A Taken of Gratitude

Posted on January 20, 2021 • See the rest of our news

Dr Robert Lawrence, an allopathic* physician and farmer was hired by Union Collieries as the first senior Colliery physician at Union (now Cumberland) in 1892. Why he left his comfortable property in Simcoe South, Ontario at age 50 is still a mystery.  His chosen career would have provided him with a comfortable middle-class income. 

Historically doctors recruited for the wild west and remote locations are not the best, but Dr Lawrence has a degree from the University of Toronto, Victoria College, a respected institution that only graduates eight or nine doctors a year at this point. He is experienced and well qualified. So for adventure or opportunity, he sets off with his family to Vancouver Island and settles in Union.

Dr Lawrence promptly builds a small surgery at 2642 Dunsmuir and a home for his family at 2648 Dunsmuir. He starts a drive to fund and operate a proper hospital. James Dunsmuir donates land and Laura Dunsmuir contributes $1000.00 for beds and equipment. Dr Lawrence is the first treasurer on the hospital board which opens in the Spring of 1893.  He joins practices with the other local doctor to acquire private patients who are able to pay more than what he earns treating the miners.  He also partners in a drugstore, a common practice at the time, and prepares and manufactures his own patent medicines. A rural doctor in general practice with money and an entrepreneurial spirit can make a considerable income, and Dr Lawrence wastes no opportunities.

He takes public service seriously as well, joining the local Anglican Church, the Masonic Lodge and the Orange Lodge and taking on a number of high profile volunteer positions in the community. Over the first few years of his residence in Cumberland he gets involved in local politics and is one of several prominent local businessmen to survey land and approach the provincial government to obtain city status. The local papers say if he is successful in getting Cumberland officially recognized as a city during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year in 1897, he might be knighted for his efforts. 

And then things seem to fall apart for Dr Lawrence. In February 1897 there was an article in the local paper discussing the deficiencies of the Cumberland hospital and there is rumbling among the miners that Dr Lawrence isn’t keeping up with modern methods. A secret ballot by the white miners in March 1897 votes to maintain him as the colliery doctor by a margin of 134 for and 59 1/2 against. The blow to his pride and ego must have been severe – to be questioned on his competency by less educated men at a time when the doctor is always right. 

He has his defenders. In The Cumberland news March 30, 1897:  

“Not only as a family physician has he excelled but he has handled very many difficult surgical cases, with eminent success. I know that there are two or three crooked limbs in town pointed out as evidence of want of skill, but an investigation shows that the orders of the physician were disobeyed, and the limbs moved, even used, when they should have been left in splints.”

And there is one group of miners who have no vote in the matter that have full confidence in Dr Lawrence – the Chinese. Looking at the early tally records of tonnage for the Union mines, almost half the names are Chinese. In fact, the Chinese are the largest single ethnic group working in the Cumberland mines at this time. 

Dr Lawrence may have been wooed west and hired by the Dunsmuir mines as the first colliery doctor, but he is paid through a fee structure for dues of $1.00 /month per miner – deducted from miner’s pay -to provide medical coverage for the miners and their families. This includes free medical treatment, medications, and in later years accidents, disability and death benefits. Hospitalization is free. Exceptions are maternity, venereal disease and any alcohol-related injuries. This coverage also applies to the Chinese miners who pay their dues every month.  In a remarkable show of tolerance for the time, Dr Lawrence does not discriminate and treats the Chinese miners with the same care and attention as the white miners. Injured Chinese workers stay at the hospital and share wards with injured white miners. This treatment does not go unnoticed and is probably a contributing factor for the non-confidence vote.

There is a lot of resentment among the white miners in the Dunsmuir mines on Vancouver Island all through this time period (and beyond). The miners don’t have rights and any labour unrest is brutally quashed with instigators permanently blacklisted. Bitter coal strikes in Nanaimo in the early 1890s, a worldwide recession and a rising tide of anti-Asian sentiment result in an amendment to Section 4 of the Coal Mine Regulation Act in 1890, barring Chinese workers from performing certain jobs in coal mining operations, specifically the more lucrative jobs below ground. There is a petition signed by the white miners of Vancouver Island in 1892 that says in part: Your petitioners keenly feel that the presence of Chinese or Japanese in the mines is a source of grave danger to the lives of those who are employed underground in mining coal and that it will be in the public interests to prevent such risk to life by stringent legislative enactment.  

The Dunsmuir mines ignore this provincial law. In a market with a shortage of white workers and a surfeit of blacklisted miners, the Dunsmuir’s choose to hire qualified Chinese men who work for less because they have even fewer rights than the white miners and they won’t make trouble. It is cheaper overall to pay fines for non-compliance with the Coal Mine Regulation Act. The Dunsmuir mines are the only mines in B.C.that continue to employ Chinese workers in defiance of the law. If the workers are divided they don’t organize. Resentment and racism are tacitly tolerated as long as it doesn’t slow production. 

Turning his interests to politics Dr Lawrence announces his candidacy for provincial parliament as an independent in May 1898. He doesn’t garner enough support to win the nomination despite his high standing in the Comox District. His failed election bid further sours his interest in staying in the area and the nomination goes to James Dunsmuir, who wins the seat. 

Dr Lawrence resigns from his position as senior colliery physician effective October 1st, 1898. 

From the Cumberland News, October 4, 1898:

“Last Friday evening the Chinese at the lower end of the Camp invited Dr Lawrence to visit them, where they presented him with a large silk Chinese flag, highly ornamented with birds of gorgeous plumage, and brilliant butterflies worked with patient skill in raised figures; accompanying it was a banner, larger and more beautiful, if possible than the flag. Through the centre of its entire length were the words wrought with golden threads in bold relief:

“A TOKEN OF GRATITUDE”

But the grateful Chinese had still another gift for the surprised doctor- a pair of giant vases, highly ornamented and set upon finely carved bases, intended for Mrs Lawrence.

The explanation of all this is found in the simple fact that while Colliery physician, Dr Lawrence had given to the Chinese sick the same assiduous care and skilled service which distinguished his treatment of others. In many ways, he had befriended them, and they took this method to show their appreciation- all the more conspicuous as we know of no one in this country whom they have honoured in a similar manner.

A group of Chinese miners raised $500.00, an enormous amount of money at the time, in order to commission the silk banners and vases. The banner with the writing is hand embroidered in China by craftsmen who copy some foreign phrase in a foreign alphabet and mistake an a for an o, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less meaningful. 

Dr Lawrence divests himself of his local partnerships and investments, resigns all his volunteer positions and settles with his family in the Mount Pleasant region of Vancouver, at that time another working-class area. He continues to practice medicine there until his death in 1913 at age 71.

The tapestries come to the Cumberland Museum and Archives as part of the Cumberland hospital collection after the hospital closes in the late 1970s, and the vases are still in the possession of the Lawrence family. A decent man and a lasting legacy.

*Allopathic physicians use drugs, radiation, and/or surgery. Also called biomedicine, conventional medicine, mainstream medicine, orthodox medicine, and Western medicine. 

Other types of doctors common at the time would be homoeopathic and osteopathic.

With thanks to Shawn Lowrey for his assistance researching this article.