Haphazard History: B.C.’s provincial police force

I just finished reading an interesting little book by an author named Cecil Clarke entitled The Man Who Was Hanged by a Thread.

I just finished reading an interesting little book by an author named Cecil Clarke entitled The Man Who Was Hanged by a Thread.

It’s a fascinating read, containing several tales about cases solved by the B.C. Provincial Police Force.

In my previous columns I have written about some of the gold rush era murders.

During that time, however, the young colony of B.C. was a frontier with a difference.

It was not the “wild west.”

It had well established law and order, largely due to the foresight of Governor James Douglas.

Murders and thefts were committed, of course, but the culprits were usually caught, swiftly tried, and punished according to British law.

And it was the B.C. provincial police constables who had the responsibility of upholding that law and maintaining the peace.

In 1858, with the discovery of gold on the lower Fraser River, thousands of miners and get-rich-quick artists came flooding into the colony.

It is estimated that between 1858 and 1860, more than 30,000 people arrived to seek their fortunes.

Governor James Douglas requested assistance from England to form a police force, and Irish born Chartres Brew was sent out to create “a disciplined body of police officers.”

In November, 1888 the B.C. Provincial Police Force was commissioned and it was the official provincial law enforcement body for the next 92 years.

Even though they had the task of enforcing the law, members of the provincial police were always few in number.

Even by 1900, there were only 100 members to police the entire province.

They were underpaid, overworked, and required to cover vast distances on horseback, on foot, on snowshoes, and in canoes bringing prisoners to justice.

They were called upon to handle everything from sanitary inspections to rescue operations, to robberies and murders to domestic disputes.

They were a remarkable body of men who became known for their great courage and dedication to duty.

They kept the peace and did it well, although they were occasionally known to bend the rules.

William Pinchbeck was one of the first provincial policemen.

They were 30 in all to cover all parts of the new colony.

Pinchbeck was assigned to police the Cariboo region, from Clinton north to Quesnel, and east to Horsefly, Likely, and the goldfields in the Keithley Creek, Barkerville area.

He arrived in Williams Lake in late August of 1860 after a 28-day walk from Fort Hope. As more gold seekers arrived, the job became too much for one man, and Pinchbeck took over policing the area from Clinton to Quesnel and out to Big Lake while the eastern part went to another constable.

In order to do their jobs effectively the provincial police constables had to have the backup of the court system, and that support came from the first judge on the B.C. Mainland, Matthew Begbie.

He was a tall, robust man, selected personally by the Colonial Secretary in London, who wanted a young, athletic person, one who must be a man who could, if necessary, truss a murderer up and hang him from the nearest tree.

Although, in reality, Begbie never did hang anybody personally, he did become a legend as “the hanging judge,” and he established a formidable reputation as a tough, no nonsense, enforcer of the law.

It was not unusual for Begbie to take on the role of policeman to bring culprits to justice, and he never avoided an altercation.

Art Downs in Wagon Road North writes: “He was willing to fight with fists or with law-books, and he never relented. At Clinton, he once sentenced a man, and later heard the fellow’s companions plotting to shoot him.

The judge listened for a while, then emptied his chamber pot over them. His drumhead justice was the law that American miners could understand. His fearlessness won the respect of all.”

Matthew Begbie himself had great respect for the provincial police constables.

As far back as January of 1863 he petitioned the governor to recognize their outstanding service by increasing their pay.

They were outnumbered by the gold-seekers by over 1,000 to one, yet the colony, unlike the United States, saw relatively little lawlessness.

Respect for the abilities of the constables and the certainty of swift and appropriate justice kept crime to a minimum.

Hubert H. Bancroft, a well-known historian of the Pacific Northwest, observed “never in the pacification and settlement of any section of North America have there been so few disturbances and so few crimes against life and property.”

In 1950, an agreement was ratified between the province of British Columbia and the federal government whereby the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assumed responsibility for law enforcement in unorganized areas and most municipalities in B.C. Thus ended a proud, 92-year history of law enforcement and exceptional service.

On a personal note, shortly after I came to Williams Lake, I met an older fellow named Bob Turnbull.

He had a serious demeanour and a military bearing.

As I got to know him a little better, I found out that he was the last B.C. Provincial Police constable stationed at Alexis Creek.

He had some great stories to tell about his time in the force and his police work in the Chilcotin. I will always regret that neither he nor I wrote them down so that they could be passed on.

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