Robert John Staines


Robert John Staines, the son of John and Mary Staines, was baptized on 8 November 1820 at an Anglican church in Oundle, Northamptonshire, England. Following the completion of his Bachelor of Arts in 1845, Staines taught in England, tutored in Ireland, and established a school in France. It is not known when he married Emma Staines (née Tahourdin) but it was likely after he returned from Ireland in July 1846.

In 1848, Staines was selected by the Hudson's Bay Company to fill the position of schoolmaster for the Columbia District, under the condition that he "be admitted to holy Orders" so that he would be able to perform clerical duties as chaplain as well as teach. Consequently, Staines was ordained Deacon and Priest in the Church of England in August of that same year (1848).

On 17 March 1849, Robert and Emma Staines, along with Emma's nephew Horace, arrived at Fort Victoria. According to Roderick Finlayson, whose duty it was to meet the Staines upon their arrival, their new home was not quite what they had expected: "they [the Staines] looked around wonderlingly at the bare walls of the buildings & expressed deep surprise, stating that the Co. in England had told them this & that and had promised such & such".

Neither a school nor a church had yet been built when the Staines arrived. Instead, rooms in the Fort were used for these purposes; part of the Bachelor's Hall building was used for the school and residence and church service was held in the mess hall. Likewise, no provisions had been made for a proper residence for the schoolmaster and his family, although Staines subsequently purchased a farm of 46 acres and later occupied a 400 acre farm in Metchosin.

Robert and Emma Staines taught the children of the colony whose parents were capable of paying the tuition fee. The majority of these children were the sons and daughters of Hudson's Bay Company officials. Among these children were those of James Douglas, John Tod and Alexander Caufield Anderson. Staines was paid £340 a year for keeping the boarding school, and received an additional £200 a year for his duties as H.B.Co. chaplain.

Descriptions of the Staines, especially descriptions of Robert Staines, tend to mention their snobbery. The Rev. Staines was referred to as a "prig" by Eden Colville and as "a man of frills" by Roderick Finlayson. One acquaintance, James Cooper, wrote that Robert Staines "was accustomed to make his round of visits on horseback in a rig that would not have done discredit to Don Quixote himself".

With respect to their teaching abilities, it appears that Emma Staines was the more competent of the two. James Douglas, who became Chief Factor of Fort Victoria in 1850 and governor of Vancouver Island in 1851, praised Emma Staines for her work, claiming that she was "invaluable." Douglas also remarked that she received "less assistance than she ought from her husband, who is rather lazy at times." Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken even wrote, in 1892, that Mrs. Staines "was the best schoolmistress ever seen ... [in] Victoria."

Though praised by one former student, James R. Anderson, for having taught him lessons which later influenced his life, the majority of the references to the Rev. Staines' performance as a schoolmaster are not very positive. At first, Staines' capabilities were deemed adequate. Writing to the father of a student in 1850, Douglas commented "had I a selection to make he is not exactly the man I would choose; but it must be admitted we might find a man worse qualified for the charge of the school." However, by 1853 after seeing little improvement among the boys of the school, many parents concluded that Mr. Staines was "an unsuccessful teacher" and so Governor Douglas decided that his "services as dispensed with."

Although Staines' incompetence clearly played some role in the dissatisfaction of the parents, his political actions were also to blame. Like many of the other settlers (as well as the first governor, Richard Blanshard) Staines resented the tremendous power the Hudson's Bay Company held in the colony.

Staines, who wrote letters and signed petitions of protest to this power, was considered by Douglas to be the most active member of the "little clique" of settlers "who do everything in their power to slander the Hudson's Bay Company." In an 1854 petition requesting that Staines be replaced -- a petition signed by most of the Victoria supporters of the Company school -- one of the complaints read: "his time appears to be devoted to litigation and political agitation and that instead of being a minister of peace he has been continually promoting ill will, contention and strife."

However, to the majority of the small group of non-Hudson's Bay Company-affiliated setters, Staines was well respected. In a letter written by colonist Annie Deans, Staines was praised for having "taken notice and spoken up Against every act of Unjustices [sic] done by the Company against the Colonists and the Companys servants...."

After receiving word of his termination as schoolmaster, Staines departed for England to take the colonists grievances against Governor Douglas and the Hudson's Bay Company to the Colonial Office. His boat, destined for San Francisco, never made it. The vessel was reported to have "foundered at sea off Classet" [near Cape Flattery] and all but one person perished. Thus, the life of the Rev. John Staines came to a tragic end suddenly in the March of 1854.

According to Dr. Helmcken, when the news of Staines' death reached Victoria, "there was a general pity - he was praised or blamed - a martyr or a fool as the case may be, but all nevertheless regretted his end."

Researched and written by Allyson Wagner, History 355, University of Victoria, February 1998

British Columbia Archives and Records Services (BCARS). J. R. Anderson, "Notes and Comments on Early Days and Events in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon."
BCARS. A/B/30 F. 49.1 Roderick Finlayson. "History of Vancouver Island on the Northwest Coast."
BCARS. E/B/Stl.1. Robert John Staines. Correspondence Outward.
Helmcken, John Sebastian. The Reminiscences of Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken. Edited by Dorothy Blakey Smith. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1975.
Slater, Hollis G. "Rev. Robert John Staines: Pioneer Priest, Pedagogue, and Political Agitator". British Columbia Historical Quarterly. Vol XIV. No. 4 (1950).