Archives bring forgotten labour to life

RRU Staff
A Chinese labourer works alongside a teamster who guides a horse-drawn wagon near Hatley Castle.

History books and Heritage Minutes recount stories of the Chinese labourers who shaped the mining economy and who united this country by building the Canadian Pacific Railway. We know less about the people employed by European settler families.

The land on which we learn at Royal Roads has a rich history, from the home of Lkwungen and Xwsepsum families to its current use as a public university. It’s also where James Dunsmuir, one of BC’s most successful businessmen, built a castle with extensive formal gardens. Thanks to archival records, we’re learning more about the people who used to live and work here.

Among stories of the prominent Dunsmuir family who called Hatley Park home are the lesser-known stories of the staff who fed them, attended to their children and worked as their chauffeurs.

From cooks and dishwashers to farm hands and gardeners, 127 Chinese labourers lived and worked at Hatley Park in 1911 according to the Canada Census completed that year. These men supported the development of the property into the 1930s.

Ah Hoy* was one of them.

Historical injustice

Hoy worked as the Dunsmuir’s cook for five decades, feeding generations of their children and grandchildren.

He was part of a wave of Chinese immigrants who came to Canada between 1885 and the early 1900s. Many were drawn by the promise of gold, while others found themselves working on the Canadian Pacific Railway to escape poverty or unrest at home.

Likely drawn by the prospect of a better life, the decision to immigrate was costly, both socially and financially.

From 1885 to 1923, the Canadian government imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants. The $50 tax increased to $100 in 1900 and again to $500 three years later—the equivalent of two years’ salary in China. Although they played an integral role in the Canadian economy, the prohibitive tax was imposed to restrict immigration to protect local jobs.

During this period, the federal government collected more than $20 million from about 81,000 Chinese immigrants, most of them men. The tax discouraged them to immigrate with their spouses or children.

In 1923, Chinese immigrants were essentially barred from coming to Canada because of what became known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act applied to Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese until its repeal in 1947.

Life as a labourer

Hoy probably immigrated to Canada between 1885 and 1891 and he likely paid the $50 head tax. Unfortunately, we don’t know if Hoy has any family members or descendants.

In fact, there are no known descendants of Chinese workers who were employed by the Dunsmuirs.

 “It is very unlikely that these labourers have descendants in Victoria,” says Dr. David Chuenyan Lau, professor emeritus in the University of Victoria Department of Geography.

“They probably passed away on site without even being noticed by their families in China. Even if the Chinese labourers had children or grandchildren; they would not have told them of their hardships in Canada.”

While we don’t know what happened once Hoy left Hatley, archival records do paint a small picture of what his work was like while he was here. Dunsmuir dining table

Census records show Hoy worked 84 hours a week year round. In 1910, he earned about 20 cents an hour or roughly $900 a year. That’s equivalent to about $19,000 today. Other Chinese labourers worked about 60 hours a week making about 15 cents hourly. European staff were the highest paid; the Dunsmuir’s chauffeur, Van Maastricht, worked 60 hours a week and earned $1800 a year. William Packe, the butler, worked the same number of hours and brought home $1,000 a year.

Most labourers would have probably lived at a camp at Hatley Park. A Dunsmuir-era map indicates the presence of a “Chinese camp” on the property, corroborated by former staff and their descendants.

Frederick Charles Mann, who worked as a coachman on the Dunsmuir estate, notes in his memoir, “They [Chinese labourers] had their own accommodation at the top of the trail, including sleeping, cooking and bathing facilitates…These men were of different tribes and tongues and sometimes there were some pretty lively ‘goings-on’ in their barracks; especially on pay days.”

Historical maps show the camp was on the corner of what is now Wishart Rd. and a small road that connects to West Campus Rd., behind Colwood Elementary School.

Although we have the names of some of the labourers who worked at Hatley Park, labourers were often referred to by number rather than name. This has been one of the barriers of finding labourers’ descendants or information about where they went after working at Hatley.

Some labourers waited years to bring their families over, while others may have married here. It is likely that some labourers returned to China after labour demand dried up, while some never returned to China and died on these territories.

While these people may be mostly forgotten, this place on Lkwungen and Xwsepsum traditional lands remembers and holds the forgotten stories.

*Believed to be a photo of Ah Hoy.

Jessica Humphries collected information about Chinese labourers at Hatley Park as a curatorial researcher in the Royal Roads Archives. Humphries has Irish, Scottish and Welsh heritage on her mother’s side, and Metis, Mi’kmaq and Black Nova Scotian ancestry from her father. Her paternal bloodlines also hold Kalinago and Afro-Caribbean descent from St. Kitts. She is interested in how storytelling through archival records can help understand complex narratives and sense of place in order to rebuild and reconcile relationships.

Did you know?

  • There were 127 Chinese labourers employed at Hatley Park in 1911—a time when there was a high demand for labour while developing the estate.
  • Labourers worked 60 hours a week and made a $468 salary.
  • The estate’s laundry house, which was located opposite the stables (now the Mews and soon to be CESIP building), was operated by two Chinese labourers.
  • The camp where Chinese labourers lived was likely demolished in 1940 by the Canadian government.