George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer

Maria Robinson

Before we take our leave of the life and time of George Robinson, let us devote a few moments to those members of his extended family who were enticed by him to Vancouver's Island and who thus became pioneer residents of British Columbia. Among the first of these was George's sister Maria.

George's scrapbook tells us that Maria's birthdate was 27th October, 1818. Thus it was on her twenty-sixth birthday as well as being Ann Saunders' twentieth that Maria signed the church register as one of the witnesses to George and Ann's wedding.

In Victorian days it was uncommon for a girl to remain unmarried to such an age, and twelve year later when she journeyed to Nanaimo on board Princess Royal she was still a spinster. The ship's log for the 1856-57 voyage is now held in the Manitoba Provincial Archives, who have confirmed that steerage passengers included "Miss Robinson, Miss Elizabeth Bates, Mr. Mark Bates, Mr. Cornelius Briant". (Query - was Charles Gale still first mate and still faithfully keeping the misspelled log?)

It is quite likely that Maria, as Esther Robinson's youngest daughter, had stayed home all these years to take care of her widowed mother, and in so doing had missed her chance of marriage.

There were no documents or data of consequence concerning Maria among the papers left by Victor Ernest Robinson, other than one carte-de-visite photograph of her in later years when she was Mrs. Harvey Snow. I can recall my mother mentioning to me that "Aunt Snow" as she was widely known in Victoria's pioneer James Bay district, was a grass widow - that is, a woman who had been deserted by her husband. My mother's girlhood friend Martha McConnell (Mrs. B.F. Shepherd) also recalled Aunt Snow, describing her as a stern and forbidding woman who always dressed in dark clothes and had no patience with children. Both my informants seemed to recall her with mixed feelings of awe, derision and pity.

However from many scattered sources, chiefly the Colonist and Cornelius Bryant's erratic journal entries, we can piece together a fairly reliable if sketchy outline of Maria's life after her arrival on Vancouver Island.

We know that Maria first came to Nanaimo to take charge of George Robinson's motherless household. Soon after George met and married Caroline Dakens, Maria seems to have departed to Victoria. There, as reported later in the Victoria Daily Times, she "opened in millinery, stay making and dressmaking business." This, then, would be some time in late 1858 or in 1859.

Our next mention is a brief item in the Colonist for 18th February, 1863:

MARRIED - On the 17th Inst. by the Rev. E. Evans, D.D., Mr. John Spence, of Victoria, to Miss Maria Robinson, of Nanaimo."

The marriage was evidently in the Wesleyan Methodist church, which stood on the corner of Pandora Avenue and Broad Street, its first minister being Rev. Ephraim Evans.

Concerning John Spence, we have more information on his early career than we have on Maria's. He was born in 1798 at Stromness, Orkney Islands and signed on with the Hudson's Bay Company on 6th June, 1820 for a five-year term, which he spent at York Factory. On 4th May, 1827, he arrived at Fort Vancouver on board the Hudson's Bay Company's new 72-ton Brigantine Cadboro. His employment was as ships's carpenter, and he was destined to remain in this capacity to become the last remaining crew member of those who had brought the ship out from England.

The famous gallows at Gallows Point, Nanaimo, on which James Douglas effected the hanging of two Indians who had murdered a Hudson's Bay Company sheep-herder, was erected by Spence and fellow-Stromness shipwright John Flett Sabiston.

By 1863 Spence had retired from H.B.C. employ and was living in Victoria. He is listed that year in the British Columbia and Victoria Directory, published by Howard & Barnett, as "Spence, John, Carpenter, Pandora" (that is, he lived on Pandora Avenue). It was at this point that he married dressmaker and milliner Maria Robinson.

Our next mention of Maria is in correspondence between Cornelius Bryant and the Colonial Secretary. Cornelius was much incensed that after his resignation as honorary (unpaid) Postmaster at Nanaimo, the Government had appointed a new incumbent at a salary of $485 per annum. The new Postmaster did not assume his duties until 23rd May, 1865, and Cornelius argued successfully that he was entitled to payment from 1st January to that date. He had some difficulty in collecting, and wrote again to the Colonial Secretary on 11th September, 1865, to complain that despite the agreement that he was entitled to the money, he had applied to the Treasurer "… thro' my relative Mrs. Spence the bearer of this ..." and had been refused. Maria must have been an effective go-between, for eventually the money was paid.

Unfortunately, Maria's marriage was destined to last only two years. John Spence must have known he was in perilous health, for on the 26th of September, 1865, he hastily drew up his last will and testament. A copy of this is now held in the B.C. Provincial Archives. It commences with a resounding statement: "In the name of God, Amen. I, John Spence, of Victoria, in Vancouver Island, Carpenter, being of sound mine and memory, and knowing that it is appointed unto man to die, do hereby make and declare my last Will and Testament as follows ..."

The will provided for settlement of his just debts, after which his real estate holdings and all the furnishings of his house were to be settled on his beloved wife Maria Spence: the sum of fifty dollars was to be sent to the Trustees of the United Presbyterian Church at Stromness and a further fifty dollars bequeathed to the Wesleyan Methodist Church at Victoria; all other assets were to be liquidated and divided, one third each to his wife Maria and to his nieces Janette Rae and Christina S. Euinson, both of Stromness. Executors of the will were to be master marine William A. Mouatt and master mariner John Swanson. The will was witnessed by George Robinson, David Evans and Amanda T. Robinson.

The City of Victoria Real Estate Assessment Roll for 1 July 1864 to 30 June 1865, now held in the city archives, lists John Spence as owner of Lot 1772, Section 61, Subdivisions 1, 5 and 6. These were assessed as $100 each for land and $500 total for improvements. By the standards of the day, Maria stood to be in fairly comfortable circumstances in land and money.

Three days after signing his will, John Spence died. The Colonist for Saturday morning, Sept. 30, 1865, reported:

"DIED. In this city on the 19th instant, Mr. John Spence, for upwards of forty-four years in the service of the Hudson Bay Company. Friends are invited to attend the funeral from his late residence on Superior Street on Monday October 2, at 1 o'clock."

His tombstone16 still stands in Pioneer Square, the small park next to Christ Church Cathedral which was originally Victoria's second cemetery.

As was observed, Maria was left in good financial circumstances. Unfortunately, others observed the same thing, among them one Harvey Snow, an American from Brooklyn, New York, who had failed to make his fortune digging for gold in the Cariboo gold rush. Snow now decided to strike out in a different direction, namely by marrying a well-to-do widow.

The registers for the pioneer Wesleyan Methodist church dating back to 1868 are now held in Centennial United Church archives. That for 1869 bears an entry attesting to the marriage on 2nd January of Harvey Snow, aged 46, and Maria Spence, aged 43. The minister who performed the ceremony was Reverend A. Russ, and the witnesses were William McGregor and Cornelius Bryant. We note with some amusement that Snow shaded his age by a couple of years, but Maria understated hers by seven.

Mallandaine's First Victoria Directory (fifth issue) for 1874 lists Victoria resident H. Snow, whose occupation was given as Dairyman and whose residence was on Michigan Street. Surprisingly, he appears only in this one directory and is not shown in preceding nor in subsequent ones.

When Victor Ernest Robinson married Charlotte Aslett of London, England on 9th November, 1875 in the Church of Our Lord (Reformed Episcopal), Bishop Edward Cridge recorded the wedding details in the church register. Maria Snow was one of the witnesses.

Early Property Tax Rolls in the Victoria City archives show that starting in 1874, `Mrs. Snow' bought various properties on Princes Street, a one-block thoroughfare since re-named Heather Street, which runs between Toronto and Michigan Streets in the James Bay district of Victoria. Perhaps George Robinson was concerned in some way with the transactions, as his letter to Victor Ernest Robinson dated 3rd January, 1875, mentions that "I wrote your Aunt Maria some months ago and returned some title deeds which she had sent me for signature ..."

By early 1884, Maria owned three large city lots, each sixty feet by a hundred and twenty, and ten small ones, each thirty-three feet by fifty-six. All fronted on Princes Street, the most northerly being on the corner of Princes and Michigan. But in 1884 disaster struck. The Colonist for March 16, 1884, bore an official notice that "Pursuant to the `Execution against Lands Act, 1874' - in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Turner, Beeton & Company, Plaintiffs, and Maria Snow, Defendant" city sheriff Thomas Harris intended the next day to sell twelve city lots belonging to Maria Snow "or sufficient thereof to satisfy the Judgment Debt and expenses in this action". The amount in question was given: "for the sum of $1,221.75 debt, together with Interest upon the said sum, at the rate of four per centum per annum from the 26th day of October, 1882, besides Sheriff's fees and poundage." There is no mention of Harvey Snow in the notice.

Red-inked notations in the 1884 Tax Roll show that Maria lost one of her large lots and five of her small ones, but the money raised by their sale evidently satisfied the judgment and costs. Victor Ernest did his bit to help, for the red-inked notations show "V.E. Robinson" as the purchaser of one of the small lots.

Among Victor Ernest's scant papers is a small notebook, minus its cover, which bears numerous jotted entries dated between 1880 and 1884. Most concern household expenses, but several refer to monies collected and paid out "for Aunt". Presumably rentals from the properties which she was able to keep were her mainstay, and account for the final notebook entry "1884. In bank belonging to Aunt, August 11th = $790".

It seems likely that Victor Ernest had been managing Maria's financial affairs, and that when he died in the autumn of 1884, following a brief illness, Harvey Snow finally came into his own. Maria's assets dwindled until she lost her house and was reduced at length to staying at the Angel Hotel. The Angel was something of a phenomenon on the Pacific Coast, a Temperance hotel. It was so operated by owner Frederick Carne, who had bought the premises from Charles Morton in 1876, and so continued as long as he loved. The buildings, one brick and one stone, fronted on Langley Street in downtown Victoria, on ground now occupied by the south-west corner of the Federal Building. Here Maria stayed, with periodic lengthy visits to members of her family in Nanaimo and Victoria.

Most of our remaining information comes from Cornelius Bryant's diary and occasional letters. It may be that Cornelius, with his stern Methodist rectitude, was a little harsh in his judgment of Harvey Snow, but only a little. Cornelius' letter of Aug. 17 '94 to Mark Bate remarks "… Your estimate of Snow's dealings re Aunt is correct. He tried to leave her on Mrs. Carne's hands at the `Angel' but she" (Mrs Carne) "refused, knowing as she did his character and his intentions. And she gave him besides her plainly expressed opinion of his shameful squandering of Aunt's money and his neglect of her until compelled (at my request) by police interference to come out of the low haunt he was staying in & to report himself at the `Angel'. It is probable that he got rid of some hundreds of dollars while drunk this time. Although he has a room at the `Angel' he did not sleep there at night & not even after Aunt returned there - it was too respectable quarters for the likes of him! ..."

Maria seems to have become hazy and confused at times. Perhaps it was the onset of what we now know as Alzheimer's Disease. In the same letter, Cornelius says "… I tried in one of her lucid periods while staying with us to obtain from her a correct idea of how she stood in her money matters but she was close as a vice; positively declared that although Snow had got all she had yet he was not now in a position to keep her as she should be kept. ..." Cornelius goes on to express the hope that "… some arrangt. will be made to relieve Mrs. Bate of her charge ..." by which we infer that Maria was then staying with the Bates, and that some of her peculiarities had impelled Mark to write to Cornelius for information.

The next mention is in Cornelius' journal for 1895.

16/Sun. Aunt M Came!
17/Mon. To town trying in vain to find Aunt's luggage.
19/Wed. Fetched Aunt's traps from Carnes'."

A copy of a letter which Cornelius had written is also held.

"June 18/95.

Mr. Snow - I wish to inform you that your wife is too weak and helpless to help herself in staying with us and has been since 16th inst., and while we do what we can for her, yet we must insist upon it that you come here at once and provide her with suitable nursing and care, and also with suitable clothing too, as she has to wear Mrs. B.'s clothes not having sufficient clothing of her own to make her appear decent and not even a change of underwear. The case requires your immediate attention. You had better bring down all her personal effects and all her papers or documents of any importance as she has expressed her wish to me that she wants them. Yours, etc. C. Bryant"

Things did not improve. Cornelius' journal records a worsening situation.

12th. Aunt very cross and intractable of late.
31th. Saw Supt. Hussey re Aunt M whose conduct towards Elizabeth has become intolerable.

1 Town in after. with Aunt. Took her in crg. to Prov'l Jail.
2 Went to town & to jail. Met Aunt and found Snow under arrest at Supt. H's office.
3. I was witness at Snow's case at the Court House Vict. Snow was sentenced to 6 mos hard labour, but sentence suspended."

Harvey Snow continued to try to make trouble. It seems he suspected that Maria still had some money hidden, and he badgered Cornelius for it but got nothing for his pains. On the other hand, he evaded giving Maria any support. Maria eventually returned to Nanaimo to live with the Bates. Nineteen months after the Nanaimo Free Press for March 13, 1895, carried George Robinson's obituary, Maria's appeared in the same newspaper:

"DIED. In this city, on Oct. 15, 1896, Maria Snow, aged 78 years, a native of Holly Hall, Worcestershire, England. The funeral will take place from the residence of ex-Mayor Bate on Saturday afternoon at 3 o'clock. Friends will please accept this invitation."

The Victoria Daily Times for October 16, 1896, carried an expanded report:

"Mrs. Maria Snow, whose death at Nanaimo was announced in last evening's Times, had attained the ripe old age of 78 years. The deceased lady left England forty years ago with her niece (Mrs. A.G. Horne) and nephews (ex-Mayor Bate and Rev. C. Bryant) then a girl and boys in their teens, and arrived in Nanaimo Friday, 1st February, 1857. She remained in Nanaimo several months and then came to Victoria, where she opened in millinery, stay-making and dressmaking business."

And what of Maria's reprobate of a husband? Somehow he managed to eke out a living until on May 19th, 1904, he was admitted to the "Home for the Aged and Inform" which was maintained by the City of Victoria for indigent old men. The Manager of the Home reported in his annual statement that at age 79, Harvey Snow was the oldest resident received during the year. Then finally the Colonist for October 1st, 1907, carried his obituary:

"The funeral of Harvey C. Snow, whose death occurred Sunday morning in the Jubilee Hospital will take place from Smith's Undertaking Parlours, Yates Street, tomorrow morning. The deceased was a native of Brooklyn, N.Y. He came to Victoria in 1858, and mined for some years in Cariboo. He was recently an inmate of the Old Men's home."

And on that note, we close the record on the life of Maria Robinson.

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