Judge Begbie was the first chief justice of British Columbia.
Born at sea in 1819, Matthew Baillie Begbie was educated in England where he became a lawyer. In the fall of 1858, Begbie arrived in British Columbia at the height of the Fraser River gold rush.
As the chief justice of the colony, Begbie oversaw the roles of gold commissioners, who previously had been used to wide-reaching control.
Begbie was required to travel great distances on horseback and there are many stories of his adventures over rough trails in a variety of weather. Before the Dewdney Trail was completed, Edgar Dewdney guided Begbie and his pack horses to Fisherville in the Kootenays for a court hearing.
There were very few established courthouses in those days. Begbie always carried his robes and wore them wherever it was convenient to hold court whether it was in a saloon, roadhouse, cabin or outdoors.
Begbie was careful to follow the jury’s decision in cases of murder, when the punishment was hanging. In matters regarding mining claims, sometimes Begbie was known to disagree with the jury and called for a new trial. Many who were not familiar with British law were not pleased with his decisions.
At a Clinton roadhouse, Begbie sentenced a man for a crime and then later that same evening overheard the fellow’s companions plotting to shoot him. Known to fight with his fists or with law books, the judge listened for a while then emptied his chamber pot over them.
Begbie became fluent in several aboriginal languages including Chinook. After hundreds of their people died of starvation during the winter of 1858, the Upper St’át’imc, whose territory was invaded by thousands of miners seeking gold in Lillooet district and beyond, appealed to Begbie to defend the rights of their people.
In 1863, Dr. Cheadle wrote:
“Passed Judge Begbie on horseback (near Clinton on the Cariboo Road). Everyone praises his just severity as the salvation of the Cariboo and the terror of rowdies.”