Manitoba History: F. Beverley Robertson: The Tragic Life of Poundmaker’s Defence Counsel
Modern commentators generally agree that the 1885, post-Riel Rebellion convictions for felony treason of chiefs Poundmaker, Big Bear and One Arrow and other Native leaders were unfair and unjust. Each of these three chiefs was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. None served his full sentence and all three died soon after their release. One Arrow was released to a hospital in April 1886 but died by the end of the month at age 76. Similarly, Poundmaker was released in March 1886, but the damage to his health from imprisonment proved fatal four months later at age 46. Lastly, Big Bear was released in January 1887 and died a year later, age 63. A fourth chief, White Cap, was incarcerated before his trial but then acquitted. Despite this more humane treatment, he died in 1889—four years after his trial.
History generally does not note that their youthful defence counsel, Francis Beverley Robertson, who is often criticized for not presenting a more effective defence, did outlive all four chiefs but still died within a decade after the trials. He died at an age younger than that of any of his Native clients at 43 after suffering Bright’s disease—a morbid and usually painful kidney disease. Ironically at the 1885 trial of White Cap, the judge during his charge to the jury snidely referred to Robertson’s youth: “… nor do I claim to be too old any day to learn, to be instructed in the law from my juniors, no matter how young.”1 Robertson could not let the jury hear this backhanded put-down without response: “Perhaps your Honor would like to know I am 35. I know it is young, but it is old enough with 11 years’ practice at the bar to know something, and to do my duty. The crime of being a young man is one I am not ashamed of.”2
While the lives, actions and trials of his Indigenous clients have been the subject of several articles, papers and books, the historical record contains little information about their attorney. This paper seeks to correct this omission and examines not only his life, but also examines suggestions that he was ineffective and perhaps disinterested in conducting a proper defence.
Francis Beverley Robertson was the son of a successful attorney, Thomas Robertson, who had a notable career both in the Canadian Parliament and the Ontario judiciary. Thomas was the eldest child of Alexander Robertson who migrated to Canada from Scotland in 1820 and Matilda Ann Simons, a daughter of Colonel Titus Geer Simons, a British loyalist who settled in Canada after the American Revolution. Thomas studied law under John Hillyard Cameron, partner to John Godfrey Spragge, whose daughter Francis Beverley would marry. Thomas became an attorney or solicitor in 1849, licensed to counsel clients and conduct legal transactions.3
Thomas then married Frances Louisa Reed on 13 June 1850. Both were 23 years old. She was the youngest daughter of Theodore “Yankee” Reed and Hannah Barnard. Yankee Reed, as distinguished from a long time tavern owner in Goderich known as Judge Reed, migrated from Acton, Massachusetts and purchased the wayside tavern at “the corners,” the intersection of the original Huron Road and the London Road.4 It is said that “half of [Yankee Reed’s] fame was on account of the beauty of his daughters.”5 Unfortunately, no picture of Francis Reed Robertson survives.
After their wedding, Thomas and his bride settled in Dundas, a suburb of Hamilton where their first child Francis Beverley was born on 16 November 1851. Thomas was called to the bar as a barrister (courtroom attorney) of Upper Canada the following year. He served as executor to his father-in-law’s estate in 1854 and that same year, he purchased more than an acre of land in Dundas, at 10 Overfield Street, just south of Governor’s Road, where he built an elegant hip-roofed stone house that he named “Foxbar.”6
The purchase seems timely as Thomas’ second child, Victor Alexander, was born 24 May 1855. Sadly, their first daughter was born two years later and died four weeks after birth. Two other children completed the family, Henry Hyndman, born 5 April 1859, and another daughter Frances Barnard, born 9 December 1860. As the birth order suggests, Francis Beverley was close to his immediately younger brother, Victor. Foxbar would be the family home where these children were raised.
After Canada became a confederation in 1867, Thomas ran for the South Wentworth seat in parliament as a Conservative and a staunch supporter of John Macdonald’s National Policy. He lost this 1867 election by 27 votes. At this point Francis Beverley was attending the United Common and Grammar school in Dundas when wellknown educator John Howard Hunter was the principal. While at United, Robertson was awarded the Dominion Gilchrist scholarship, with “£100 sterling per annum for three years.”7
University of London records indicate that Francis Beverley matriculated in June 1870 after receiving the ninth highest score that year on the entrance exam. In 1872 he took the Intermediate examination in Laws and according to University student records he was 4th in 2nd class in the Honours examination for jurisprudence and Roman law.8 However, the University records end there. They do not indicate that he ever took the second law exam in common law and equity, nor do they indicate that he actually graduated from the University of London.
We will probably never know why Francis Beverley apparently left the University of London without completing his studies. Perhaps his father Thomas needed him to help with his practice when he (Thomas) was appointed Queen’s Counsel by the Earl of Dufferin in 1873. Thomas became a Bencher in the Ontario Law Society the following year. Thomas was then elected vice-president of the Society and served in that position until 1887.
Society and served in that position until 1887. Because Francis Beverley (known professionally as F. Beverley) was not a college graduate, he would have had to sit for a written and oral exam covering typical university subjects including the classics (tested in Latin), mathematics, English, and history/geography.9 He must have successfully completed these exams because he was called to the Bar of Upper Canada on 10 February 1877. That same day, he petitioned to be called to the Bar of Manitoba.10 Manitoba was considered a new frontier of opportunity. His future partner in Manitoba, Colin Campbell, would later write to his fiancée:
At that time the number of lawyers in the Manitoba numbered just over 40 and the Law Society had just been formed. However, the “first benchers” were fearful of a huge influx of lawyers from other providences; so, they pushed to pass legislation that required every new Manitoba lawyer, regardless of experience, to take the full bar exam and serve one year in articles in Manitoba. These restrictions were heavily criticized by many including the Attorney General of Canada.12
In 1878, Thomas was elected to the House of Commons for South Wentworth and then re-elected in 1882. This coupled with the arduous Manitoba Bar entrance requirements may have delayed any plans Beverley had to move to Manitoba. Thomas and sons Beverley and Victor (a solicitor) are listed in the 1879 Ontario Law list as practising as the firm Robertson & Robertson and this is repeated in the 1880 City Directory of Hamilton. The 1879 Ontario Legal Directory also lists the three of them practising in Hamilton and father Thomas associated with the firm of Robertson, McMurrich, Howard and Andrews in Toronto.13 The 1881 Canadian Census shows “Beverly F. Robertson, Barrester” [sic] living on 4 April in what appears to be a boarding house run by William and Katherine Herman.14 This location is in the same census district as Foxbar House where the rest of the family lived on that date according to the census. Frank’s brother Victor was identified at Foxbar as a solicitor and youngest brother Henry as a law student.15 In 1882, the year Victor was called to the bar, Thomas sold “Foxbar” and moved to “Rannoch Lodge” at 95 Arkledun Ave., Hamilton, which is where Thomas and son Victor are listed in the 1883-1884 Hamilton City Directory.
F. Beverley Robertson in Winnipeg
Robertson was first recorded in Winnipeg on 4 November 1881 when he appeared before Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood at the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba to argue his first case involving railroads. His work for railroads would continue for many years. The case of Dave Young vs. the Manitoba & Southwestern Railway was a dispute about the appointment of company directors. According to the newspaper accounts, almost every lawyer in town was there and “Mr. Beverley Robertson (late of Hamilton, Ont.) … entered the court loaded down with the weight of his responsibilities, and a brief in the case of Dave Young vs. the Southwestern Railway.” Robertson represented one of the railway’s directors, R. L. McGregor, and during argument he admitted that he was not a fully qualified member of the Manitoba bar, but asked to be heard as a matter of courtesy (which he was). However, his objection to the continuing injunction was dismissed.16
Later that month, the positions of Robertson and the Chief Justice were reversed. Robertson was one of two members of a commission (the other being Mr. Blanchard) and two reporters before which the Chief Justice appeared. The Commission of Inquiry was appointed by the Attorney General to investigate the administration of Metis infant lands.17 Some 1.4 million acres of land had been allocated to the Metis but land speculators were buying the claims before specific tracts of land were assigned to each claim. The land claims of Metis infants, or children under the age of 21, could be sold only through judicial procedure intended to protect the interests of the infants. The Chief Justice was accused of facilitating the sale of infant rights without regard for the best interest of the infants. Supporters of the Chief Justice accused Justice Miller of initiating these charges so he could become Chief Justice. In any event, subsequent legislation legalized all judicially sanctioned sales.18
Robertson appears to have been both a member of the Commission and its counsel. Perhaps he was appointed in part because his fiancée’s late uncle, William Spragge, was Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1862–1874. Having a father who was a Member of Parliament also probably aided him in gaining such an appointment. Robertson prepared a handwritten final report for the Commission of more than 30 pages. But when he attempted to present a summation to the Commission, the other Commissioners decided they had authority only to investigate, not to hear, the report. In the report, Robertson expressed his surprise that the Commission had to examine “alleged misfeasance” by a judge “affecting his good behavior as a Judge or his fitness to the judicial bench.”19 The report notes that in at least twelve cases, the Chief Justice of Manitoba approved land sales for his son where charges for the sale were charged to the infants’ shares which were then sold to pay off the charges.20
The newspaper reference to Robertson as “late of Hamilton” and then to his serving on a Commission suggest that he had substantially moved to Winnipeg around November 1881. Indeed, he was called to the Bar on 10 November 1881 and was admitted on 8 June 1882 after passing the Manitoba Bar exam for out-of-providence attorneys. He apparently signed a one-year clerkship agreement with George Byron Philip the previous month as stipulated by the articling requirement.21 Restrictions for out-of-providence attorneys had finally been eased somewhat and the feared growth spurt of new attorneys did occur (in part because of a real estate investment boom), so that more than 200 signed the Roll of Attorneys in 1882. By comparison each of the preceding two years saw an average of 17 new attorneys signing the Roll.22 The Canada Law Journal noted in June 1882 that “probably Winnipeg has more lawyers to the square acre than any other place on the face of the earth.”23 Although Robertson was listed as residing at the Hamilton Club in the 1882-1883 Hamilton Directory (which was probably published before or very early in 1882), he seems to have lived in Winnipeg at least during most of 1882.
His first newspaper advertisement as a barrister appears in the Winnipeg Daily Sun on 15 February 1882. It incorrectly lists his first initial as “T.” In the 18 March ad, this error is corrected, but his name continues to be spelled Beverly rather than Beverley. Both ads proclaim that he was offering $100,000 from private investors to lend for real estate investments. This ad ran regularly through 4 July 1882. Thus, his first business in Winnipeg was to represent investors in the then ongoing real estate investment boom. The latter ads list his address of Room 24, Donaldson’s block, Winnipeg and the City Directory published in July 1882 lists his address as 343 Main Street.24 A week before his formal admission, on 1 June 1882, Robertson advertised his services as a barrister and still listed his office as Room 24, Donaldson’s block.
According to a “Looking Backward” column in 1952, on 21 June 1882, the Winnipeg Free Press announced the name of a new law firm: McArthur, Robertson and Dexter. “The first two partners, the second one being Beverley Robertson, were described as already well-known and the H. J. Dexter came well recommended from Toronto.”25 If Beverley joined this firm, his participation was short-lived. On 21 June, 28 June and 4 July 1882, he was running his usual “Money to Loan” ad with no mention of a partnership.
Francis Beverley Robertson married Eleanor Mary Spragge, the daughter of John Godfrey Spragge and Catherine Rosamund Thom in Toronto, on 19 July 1882 when they were 30 and 26 years old, respectively. There is little doubt their fathers were well acquainted after Thomas Robertson clerked for John Godfrey Spragge’s partner. John Godfrey Spragge had been appointed the Chancellor of Ontario in 1869 (head of the court of Chancery), Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals in 1881, and the next year when the court was renamed the Supreme Court of Judicature of Ontario, he became the Chief Justice.26
The newlyweds moved to Winnipeg. Robertson initially practised with Robertson, Andrews and Howard at 358 Main Street according to the 1883 Henderson’s City of Winnipeg Directory and newspaper ads from October 1882 through May 1883. Howard and Andrews were two junior partners from his father’s 1879 Toronto law firm affiliation. This partnership probably was arranged or at least facilitated by Beverley’s father. It was short-lived.27
Colin Campbell, an Ontario attorney nine years younger than Beverley, came to Winnipeg in 1882. Campbell initially joined the firm of Aikens, Culver and Hamilton. He was soon unhappy and started looking for other opportunities. He wrote to his fiancée Minnie: “in this Country it is everyone for himself and in doing so I am only doing what another would do. …”28 After he passed the Manitoba Bar at the same time as Robertson, he started a partnership with Herbert Bolster in August 1882, but that would not last a year.29 In early 1883, Campbell recruited a Hamilton-based loan company away from Robertson, with the latter being quite “wrathy” when he learned the news. Robertson refused to hand over the papers until he heard personally from the company directors.30
Shortly after this setback, Victor Robertson left Hamilton in April 1883 to practise law in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba with John Bodabee. At the farewell party, Thomas noted this was the second send-off for a son of his to the “great northwest.” He had only one son left whom he hoped “to keep.”31 On 1 May 1883, Victor visited his brother in Winnipeg on his way to Portage la Prairie. Victor arrived just in time to meet his new nephew, Alexander Godfrey Spragge Robertson who was born in Winnipeg on 23 April 1883.
The next month, Colin Campbell and Beverley Robertson put aside their past differences. They had been brought together through friends and agreed to form a new partnership. Campbell explained to his fiancée that as “a result of many circumstances, Robertson’s firm dissolved.”32 Advertisements in Winnipeg Daily News indicate that Robertson, Andrews and Howard were still together on 26 May 1883, but from 12 June on, Robertson and Howard were left together at 358 Main Street, with G. A. F. Andrews advertising separately but at the same address. This continued until 27 June.
Colin Campbell reported to his fiancée that he and an old friend from Toronto, Horace Crawford, concluded a partnership agreement with Beverley Robertson on 19 June 1882.33 In Winnipeg at that time, lawyers were judged not only by their skills, but also by their clients and partners. Campbell viewed this partnership as a “golden opportunity.”34 Campbell later explained the advantages of the new partnership: “I will take Common Law or Civil Law and Commercial Department, Crawford the Chancery and Robertson insolvency and general work. We each get what we like and what each is best up in.”35 Furthermore, they all would draw clients from their different respective churches: “Robertson is Episcopalian, Crawford a Methodist & myself a Presby.”36 At that time, Episcopalians and Presbyterians accounted for about 30% each of the population with Methodists for about 17%.
The 6 July 1883 Winnipeg Daily Times contained the first ad for “Robertson and Campbell” at 326 Main Street and the new partnership was announced in a notice on 9 July (Crawford would not be a partner until he passed the Bar in August when Robertson was away on holidays). Ads in September and October 1883 include all three partners.
The 1884–1886 Winnipeg directories list the firm of Robertson, Campbell, and Crawford at the corner of York and Edmonton. From the start, the firm was busy but Campbell seemed happy with his new situation. He wrote to his fiancée that everyone was working hard in early September. The firm obtained the Souris and Rocky Mountain Railway Co. as a client. The railway was chartered in 1882, so it may have been Robertson’s client. It later endured the scandal of a lawsuit contending it had not paid its workers for a year and the claim that a member of Parliament had received a “gratuity” of $386,000 worth of stock. In 1885, the railway was succeeded by the North West Central Railway.37
On 10 September 1883, Robertson and his wife Eleanor travelled to Ontario. They had their six-month old son christened in Toronto on 26 September according to the family Bible. Robertson expected to be gone for two weeks, but Campbell did not think he would return until October. Robertson did return on 4 October.38 But he was lonely without his wife. To compensate, he worked late and went out drinking with his brother who came for a visit. His brother showed signs of illness which may have been the inflammatory rheumatism that would kill him seven years later.39
In November, Campbell and Robertson were delighted to have won a case at no cost to their clients.40 But by 22 December Robertson was quite sick, so that in the 2 January 1884 edition of the Winnipeg Daily Times he assured everyone that he was not “dangerously ill” as rumoured, but merely had a bad cold. He had recovered and was at that time conducting business as usual.41 It is possible that this announcement of a “bad cold” was a cover for the first attack of his fatal illness and Robertson wanted to keep his illness a secret. Business continued to be good according to Campbell’s letters to his fiancée, at least until the news in April that Eleanor’s father was quite ill. Robertson told Campbell he thought his father-in-law was dying and he was correct.42 He could not predict that his mother-in-law would die four days after her husband.
Robertson’s extensive absence from the office at this point appears to have caused some stress. Campbell noted on 24 May 1884 that Robertson had not yet returned, but “the firm is busy and I don’t care how soon he comes.”43 Robertson returned to Winnipeg on 31 May and Campbell wrote that “I am not at all sorry. There is so much requiring his personal attention and we have been so busy since he left that Mr. Campbell is worked out.”44 While Robertson may have taken this extra time for family matters, he may also have been consulting with “the best medical authorities,” which one obituary suggested did occur at some point.45
By June, Robertson was working hard at the firm and with Campbell had obtained a jury verdict in one case of close to $3,000.46 Unfortunately from a historical perspective, Campbell married his fiancée in the summer 1884, so the regular letters stop, resuming only when one spouse travelled. Campbell did seem pleased that Robertson “hoped we would be as happy in our marriage as he was in his and he offered to help in making arrangements.”47
The year 1884 was not only the year that Colin Campbell married Minnie, but also the year Victor Robertson formed a partnership with W. J. James in Portage la Prairie.48 He visited Winnipeg at least once in the next three summer months.49 Eleanor was pregnant at that time and gave birth to Catherine Frances Eleanor Robertson in Winnipeg on 25 November 1884 according to the family Bible.50 Also in the fall, four Winnipeg barristers were “gazetted” Queen’s Counsel. In an editorial in the Manitoba Law Journal, edited by John S. Ewart—one of the recent honorees, the unsigned editorial argued against the singling out of some barristers for “invidious distinction.” But the editorial concluded:
Robertson and the 1885 Trials
In 1885 Robertson defended the Native people accused in the Riel Uprising. In July 1885, the head of the prosecution team, Deputy Minister of Justice, George W. Burbidge, was in Regina prosecuting the various defendants. He needed defence counsel to be appointed for the Native defendants before they could be prosecuted. He was given permission to hire anyone at the “ordinary fees.” While there were a couple of lawyers available in Regina, Burbidge chose Robertson and sent him a telegraph on 15 July 1885. He did not indicate why Robertson was selected but noted to the Minister of Justice that Robertson was the son of a Member of Parliament. Burbidge may have been familiar with Robertson’s work on the 1881 Commission of Inquiry concerning Metis infant lands and he may have sought someone who was not biased (or at least openly biased) against Native people.
Curiously, the telegram was received by Victor Robertson rather than Beverley’s partners. Victor volunteered to act in his brother’s place because his brother would not return to Winnipeg until 24 July. It appears that Victor arrived in Regina by 22 July and Beverley did return to Winnipeg and wired Burbidge that he was leaving immediately for Regina.52 Shortly after that, Victor announced that he had been hired to assist his brother although he never appeared in any trial transcript.53
There is no reason to believe that Robertson was selected because he was believed to be a marginal lawyer assuring victory for the prosecution. Although not Queen’s Counsel, he was a credible selection as a capable attorney from a successful firm in the largest city in the Northwest. He also had worked hard on the Metis infant land inquiry, showing a lack of bias against Native people. Still, his performance during the Indian trials has been criticized on a number of grounds. Most obviously, he was successful in only one of the five cases in which he had acted as defence counsel. Some have suggested that he should have spent more time preparing for these cases.
The Native trials began on Thursday, 13 August 1885 with the trial of One Arrow. This trial was a “warm up” for both sides because it was followed the next week with the trial of Chief Poundmaker. Poundmaker was the most famous Native defendant and his trial attracted the most attention in the press. All of these trials were conducted before Magistrate Hugh Richardson. A prosecution team of attorneys shared the burdens of preparing these five cases, and in four trials two prosecutors shared the examinations of the various witnesses. Robertson had only some preliminary assistance from his brother, as well as from local counsel James Benson of Regina, to assist him in the Poundmaker trial.54 Benson’s name appears on the transcript but he neither examined any witnesses nor addressed the court or jury. In court, Robertson handled all aspects of the defence in all five trials.
In hindsight, it is easy to note from trial transcripts when Robertson appeared confused or unprepared and even to suggest weaknesses or omissions in the cases he presented. However, a more objective measure of his apparent effort can be made by examining the relative frequency of questioning during which he examined witnesses or argued with the court or opposing counsel outside of opening and closing statements. For example, in the trial of One Arrow, which lasted one day, the two prosecution attorneys asked 73 and 70 questions each of their three witnesses to establish their case of felony treason. While Robertson did not call any defence witnesses, he did ask 91 questions in cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses. While not as many total questions as the prosecution, it was the prosecution who had the burden of proving their case. Ninety-one questions in a one-day trial suggests rigorous cross-examination.
Robertson also addressed the magistrate or his opponents 21 times compared to a total of 13 times for both of his opponents. This was a common feature in most of the trials suggesting that the magistrate favoured the prosecution’s position and showed that Robertson was active in defence of his clients. In the trial of One Arrow, Robertson also argued at some length that the prosecution had, as a matter of law, failed to prove their case, but the magistrate refused to agree, holding that the prosecution had presented sufficient evidence that the jury should consider the case. The jury found One Arrow guilty of felony treason and he was sentenced the next morning to three years’ imprisonment.55
Three days later, Robertson stepped up his efforts for the most anticipated trial, that of Poundmaker. He asked nearly 850 questions of the witnesses compared to just over 470 for the prosecution. Again, this mostly reflects Robertson’s role in rebutting the prosecution’s case, asking detailed questions to cast doubt on the testimony of the nine prosecution witnesses. But Robertson also “out-questioned” his adversaries for his six defence witnesses. Robertson addressed the judge and jury 30 times compared to 19 times for the prosecution. While Robertson could always be criticized for not preparing a better case with more defence witnesses, his courtroom performance compared favourably to the three attorneys for the prosecution. The guilty verdict was frustrating for him.56
After the Poundmaker trial, Robertson returned to Winnipeg. His daughter Catherine was christened on 24 August 1885 at the All Saints Church in Winnipeg. On 28 August, Robertson wrote D. L. Scott about the prosecution, noting that he was busy in Winnipeg until 7 September and had to be back in Winnipeg on 21 September. He requested that the remaining trials be scheduled between those dates, which they were.57 It seems likely that he used this time to summarize the injustice of the Poundmaker trial for an editorial in a political and literary periodical called The Week. However, the editorial itself was signed only “LEX”, so we may never know if Robertson was actually the author:
Big Bear was formally charged on 4 September, but his trial was delayed until after Robertson returned to Regina on 9 September. The trial of Big Bear began two days later. Robertson asked 525 questions of the witnesses and addressed the court 65 times. Prosecution asked 512 questions and addressed the court 28 times. Convinced he could not win any of the trials, Robertson announced toward the end of trial that he was requesting that the Minister of Justice relieve him of his defence counsel duties.59 The Minister refused. On 25 September, Big Bear was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
On 14 September, White Cap was put on trial. Robertson asked 181 questions and addressed the court nine times. Prosecution asked 239 questions and addressed the court seven times. Robertson’s frustration showed in his address to the jury which was twice as long as the prosecution’s address. Robertson explained it was an “almost hopeless task” to get a fair trial for an Indian from a jury in Regina. Of course, he nevertheless hoped that this jury would be fair-minded. He also challenged Judge Richardson’s simplistically biased interpretation on the law of felony-treason that the Indians were guilty if they were “caught up” in events. Robertson argued instead that White Cap essentially was compelled to go to the rebel camp when they asked him to attend. All of this turned out to be successful. The jury deliberated only 15 minutes before declaring White Cap “not guilty.”
On 16 September a group of nine men associated with Big Bear were charged and the trial was conducted until 3:30 pm. Robertson made little effort in this confusing trial (the defendants were referred to by number because their names were a challenge for white counsel and judge). Robertson was out-questioned almost 5-to-1 and did not make a closing statement to the jury. He could not resist addressing the judge five times more often than the prosecution. The jury deliberated for an hour before pronouncing all nine men guilty but with the recommendation of mercy. The following day saw a similar group trial of five Indians. Robertson asked almost 100 questions in cross-examination of the two prosecution witnesses who told their stories directed by about 160 prosecution questions. Again, Robertson made no closing argument and the jury deliberated for only 30 minutes to find them all guilty, again recommending mercy.
Thus, Robertson’s efforts show a great deal of variation. Initially, he worked hard and apparently hoped to make a name for himself with a successful defence of Poundmaker. He soon became convinced that he could not win, although he did win acquittal for White Cap after showing his frustration with his unfair task to the jury. Despite this success, it seems clear he did little in the last two group trials, not even bothering to make a closing argument.
The End of Robertson’s Legal Career
The 1885 Indian trials were undoubtedly draining for Robertson and did little to advance his career. Legal scrapbooks for 1886 suggest Robertson and his partners were busy winning some cases and losing others. Robertson had problems of his own, being fined for possessing the head of a moose outside hunting season. He represented himself in the proceeding in February 1886 and at his unsuccessful appeal in October. Robertson still sought some recognition of distinction. In May, he was nominated (or arranged to be nominated) for a “junior bencher” position in the Manitoba Bar, but was persuaded to withdraw for being too senior.60
Campbell’s letters to Minnie in 1886 suggest that he was busy with some clients, that some were more profitable than others, and that he was attracting large clients outside of Winnipeg.61 In March 1886, Robertson and Campbell lost the case of Manitoba Investment Association v. Bathgate when the jury found for the plaintiff. Robertson also worked with his partner Crawford on a large case, Leacock vs. McLaren, in May and June 1886 which ended with 8 days of arguments, and on a second case in September involving land ownership.
Despite the apparently smooth functioning of Robertson’s career and the firm at this time, letters in the summer of 1886 suggest that Campbell and Crawford may have been planning on dissolving their partnership with Robertson. At the end of May, Campbell writes his wife that Crawford tells him Robertson “talks as if all things would go on as before making holiday arrangements [for] Robertson in July, Crawford in August and Campbell in September.”62 Two months later he again notes: “Robertson came to the office this pm. I was exceedingly pleasant and I want everything to go on as usual until this fall.”63 This suggests Campbell and Crawford were planning to leave Robertson in fall 1886 or perhaps they were adjusting the partnership agreement because Robertson had informed them of his illness and realized he would not be able to work long hours. Reduced hours at work also may have been necessitated by the birth of Robertson’s third child, Ross Auld Robertson, on 27 October 1886. In any event, the 1887 Henderson’s Northwest Ontario and Manitoba NW Directory (published in January) listed Robertson, Campbell and Crawford at 326 Main St. and F. B. Robertson still residing at 30 Edmonton.64
Legal Scrapbooks at the Archives of Manitoba suggest that Robertson was active in 1887. He worked with Crawford on two cases in January and February of that year.65 They lost an appeal in June.66 Robertson also won a case where he argued for two days in September without apparent support of his partners.67 During this time, he also was active in the Conservative Party. In February 1887, he moved that a resolution of thanks be issued to Duncan MacArthur for withdrawing his candidacy for the Winnipeg House of Commons seat which otherwise would have split the Conservative vote.68 Robertson’s obituary in a Toronto newspaper suggested that he was offered the Conservative nomination but had only just learned of his fatal condition.69 Diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, Robertson managed to live seven years with the illness.70
There is no evidence that Robertson attempted to follow his father’s political career by running for Parliament; so he may have turned down any offer of nomination due to his illness. His staunch opposition to John A. Macdonald’s railroad policy, including a call for the Prime Minister to step down, also may have made his candidacy untenable. His attacks on the Prime Minister were contained in two letters to the editor of the Toronto Mail in January and February of 1887, decrying the “Effects of Monopoly”, and they were republished later that year by the Conservative Anti-Disallowance Association.71 The Anti-Dissallowance Association opposed the denial of allowances of local railway lines in favour of maintaining the Canadian Pacific Railway’s monopoly in rail transportation. He also was part of a delegation of 18 distinguished Conservatives to meet with the Minister of the Interior to argue in favour of having multiple competing railway lines. Robertson and R. J. White were the principal spokespeople.72
Although Robertson appears busy in 1887, including the christening of his third child in July, Campbell and Crawford appear to have formed their own firm without him in time to have it listed in the 1888 Directory, published in January. That Directory lists Campbell & Crawford at 387 Main St. and F. B. Robertson still at 326 Main St.73 The Pitblado firm simply notes that Robertson left the firm in 1888, but it appears more as though the firm left him.74 Stationery used by Colin Campbell to write to his wife Minnie in July 1888 confirms this change of both the partnership and the address for Campbell and Crawford.75 An ad for Robertson at 354 Main Street was run in the Winnipeg Free Press on 18 May 1888. It lists office hours as 10–1 and 2:30 to 4 or 5 pm. This suggests Robertson had no partners or associates to cover the office when he was not there. He was still practising law since he represented plaintiffs in Simpson v. McDonald and Springfield v. Mathewson in the spring of 1888.76
The Law Society of Manitoba records show that 1888 was the last year that Robertson took out a certificate to practise, but he is listed in the 1889 Directory as practising at 354 Main Street while still residing at 30 Edmonton.77 In the 1890 Directory, he is still listed alphabetically among barristers but no separate listing for his practice or residence is given.78 His youngest child, Francis Beverley, Jr. was born in Winnipeg on 2 December 1888, but baptized in Toronto on 7 October 1889. The Winnipeg Free Press published a notice on 28 October 1889 that he “has moved to Hamilton, Ontario where he will take up the practice of his profession.79 He was not listed in the practice section of the 1890 Winnipeg Directory but it did still contain his residential listing.
It is not clear exactly what Robertson did after this. His brother Victor died of inflammatory rheumatism in 1890 at age 34, leaving a young widow and three children under the age of four, as well as a fourth born after the death of his father. The obituary for Victor noted that his brother Beverley cared for him tenderly.80 He may have stayed on to help the young family which was listed still in Portage la Prairie for the 1891 Census in April. The 1891 Census also lists Beverley’s wife (Eleanor) and family as living in Haldimand, Ontario, but Beverley is not listed with either family.81 He also was not listed with his father Thomas Robertson and his wife “Elizabeth” (sic).82 Hamilton Directories for the period from 1891-1894 do list Robertson’s brother H. H. Robertson both for his residence and in the attorneys’ section, including advertisements, but Beverley is not mentioned either as a sole practitioner or as practising with his brother.
Obituaries state that Beverley Robertson moved to the Windsor, Ontario area sometime between two and four years before his death in neighbouring Walkerville in December 1894.83 The 1893 Windsor City Directory does list “Robinson, (sic) F. B., lawyer,” as residing at the British American Hotel.84 However, he is not listed in the practising attorneys section and a sampling of the Evening Record during this time period reveals seven classified attorney ads, but none for or mentioning Robertson. So although his profession was listed with his residential listing, it seems clear he was not trying to practise at this time. He is not listed in the 1894 Directory and a copy of the 1892 Directory is not available. One obituary suggests he lived at the Crawford House in Windsor before the British American Hotel.85 Perhaps he was there in April 1891 when the census was taken and the census takers assumed that only visitors stayed at hotels. In any event, obituaries state he had been at the Crown Inn either two or a few months before his death and his father came to town to collect his body.86 Robertson knew he was sick and made a will on 1 December leaving everything to his wife. But everything was not much—less than $15,000 in personal property and no real estate. Despite his mostly unsuccessful attempts to defend Native people during the Riel Rebellion trials, obituaries (as they often do) praised his abilities: “…until about five years ago [he] was recognized as one of the cleverest lawyers in Canada” and “He was energetic and clever and a useful and successful career was apparently before him, but he went wrong.”87 We don’t know why Robertson chose to move to Windsor and isolate himself from family and friends. Perhaps it was for medical treatment in nearby Detroit or perhaps he wanted to spare others the anguish of watching him suffer what he experienced in tending to his brother Victor.
Robertson’s tragic end parallels in some ways those of his Native clients. Just as the Chiefs were released early from prison, Robertson was “released” from his Winnipeg law partnership around 1887.88 The chiefs had been involuntarily isolated from their family during incarceration, took ill and died. Robertson took ill first but then voluntarily isolated himself from family and friends, so they would not see him suffer with the disease and would not be burdened with caring for him. Of course Robertson undoubtedly received better care at his various hotels, but all of these men must have dearly missed their families while they were ill toward the ends of their lives.
Since no one knew him in Windsor, the language in his newspaper obituary there, i.e., “He was energetic and clever and a useful and successful career was apparently before him, but he went wrong” probably came from his father when he arrived to collect the body.89 While the language that “he went wrong” might simply refer to his contraction of Bright’s disease, it also may suggest fatherly disapproval of Beverley’s career path. While Manitoba was a fastgrowing land of opportunity for lawyers, it may also have been a location for Beverley (as well as Victor) to escape working under the thumb of an ambitious father. Thomas Robertson may never have approved of his son’s “escape” just as white society did not approve of the actions of the Native chiefs during the Riel Rebellion. While the chiefs made a compelling case that they tried to avoid violence and had little choice in being at the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time, the jurors and white society did not want to hear such defences. Similarly, Thomas may not have wanted to think that his son preferred his own career out west to practising in the shadow of his father.
3. There are numerous biographical sketches of Thomas Robertson from which the facts that follow are drawn. Most useful were A Cyclopedia of Canadian Biography, pp. 799-800 (1898); A Dictionary of Hamilton Biography, vol. II 1876-1924, pp. 130-131 (1981) and his obituary in the Hamilton Spectator, 7 September 1905, p. 10.
7. George Maclean Rose, A Cyclopedia of Canadian Biography (Toronto: Rose Publishing Co., 1886), p. 734. For the announcement of this award, see The Journal of Education for Ontario 140, (Sept. 1870).
10. File of Francis Beverley Robertson, Archives of Manitoba, Legal and Judicial History, P1318.
11. Letter of Colin Campbell to Minnie (8 December 1881) Minnie Campbell Papers, Archives of Manitoba, MG 14, C16 or M2492-150. It also may be true that Beverley disliked practising with his successful and ambitious father.
14. 1881 Canada Census, Ontario, Ward 3, Hamilton District 149, Sub-district C, Division 1, p. 58, household 234. A bank teller and an accountant also were living at this location with two young women who may have been servants.
17. “The Chief Justice Speaks,” Winnipeg Daily Sun, 29 November 1881, p. 2. The House of Commons approved appointment of a “Select Committee” on 7 March 1881, listing Robertson as being from Hamilton. See Journals of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, v. 16, p. 355 (1 May 1882). The Attorney General used this authorization to appoint a “Commission of Inquiry” that held hearings in November and December 1881 with a final report issued on 20 December 1881. See Commission of Inquiry into the Administration of Justice as to Infant Lands and Estates, 20 December 1881, Unpublished Manitoba Sessional Papers on microfilm at the Archives of Manitoba.
18. Gerhard Ens, “Metis Lands in Manitoba,” Manitoba History, No. 5 (Spring 1983) available at www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/05/metislands.shtml (visited 3 August 2010). Robertson is incorrectly identified as T. B. Robertson and Ens refers to him as counsel of the Attorney General’s Department.
19. Report of Counsel appointed by the Hon: the Attorney General to assist the Commissioners, In Re Commission of Inquiry into Administration of Justice as to Infant Lands and Estates, p. 2 (20 December 1881).
21. File of Francis Beverley Robertson, Archives of Manitoba, Legal and Judicial History, P1318.
26. See “Spragge, John Godrey,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=5845 (visited 9 July 2010).
27. Some sources (e.g., www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/andrews_aj.shtml; Learned Friends: Reminiscences—Pitblado & Hoskin 1882-1943, p. 20, 1974) erroneously suggest Robertson’s partner was Alfred Joseph Andrews, later known as the “boy mayor” of Winnipeg (first elected in 1898). In fact, G. A. F. Andrews, partner to Robertson and Howard, was the older brother of the “boy mayor.” G. A. F. Andrews died tragically in 1890 (www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/winnipegbuildings.shtml). The Andrews brothers practised law together starting in 1886. Roy St. George Stubbs, “A. J. Andrews: Nestor of the Manitoba Bar,” Canadian Bar Review, vol. 24, pp. 183-197 (1946).
30. Letters of Colin Campbell to Minnie (28 January 1883, 2 February 1883). See also Richard A. Willie, These Legal Gentlemen: Lawyers in Manitoba: 1839-1900, p. 153, 1994. Beverley had advertised “Money to Loan” in the 7 November 1882 Winnipeg Daily Times.
31. With two sons departed, Thomas did “keep” his third son. H. H. Robertson studied law at the Ontario Law School in Toronto and was listed on the 1883 Law List. At that point he was probably working with his father, but just as a solicitor. He was called to the Ontario bar to become a barrister in 1886. This calling was timely so that H. H. could more fully participate in the practice just as his father was appointed to be judge of the High Court of Ontario, Chancery Division. Thomas was sworn in on 12 March 1887.
34. Richard A. Willie, “It is Every Man for Himself: Winnipeg Lawyers and the Law Business, 1870-1903,” in Beyond the Law: Lawyers and Business in Canada 1830 to 1930 (Carol Wilton, ed.), pp. 263-297 (Osgoode Society 1990), pages 275-76.
53. Winnipeg Free Press, 26 July 1935, p. 3, “45 years ago” (which would have been 1890—the actual date would have been 50 years ago). The previous issue noted that on 24 July 1885, Beverley took advantage of a trial postponement to take a canoe voyage with three young Winnipeggers, Messers Ewart, Brophy and Morris.
55. Bill Waiser, “The White Man Governs: The 1885 Indian Trials,” Canadian State Trials Volume III: Political Trials and Security Measures 1840-1914 (Barry White & Susan Binnie, eds. 2009), pp. 451-482.
58. “The Northwest Resistance” The Week, 10 September 1885, pp. 645-46, available at library2.usask.ca/northwest/db/html_docs/wk09_10a.html (accessed 16 July 2010).
60. Archives of Manitoba, Legal Records Newspaper Scrapbooks, 14 January 1885 – November 1886, P15.
61. Richard A. Willie, These Legal Gentlemen: Lawyers in Manitoba 1839–1900, p. 281 (Legal Research Institute of the University of Manitoba, 1994) citing letters from Colin Campbell to Minnie (19 June & 31 July 1886).
65. Archives of Manitoba, Legal Records Newspaper Scrapbooks, P1516, April 1887 - 1889.
67. Archives of Manitoba, Legal Records Newspaper Scrapbooks, P1516, April 1887 - 1889.
68. Archives of Manitoba, John C. Shultz Correspondence.
70. In 1901,William Osler wrote of Bright’s disease in his book, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, p. 877: “Among the better classes in this country chronic Bright’s disease is very common…. It is seen in men over forty who have worked hard, eaten freely, and taken alcohol to excess. They are conspicuous victims of the “strenuous life,” the incessant tension of which is felt first in the arteries.”
74. Learned Friends: Reminiscences—Pitblado & Hoskin 1882-1943, p. 20 (1974). The current-day Pitblado law firm in Winnipeg identifies Robertson as its founder. www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/business/pitblado.shtml (visited 10 August 2010).
76. Archives of Manitoba, Legal Records Newspaper Scrapbooks, April 1887 - 1889, P1516.
83. Death’s Doings: A Son of Justice Robertson Dies at Walkerville, The Evening Record, 20 December 1894, p. 2 (about two years ago, he came to Windsor), Death of Mr. F. Beverley Robertson, The Globe, 21 December 1894, p. 3 (three years), and Daily Nor’Wester, 26 December 1894, p. 1 (four years).
88. The current day Pitblado law firm in Winnipeg identifies Robertson as its founder. www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/business/pitblado.shtml (visited 10 August 2010); Learned Friends: Reminiscences –Pitblado & Hoskin 1882-1943, p. 20 (1974).
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 7 October 2019