T.W. Paterson column: The infamous Robert Melrose diary

“Andrew Hume 3/4 drunk, James Whyte and James Liddle, 1/2 drunk”

The Craigflower Schoolhouse as it was in the late 19th century, built for children from nearby Craigflower Farm. (BC Heritage Branch photo)

“…It would take a line of packet ships running regular between here and San Francisco to supply this island with grog…”

Victoria’s historic Craigflower Manor could tell many an interesting tale of earlyday Victoria.

Of how the Puget Sound Agricultural Co. first established its estate on the tree-lined banks of the Gorge waterway; of when square-riggers used to venture as far inland as the present-day Craigflower bridge; and of a time when the threat of Indian attack overshadowed the new colony of Vancouver Island.

Craigflower Farm was founded by the PSA, a subsidiary of the Hudson’s Bay Co., as part of the first significant attempt at colonization on the Island. It was begun in 1853 under the firm hand of the austere Scot, Kenneth McKenzie, who, with his own and 25 other families, were recruited to carve a 900-acre farm from wilderness.

Not the least interesting tale the imposing manor, now a provincial historic site, can tell is that of the farm’s long-ago employee and character, Robert Melrose. This otherwise unknown bookkeeper, or steward as he was termed then, has intrigued and amused historians with his journal. Grandiloquently entitled, Five Years Under the Hudson’s Bay Co. on Vancouver Island (he makes it sound like a jail sentence), it’s preserved in the Provincial Archives. For Melrose’s diary is considerably more than a dry, day-to-day record of life on a frontier farm. To say the least, this pioneer author had an eye for the unusual.

The intent of his journal, he wrote, was to record “every transaction, either in regard to marriages, births or deaths, agricultural improvements, house building and all the shipping, either at Fort Victoria, or Esquimalt Harbour as far as I am able to know of their arrival, or departure.”

Like all true scribes, however, Melrose had a tendency to wander off the intended track — much to the delight of modern researchers. Take this example: “One of Neptune’s sons [a naval seaman] got himself hurt by falling from a tree after drinking a bottle of grog on the top of it.” For that matter, even the normal affairs in creating a farm in the forest are interesting enough, as the company appears to have had more than its share of labour problems.

Many workers, regretting their contracts, were “stricken work”. Faced with imprisonment, they usually made a break “to America,” as did John Bell, or, like William and John Weir, “absconded to Soack [Sooke]”.

Those who remained on the job had other escapes, as Melrose fondly recorded: “Andrew Hume 3/4 drunk, James Whyte and James Liddle, 1/2 drunk”. On Sept. 17, 1853, two weeks later, he jotted, “the author 1/2 drunk. James Wilson 1/2 drunk. Letters arrived from Britain.”

From the numerous such entries in his diary the modern researcher is inclined to believe that Melrose was indeed an amazing man — Victoria’s first breathalyser!

Not that he and his fellow employees could be the only ones accused of bending their elbows. One of his most amusing entries deals with his expected “wet” Christmas and New Year’s holiday, 1853-54. After warning readers to expect a brief lapse in his journal due to his enjoying festivities, he was forced to remark, with obvious bitterness, that such was not to be.

“No! No! my friends, no such thing could be expected here: the grog shops were drained of every sort of liquor, not a drop to be got for either love or money; had it been otherwise the case, there is no saying wither my small Almanack would have contained them or not; it would almost take a line of packet ships running regular between here and San Francisco to supply this island with grog, so great a thirst prevails amongst the inhabitants.”

In short, for Robert Melrose and his fellow exiles, it was a “droughty New Year”. Happily, however, Christmas Day 1855 was celebrated with “great glee” (we can assume this means with ample liquid refreshment), as was New Year’s Day “in a glorious Bacchanalian manner”.

Ah, the good old days!


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