In Praise of Premier Bill Smithe

In its wisdom or folly the electorate in British Columbia has on three occasions selected newspaper reporters to the high office of Premier. Two were named William; both were named Smith and were distinguished in their early years by the letter “e”. One was William Smith, the other William Smithe –with an “e”. Both were immigrants to BC. The third newsman was Premier John Robson August 1889-June 1892 but that’s a story for another day.

As soon as he was old enough Bill Smith without the “e” changed his name to Amor de Cosmos – “Lover of the Universe”. In the 1800’s he owned, published and wrote for what is today known as The Times-Colonist. He served as Premier for two years from December 1872 to February 1874. Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in August 1825 he died July 4,1887, in Victoria the only Premier in BC to ever be officially declared insane.

The second Smithe stayed with William or Bill to his friends, from the day he was born in the picture perfect village of Matfen, Northumberland, in 1842. He was first elected to the Legislature in 1871, served as Premier from January 29, 1883 until he died on March 27, 1987.

Overshadowed in the history books by the flamboyant headline creator de Cosmos, Premier Smithe had arrived on Vancouver Island in 1862 with farming his chosen career path – IF a gold claim he held in the Cariboo didn’t work out. He appears to have worked the claim intermittently for two years before giving up and returning to farming full time with a stint as road commissioner in the Cowichan District in 1865 to supplement his income.

In his book Portraits of the Premier’s S.W Jackman described Smithe as “extremely personable and lively, handsome and well mannered, in sum, a most agreeable and charming young man as well as being a hard working one.” Although he doesn’t name his sources Jackman suggests Smithe “liked society – dances, picnicking and other forms of junketing….He also had a penchant for writing…” With those traditional requirements for a good reporter he began contributing to local newspapers.

His early childhood and education may well have provided the adaptable side of Smiths’s character. In the 2001 census in the UK Matfen, his village of birth, listed a population or 495. Nearby Great Whittington where he went to school boasted 401. Both are located a few kilometers north of Hadrian’s Wall, the great barrier the Romans built to keep illegal Scots out of England.

That means the sparsely populated Cowichan-Duncan area in the 1800’s would not be unfamiliar to young Smithe although he did at one point take a look at big city life in San Francisco. He stayed 18 months, worked as reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle then returned to the Duncan area and in 1871 tossed his hat in that year’s provincial election race. He topped the Cowichan poll with what today seems a laughable 58 votes – which was 29.59 percent of the votes cast in the riding.

In six following elections Smithe continued to top polls – and was twice – in 1876 and in 1883 – re-elected by acclamation.

Although a four year term as Premier doesn’t sound like tenure it was unusual in the 1800’s. One year terms were fairly standard; two years, occasional – and four remarkable especially for a young man who was not part of “the establishment” and whose first and only campaign promise made in half-a-dozen elections was that he would not pledge his support to any man. It should be remembered that it wasn’t until the 1900’s that party politics played any role in provincial politics.

Bill Smithes 16-years in office, the last four as Premier, have been acknowledged as stable and prosperous. He is credited with persuading the federal government to take over the graving dock in Esquimalt although he died before the first ship HMS Cormorant used the facility.

He did live to welcome the first passenger train from Montreal to the west coast as it pulled in to Port Moody on July 4, 1886. A month earlier the designated terminal Vancouver – for which Premier Smithe had fought for years – had been destroyed by a disastrous fire on June 13. The city was just over two months old when the Daily News reported: “Probably never since the days of Pompei and Herculaneum was a town wiped out of existence so completely and suddenly as was Vancouver…The flames spread…with amazing rapidity. The whole city was in flames less than 40 minutes after the first house was afire.”

It wasn’t until May, 1887, that a rebuilding Vancouver was able to welcome a trans-continental train. Premier Smithe was dead before it arrived.

He was in his usual seat when the Legislature convened in January of ‘87 but was too ill to continue attending regularly. He died on March 28, and was honoured with “an official funeral” which included two days lying in state before “a great hearse with four horses, velvet and crepe” carried him away, first to church for the funeral service then “the coffin was put on a train and taken to Somenos where he was interred in the Methodist burial ground.”

Bill Smith – Amor de Cosmos, 17-years older than William Smithe, died four months later in July 1887 and was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery. Jackman notes “his funeral was pitifully attended – sic transit amor de mundi”. He was probably aiming for the better known “sic transit gloria mundi” which translates “thus passeth the glory of the world.”

Jackson also wrote: “The four years the Smithe government ruled in British Columbia were prosperous and happy ones. Later in the19th century they were often referred to as the best years the province had experienced up to that time.”

Which leave me wondering why it is we remember Bill Smith, the flamboyant, eccentric, mentally unstable “Lover of the Universe” far more fondly than well spoken, calm and confident Bill Smithe with an “e”. He gave the people of BC stability in government, steadily improving economic times and remains best remembered as Bill Who?

3 comments

  1. Flamboyant politicians get noticed and then are remembered. Those who keep a steady hand on the tiller don’t attract attention; in fact we often find them boring.

    If Bill Smithe with an “e” wanted to be remembered he should have created a few crises, then come to the rescue, each time saving the day. This is what is called crisis management. Works every time!

  2. Interesting blog. We see the mountain named after Armor de Cosmos regularly as we drive in north Nanaimo good to have this background. Wonder how correct you are in saying just one insane premier but guess you are probably correct when you say he was the only one diagnosed Thanks

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