Colonial Nanaimo: Charles Bayley & William Hughes

Two new ultra-local reads! I purchased both of these books directly from the authors, which I was happy to do in theses strange COVID-19 times. Each book is biographical, following the life and times of a different yet contemporary white, male, colonial pioneer who spent time in Nanaimo.

McDowell, Jim. Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869). Richmond, BC: JEM Publications, 2018.

Davidson, Carole. Early Nanaimo 1857-1876 from the Diary of William J Hughes. Victoria: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2020.

Picture of the two books

Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869) was published by Jim McDowell in 2018. I recently learned about it when it was briefly profiled in the books section of the Summer 2020 issue of British Columbia History magazine. McDowell is a BC historian with several titles to his name. He only self-published a very small number (12!) of limited edition, full colour copies of Pluck, Luck and Grit, and I feel lucky to have one. The book follows the life of Charles Bayley, who came to Vancouver Island with his parents in 1850 aboard the Tory. The ship had been chartered by the Hudson’s Bay Company “to carry a few ‘settlers’ and numerous labourers around the horn of South America and north in the Pacific Ocean in order to start colonizing the Pacific Northwest Coast for Great Britain.”1 The Bayley family settled three miles from Fort Victoria, where Charles’ father Thomas was contracted by the HBC to manage a farm. Charles Bayley went on to become one of Vancouver Island’s earliest schoolteachers, working first in Victoria and then later in Nanaimo. According to the book’s dedication, McDowell’s mother was Charles Bayley’s “grand niece-in-law,” and her brother, McDowell’s uncle, was married to a granddaughter of Bayley. This connection likely gave McDowell access to Bayley’s memoirs, quotes from which are included in the text, adding Bayley’s own voice to the narrative.

Early Nanaimo 1857-1876 from the Diary of William J Hughes by Carole Davidson was just published this year and follows Hughes’ life as depicted in his daily (only one line per day) diary. Nanaimo history fans may be familiar with Davidson’s earlier book, Historic Departure Bay…Looking Back, which was published in 2006. Hughes and his Indigenous wife Mary Salacelowitz settled on a piece of land at Departure Bay in 1861, where they farmed, gardened, and generally seemed to work hard to earn their living. Mary, who was from the Cowichan Tribes, followed the traditional ways and annual seasonal patterns of her people. She frequently spent time away from home and took the children with her, while William’s days seemed to be mostly full of never-ending chores and work to support their family and property.

If I come away from a book about Vancouver Island having read one thing I didn’t know already, I’m usually pretty happy, and that certainly was the case for both of these books which cover some of the Island’s early settler history. For example, Davidson’s book explains how the land at Departure Bay where Robert Dunsmuir built his coal shipping wharves for the Wellington Colliery was originally part of William Hughes’ 150-acre pre-emption. Having read a lot about Dunsmuir, it’s not hard for me to imagine the canny Scot bullying Hughes into entering a lease agreement which gave Dunsmuir access to tidewater through Hughes’ land. Surprise, surprise, not only did Dunsmuir apparently go ahead and build a road and wharves on William Hughes’ land before sorting out the details of the lease agreement, but he also petitioned the Legislative Assembly to be allowed to appropriate even more of Hughes’ land for his use:

“The original lease granted Dunsmuir a strip of land thirty-three feet wide from the mine to the sea with one acre of land at the waterfront. The new petition asked for sixty-six feet of land from the mine and five acres of land at the seafront. William makes no comment in his diary to indicate his feelings about this second intrusion on his land, but one can assume he wasn’t happy as under these new terms his house was separated from the rest of his land.”2

What a guy! Robert Dunsmuir sure didn’t become one of the richest men in the province by playing nice with the neighbours. His “robber baron” label certainly seems to fit in this case. In her biography, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines, local historian Lynne Bowen looked at the range of ways in which Dunsmuir was described after his death. A claim that he was “a man who knew what he wanted and took the shortest route”3 seems to perfectly describe how Dunsmuir dealt with Hughes.

A wonderful, trivial fact about Victoria is shared in McDowell’s book. Because of how his hotel was built on the corner of Government and Yates Streets, Charles Bayley left a lasting mark on the city. Apparently, there is what McDowell calls a “jog” in Yates Street, where Bayley “inadvertently built his hotel [in 1857] without allowing for a setback from the street line. Instead of relocating what was then Victoria’s finest building, surveyors simply shifted their measuring pegs, and created a slightly dysfunctional, unattractive ‘jog’ along the entire block which still exists.”4 McDowell goes on to suggest that “this engineering oddity deserves recognition by a modest, amusing historical marker,”5 and I can’t say that I disagree with him!

It was interesting to read these two books together. While they both cover relatively the same time period, in relatively the same place, the lives of Bayley and Hughes, two white men of a similar age, are significantly different. Bayley’s days in Nanaimo, which was called Colviletown at the time, were spent teaching the children of the settlement’s miners and HBC employees. “The census [of 1854] indicated Bayley had 29 (apparently all male) students,”6 and because a proper schoolhouse had not yet been built, he used a single room in a small, wood-frame cabin as his schoolroom. Bayley received a salary and his board (at the home of his future wife’s parents) was also paid. It seems like Bayley must have enjoyed a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, as by the end of 1856, after just three years of teaching in Nanaimo, he had enough of a nest egg to enable him to change careers and cities. “Tired of the monotony of the sedentary life of a teacher and having saved a few thousand dollars, [he decided to] embark on a more active life as a trader [in Victoria].”7 Bayley’s cash flow wasn’t always so stable, and in 1868, he took out an advertisement in Victoria’s British Colonist claiming his time was not “fully occupied” and he was looking for work he could do. As McDowell puts it: “One can sense how humiliating it must have been for a man…to be forced to publicly beg for work behind the thinly-veiled pretense of simply having too much time on his hands.”8

In contrast, Hughes certainly didn’t lead a life of comfort or one where he found himself sticking much money aside for future plans. When he died in 1876, “the value of his effects was less than $820.”9 The “monotony of life” for Hughes meant day after day of work. “He worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week to feed his family, and to improve his land and living conditions.”10 Unlike Bayley, who could change occupations on a whim out a desire for something more fulfilling or lucrative, Hughes seemingly took any job that he could in order to just survive.

Although living markedly differently day-to-day lives, both men experienced instability. Charles Bayley moved from England to Victoria, to Nanaimo, back to Victoria, and then to San Francisco in the space of two decades. During the first years of his diary, Hughes moves around so much that Davidson isn’t actually able to determine where he really lived. He does eventually settle and file a pre-emption for land in Departure Bay in 1861, but even after that, he still spends time going back and forth to Newcastle Island, and also making fairly regular trips to Nanaimo, Victoria, and to St. Ann’s in Duncan where his children attended school.

Bayley shuffled from career to career, apparently not finding success or contentment with any one thing. After teaching for a few years, he went on to become a hotelier and storekeeper, next a gentleman farmer, and then a politician. He also tried to make money by investing in mining goods and equipment then hiring someone else to take the supplies in a pack train to where they could be resold for a profit. Bayley sent a pack train to Williams Creek (outside of Barkerville) to capitalize on the Cariboo gold rush, and he later funded a similar venture bound for the Leech River (outside of Sooke) where a gold bonanza happened briefly in 1865. McDowell describes Bayley as “a venturesome fellow who knew how to seize a new opportunity or meet an unexpected challenge when it appeared.”11

Hughes also moved from one job to the next, all of them apparently temporary. He seems to have made a large portion of his living by periodically crafting tool handles, selling fish oil he’d rendered down from dogfish livers, and through his farming ventures. Davidson proposes that he may even have been running one of Vancouver Island’s early nurseries, based on the large number of fruit trees he cared for. “The number of young trees produced seemed to be many more than he would use himself which leads one to suppose that he grew them for resale.”12 Hughes also tried his hand at gold mining outside of Yale, spent time at the quarry on Newcastle Island, and carried out small building projects. His diary reflects a life of constant chores and hard work with little room for luxury, rest, or frivolity.

I’m pretty sure the two men would not have been friends or even friendly acquaintances. McDowell frequently makes note of the stereotypes that Bayley upheld. He didn’t think much of the labouring classes, which Hughes certainly would have belonged to. “Bayley’s condescending references to a ‘medley of various characters’ and ‘incorrigible’ country folk in steerage indicate stereotypes and biases about labouring class people that aspiring ‘squires’ [like Bayley and his family] brought with them.”13 Bayley also had little respect for the Indigenous Peoples of the land, and at times apparently didn’t even acknowledge them. “Bayley’s unspoken, but obvious exclusion of Indigenous people from his estimate of the town’s population count rendered this group non-existent.”14 While Bayley might have summoned the respect to acknowledge Hughes in his store or on the streets of Nanaimo, he likely wouldn’t have looked favourably on Hughes’ choice of an Indigenous woman for a partner, and in all probability, he wouldn’t have treated the mixed-raced children of the Hughes union in the same way he treated the children of the white settlers of the community. I appreciated how McDowell wasn’t shy about critiquing the condescending and racist references in Bayley’s memoirs, and how he notes how Bayley’s views reflected a “narrow-minded 19th century colonial socio-cultural perspective [that] would remain largely unchanged in British Columbia for more than 100 years.”15

Like many self or community published titles, both of these books could have benefited with some additional editorial oversight, as they each include an assortment of minor spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors as well as some inconsistencies in font and format choices. But overall, I enjoyed reading both Davidson’s and McDowell’s latest books, and I will certainly look forward to anything they might publish in the future about the history of Vancouver Island.


Notes

  1. Jim McDowell, Pluck, Luck and Grit: Charles A. Bayley in Colonial British Columbia (1851-1869) (Richmond, BC: JEM Publications, 2018), 11.
  2. Carole Davidson, Early Nanaimo from the Diary of William J Hughes (Victoria: Rendezvous Historic Press, 2020), 103.
  3. Lynne Bowen, Robert Dunsmuir: Laird of the Mines (Lantzville: XYZ Publishing, 1999), 141.
  4. McDowell, 53.
  5. McDowell, 53.
  6. McDowell, 41.
  7. McDowell, 47.
  8. McDowell, 71.
  9. Davidson, 131.
  10. Davidson, 59.
  11. McDowell, 75.
  12. Davidson, 90.
  13. McDowell, 21.
  14. McDowell, 36.
  15. McDowell, 36.

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