William Henry Lomas was a key player in founding the Cowichan Exhibition, among other community work. (file photo)

T.W. Paterson column: ‘515 Boers killed at Mafeking, suicide of WM.H. Lomas’

Among his many achievements, he played an instrumental role in founding of the Cowichan Exhibition.

Among his many achievements, he played an instrumental role in the founding of the Cowichan Exhibition.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin when writing about some of our pioneers. Chronological order usually works, of course. But every so often you encounter a career that involves a climax that cries out, not for a movies-like dramatic opening and flashback, but as the starting point for trying to reconstruct how it should have come to such a pass…

Take the case of William Henry Lomas, storekeeper, farmer, catechist and Indian Agent for most of Vancouver Island for 18 eventful and challenging years.

We know little more about the final moments of his life than that which appeared in the Oct. 28, 1899 Colonist: A “special dispatch” from “Duncans” reported that W.H. Lomas, Indian Agent, shot and killed himself that morning at 8:30 o’clock.

“He went to his office about 7, and was then in the best of spirits. Indian Constable Tom came in later and about 8 Mr. Lomas told Tom to look for Constable [James] Maitland-Dougall as he wanted to see him. Maitland-Dougall and H. Morton came along a few minutes later and Tom called to them. Mr. Lomas was at the side door. When Maitland-Dougall turned around he heard a shot and said jocularly, ‘Who are you shooting?’

“They went into the office and found Mr. Lomas sitting in his chair, holding a revolver in his right hand. The bullet entered his head at the back of the right ear. There was bulging over the right eye, apparently the course of the bullet. Death was instantaneous…”

Lomas left a wife, three sons, three daughters and a brother. A son was quoted as saying that his father had been “worried”. In the way of hard clues, police found little more to go on than an envelope (presumably in his office) that contained a slip of paper bearing an enigmatic quote from George Eliot: “What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult to each other.” (The Colonist wasn’t up on classical literature. The Nanaimo Free Press, which headlined Lomas’ suicide on its front page alongside the latest news from South Africa — “515 Boers killed at Mafeking” — did better with, “What have we to live for, except to make life less difficult for others.”)

With so little to go on, it’s not surprising that a coroner’s jury ruled: “We…certify that W.H. Lomas shot himself while temporarily insane, which we consider was brought on by worry and illness.” Jurors added — it was a small community, after all — “We hereby take this opportunity of expressing our sincere and heartfelt sympathy with the family of the deceased.”

It was a sad, sudden and, to all outward appearances, mystifying end for this highly respected man who was just 59 at the time of his death. Born in England, he’d arrived in Victoria aboard the ship Silistria 33 years before. Previously a teacher, with stock brought with him from the Old Country, he operated a store there for several years before moving to Cowichan in the ’70s to take up ‘ranching.’ After serving as teacher at the Somenos Lake School, Lomas became the Church of England’s ‘Indian catechist’ at Quamichan.

He had only to move across the road in 1881 when he was appointed Indian Agent (the first in B.C.) for the Cowichan Tribes. Based at Quamichan, his jurisdiction actually extended as far north as the Comox Valley and included much of the west coast of Vancouver Island. He had to get around much of the time in dugout canoes and, at least once, was almost drowned in stormy seas. He learned to speak the Hul’qumi’num language fluently, rather than rely as did most others on the limited Chinook trade jargon, and appears to have worked hard to establish the trust of his charges, it being stated that he took “a keen interest in [their] welfare and always work[ed] for their good. They soon learned to love and respect him, and his word was to them law.”

Even allowing for the fact that we live in a less than perfect world, that few of us make it through life without exposing our frailties — and acknowledging, too, that this warm testimonial was written immediately upon his death — we probably can accept it as fact that most residents of the Cowichan Valley respected William Lomas. But, during his 19 years of office as the Dominion Government’s front man, he’d often been caught between an ever-encroaching white community and a besieged native community. The resulting competition for resources and rights had made him enemies, too.

His sudden and inexplicable suicide — from “the best of spirits” to shooting himself only minutes later, the possibility of its having been accidental or murder having been ruled out — prompted a flurry of rumours although the Victoria press (Cowichan didn’t have a newspaper of its own at the time) appears to have been loathe to quote them in print.

The obvious one was that he’d been having family difficulties and, perhaps, health issues. (He’d lost his oldest son William Alexander to kidney disease, aged 26, two years earlier, and his third child, Edward Spencer, was to wed in 10 days.) The other suggested motive, this one more sinister, was that his office finances were in disorder; in other words, he’d had his hand in the till and was overcome with remorse or was fearful of discovery. There’s no question that his monthly wage of $100 wouldn’t have gone far with his large family.

There had been something for him to worry about, six months earlier, when the local Methodist missionary had formally complained to Lomas’s superiors that he’d been drunk while on duty. A teetotaller who detested drunkenness, Lomas successfully defended himself but the charge, without foundation though it was, must have stung.

(Author’s note: Even from the distance of almost a century and a quarter after the suggestions of dishonesty and drunkenness seem so unlikely as to be slanderous. Everything historical researchers know of William Henry Lomas is that he was a caring, compassionate and honourable man. His sudden and tragic loss to both his family and the community was beyond measure, compounded, no doubt, by the bizarre circumstances. Lomas is one of a handful of Cowichan Valley pioneers I’ve come to really respect, based upon what I know of him through his own journals and the public record. Everything indicates he was a devoted Christian, a dedicated public servant and honourable man.—TW)

Two weeks after his suicide, with speculation swirling as to why he shot himself, the Colonist, after mentioning prospector and former MLA William Robertson as his possible successor, firmly set the record straight: “In connection with the mystery surrounding Mr. Lomas’ unhappy end, it is only fairness to the dead to give a most emphatic contradiction to the rumour that his suicide was in any way influenced by irregularities in his business affairs.

“On the contrary, the most careful audit of his books goes to show that they were carefully and accurately posted to the very day of his death, and that instead of being in any way indebted to the government in whose service he had been for so many years, he was himself a creditor.”

Six years later, in March 1906, Henry’s son and former police officer Albert Lomas was appointed Government Agent.

www.twpaterson.com

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