How New Westminster lost the capital

By his Excellency James Douglas, Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Governor and Commander-in-Chief of British Columbia, Vice-Admiral of the same, &c.

Whereas Her Majesty the Queen has been graciously pleased to decide that the Capital of British Columbia shall be styled the city of New Westminster.
Now, therefore, I, James Douglas, do hereby declare and proclaim that the town heretofore called and known as Queensborough, and sometimes as Queenborough, in the Colony of British Columbia, shall from henceforth be called and known as New Westminster, and shall be so described in all legal processes and official documents.
Issued under the Public Seal of the said Colony, at Victoria, Vancouver’s Island, this Twentieth day of July 1859, in the Twenty-third year of Her Magesty’s Reign.

James Douglas. (L.S.)

By command of his Excellency,
William A. G. Young,
Acting Colonial Secretary.

God Save the Queen!

With that proclamation New Westminster was the capital city of the Colony of British Columbia.

At least, for a few years. In the mid-1860s, the Colony of Vancouver Island was deeply in debt to the Bank of British Columbia. On May 31, 1866, the Bank refused any further loans to the Colony. The Assembly passed a vote of non-confidence in its Governor, James Douglas.

Before that, the Colony of Vancouver Island’s Assembly was toying with the idea of a federation with the Colony of British Columbia, where the two would be separate but equal partners. As the economic depression got worse, they dropped this idea in favour of a legislative union. Amor de Cosmos, in January 1865, introduced resolutions that called for the immediate and unconditional union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia, even going so far as to resigning his seat and standing for re-election as a test of the public support. He and Victoria representative Leonard McClure (who also resigned his seat) won handily, and a union was a certainty.

At the same time, Frederick Seymour, Governor of the Colony of British Columbia was happy with this outcome. “We shall be in a position to dictate our own terms,” he wrote. In a despatch to Edward Cardwell, Colonial Secretary, Seymour argued that British Columbia was prosperous (it actually wasn’t), and that to strengthen British authority, power, and influence in the Pacific, having one civic authority would be the way to go. He proposed that the laws of British Columbia be extended over Vancouver Island, that only the consent of the Legislative Council of British Columbia was needed, and the Governor of British Columbia could proclaim the union himself.

Amazingly, nearly all of his suggestions were taken, and British Parliament rushed a bill through that united the two colonies into one Colony of British Columbia on 6 August 1866.

Now, Seymour was the Governor of the united colonies. It was his right to select a site for the colony. Victoria was the capital of the Colony of Vancouver Island and New Westminster was the capital of the Colony of British Columbia. Instead of making the choice for himself, Seymour handed it over to the newly formed Legislative Council. He was expecting that New Westminster would be named the capital, as the government was made up mostly British Columbians and not Vancouver Islanders (five out of five of the Executive Council, six of nine in the Legislative Council, and five of the nine popularly elected members).

He didn’t know about Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, though. Dr. Helmcken had been Speaker of the House of Assembly in Victoria for a decade, and had become an able parliamentarian. He ignored a suggestion from Seymour that New Westminster be selected as the capital. And after prompting of Sir James Douglas, introduced a motion to select Victoria.

After nine and a half hours of debate, the vote stood 13 to 8 in favour of Victoria becoming the capital of the Colony of British Columbia.

But remember that proclamation by James Douglas that established New Westminster as the capital city of the Colony of British Columbia? What about that?

Seymour remembered it, and raised it as an issue with the Colonial Secretary before officially proclaiming Victoria as the capital, which kind of pissed off people in Victoria, while also showing his favouritism towards New Westminster (which, he once wrote, is “in my opinion the most respectable, manly and enterprising little community with which I have ever been aquainted.”)

The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos replied to Seymour’s despatch, who seemedrelatively perturbed that the matter hadn’t been settled:

I have to acknowledge your Despatch No. 87 of the 13th of July last, from which I learn that you are not yet prepared to recommend the adoption either of Victoria or of New Westminster as the Capital of British Columbia.

I leave the determination of this question still in your hands merely desiring that it may not be long delayed.

I take the opportunity of forwarding to you various documents which may affect your judgment, but which I have not hitherto sent to you because I was expecting from you a definite recommendation on the subject to which they related.

As the second paragraph of your Despatch contains something like an appeal to me for an expression of opinion, I think it requisite to say that the establishment of New Westminster as the Capital of British Columbia did not in my opinion involve any pledge on the part of the Government that the site of that Capital shall never be moved. It is of course always undesirable to disappoint natural expectations, and much consideration may be due to those who are so disappointed. But every land-purchaser in New Westminster or any other locality must be considered to buy his land, subject to the possible changes which the varying political or Commercial interests of the whole community may from time to time render necessary.

I will add that although I do not prescribe to you the choice of one or the other Capital, you will be at liberty, in case you should decide in favor of Victoria to quote the authority of the Home Government in support of that course.

The “exuberantly free press” of the time weighed in, as the British Colonist (a Victoria newspaper and precursor to today’s Times Colonist) called the Fraser River a “stream of liquid mud” and New Westminster a “pimple on the face of creation.”

And then, in the second session of the Legislative Council in 1868, they decided to end the controversy once and for all. Captain William Hales Franklyn was the magistrate for Nanaimo, and Nanaimo much preferred New Westminster over Victoria, Nanaimo’s “cruel step-mother”. William Cox, a Gold Commissioner and supporter of Victoria, was sitting next to Franklyn during the debate. Franklyn had a carefully prepared speech that started off by comparing the future of New Westminster on the Fraser with the present prosperity of Calcutta on the Hooghly. Cox managed to shuffle Franklyn’s papers three times, causing Franklyn to read the introduction over and over again. Then Franklyn put his spectacles down on the table, and Cox popped out the lenses!

Helmcken (a Victoria supporter) moved a recess of half an hour to restore order, and when the House reassembled and Franklyn began speaking again, rose to object on the grounds that Franklyn was making a second speech!

Astonishingly the objection stood, and the vote cast, and Victoria was capital.

The date of removal of New Westminster as capital? May 25, the day after May Day, which was normally a day of celebration in New Westminster. Another slap in the face from Victoria.


British Columbia: Papers Relative to the Affairs of British Columbia [Google Books]

Colonial Despatches, Buckingham & Chandos to Seymour

Frederick Seymour: Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Ormsby, Margaret A., British Columbia: A History, 1958.