STAINES, ROBERT JOHN, Church of England clergyman, schoolmaster, and farmer; baptized 8 Nov. 1820 in the parish of Oundle, England, son of John Collins Staines, tailor, and his wife Mary; d. 1854, probably in March, off Cape Flattery (Wash.).
The eldest of nine children, Robert John Staines was educated at the Oundle Grammar School before entering St John’s College, University of Cambridge, in 1840. Two years later he transferred to Trinity College where he progressed well, showing an aptitude for teaching, and in January 1845 he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. In the fall of 1844 Staines had been appointed assistant classics and mathematics master at the Derby Grammar School, a post he held until October 1845 when he accepted employment as a private tutor in Gorey, County Wexford (Republic of Ireland). He returned to England some time after July 1846 and following his marriage to Emma Frances Tahourdin, a well-educated linguist and teacher, he and his wife established a school at Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.
Early in March 1848 Staines’s former employer in Ireland recommended him to the Hudson’s Bay Company for the projected school at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.). The London committee of the HBC was impressed with the qualifications of both Staines and his wife. Furthermore, since the Columbia district had gone without a chaplain for close to ten years, the directors were pleased to learn that Staines had contemplated taking holy orders and offered him a double appointment as schoolmaster and chaplain, should he be ordained. Hastily wrapping up his affairs in France, he returned to England and upon the recommendation of the bishop of London was ordained deacon and priest in Norwich Cathedral in August 1848. On 12 September the now Reverend Robert John Staines, his wife, and her ten-year-old nephew, Horace Foster Tahourdin, sailed for Fort Vancouver aboard the HBC barque Columbia, commanded by James Cooper*. During the voyage, however, the company decided to transfer the Columbia district headquarters from Fort Vancouver to Fort Victoria (Victoria, B.C.) on Vancouver Island and as a consequence Staines’s posting was changed to the new headquarters.
When the Staineses arrived at Fort Victoria on 17 March 1849 there was no residence, schoolhouse, or church ready for them and they took up temporary accommodation in the HBC Bachelors’ Hall. Although disappointed in the conditions at the fort, they appeared at first to be settling well into their new life. Classes for the 20-odd students were initially conducted in Bachelors’ Hall and Sunday services were held in the hall of the fort. Staines performed baptisms, marriages, and burial services at the fort, in the adjacent districts on Vancouver Island, and as far afield as forts Langley (B.C.) and Nisqually (near Tacoma, Wash.) on the mainland. Some time after his arrival he obtained a claim of 400 acres in the vicinity of Mount Tolmie; he subsequently added a second tract of 46 1/2 acres, for which he paid £46 10s. He took a particular interest in livestock and soon developed a fine breed of pigs; furthermore, by 1854 his farms were yielding significant quantities of wheat and oats. The inadequacy of the facilities at Fort Victoria none the less persisted and the Staineses continued to board, with a certain number of their students, in the company hall; the church was not ready for religious services until August 1856, more than two years after Staines’s death.
It had not been long before differences had arisen between Staines and the HBC chief factor in charge of the fort, James Douglas*. The chaplain became associated with Cooper, who had left the company service, and other non-HBC settlers, such as Thomas Blinkhorn, dissatisfied with the company’s management of the colony. In August 1851 Staines was among those who drafted a petition opposing, unsuccessfully, the nomination of Douglas to succeed Richard Blanshard* as governor. Late in 1852 the Colonial Office in London received an anonymous letter protesting against the company’s administration, which, according to Douglas, was written by Staines. Unsigned letters appeared in various Oregon Territory newspapers voicing the same complaints and were attributed by the governor to “Captain Cooper, or some other member of a little clique consisting of that person, the Revd Mr. Staines, [James] Yates, a ship carpenter and Muir [probably John Muir*], a collier and publican; who do everything in their power to slander the Hudson’s Bay Company, and to produce impressions unfavourable to their character and government.” In the summer of 1853 a petition signed by Staines, Cooper, William Fraser Tolmie*, John Tod*, Roderick Finlayson*, and 85 others, calling for an independent governor, an elective legislative council, and other reforms, was forwarded to the House of Commons in London.
Staines’s political activities inevitably interfered with his duties as schoolmaster and by May 1853 the parents of the schoolchildren, who were responsible for raising his salary of £340, were openly critical of his conduct. After consultation with the HBC London committee, Douglas and Chief Factor John Work*, as members of the board of management, informed Staines on 1 Feb. 1854 that his services as teacher would not be required after 1 June, although he would be free to continue in the office of chaplain. Three days later Staines was delegated by the dissatisfied colonists, united in a public meeting, to carry to England two petitions, each bearing 70 signatures, protesting against the nomination of the governor’s brother-in-law David Cameron* as acting chief justice of the Supreme Court of Civil Justice. To cover the expenses of the voyage a subscription of $400 was taken up, and, without asking for a leave of absence from the company, Staines boarded the Duchess of San Lorenzo, bound for San Francisco, at Sooke on or about 1 March. The vessel, which was carrying a heavy deck load of timber, foundered in Juan de Fuca Strait and all aboard were lost. Some years later the HBC doctor John Sebastian Helmcken* remarked that when news of the disaster 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.” Emma Frances Staines sold off the farm stock and returned to England with her nephew in January 1855.
Recognized in the colony as an intelligent, well-informed, and gifted teacher, Robert John Staines, “priest, pedagogue, and political agitator,” was none the less poorly adapted as a pioneer settler and he left his mark primarily as a fomenter of ill will. Both he and his wife are commemorated in minor place names on the southern coast of Vancouver Island.
City of Vancouver Arch., Add. mss 145 (copy at PABC). Northamptonshire Record Office (Northampton, Eng.), Census for Oundle (Northants), 1851; Oundle parish reg. of baptisms, 8 Nov. 1820. PAM, HBCA, A.11/74: ff.240d–43. G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1857–58, 41, no.524: 571–74, A return of all lands in Vancouver’s Island sold to any individual or company. . . . Helmcken, Reminiscences of Helmcken (Blakey Smith and Lamb). W. G. Walker, A history of the Oundle schools (London, 1956). G. H. Slater, “Rev. Robert John Staines: pioneer priest, pedagogue, and political agitator,” BCHQ, 14 (1950): 187–240.