George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer

A TIME OF TROUBLE AND SORROW

Joseph William McKay left the Nanaimo post, and his place was taken by another Hudson's Bay Company servant, Captain Charles Edward Stuart. Captain Stuart kept a notebook in which he jotted down comments about the weather, the comings and goings of various ships, visits by groups of Indians, and various happenings in the Nanaimo community. A typescript of this notebook is held in the Provincial Archives under the title "Nanaimo Journal".

The Journal gives us a wealth of insights into the busy life of the small settlement. It also reminds us, in September of 1855, that the miners who worked under George Robinson were a fractious and turbulent lot.

"Tues 11th. A.M. light airs from the North. Thermometer 62°. York, Webb, Dunn, Harrison, Bull, John Baker, Meekin and Incher all on strike - refusing to work."

"Wednesday 12th. A.M. Airs from South East. Thermometer 60°. The eight miners (mentioned yesterday) deserted leaving their wives and families here . . ."

The miners seem to have gone to Bellingham Bay, where an American concern was mining low-grade coal, with every intention of staying away for several weeks if not for good. When it became apparent that they were not going to return to Nanaimo immediately, cap in hand, their wives were given notice to vacate the Company housing. The Journal does not record that any were actually dispossessed.

There is little doubt that the matter caused George Robinson a great deal of annoyance and took up both time and energy. However, he and his wife Ann had other pressing matters to attend to. As September ended and October began, the Journal remarked as an afterthought:

"Monday 1st. A M clear and fine. Wind from South east. Therm 60°. Otter discharging cargo - also took in about seven tons Coal. Lemesa also taking in coal. Three miners left for Victoria in a canoe. Sent a despatch to his Excellency by it. P.M. 2'o Wind veered round to North. (11 A.M. - Mrs. Robinson delivered of a living male child)."
How happy the Robinson must have been! But the happiness was short-lived. Ann never recovered from complications of the birth - my mother once told me the main culprit was the dreaded "childbirth fever" - and failed rapidly in health until the end came early in January, 1856. The Journal records:

"Tuesday 3rd A M southerly wind. Cloudy with a little rain. Therm 35. The Active left for Bellingham Bay &c. Miners, carpenters at work as usual. P.M. 5 Mrs. Robinson died."

"Sunday 6th. A M Southeasterly wind and fine. Thermometer 40°. The remains of Mrs. Robinson were interred at 3 P M."

Poor Ann! From various facts passed down to us through her family, we know that she was not of the stuff from which true pioneers are made. Had she been given the opportunity, she would have lived quite happily in or near Dudley all her life, and when her life was over she would have gone serenely to her grave in a Dudley churchyard in sure and certain hope of resurrection in company with her forbearers and her family. Instead, she followed her husband a third of the way around the world, as a good Victorian wife was expected to do, and a little more than a year later she had the dubious distinction of being the first woman to be buried in a lonely grave in the pioneer cemetery of far-distant Nanaimo.

We have a faded carte-de-visite photograph of her, seemingly a copy of an earlier picture, for the oval image fills only the central third of the card. It shows a woman whose face over her stiff lace collar is firm but unsmiling, her hair parted in the middle and pulled down to a tight coil over each ear. And yet in life she must have smiled often, and we know that she and George loved one another deeply.

Efforts were made to keep the baby alive. One of the miners' wives was then weaning her own baby. She tried to feed the tiny boy, but her milk was thin and had almost ceased. We do not know for certain, but believe this was Mrs. Bevilockway, whose daughter Julia had been born two days after the landing at Nanaimo. In far-off Europe, "preserved milk in tinned canisters" had been available for two years, but this amenity which today we take as a matter of course was completely unknown in the Nanaimo of 1856. The only known means of keeping food were salting or drying. Baby food was thus limited to a gruel of boiled cereal, fortified with such vegetables as could be obtained in the depths of winter. We do not know if any further attempt was made to find a wet-nurse among the colonists or the Indian women, but if there was one, if failed. After existing miserably a further seven weeks after Ann's death, the baby also died. Ann's grave was re-opened, and he was buried with her.

George Robinson, grieving his double blow, wrote home to arrange for a suitable tombstone. His brother-in-law Thomas Bryant, who had witnessed their wedding a few short years before, attended to the matter and stored the finished stone in his hallway until it could be transported to Nanaimo. Many years later his son, another Thomas Bryant, would recall seeing the stone in the hallway as a youth and finding it again in the Nanaimo cemetery when he arrived there as a grown man.

The cemetery is on sloping ground overlooking the waters of the inlet, half a mile north of the Bastion. In the early days it was a peaceful place, wholly fitting for a simple burial. The ceremonies would have been simple indeed, for there was no clergyman at the settlement.

Today the cemetery is no longer peaceful. The city has grown far beyond it. Busy Wallace Street and Comox Road bound it on two sides, and the continuous, roaring traffic of the Island Highway passes between it and the harbour waters. In 1954 the cemetery was made into a tiny park, with a winding pathway which meanders among the old trees and the green lawns. The tombstones which had survived were removed from their original positions and built into a retaining wall which borders the upper path. The stone which George Robinson had ordered from England is among them, its inscription still sharp and clear.5 George Robinson pasted the following poem in his scrapbook:

The Dying Wife

Lay the gem upon my bosom,
      Let me feel her sweet warm breath;
For a strong chill o'er me passes,
      An I know that it is death,
I would gaze upon the Treasure-
      Scarcely given ere I go-
Feel her posy dimple fingers
      Wander o'er my cheek of snow.

I am passing through the waters,
      But a blessed shore appears;
Kneel beside me, husband dearest,
      Let me kiss away thy tears,
Wrestle with thy grief, my husband,
      Strive from midnight unto day,
It may leave an angel's blessing
      When it vanishes away.

Lay the gem upon my bosom,
      'Tis not long she'll be there;
See ! how to my heart she nestles,
      'Tis the pearl I love to wear,
If in after years beside thee
      Sits another in my chair,
Though her voice be sweeter music,
      and her face than mine more fair.

If a cherub call thee "Father!"
      Far more beautiful than this,
Love thy first-born ! oh ! my husband !
      Turn not from the motherless;
Tell her something of her mother-
      You may call her by my name!
Shield her from the winds of sorrow;
      If she errs, oh ! gently blame.

Lead her sometimes, where I'm sleeping;
      I will answer if she calls,
And my breath will stir her ringlets,
      When my voice in blessing falls,
Then her soft, black eyes will brighten,
      And shall wonder whence it came,
In her heart when years pass o'er her
      She will find her mother's name.

It is said that every mortal
      Walks between two angels here;
One records the ill, but blots it,
      With the true forgiving tear.
If before the midnight dies
      Man repenteth-if uncanceled,
Then the right hand angel weepeth,
      Bowing low with veiled eyes.

I will be her right hand angel,
      Scaling up the good for heaven:
Striving that the midnight watches
      Fixed no misdeeds unforgiven.
You will not forget me husband,
      When I'm sleeping 'neath the sod!
Oh, love the jewel to us given,
      As I love thee-next to God.

      Author Unknown

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