The People of the Cariboo Gold Rush

Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie

Sir Matthew Begbie
Sir Matthew Begbie
What are judges like? Intelligent, well-educated, stern - that's what we expect and Matthew Begbie (1819-1894) was certainly all these things. But he was also an adventurer who travelled from England in 1858 to become one of the first officials of the new Crown Colony of British Columbia, and who walked and rode hundreds of miles getting to know the miners and mining camps, and judging cases everywhere. He was an artist who drew sketches of the witnesses in his "courtroom" - often a tent or a clearing. He was an opera singer who gave concerts in Victoria. He was a linguist who heard cases in the Shuswap and Chilcotin languages without needing an interpreter - and he often defended the rights of First Nations people, who called him "Big Chief". Most of all Begbie was a great judge who won the miners' respect, often took the side of the underdog, and kept the peace with good judgements, some of which are still quoted in courtrooms today.

Have you ever heard of "the Hanging Judge" and the "Wild West"? That's what they called Matthew Begbie and the communities he served. He looked the part too - an imposing man at 6'5" (195 cm), with white hair and a black moustache, who wore his judges robes wherever he held court. But only 27 of the 52 murder cases he heard in the history of the colony ended in hangings - and hanging was the punishment required by law for the crime of murder at that time, so if the verdict was "guilty" the judge didn't have any choice.

In 1875 Begbie went on holiday to Europe and was knighted by Queen Victoria - Sir Matthew! Soon afterwards Begbie was back at work, and kept judging cases for another two decades until he died, when Victoria mounted a magnificent funeral procession for him.