Robert Melrose, Labourer at Craigflower

Life in Scotland

Robert Melrose was born around 1828 in Garvald, East Lothian, Scotland and was the eldest son of George and Isabella Melrose. The 1851 census shows that he was a labourer, and on May 24, 1852, he inked his name to a contract with Kenneth McKenzie, agent of the Company of Adventurers of England, more commonly known as the Hudson's Bay Company. Melrose agreed to work in the capacity of labourer for five years, and to defend “with courage and fidelity in his said station, in the said Service…the property of the said Company and their Factories & Territories.” [note] So it was that Robert Melrose boarded the Trident at Granton Pier on August 11, 1852 and shipped to London, where he boarded the Norman Morrison with other of Kenneth McKenzie’s prospective employees and their families.

The Journey to Canada

The voyage was arduous, and the ship took six months to reach the colony of Vancouver’s Island. During this time a number of passengers died, and the survivors endured a four day hurricane off of Cape Horn in November 1852. Melrose and his new wife eventually made it to land and arrived at their new home on January 22, 1853. Although he came from a family of labourers, Robert Melrose had received some education and was able to write, keeping a diary from August 1852 until July 1857.


Like some of the other Craigflower labourers, he appears to have had a relatively decent education, for on March 15, 1854, he gave a lecture “on the discoveries of Optical science” and two weeks later, a fellow labourer, James Deans, gave a “lecture on the Nobility of man.” In June of the same year, Melrose turned his attentions away from science and delivered a lecture “on the wonders of civilization.” [note] Such lectures seem to have been a regular feature of life on the farm in 1854, and a number of different labourers tried their hand at teaching their fellow workers about subjects ranging from science to religion, and those who could not lecture often appear to have recited literature, some of which they penned themselves.

Life at Craigflower

Although life at Craigflower was at times difficult, and other employees, such as Peter Bartleman appear to have had strained relationships with Kenneth McKenzie, Melrose appears to have done relatively well for himself as a labourer, and was given a clock soon after arriving, and received both a gun and a cow in the summer of 1853. He made careful note of any matter relating to food or drink, and notes that on July 22, 1853 “fresh salmon [was] served out”. [note] Such rations were likely to have been better than what he would have received as a labourer in Scotland, and Melrose appears to have lived well in Canada.

Melrose’s duties at Craigflower were quite varied, and his diary notes that he ploughed “a piece of ground for potatoes” and made bricks, as well as ground “wheat all night”. [note] He worked six days a week, and only had Sundays and holidays such as Christmas Day off, and for his trouble earned £4/5/- per quarter in 1853. In 1853, he agreed to accept money in lieu of rations, and was paid an additional £2/16/- per month. [more info]

Unlike other of Craigflower’s workers, Melrose does not appear to have tried to escape to Sooke, although his diary reveals some discontent with McKenzie. On February 25, 1854, he notes that “monthly Ration pay due, not settled, want of money.” However, he doesn’t seem to have been terribly troubled, for he goes on to write, “J. Wilson ¾ d[runk]. The Author ¾ d[runk].” [note]


Robert Melrose enjoyed a long life on Vancouver Island, and died at the age of 70 on July 26, 1898 at Royal Jubilee Hospital of pneumonia, from which he had suffered for three days. Although labourers have a tendency to be the silent workers and builders of Empire, being largely overshadowed by the upper classes who engineered colonization schemes, the experience of Robert Melrose appears to be fairly typical of workers at Craigflower. Arriving in the mid-nineteenth century and living out the rest of his life in British Columbia, it is likely that he, like so many others after him, saw the young colony as a way to escape a stagnating economy back at home, and concomitantly, to experience adventure.

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