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Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit

Chief Justice Matthew Begbie: BC Founder

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By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird


Described as a ‘swashbuckling judge’, Chief Justice Matthew Begbie profoundly shaped BC.  Sir Matthew Begbie and his friend BC governor Sir James Douglas have ‘larger-than-life’ statues at the BC Legislature entrance.  As founding fathers of BC, both Begbie and Douglas were Scots born in the tropics who became bilingual in French while studying in England.


As a child, I first heard of Begbie while on vacation at Barkerville.  Actors still pretend to be Judge Begbie, telling of life when Barkerville was the biggest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.


After five years at Cambridge and fourteen years as a lawyer, Begbie was sent to BC at age 39 in response to the 1858 flood of 30,000 American miners from San Francisco.  BC was literally birthed through gold-diggers who panned $543,000 of Fraser River gold in one year.  Most miners stayed a year or less, never putting down roots in BC’s ‘boom or bust’ beginnings.  While a few struck it rich, most came up near empty, spending their gold on wine, women and song.


Without Judge Begbie establishing order on the BC frontier, all hell would have broken loose.  Leading American mining journals in 1863 were already referring to the Fraser River as ‘Our Territory’.  Begbie showed unusual strength and stamina in his work, often travelling by foot and sleeping in a tent so damp that his books mildewed.  Six feet four inches tall with a Van Dyke beard, a gaucho hat, and a long black cloak, Begbie was a commanding figure.

A deeply spiritual man and long-time church-choir member, he loved to read the Anglican Evening Prayer service by campfire, singing hymns before going to his tent.  Even when holding court on a stump under a tree, he wore formal robes.  For twelve years, Begbie was BC’s only judge, travelling two-thirds of the year, and sometimes doing double-duty as a postman!  Because of Begbie’s firm fairness, incidences of violence and highway robberies, all common below the border, were extremely rare in BC.


The ‘hanging judge’ expression was never applied to Begbie during his lifetime, but rather was an overstatement. As historian David Williams puts it, Begbie was ‘an extremely humane, literate, generous, humorous and fair-minded man’.  He abhorred the taking of life.  While vacationing, Begbie met an American former jurist.  The American said: ‘You certainly did some hanging, judge.’  Begbie memorably replied: ‘Excuse me, my good friend.  I never hanged any man.  I simply swore in good American citizens, like yourself, as jurymen, and it was you who hanged your fellow citizens.’  In the BC Place Names (1997) book, it states that Judge Begbie ‘by firmness, impartiality and sheer force of personality maintained British law and order…’  Angered by the acquittal of an armed robber, Begbie said to the prisoner: ‘The jurymen say you are not guilty, but with that I do not agree.  It is now my duty to set you free and I warn you not to pursue your evil ways, but if you ever again should be so inclined, I hope you select your victim from the men who acquitted you.’


Judge Begbie, conversant in four different aboriginal BC languages, had a real heart for the First Nations people whom he praised as ‘a race of laborious independent workers.’  Begbie also advocated for the Chinese miners who often suffered from racism.  He was concerned that legal justice be fair and speedy, regardless of race, colour, or wealth.  Begbie was known as ‘the salvation of the Cariboo and the terror of rowdies.’  Fellow pioneers agreed that Judge Begbie was ‘just the man for a new country’.  “My hair is white, but my hand is strong, and my heart is not weak.  If I punish only a little,” said Begbie, “it is not because I am weak, nor because I am afraid, but because I wish to change your hearts.”  “


When Judge Begbie died in 1894, his two favorite hymns were sung: ‘Just as I am’ and ‘I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say’.  Since the death of Governor Douglas in 1877, Judge Begbie had indisputably become the first citizen of BC.  The size of the Victoria funeral procession was unprecedented with military bands and marching troops, but all that Sir Matthew Begbie wanted on his gravestone was ‘Lord be Merciful to Me a Sinner’.

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin

-previously published in the North Shore News/ Deep Cove Crier

-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada

P. S. Click this Amazon link to view for free the first two chapters of our new novel Blue Sky.

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Author: edhird

I was the Rector of St. Simon's Church North Vancouver, B.C for 31 years, from 1987 to 2018. Ordained in 1980, I have also served at St. Philip's Vancouver and St. Matthew's Abbotsford. My wife Janice and I have three sons James, Mark, and Andrew. I was Past President and Chaplain for Alpha Canada. While serving as the National Chair for Anglican Renewal Ministries of Canada, I was one of three co-signers of the Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials For the past 31 years, I have been privileged to write over 500 articles as a columnist on spiritual issues for local North Vancouver newspapers. In the last number of years, I have had the opportunity to speak at conferences and retreats in Honduras, Rwanda, Uganda, Washington State, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and Ontario. My book For Better, For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship, coauthored with Janice Hird, can be purchased at https://www.amazon.com/Better-Worse-Discovering-lasting-relationship/dp/0978202236/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1535555614&sr=8-1 My sequel Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit, with a foreword by Dr JI Packer, is online with Amazon.com in both paperback http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/097820221X/ref=redir_mdp_mobile and ebook form http://tiny.cc/tanhmx . In Canada, Amazon.ca has it available in paperback http://tiny.cc/dknhmx and ebook http://tiny.cc/wmhmmx . It is also posted on Amazon UK (paperback and ebook ), Amazon France (paperback and ebook), and Amazon Germany (paperback and ebook). Restoring Health is also available online on Barnes and Noble in both paperback and Nook/ebook form. Nook gives a sample of the book to read online: http://tiny.cc/vj3bmx . Indigo also offers the Kobo ebook version: http://tiny.cc/kreonx . You can also obtain it through ITunes as an IBook: http://tiny.cc/1ukiox The book 'Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit' focuses on strengthening a new generation of healthy leaders. Drawing on examples from Titus' healthy leadership in the pirate island of Crete, it shows how North Americans can embrace a holistically healthy life. In order to obtain a signed copy in North America of the prequel book 'Battle for the Soul of Canada', Blue Sky, or God's Firestarters, please send a $25 etransfer to ed_hird@telus.net . Cheques are also acceptable.

One thought on “Chief Justice Matthew Begbie: BC Founder

  1. In Quesnel, 1864, Begbie was part of a show trial that ended in the hanging of five Tsilhqot’in men, who were defending themselves from the threat of smallpox. Begbie was confused during the trial, then asked one jailed leader of the Tsilhqot’in what their reasons were and he kept expressing smallpox. Although written in his notes, and later scratched out, they had knowledge for the defence council to claim defence against murder… however the lawyer representing the Tsilhqot’in was an in-law to the men suspected as the smallpox carriers. Meanwhile, witnesses who should have been part of the trial were curiously missing… suffice to say, I question the honesty of Begbie. I question whether he actually understood Tsilhqot’in, as it is said, when he had a french translator with him in Quesnel. Although he later lamented how he dealt with the trial, he was still a pawn for the colonizers’ desires.


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