George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


Chief Factor James Douglas was both astonished and annoyed because many of the Fort Rupert miners had broken their contracts and absconded to golden California. He could not understand their mentality. For twenty years2 he had dealt with dependable company servants, then came this new problem. Having mulled over the defection of the miners, all single men, Douglas wrote to Archibald Barclay, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company that "In case of the Committee should decide on sending out miners, I would recommend Young Married men with 1 or 2 children being selected for that purpose…"

The Company reacted favourably. Such families would demonstrate an intent to colonize Vancouver's Island with British subjects, as required by the Royal Charter of 1849. The Charter was to be renewed in 1854, and unless more progress were made in this area, there might be difficulties. The Company notified Douglas that the miners would be recruited, and instructed him to prepare dwellings for them.

Douglas got on with the job, but progress was far from smooth. In a letter to Joseph McKay dated 20th July, 1853, Douglas observed "that you have commenced squaring timber for erecting the steam engine - an operation that I am afraid will greatly interfere with the other necessary work of the place, particularly the erection of houses for the accommodation of the Miners, expected from England, the Company having already engaged 40 Scottish miners who will came out to the Country by return of the Norman Morison and every possible exertion must be made to prepare house accommodation from them upon their arrival in this Country…"

The plan to obtain Scottish miners fell through, but McKay, not being aware of this, wrote back to Douglas on 31st July, 1853 saying "We will hardly have the required number of cottages for the Miners by next Spring, as a great quantity of lumber is constantly required in the mine for air courses &c. One man is nearly constantly employed handling picks; and window sashes and doors take a long time to make. If ready made window sashes and sawn lumber were supplied from Victoria it would greatly expedite the building operations at this place…"

When Douglas answered this plaint, which he did by letter dated 17th August, 1853, he wrote that "I will procure you a supply of ready-made window sashes and doors. You need therefore give yourself no trouble about these things. Let your whole attention be directed the erection of buildings. . ."

It was a classic case of the middle-manager caught in the squeeze between the demands of higher management and the realities of manpower and material shortages. McKay tried to comply with the directive, but evidently did not manage to satisfy Douglas, who then decided to hire a French-Canadian contractor to get on with the job. Douglas wrote the following to McKay on 12th September, 1853.

"I have just concluded a contract with Francis Cote, who has undertaken to put up houses at Nanaimo and has engaged hands for that purpose. The buildings are dwelling houses of 30 by 20 feet inside, and he is to hew and furnish the materials at his own expense, to cut and erect and finish the roof, and all the wood work of the frame, the Company supplying the sheathing, shingles and nails. I have stated the size of timber in the contract with the number of posts and beams. The posts you will observe are to be about 9 feet apart and the beams two feet. Pray see that the beams are cut of the required depth, say 10 inches at least. The beams should project one foot beyond the walls and the roof three feet at least, so as to admit a covered gallery in front. Pray see that the buildings are well roofed and made strong and substantial according to the specifications. Cote is not to engage Indians, but you will furnish any Indian assistance he may require, charging him the cost. He is also to feed and pay his own expenses, but to have provisions at servant's prices, flour being charged 3d per pound. This little gang will get through at least 5 or 6 houses before spring and you must cover these with shingles as they will be good buildings. I will order a lot of shingles for Nanaimo from Fort Rupert. A copy of the contract with Cote is herewith enclosed…"

On 27th September, 1853, McKay received a further letter from Douglas stating that "I have lately received letters from the Hudson's Bay House announcing that the Colinda of 600 tons was to sail from Gravesend on the first day of August with 40 miners, 36 of whom are married and have altogether 37 children, with the working sons they are considered to be equal to 56 days or days work. This number of people are to be lodged and fed and we must strive to meet their views in all points. As to food and work we can provide abundantly, but I am not sure about house accommodations. Send me an account of the number of houses finished and in progress by next mail, and the number of persons that can be accommodated in each. Also the number of persons you now have to lodge which will show the amount of spare accommodation, and what will be further required for the people expected from England. The Company recommends putting up 20 detached houses containing 4 rooms each, with chimney in the centre, so that they can accommodate either one or two families, according to their numbers, giving them separate doors or entrances for each family. Such buildings as so described should be about 40 x 25 feet. We shall begin some houses on that plan when Cote has finished 4 smaller houses. . . . I hope the school is in progress, and that Mr. Baillie is giving satisfaction. . . ."

Douglas was still expecting a contingent of Scottish miners, who were to come on the chartered ship Colinda instead of the H.B.C.'s Norman Morison. The miners left Britain as intended, but deserted en masse when Colinda reached Chile. The Hudson's Bay Company, seemingly much disenchanted with Scottish miners, then sought elsewhere, posting notices in the London newspapers to attract English miners. The notices, which appeared in the early Spring of 1854, dwelt lovingly on the beauties and virtues of Vancouver's Island and set out the requirements for suitable miner-colonists for the new mines. Those who were accepted would travel steerage in a new ship which was being built specifically for voyages between Britain and Vancouver's Island; they would need to pay only a portion of the normal cost of travel, the remainder being worked out by serving as deck-hands during the voyage.

We do not know certainly how it came about that a group of twenty-three residents of Brierley Hill, Staffordshire, nearly all miners by trade, came to contact Hudson's Bay House en bloc to offer their services. One account, which may be true or equally may be just a good yarn, says it was decided one evening at the village public house over several mugs of mild-and-bitter. In any event, the Company took their offer seriously enough to send George Robinson, who had been engaged as Mine Agent, or manager, to meet the men and to accept them if suitable. George recommended acceptance, and shortly the men were informed that a new ship, the Princess Royal, was almost completed and would leave Gravesend in May. A written contract was provided for each man to sign if literate, or to mark with his "X" in the presence of literate witnesses if not.

Some copies of these contract of service have survived. One is in the possession of the descendants of Miner John Thompson. In beautiful copperplate script, it reads "John Thompson does hereby bind himself to the said Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay to serve them as a Working Collier or Labourer from the date of Embarkation after mentioned until his arrival in Vancouver's Island North America and thereafter during and until the full and complete term of five years from thence next ensuing . . ."

Thompson was bound to make himself useful as a labourer in the ship or vessel which conveyed him, as required by the ship's officers, for which service he would be paid the sum of 2/6 per day. Travel expenses to the point of embarcation would be paid for himself and his family; also rations and quarters would be provided during the voyage. He would not be required to work aloft as part of his duties on board ship. On arriving at his destination, he agreed to help construct a wooden building and other conveniences for the use of his family. The rations which would be provided for both himself and his family enroute would be reduced on arrival to those for himself alone, the Company agreeing to furnish food for his family at a reasonable price. His wages would then be 78 pounds per year, payable in monthly installments, provided that he work ten hours each lawful working day, either above ground or below; should he absent himself from his labour and employment while in health during the said period of service, his wages would be forfeit for the time he was absent. There was also provision for an "incentive pay" of 2/6 per ton for each ton of coal he might dig above forty-five tons of "Twenty one hundred weight each month of clean round Coal".

As an added inducement, each miner was to be offered one acre of land, "as near as could be obtained to his dwelling" during his five years of service, "on payment of one pound Sterling per annum".

In consideration of their signing the above undertaking, Thompson and the other miners were each entitled to a loan of fifteen pounds Sterling, to be repaid after the expiration of one year. This sum was considered to be sufficient for them to equip themselves for the move from England to the New World.

Finally, the Company undertook to provide free passage and rations back to England for any miner and his family who did not wish to remain on Vancouver's Island after completion of his five year engagement; also if he should die during the term of the Contract, his wife and family would be provided with free passage and rations if they so desired.

Although we know from other sources that Thompson could read and write, his contract is signed with an "X". Was he one of the few literate miners, and for some reason did not wish to acknowledge the fact? Thompson and his intended wife, both aged nineteen, apparently made up their minds at the last minute, for they were married the day before they were required to board the ship.

Of the twenty-three men, all but one seem to have been qualified miners. Edwin Gough, although listed as a miner, was actually trained in cabinet making and carriage building. It is possible that he was included with the thought that he could assist in the construction of the houses which the miners were to erect on their arrival.

The Hudson's Bay Company proved to be a little optimistic in having stated that the Princess Royal would leave Gravesend in May, but during this month the miners were informed that they were to board the ship at the East India Docks on the second of June. The long voyage was about to begin.

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