Ever wondered how Lulu Island (on which the City of Richmond now sits) got its fanciful name? It 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 demeanour, acting and graceful manners were so admired that even Colonel Richard Moody, Commander of the Royal Engineers stationed in New Westminster, was smitten. It was he who named the largest island in the estuary of the Fraser River after her.
First, some context. Miss Lulu Sweet was a member of the Potter Troupe, an American Music Hall act from San Francisco. The group “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 – then about 16 years old – and her mother, Mrs. E. Sweet, were in the cast that performed that evening. They had 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 celebrated 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).
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 of its kind to ever appear in New Westminster.
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 the steamer Otter. It was on this voyage that Lulu had the island named after her.
The story goes that Colonel Moody accompanied Miss Lulu Sweet on deck as the Otter 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 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, and by 1862 it became official when the name appeared on the next British Admiralty chart of the area.