Forgotten Labour Series: Life as a labourer

Image foreground is a set of horses pulling a wagon with with a teamester guiding them, beside the teamster is a chinese labourer. The image background is a hillside with hatley castle

On the 1911 census 127 Chinese male labourers were listed as residents. From accounts of other staff at the time the numbers of labourers fluctuated based on the need for work. Around this time there would have been a high demand for work with castle construction, farming, gardening and landscaping.

A typical day for a labourer started at 5 a.m. reporting to their foreman. In teams of three, they made two trips on a wagon pulled by horses. Two Chinese labourers did the work of loading, unloading and spreading of whatever material was being hauled that day. One teamster, usually of European ancestry, would drive the wagon and make sure the horses were cared for. 

Lunchtime happened at 12 p.m., “Their noon meals were brought to them on the job, in big wicker baskets; one basket suspended at each end of a pole”[1]. After lunch, the team would haul one more load before wrapping up the day at 5 p.m. Labourers would return to their camp at the back of the Dunsmuir estate and settle in for the evening.

Labourers worked 60 hours per week, 52 weeks of the year, and made $468.00. Today that would be roughly be $10,000. By comparison, teamsters made $560.00, roughly $12,000 today.

Although we have the names of some labourers on the 1911 census, anecdotes from other workers of the time indicate that labourers were referred most often by number rather than name. It was not uncommon for Chinese labourers to be numbered, a common practice developed out of ignorance of Chinese name sounds found in the mining industry up island.

In working to uncover these histories, the question that comes up is what did they do after Hatley?

Tracing where labourers went after their time working at Hately Park has not been an easy task, the example of labourers having numbers was only one challenge. Others included a miscommunication with regards to their names on official documents and the expectations of writing using the English language. It is often the case that immigration records do not match what a family may have called their grandpa or dad or there are multiple spellings for the same last name.

But the truth is that stories, the painful ones riddled with racism, and conflict aren’t told. And if they are they are small snapshots often from the peripheral, through the lens of someone else.

An example of this is in Charlie Mann’s memoir, a teamster who worked closely with labourers:

 “I met number 9 [Chinese labourer he worked with when he was a teamster] years later in entirely different circumstances. He was a cook in a private residence and I was also employed at the same residence as the gardener. I never saw such a look of amazement on the face of anyone when I called him by his number. I thought he was going to kiss me! He wanted me to go into the house and meet his wife, and I was invited to have a meal with them. I had to decline this as I knew they were cooking a ‘coon which they had trapped up a plum tree that same morning. However, I visited them quite often in the days after that, and we went over the old days at Hatley Park. They could speak pretty good English by then and the Hatley Park job was the first he ever had in this country. He had been brought by his cousin and had to work most of his life to pay off the fare.”[2]

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

Truth is we don’t know for sure.


For questions or comments about Forgotten Labour, contact Jessica Humphries in the archives, ext. 4606.

[1] MANN FAMILY HISTORY: Per Frederick Charles Mann (Charlie), 1985, 2017-032, Mann Collection, Royal Roads University Archives, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

[2] ibid