George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


Meanwhile, the British Colonist had continued its diatribes against the smothering influence of the Hudson's Bay Company and its involvement with the Government. Editor Amor de Cosmos had a mission to carry out, and carry it out he did, making many bitter enemies among the landed gentry and probably bringing the staid Governor Douglas to the brink of apoplexy.

At one point, when the Governor's brother-in-law was suddenly elevated from lowly clerk to Judge in the Court of Appeal, the Colonist commented editorially that ". . . offices of the Colony are filled with toadyism, consanguinity and incompetency, compounded with the white-washed Englishmen and renegade Yankees . . ." To the mainly English upper-crust of Victoria, such abuse from a native Canadian was insufferable.

Finally Douglas struck back. By proclamation posted on the wall of the Fort and quoting a half-forgotten British Parliamentary Act as authority, he decreed that in order to continue publication, the Colonist must post forthwith a bond of eight hundred pounds Sterling: a fine of fifty pounds would be levied for each day of "illegal" publication. Informed of this proclamation barely in time, Amor de Cosmos stopped distribution of next issue, but what to do? He did not have such a sum, nor much hope of raising it.

However, Governor Douglas had misjudged the temper of the populace. Supporters and detractors of the Colonist alike took prompt exception to any attempt to limit the freedom of the Press. At a mass meeting held two days later, they not only let the Governor know their feelings, but subscribed the full amount of the bond. The Colonist continued publishing unscathed and unsubdued.

It is in the pages of this newspaper - grown from a weekly with a press run of 200 copies to a daily with a circulation of 4,000 - that we first hear of George Robinson's return to Vancouver Island. The issue of May 9th, 1864, bore two advertisement. The larger of these on page 2 reads:

"G. Robinson

friends and the public generally that he has opened a
on Government Street, next door to the San Francisco Baths

And immediately opposite to Selim Franklin & Co.'s office and hopes by the production of Photographs and Cartes de Visite of a superior class to merit a fair share of their patronage. Children taken between the hours of 10 and 1.
Cartes de Visite, $6 per doz; $4 the half doz.
Photographs and Cartes de Visite colored in oil."

The Smaller advertisement on page 3 reads:

"PHOTOGRAPHY. - Mr. G. Robinson, an experienced photographic artist, has opened a studio on Government Street, opposite the office of Messrs. Franklin."

But it soon became evident that George Robinson had no intention of spending the rest of his life with Cartes de Visite. The Colonist for June 2nd, 1964, carried a report:

"COAL AT ALBERNI. - A party of explorers, consisting of four white men and an Indian guide, under the charge of Mr. Robinson, formerly of Nanaimo, were despatched by the steamer Thames on Tuesday evening, to explore for coal in the country lying on the south east coast of Barclay Sound. Nearly two years ago Mr. Banfield, the late Indian Agent at the Sound, reported that he had discovered a valuable coal seam in that vicinity and sent up a specimen of the coal to this city. No action, however, was then taken in the matter, but a short time ago a company was formed and a request made to the Executive for a reserve of a certain portion of land in the vicinity, as pointed out on the map. The portion indicated proved to contain from 160 to180 square miles, but as the company represented that they did not know the location of Mr. Banfield's discovery, the reserve was granted them for a period of three months, during which they might make the necessary researches. At the expiry of that time should anything valuable be discovered a sufficient permanent reserve will be made. The company consists of eight or ten city merchants and others, who have each contributed $100 towards the expenses of prospecting their reserve. The exploring party have received instructions to continue their search for one month if necessary. They have as guide and interpreter a brother of King Freezy, who is a tillicum7 of the Barclay Sound Indians, and they are provided with an abundant supply of iktas7 to secure the good-will and services of the chiefs of the tribe."

But the expedition to locate a coal mine on Vancouver Island's west coast failed. The Colonist for June 30th, reported:

"THE ALBERNI EXPEDITION. - Mr. Robinson, who was sent to Alberni about a month ago, by some private parties here, chiefly to explore for coal, returned to town yesterday. The search for coal was unsuccessful, neither well defined seams nor promising indications being discovered, although detached croppings consisting of flakes about half an inch thick and two or three feet long, were met with. Several good copper reefs were found however, and specimens brought down, which will be submitted to an assay."

The Colonist for July 4th, 1864, carried confirmation of the reversion from mining engineer to photographer, with the advertisement:

(Opposite Selim Franklin & Co.s office, Victoria)
"Mr. R. begs to inform his friends and the public, that having returned from his tour upon the N.W. Coast, he has now resumed his business as before."

Twelve days later the July 16th, 1864 issue of the Colonist carried an expanded report on the search for coal on Barclay Sound.


"The company who received from the late Governor a temporary reserve of some 180 square miles of the country lying to the south of Barclay Sound, for prospecting purposes, and whose efforts in search of coal and other minerals have been briefly alluded to in previous issues of the Colonist, have received from Mr. Robinson the photographer, whom they had sent out at the head of the prospecting party, a complete diary of his proceedings, from which we have been permitted to make the following extracts:

"The party landed at Cape Beale on June 1st, and after examining the country in that vicinity, discovering a picturesque natural passage through a projecting cliff on the sea shore, which had three openings and was 20 or 30 feet in height, they endeavoured to make their way across to


"June 3rd. - This morning started at 7 o'clock to try to make our way through the bush to Pachena Bay, accompanied by Scullin the Indian; found it thickly wooded, not very hilly nor yet rocky, in fact saw no rocks at all; our course lay about E.S.E.; some fine land exists there but too much timber upon it to be of any value. The timber consists of pine, cedar and hemlock, with abundance of underwood; crossed several small rivulets or streams of water; did not succeed in striking the Bay, returned about 6 p.m.

"June 4th. - Started again for Pachena Bay accompanied by Elliott and the Indian; made our course S.E. struck the bay about midway from its entrance about 4 o'clock, having been about 9-1/2 hours in making our way through the bush, the distance being about 1-3/4 miles by my calculation. The land was very good but very thickly timbered in places, the timber being of great size and good quality with many very large cedars; the land rather undulating, but not hilly except near the two bays where it appears to be very elevated. The two bays may I think be connected if necessary by railway at a moderate cost, there being any quantity of timber to build it with from one point to the other. Returned to camp in consequence of its being so precipitous where we struck it, and the underwood being thick we could not stop to get through it, as it would possibly take us some hours to do so.

"After prospecting some two weeks in this vicinity, making very little progress through the dense underwood, being unable to proceed along the shore by canoe on account of the tremendous surf, and drenched meanwhile by frequent rainstorms, the party again went to Pachena Bay and prospected its shores and Pachena River."

"June 17th - This morning we went to the bottom of Pachena Bay, and prospected the river as far as we could go without great difficulty; afterwards prospecting the west side of the Bay - the whole of the rocks being granite. The sides of the river running from the bottom of the bay have fine patches of fine level ground, thickly covered with grass of a considerable height; but I am of opinion the the land must be under water at high tides. Upon the eastern side of the bay and river the land is thickly timbered, but the underwood is not quite so thick as we have generally found it upon the coast; the ground is good, and tolerably even, except an occasional ridge of rock. A schooner of five or six feet draught of water may lie up the river at low water, but would have to get in at high water. There seems to be an abundance of deer and elk, and also of fur animals, in this locality. The Indians, however, are bad to deal with; they are very disagreeable in their manner, and require a great deal of watching. I have reason to believe that we have had several little things stolen by them, although we have invariably kept a strict and close watch upon them. Unless something better turns up, I hope to close here tomorrow.


"Four days' more ineffectual prospecting through a frightful country, and the party are at length rewarded by learning from the Indians of the locality of some valuable copper and coal deposits. The diary goes on as follows:-

"June 23rd. - The weather this morning is as bad as yesterday, we cannot there fore leave here today. Ate-es-jeb (the Indian chief here) - (Tsuguanahs) came into our camp this morning about half-past 3 o'clock, and said that he wanted me to go with him and another Indian (named Jem) to go and see some stone that Jem had found; he said that it was necessary that I should go then, as the tide would turn soon, and then we could not go. I accordingly decided to go. They took me along the coast about a mile east from here, when they turned up a rather narrow inlet, but of sufficient width to admit of a moderate sized vessel. This led into a long lagoon8 or lake, into which we went, I suppose, about two miles. How much further it extends I cannot say, but I saw sufficient of it to warrant me in saying the there is a harbour here, large and deep enough for the whole of Her Majesty's navy, the only objection to it being its entrance; but at extreme tides, that is to say the turn of the tides - high or low- vessels would have no difficulty in getting in or out. Upon the banks of this lake, probably two miles from its entrance, the Indian pointed out to me what I immediately recognised as a lead of copper - of which I am in hopes the B.S.M. Co. will have occasion to be pleased - it is immediately upon the water's edge, and lying a very little above the water, and appears to be dipping inland. This is the first, and I think the richest, but there are two or three others, each richer than the one on Barclay Sound, and each of which lie some eight or ten feet above the water; in each case the ore seems to be lying in a bed of limestone, a sample of which I bring with me. The limestone exists to an unlimited extent. The lake is nearly surrounded by mountains, the bottoms of which extend to the water's edge; there are, however, one or two level places, but which seemed to be heavily timbered. - Whilst going up the lake, another Indian whom we met, said that he knew where there was a bed of coal not far from there, but he would go and fetch me a sample during the day, and if it proved to be coal, he would show me its whereabouts.

"June 24th - The sample of coal brought by the Indian looks good; he says there is a large quantity of it. I have made an arrangement with the chief to give him 25 blankets to bring in a canoe load to Victoria; he will not be more than a week or ten days. In the mean time I concluded to return to Victoria, as the Company will require to change the lines of their reserve.

"On the return of Mr. Robinson to Victoria, and the reception of his report by the Company, we understand that it was determined - provided the Governor should agree to change the lines of their reserve, and to continue to them the privileges granted by his predecessor - to fit out another party on a more extensive scale, and despatch them at once to the locality of the discoveries. One of the privileges allowed to the Company by the late Governor, was that they should have eighteen months in which to organise a company in England."

The advertisements in the Colonist which began with the issue of July 4th, 1864, ceased with the issue of August 8th. What happened to George Robinson, Photographer at that time? In true Jekyll-and-Hyde style he had again changed to George Robinson, Mining Engineer. The September 9th, 1864 issue of the Colonist reported:

"MORE COAL DISCOVERIES. - Mr. Robinson, Mining Engineer and formerly Superintendent of the coal mines at Nanaimo, and two others, having recently discovered a valuable seam of coal in the neighbourhood of Nootka Sound, have applied to the Government for a grant of a lease for the same, and as they appear to have complied with the terms of the Governor's proclamation of June 11th, relative to such matters, we understand their claim has been granted. The seam is said to be about 6 feet thick and the quality is represented to be superior to any yet found on the Island. The largest ship in the Navy can lie in safety within 20 yards of the seam in a fine capacious and well sheltered harbour."

The British Columbia Government Archives possess a letter to the Colonial Secretary which concerns the same coal discovery.

"Victoria, V.I.
Sepr 7th 1864

"H Wakeford Esqr
Colonial Secy


"Having recently discovered a seam of coal upon the west coast of this Island, we are anxious to secure to ourselves the exclusive right of working the same, and for this purpose beg that you will in accordance with the proclamation of His Excellency the Governor bearing date June 11th 1864 grant to us a "temporary lease" of six months, of the Coal Mines lying underneath the tract of land of one Mile square the position of which is shown in the annexed sketch - being situate upon the Southern bank of the "Gauquina Arm" Nootka Sound - the centre of the said tract being marked by a large pine tree being blazed for some 4 or 5 feet from its base upwards and all around it - in addition to which it is surrounded by a heap of large stones. We may say in explanation of our intentions relative to the above that our only object is to endeavour to prove and work the said seam with as little loss of time as possible, at the same time assuring you that we shall jealously abstain from making a "stock jobbing" affair of it or of allowing any stock Brokers to have any connexion with it - as we have good reason to believe that we can with confidence calculate upon the Co-operation with ourselves of a highly respectable party, already similarly engaged in this Colony - and whose name would of itself be a sufficient guarantee for the work being carried on with spirit - and with credit to the Colony - but as no positive arrangement can be made with the said party until we have a lease of the seam, it may appear premature for us to say more upon the subject.

"We are, Sir,

Yours Respectfully

Pro -
  Peter Francis
  William Spring
  George Robinson

"George Robinson"

The references to the change in Governors had been brought about by the retirement of Sir James Douglas, who had been made Knight Commander of the Bath the previous year. He was succeeded as Governor of Vancouver Island by Arthur Edward Kennedy, and as Governor of mainland British Columbia by Frederick Seymour.

The autocratic, resolute and canny Douglas proved to be a hard man to follow. Kennedy started right off on the wrong foot when in acknowledging an address from Negro residents of Victoria, many of them escaped slaves, he referred to "the equality of man". Southern sympathiser feelings among the sizeable American population were ruffled. Seymour managed to avoid such faux pas, but proved to be vacillating and given to procrastination.

How Sir James must have smiled as, surrounded by his loving family and visited by numerous friends in his peaceful retirement, he saw the Governments of his successors being chastised for their errors and shortcomings.

Quite likely he also read and appreciated a letter to the Editor of the Colonist in April, 1865, in which a city resident complained loudly about his property taxes. The writer of the letter was George Robinson.

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