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Nanaimo park honours eccentric fur company doctor

Helmcken should’ve twigged when he saw that Benson had troubled to tuck both pantlegs inside his boots.
Mount Benson lies just inland from the City of Nanaimo. Many don’t know that it got its name from a very colourful pioneer to British Columbia.

Helmcken should’ve twigged when he saw that Benson had troubled to tuck both pantlegs inside his boots.

The Snuneymuxw First Nation called what we know as Mount Benson, the 3,300-foot-high promontory west of Nanaimo, “Wakesiah,” which means, according to one’s source, “far away,” “not far,” or “mysterious, sinister or forbidding.” Certainly the latter suggests more romance than does mundane Mount Benson.

For 14 years (1848-1862) Albert Robson Benson, MRCS, served the Hudson’s Bay Co., then spent two years in the Nanaimo-Wellington area. As little has been recorded of his personal life and career before his 16-year stint on the Island, we’re indebted to fellow HBCo. physician John S. Helmcken.

A colleague and personal friend of Benson’s, Helmcken in his famous reminiscences has painted an illuminating portrait of the man whose name now graces Nanaimo’s most prominent landmark. For instance, we know that Benson was a “sterling, honest, kind-hearted, upright man, always ready to do good”. We’re also told that he was an idler, a grumbler (no doubt because he was a teetotaller), a political radical and, last but not least, a “sloven.”

When Helmcken first met the Whitby, Yorkshire doctor in London, he was nicknamed “the Commodore” because he’d once commanded a ship. That first meeting was a memorable one, Benson having been asked to read a report before the London Medical Society.

It seems that his punctuation, like his appearance, was casual, he having to be forcefully reminded to pause between sentences.

Helmcken next met him in Fort Victoria, in the spring of 1850.

The new arrival’s first impression of the future provincial capital wasn’t promising; he thought Victoria to be little less dismal than his previous posting, York Factory, and its residents, “seedy.” Benson, whose neglected appearance had been a source of consternation to his London colleagues, stood out even in a cultural backwater such as Vancouver Island.

His slovenly outfit was aggravated by a pair of seaboots, one trouser leg tucked in, the other not. This galled Helmcken, who’d dressed up for the occasion.

Benson dismissed his carping with a laugh, assured him that, ere long, he’d adapt to the ways of the frontier, and invited him on a tour of the “town,” then no more than a cluster of log buildings within a stockade, and the Songhees’ encampment across the harbour.

Helmcken should’ve twigged when he saw that Benson had troubled to tuck both pantlegs into his boots. Resplendent in two-year-old height-of-London fashion and polished shoes, he set off with his guide. Benson kept up a brisk pace, Helmcken struggling to keep his shoes from being sucked from his feet at every step. The more he struggled the filthier he became — and the louder laughed Benson.

By the time they reached today’s Beacon Hill Park, Helmcken had long abandoned hope of saving his suit. Then the “wretched” Benson suggested a shortcut — through a swamp. Deep into the bog, Benson announced that he’d lost the way — all the while jumping from “hillock to hillock” safely inside his boots as Helmcken floundered.

Finally Benson tired of the sport and with a final laugh and “I told you so!” led the way back to the fort.

They were just in time for dinner.

As Chief Factor James Douglas was punctual, they’d had no choice but to enter the dining hall as they were. Later Douglas, who enjoyed stimulating conversation with his meals, asked Benson why so many HBCo. men were bald. He obviously expected a medical answer.

Instead, Benson replied, they’d sent their furs home! Douglas, who disapproved of Benson’s political leanings, wasn’t amused and banished him to the Columbia River in the junior Helmcken’s place.

Nanaimo was Benson’s next assignment; he’d take his leave of the fur company there, to become the surgeon for the Vancouver Coal Co. before opening his own practice and investing in coal mine development. When he retired to the Old Country in 1862 it was as a highly respected and liked Nanaimo resident. His friend, Capt. George Richards, RN, had complimented him by naming Mount Benson in 1859. Benson Island in Barkley Sound and Benson Creek in Wellington district also honour this eccentric pioneer.

Historians remember Dr. A.R. Benson for his role of returning officer in the June 1859 election to the provincial legislature. Capt. John Swanson, the only candidate, was elected by a majority of one — by Capt. C.E. Stuart, the only registered voter.

Earlier this month it was announced that Mount Benson Regional Park, only a portion of which actually is mountaintop, is finally to be protected from further logging by a conservation covenant, 10 years after its acquisition as parkland.