UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

The British Columbia police, 1858-1871 Hatch, Frederick John


The British Columbia Police was established in September, 1858, by James Douglas (later Sir James Douglas) . At that time Douglas was Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company and Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island. When the Fraser River gold rush occurred, Douglas assumed responsibility for maintaining law and order on the Mainland of British Columbia, and established a small police force at the diggings. This force was not an organized police force in the modern sense, but rather a modified form of the English system of police offices composed of stipendiary magistrates and paid constables established in London in 1792. In British Columbia, the gold fields were divided into administrative districts each in charge of a gold commissioner armed with magisterial powers. These officials, who were under the orders of and directly responsible to the Governor, were referred to both as stipendiary magistrates and as gold commissioners. One of their main functions was to put down lawlessness in their districts. For this reason, each magistrate was authorized to appoint a staff of not more than six constables. Since the constables were also employed as the magistrates’ clerks, recorders, collectors and postmasters, they became integrated with the administrative system of the Colony. The suddenness of the Fraser River gold rush found Douglas without competent men to appoint to the important office of stipendiary magistrate. He hesitated until June, then appointed a staff chosen from the gold mining population. Without exception the men whom he appointed proved incompetent. The constables also were selected from among the miners, and with few exceptions their service was unsatisfactory. Before any of the appointments were made, the miners had taken the law into their own hands. They treated the magistrates and constables with neither fear nor respect. At the end of the year there was a breakdown in law and order in the goldfieids, culminating in a dispute between two of the magistrates, generally referred to as the "McGowan War." The question now arose as to whether or not British Columbia should have a large, centrally controlled, semi-military police force organized along the lines of the Royal Irish Constabulary. There was already in the Colony an officer of the famous Irish Force. This was Chartres Brew, whom Sir Edward Buliver Lytton had selected to assist Douglas in organizing a police force. Brew, who arrived in the Colony in November, 1858, was appalled at the inability of the police to control the miners. He proposed that a force of 150 men should be raised in the Colony, but the expense involved caused Douglas to withhold his consent. After the McGowan War, Governor Douglas, with Brew’s concurrence, requested the Colonial Office to send out a force of about 150 of the Irish Constabulary at the British Government's expense. This plan was dropped when it was learned that the expense would have to be borne by the Colony. Brew then requested to take the constables in the goldfields under his charge. However early in 1858 the military forces in the Colony had been substantially increased. Also a new and competent staff of magistrates had been appointed. Consequently Douglas did not now feel the need of a strong police force. His unco-operative attitude persuaded Brew to abandon all hope of taking control of the police. He accepted instead a position in the magistracy. Consequently the colonial constables remained under the control of the magistrates. Fortunately there appeared a better class of magistrates and constables after 1858. The magistrates were selected from suitable candidates sent over by the British Colonial Office. Without exception they won the confidence of the Governor. Their efforts were mainly responsible for the general good order that prevailed in British Columbia after 1858. The Governors of the Colony allowed the magistrates to choose their own constables. However in 1864, under Governor Seymour, the constable establishments for each district were fixed by the Governor-in- Council and all appointments to the constabulary had to have the Governor's approval. Although these measures gave more stability to the police the early development of the Force was hampered by the financial circumstances of the Colony, There were too few constables to deal with the serious increase in crime at the height of the Cariboo gold rush or to coerce large mining companies if they defied government regulations. Nevertheless the British Columbia Police was motivated by high ideals of public service. When there were openings for new Magistrates, first consideration was given to the constables. After Confederation the magistrates became servants of the Dominion Government while the constables came under the jurisdiction of the Province. This change led to two important steps in the evolution of the British Columbia Police. First the police became independent of the judiciary. Second, a superintendent was appointed for the whole force. However modernization was not completed until 1923 when the British Columbia Police was reorganized by the Police and Prisons Regulations Act.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.