabbath. The Post Office was closed, with silence demanded about the house, especially at breakfast. There must be no reading of newspapers or books, and no singing of hymns in the house. The family then waited for the church bells to ring and, as the black coated and frocked worshipers made their way down the long street others would join them in silence from their homes. And although Robert Service, as a child, found the whole thing tiresome, he was already observing people, and their ways. It would all go into his work in later years.

When Robert was nine he, with younger brother John, moved back to Glasgow and their parents. The boys attended Hillhead School, leaving aged fifteen. Robert, like his father, found work in a bank.

In the late1890s Robert realised banking was not for him and left to find adventure (he was a great reader of adventure stories which must have included those of Jack London in Famous Fantastic Mysteries) in US and Canada. He tried his a hand at various jobs, even working in a bank again, but he couldn’t settle. And like London before him, realised he also wanted to be a writer.

But what sort of writer?

Like Jack London, Robert Service took to the west coast roads, living rough, roads that eventually took him to the Yukon (a mighty long walk), the furthest point in the north-west Canada.

It was to be the making of him, realising quickly during this vagabond period that he could write a much looser, rhyming ballad-style Kiplingesque long form poetry that, during the deep frozen Yukon winters, could keep a bar room full of hard living, hard drinking, gold prospectors entertained.

Robert Service was a hit, with his first book of ballads, Songs of a Sourdough, published in 1907 to huge success.

By 1908, still in the Yukon surrounded by miners, Service became rather chained to his desk as he got stuck in to his second volume, as his biographer, James Mackay writes:

“ With the onset of the winter of 1908 Robert got down to serious writing, producing his second book in four months, working from midnight till three in the morning. Any other hours were impossible because of the rumpus about him. Robert’s colleagues whooped it up every evening, but he would retire to bed at nine and sleep till twelve, then make a pot of strong, black tea and begin to write.”

When his publishers received his manuscript they were rather perturbed about certain poems, their violence and vulgarity, and couldn’t promise to publish unless they were removed, at which point Service threatened to take the MSS to another publisher. Eventually a compromise was reached with Briggs the publisher agreeing to pay Service an extra 5% in royalties for the removal of just one offending poem. When Ballads of a Cheechako was published later in 1908 it was another huge success, with Robert receiving a cheque for $3,000 within days of its publication. Robert Service was the best agent he ever had.

Thirteen more volumes of ballads and poetry followed, along with six novels, three volumes of non-fiction, several popular songs, numerous articles, plus fifteen collections of his verse. Several of his novels were made into movies, all of which earned him a great deal of money, allowing him to work just four months of the year, with the rest of time spent relaxing, ice skating and bob-sleighing, and travelling. He had achieved the goal he’d set himself after the publication of Sourdough.

Service moved to Paris in 1913, living in the Latin Quarter and posing as an artist. then, in June 1913 he married Parisienne Germaine Bourgoin, daughter of a distillery owner in France. She was thirteen years younger than Robert.

With the onset of WWI, Service worked briefly as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star (later Hemingway’s paper), then as an ambulance driver with the American Red Cross, as would Hemingway.

During the winter of 1917 Service moved his family to the south of France, and it was in Menton that Doris, one of his twin daughters, caught scarlet fever and died. Fearing that their other twin daughter, Iris, may catch the disease, Robert moved his wife and daughter to their summer home in Lancieux. Then, after hearing about a devastating Zeppelin raid on Canadian troops, Robert offered to help the war effort in any way he could (he was forty-one), resulting in an attachment to the Canadian Expeditionary Force “…with a commission to tour France, reporting back on the activities of the troops.”

As result of that attachment, and the brutality of the fighting he witnessed, Service wrote a series of war poems that are amongst the very best of his work.

After the war the Service family lived in the south of France before returning to Paris.

And although he lived in Paris at the same time as Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce, he never met them, and because of the generational gap had probably never heard of them. It is certain they had heard of him, may even have read his work.

In 1920, Robert Service was worth some $600,000 (around $90m today), with a good deal of it invested in stocks and shares. But that same year saw a sudden drop (50%) in share prices that reduced his investment values hugely. The poet didn’t hesitate and re-invested his money into life annuities with some of the biggest insurance companies in the US. It was a wise move that kept him in comfort for the rest of his life. Had he not done so he would have been wiped in the crash of 1929.

Of the six novels he wrote, three were thrillers, written in Paris in the 1920s, all of which were turned into silent movies.

When wintering in Nice during the twenties, Robert would often be seen dining with Somerset Maugham and H. G. Wells, who were of the same generation and equally rich.

Throughout the interwar years Service and his family travelled widely in Europe, and often, as with Somerset Maugham, spending many months in the far-east, usually ending up in California, where they mixed with the Hollywood crowd.

During WWII, the family settled in the US, with Robert working for the government raising War Bonds.

After the war they returned to France, eventually settling back at their home in Lancieux, a home that had been turned into a German gun emplacement during WWII, with Robert’s precious library utterly destroyed. Robert Service died there, from a “…wonky heart…”on September 11th, 1958.

Germaine Service survived him by thirty-one years, dying aged one-hundred- and-two on December 26th, 1989, in Monte Carlo.

Interestingly Iris Service married the manager of Lloyd’s Bank, in Monte Carlo, in 1952.

Robert Service is perhaps best known now for “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, which would have been okay with him as he thought of himself as a writer of verse, and not as a poet. He was much more than that.

And James Mackay’s 1996 brilliant biography of Service, Vagabond of Verse, sets the record straight.

Image: pinterest

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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