George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


The slow but steady influx of settlers and merchants had made it certain that sooner or later the political power of the Hudson's Bay Company, both on the mainland and on Vancouver Island, would come to an end. This process was accelerated with explosive force when the Company unwittingly started the Fraser River gold rush.

Commencing in 1852, small batches of gold nuggets and gold dust had begun to reach Fort Victoria from the Company's trading posts along the Fraser River. At first these were considered more as curiosities than as items of value, though there were some misgivings that the trade might increase to a point where the Indians would spend time gathering gold at the expense of their proper task of gathering furs. By early 1856, enough gold had accumulated at Fort Victoria to warrant a shipment to the U.S. Mint at San Francisco as part of a cargo which the H.B.C. steamer Otter was taking to that port. News of the arrival of this shipment spread like wildfire through the worked-out California mines. Within a few months some eight thousand miners headed north by overland routes and another twenty-three thousand, traveling in anything that would float, came by sea to the new El Dorado on the Fraser. In theory the Hudson's Bay Company still held a trading right monopoly to the area, but in practice their scattered posts and few employees were swamped by this host.

The British government took prompt action. The Hudson's Bay Company's grant to the mainland was revoked effective 2nd September, 1858, and the Crown Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed. James Douglas was offered the position of Governor of the new Colony, at an annual salary of One thousand pounds Sterling. He would remain concurrently Governor of Vancouver Island. Both appointments were contingent on his severing all connection with the Hudson's Bay Company. After much soul-searching, Douglas accepted the offer.

When the second five-year grant of Vancouver Island rights expired 13th January, 1859, the Hudson's Bay's tenure of this territory was also wound up. The Company submitted a claim for expenses incurred for administration, as provided for in the original Royal Charter, and after some discussion, Parliament voted fifty-five thousand pounds Sterling in settlement of the claim. Considering that for ten years the whole of the Island' output had passed through the Company's hands and that for this the Company had paid a rental of "seven shillings per annum, payable on the first day of each year", one suspects the Company did not suffer financial hardship from their venture.

Thus when George Robinson arrived at Victoria, a thriving city which had been a staging-point supplying the flood of miners, merchants, packers, gamblers and other hangers-on which had poured into the Fraser River, he could hardly have recognized it. True, the buildings and the surrounding palisades of the Hudson's Bay Company's fort still existed, but the land on which they stood was now prime property in the heart of the expanding city, and preparations were under way to demolish them and sell the land. (But what would the present-day city fathers not give to have such a tourist-entrancing relic of Victoria's past intact and on-site!)

We know certainly that George brought with him his wife Caroline and his three children Amanda Theresa, Victor Ernest and Georgiana Caroline. However we do not know the route by which they came, nor the date of their arrival.

We have previously related how George's nephew Cornelius Bryant had come to Nanaimo in 1857 to replace Charles Bailey as schoolmaster. He had remained in that post, as well as becoming active in church and civic duties, and in March of 1864 he married Elizabeth Murdow, a Canadian from Brantford, Ontario. It has long been accepted by the descendants of Amanda Theresa that when she was fourteen years of age, she went to live with the Bryants. If so, she would have had to be in Nanaimo before her fifteenth birthday on 23rd January of 1864.

Although the two dates do not agree, we can assume with a fair degree of confidence that the Robinsons arrived at Victoria in late 1863 or early 1864.

George Robinson bought three adjoining lots, all fronting on Frederick Street, within the City of Victoria but across the harbour from the city's centre, in the area known as Victoria West. Here he built a small house to which in the English manner he gave a name, Woodbine Cottage. This was to be his address as long as he remained in Victoria.

And what was he to do for a living? During his last year or two at Nanaimo he had purchased one of the early cameras, and had taken many views of the settlement. Unfortunately he seems to have sold both equipment and negatives when leaving Nanaimo, but his interest in the matter remained. During his sojourn in England he had acquired more equipment and had polished his skills as a photographer to a degree where he felt competent to enter the world of commercial photography.

To this end he rented or leased premises on the east side of Government Street, next door to the San Francisco Baths and about a city block north of the Theatre Royal. The Theatre Royal building also housed a photographic business which had been opened in 1862 by J.W. Vaughan and associates, and there were other studios in town. Given the small population of Victoria and its environs, we can be reasonably certain that George Robinson's fledgling business had some difficulties in getting established. It seems that on many days he would have found little work or profit.

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