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Begbie the Advocate

Hanging Judge?


In 1860 William Marshall, a Californian, was accused of assaulting an Indian at Yale. At that time Americans were very prejudiced towards the native populations, considering them to be a sub-class of humans and continually having violent confrontations with them. When charges were laid against Marshall there was a great deal of opposition and anger from the local American miners and fearing trouble Peter O'Reilly, a magistrate under Begbie, asked him to sit in on the trial. Begbie did so and it was the first time that a white man was convicted soley on evidence given by natives. It was a somber reminder to wrongdoers that Begbie did not and would not discriminate by race.

In fact, not only did he not discriminate by race but he was an advocate for minority groups in the colony. A municipal by-law attempted to declare Chinese laundries to be a public nuisance and able to be put out of business. Begbie stated that "Blacksmith's forges are probably more liable to give and take fire from sparks; butcher shops are far more offensive to the eyes and clothes and olfactories of foot-passengers, with greasy and bleeding carcasses lumbering the sidewalks and infecting the air with the odour of meat curing; stables with their muck-heaps several yards high are more pregnant with pungent and misalubrious gases, large packing-cases more obstructive to the thoroughfare, than anything that can be alleged against these wash-houses. Yet all these other matters, each of which might be termed a nuisance of no common degree, are allowed to exist clustered together in the very busiest part of the centre of the city without a word of rebuke." and with that he promptly declared the by-law invalid.


Add one part man, one part myth and an equal part legend, stir together slowly until well blended. This is a popular recipe for Judge Begbie. Although most have heard of "The Hanging Judge", the truth is that he was never known as such by his peers. It was only after his passing in 1894, that writers and others began referring to him by this name, so much so, that now it would be difficult to separate them.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that Matthew Baillie Begbie, although stern and sometimes autocratic, never did anything more that mete out justice 'swiftly & fairly' to earn this designation. He certainly never hung anyone with his own hands and what is more, he probably never looked on while a sentenced man was executed. The truth is that Begbie had a natural revulsion to the taking of a human life, even that of someone he felt deserved it.

The problem with the perpetuation of the 'Hanging Judge' myths surrounding Begbie is that its always to the detriment of those other facets of his character which are less revealed. As mentioned earlier, Begbie was more than just a member of the judiciary. He was a legislator, that is to say that he played an instrumental part in the drafting of much of the colony's (and later the province's) early legislation, some of which is still in use today.

He was also a cartographer and mathematician, drawing up plans to make railways more efficient and bridges strong and stable. It was Begbie who designed and largely funded the first bridge across the Cottonwood River.

He was a teacher and a leader, having founded the Union Club in Victoria and the College School, where he taught mathematics and classics. He was also very active in cultural associations, belonging to any number from choirs to tennis clubs.

He was a diplomat and an advocate, spending much of his free time either corresponding with or entertaining important visiting personages to the province while never getting too heady with the créme of society that he forgot the plight of those less fortunate or more misunderstood than himself.

He was an environmentalist and a friend of business at once. Beacon Hill Park in Victoria owes much of its current state to his protective efforts of its natural setting from designs of City Council. He also once let an offender off lightly because he was an industrious merchant who would bring further commerce to Barkerville if he was free rather than cooped up in gaol.

Above all he was a scintillating enigma of human nature. A fine specimen of a person who defies categorization or classification and that was why he was...first among men.


J. M. Young, Editor
June, 1995

Ed. Note: Although Begbie was, without a doubt, a truly remarkable figure, there were those who thought otherwise. John Robson, editor of the British Columbian wrote in 1862, a parable describing how he felt about the man.

| Begbie's Epitaph | An Interview with Peter 'Judge Begbie' Burgis |
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