Barkerville, Williams Creek, Cariboo


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 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.

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