Leaving Behind the Known World:

The James and Isabella Robb Family of Comox, BC

This is the first in a series of mini-portraits of 20th century immigrants to British Columbia, exploring what compelled them to leave their homes–and what they found in their new lives.

James and Isabella Robb were among the first settlers in the Comox Valley, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, BC. Unlike many of their peers, James had savings to help them get established. He was a master brewer in London,[1] which provided a comfortable but limited income—with not enough to spare to nudge his children above the confines of the  struggling working-class.

In 1862, when the Robbs gave thought to boarding a ship for the other side of the globe, their son Willie was twenty and working away from home. Their eldest daughter, Emma, was an ‘under nurse’, caring for the children of a wealthy silk warehouseman.[2] Fifteen-year-old Jane managed the  care of seventy babies and toddlers in a poorhouse; and twelve-year-old Jessie was still in school. None of these girls was likely to marry—a Victorian woman’s primary goal—because so many of Britain’s young men had emigrated to the colonies.

When the Robbs heard of an opportunity to emigrate through their church, they decided to take a gamble on a new and better future. An Anglican mission group, under heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale, needed a matron to take charge of sixty-six girls and young women being sent to Vancouver Island on a ‘bride ship,’ to become servants and wives. Isabella Robb was hired as their chaperone, to teach the girls homemaking skills and keep them safe on what was to be a long voyage. All but the Robbs’ eldest daughter Emma sailed on this same ship.

This was a bold move. James was in his early forties and Isabella was approaching fifty. “[James Robb] was a man of masterful character,” wrote a contemporary, “tall and bony, with work-bent shoulders and feet of thirteen inches.” He was a hospitable and generous neighbor, wrote this same friend, and an outspoken man with firm opinions. Isabella’s nursing skills were an asset as a matron on the bride ship and as a midwife in the colonies. She was a “healthy, hearty, happy woman,” said a contemporary, though in a portrait from later years there’s both sadness and humour in her large, dark eyes.

Free passage on the Tynemouth allowed the Robb family to bring luxuries like brass candlesticks, a china tea set, pewter pots, feather beds and a chest of drawers. They also brought a cast iron stove, a vast improvement over the stone hearths in use by other settlers of this era.

The Tynemouth took the slow Cape Horn route, rather than the more expensive Panama Canal crossing, though it meant 99 days at sea, travelling the length of South and North America. Their destination, Victoria, had been little more than a Hudsons Bay Company trading post until just a couple of years before this, when it burst into life during a gold rush. Thousands of would-be miners were camped in tents in Victoria when the Robbs arrived. Otherwise much of what’s now the province of BC was firmly in the hands of the aboriginal people, with just a handful of European settlements.

Isabella turned her young charges over to a welcoming committee. Some received immediate marriage proposals from a waiting throng of bachelors. One young woman was married the next day, and the rest followed within the year.

Jessie (Robb) McFarlare was married just two years when she died of TB. Her eight-month-old infant also died in 1874, perhaps of this same disease..Jessie was just twenty-four.

The Robbs assessed their options. Two new farm settlements on Vancouver Island were touted, including the Comox Valley—then over a day’s journey north. James and Willie explored the valley and selected heavily treed land on a rocky slope above the only deep water anchorage in Comox Harbour. It was not ideal for agriculture—but the Robbs had a plan. They’d clear and farm this spot and when Comox flourished—as it soon would, based upon its prime agricultural land and some promising coal claims to the south—they’d subdivide it to become a deep-sea port.

The family boarded with an aboriginal woman and her child while they built a three-room log cabin. It proved an uncomfortable arrangement for Isabella, who insisted they move into their own cabin as soon as the walls were up, using sheets for a roof. “Even though there was no floor, and weeks [of] rain, she was happy,” wrote a historian. Isabella set up housekeeping with a rough table and some benches, her china tea set on her chest of drawers, the pewter on hooks in the wall, and her polished candlesticks on a hand-made shelf.

Those candlesticks proved a temptation to an aboriginal man who snatched them, but Isabella chased the man down and beat him with a stick. “Mrs. Robb is an Englishwoman and of course with all a Britisher’s contempt for savages,” wrote a visitor in 1864, “but like all others out here mixed in her conversation Indian [trade] jargon.” She talked of ‘hyou’ (plenty) ‘Mowich’ (deer), and the ‘Siwashes’ (Indians) who wanted ‘hyou chickaman’ (plenty money) for the meat.

The Robbs’ eldest daughter, Emma, followed the rest of the family from London two years later. Her arrival caused a stir among the valley’s bachelors, one of whom wrote a poem saying that Emma’s eyes were “like twinkling stars on a frosty night.” Her sister Jessie’s face was fair, said the poet, “and lovely her brown flowing hair.”[3] The Robbs’ middle daughter, Jane, was dead when those lines were penned, likely from one of the many diseases that took young people’s lives.[4] The other two made good marriages—but also died young. Jessie had tuberculosis when she married, and she and her infant daughter died in 1874. Emma married a farmer who became a successful politician, but she too died prematurely, leaving six children.

James Robb and his eldest son William got adjoining land grants, totaling 286 acres. Clearing that land required years of hard work to fell the trees, and remove the stones and roots for a kitchen garden, orchard and pasture for livestock. In addition to farming, James and Isabella Robb became community leaders, and James was a local financier, a magistrate, and a government agent.

The valley didn’t show the quick promise the Robbs had envisioned so it wasn’t until the 1870s that they finally divided some of their land into town lots. And it was yet another decade before their dream of a city finally showed a glimmer of reality toward the end of their lives in the 1880s. James complained throughout his years about not having selected prime agricultural land along one of the rivers instead of their site above the harbour. As it was, it was not until some years after even his son Willie’s death before the current Village of Comox began to flourish.


[1] In the 1851 English census James Robb was listed as a master brewer with one employee in Kingsbury Parish in Middlesex, London. A decade later his trade had grown for he now had a number of employees.

[2] Emma may have been working under a fixed contract, or perhaps she was not sure, at first, that she wanted to join her family on Vancouver Island.

[3] A settler named Robert Coleman wrote this poem to Barbara Duncan in about 1873, comparing her to other lovely valley girls. He referred to these girls by their first names, but there were no other girls in the valley of these names. See BC Archives inquisition files.

[4] Jane is last referred to in archival and family documents in 1864. A death certificate was not filed. She was likely buried on the family’s farm.