A Government on Horseback!

19 Nov
English: Matthew Baillie Begbie, image from th...

Matthew Baillie Begbie, image from the British Columbia Archives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

November 19 was an important day for British Columbia. On this date in 1958, the mainland was made a separate colony. James Douglas, who was already Governor of Vancouver Island, was sworn in as Governor of British Columbia at a ceremony at Fort Langley, which was intended to be the capital.

The colony creation  was necessary because thousands of American gold miners were arriving, and there was a danger that the States might try to take over the territory unless it were governed by Britain.

One of the most remarkable figures in Canadian history presided at the swearing-in ceremony. He was Matthew Baillie Begbie. Bruce Hutchinson in his book The Fraser wrote, “And in his twenty-six years of judging, riding, walking, feuding and praying he had more fun than any other man in British Columbia.”

Douglas had asked the British Government to send him a judge to help keep order. Begbie proved to be the ideal man for the job, although he had no experience as a judge, and very little as a lawyer. At the time of his appointment he had no law practice but was a reporter for the Law Times.

Matthew Begbie wanted to leave Britain because his brother had stolen his fiancé!

Begbie, “a government on horseback,” held courts everywhere. Although he was ruthless, he was known to be fair, and the miners understood his sense of justice. His bête noire was juries who failed to convict men of murder when Begbie felt they were guilty. On one occasion when the jury brought a verdict of “not guilty” in the case of a man who had sandbagged a companion in a drunken brawl, Begbie said, “You can go, and I devoutly hope the next man you sandbag will be one of the jury.” Actually, his bark was worse than his bite. He disliked having to sentence men to death and had a chaplain at his side whenever he had to do so.

November 19 was also chosen as the date when the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island would be united in 1866. Historian Dr. Margaret Ormsby (

  ) believes the choice of November 19 was sentimental rather than coincidental.


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