Barkerville, Williams Creek,
JUDGE MATTHEW BAILLIE BEGBIE:
FIRST AMONG MEN
Of all Barkerville's 'native sons', it is Begbie that is most readily remembered
through the ages, and no discussion on the early years of Barkerville, nor
for that matter, those of British Columbia, could be complete without an
account of the Chief Justice...first among men of Cariboo.
Judge Begbie is what many would call 'a Renaissance man', master of many
skills, possessor of sundry qualities. He was a judge, to be sure, but he
was also an administrator, a legislator, a cartographer, an environmentalist,
an advocate of minority rights (when this was unknown), and sometimes counsel
for the defence and prosecutor at at the same time. An amazing person...one
for all seasons it seems. But who was he, what was his background? Where
did he come from and for what reason?
To begin at the beginning, historians are unsure as to Begbie's birthplace.
For a goodly time, many believed that he saw his first day in the city of
Edinburgh, Scotland. Although he was indeed of Scottish parentage, he was
not born in that land. In 1819, Captain John Stirling Begbie of the British
Imperial Army, embarked with his pregnant wife, Mary Hamilton Begbie née
Baillie, on a sea journey to Mauritius. It was either at Mauritius then,
or earlier, off the Cape of Good Hope and on board one of the ships that
Matthew was birthed.
The Begbie's were not long in the Southern Hemisphere, returning to Europe
after only one year and then re-returning to the island again in 1822, this
time for four years. Interestingly it was on another island, that of Guernsey,
in the English Channel, that young Matthew received most of his public education
starting at the age of eleven. At Elizabeth College, Matthew studied drawing,
divinity, literature, history, mathematics and earned fluency in the languages
of French, Latin, Greek and, of course, English. In 1836, he graduated and
left to attend Cambridge University.
At Cambridge, Matthew studied Mathematics and the Classics further, graduating
after five years with a Bachelor of Arts. Graduation from Cambridge led
him to Lincoln's Inn in London to study law; and, after reading for an additional
three years he was finally Called to the Bar on November 22, 1844, thus
beginning his long and distinguished legal career.
We now enter the first of several controversial periods in the life of a
controversial character. Many past writers and commentaries have decided
that Begbie's decade-long law career in London was something short of magnificent
and have crucified him in this regard. In fact, although he did not attain
the highest of rank, his career as a Chancery Court lawyer and court reporter
for The Times kept him in good stead. Evidence shows that not only did Begbie
live in a prime location in London and traveled Europe extensively during
this period, but that upon arriving in Victoria in 1858 he invested heavily
in real estate (owning at one time, a 700-seat theatre in Victoria) which
suggests strongly that he was financially successful in his practice.