Dr. Alfred Robson Benson and his wife. (B.C. Archive photo)

T.W. Paterson column: Hudson Bay Co.’s Dr. Benson marched to a different drummer

Chief Factor James Douglas soon banished him to the Columbia River

Chief Factor James Douglas, already critical of Benson’s political leanings, soon banished him to the Columbia River, Helmcken’s intended posting.

Coal company manager and oft-elected Nanaimo mayor Mark Bate remembered him as having been warmhearted but somewhat eccentric. Hudson’s Bay Co. physician John S. Helmcken thought him lazy, a radical and a grumbler — but sterling and honest.

They were recalling Dr. Alfred Robson Benson M.R.C.S., Victoria’s and Nanaimo’s first medical officer who today lends his name to one of the latter’s most prominent landmarks.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Mount Benson stands off in the distance; its namesake didn’t fit in either. For antagonizing Chief Factor James Douglas, Benson was banished to Oregon Territory before being posted to Nanaimo, where he maintained his reputation for, among other things, slovenly dress. Invariably his coat was buttoned incorrectly, one pant leg in his boots, the other out, and “other parts of his dress…equally conspicuous for their eccentricity”.

He was as individualistic in his practice. When dispensing medications he made his patients provide their own bottles and prescribed salts for most maladies, often without an examination. At least he dispensed them without charge as the HBCo. picked up the tab.

Former mayor Bate has left us with a delightful account of Benson’s sometimes offbeat approach to his patients. As Job Langston, suffering from toothache, entered Benson’s surgery, Bizzie, the doctor’s dog, lay curled up on the doorstep. Perhaps Langston stepped on her tail as she jumped up and bit him on the leg.

A vicious kick sent her off, yelping, and drew Dr. Benson on the run. Told of the incident, and the reason for Langston’s visit, Benson said nothing, motioned him to a chair, and set to work extracting his tooth. This time it was Langston’s turn to yelp as Benson, applying his lance with a will, muttered, “Kick my Bizzie, eh? eh? Kick my Bizzie!”

Another anecdote concerns Benson’s passage on the vessel Princess Royal in 1856, at a time of troubles with First Nations. A cautious Capt. Trivett armed crew and passengers, drilled them, and announced there would be a call to quarters that night. Benson, having boasted that he could respond as quickly as anyone, carefully laid out his clothes and turned in. When the alarm was sounded, all aboard reported on deck — except Benson, who was still trying to get his pants on. Practical jokers had tied the legs in a knot; Benson, it was said, wasn’t amused.

He wasn’t above practical jokes of his own, as is recorded in Dr. Helmcken’s classic memoir. After complimenting Benson for having been “sterling, honest, kind-hearted…upright, and always ready to do good,” Helmcken called him an idler and (no doubt because he was a teetotaller) a grumbler, as well as a political radical and 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 had to be forcefully reminded of his stops!

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 out. This galled Helmcken, who’d dressed respectably 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 encampments across the harbour.

Helmcken should’ve twigged when he saw that Benson had troubled to tuck both pantlegs inside his boots. Resplendent in his two-year-old height-of-London fashion and polished shoes, Helmcken 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 (literally!) Benson announced he’d lost the way — all the while jumping from “hillock to hillock,” comfortable in 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 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. had lost their hair. He obviously expected some kind of medical answer. Instead, Benson replied, they’d sent their furs home! Douglas, already critical of Benson’s political leanings, soon banished him to the Columbia River, Helmcken’s intended posting.

His posting to Nanaimo, via Oregon, was for siding with non-company dissidents who were pushing for Vancouver Island to become a colony rather than continue as an HBCo. fiefdom. Thus it can be said that Benson was an early martyr for pre-colonial democracy.

After 14 years with the fur company he served two years as surgeon for the Vancouver Coal Co. in Nanaimo before opening his own practice and investing in a Harewood coal mine. For all his eccentricities, when he retired to the old country in 1862, he was highly respected.

Historians remember Dr. A.R. Benson for his role as 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.


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