ROBERT BICKERDIKE*
1843-1928

From: "The Storied Province of Quebec Past and Present"
Ed. Col. William Wood, Dominion Publishing Company, Limited, Toronto 1931


In many different fields of Canadian Life, Robert Bickerdike was for many years a leader, bit it was notably in the realm of humanitarian enterprise that he was an outstanding worker. A capitalist, financier, and parliamentarian, he was active in all these different branches of Canadian affairs; and during his life, the better part of which was spent in Montreal, he held seats in both the Provincial and Federal Parliaments, guided the business interests of two banks,was a member of the board of directors of many companies, and was a builder of the Canadian cattle export trade, having been known throughout the Dominion as the “Cattle King”. He will long be remembered for his work in the parliamentary bodies in which he served, in opposing capital punishment and urging the necessity of prison reform. A man of broad human interests and many philanthropies, eager to support the best and worthiest projects in public life, and kindly and generous in personal relationships, Mr. Bickerdike occupied a place of distinction in his city and province, and well deserved the respect and affection that were his.

He came of one of the oldest county families of  England, a family of ancient Norman descent, originally De Bicker (Bicre), which had been given grants of land and and settled in Yorkshire at the end of the eleventh century. This house was almost wiped out in the Wars of  the Roses, one of his ancestors, Sir Nicolas de Bickerdike, having particularly distinguished himself himself in these wars and being knighted by the Duke of York on the field of Honour.

Another of his ancestors, Robert Bickerdike, of Low Hall, York, was executed at York in 1586 because he persisted in attending mass when the Parliament of Queen Elizabeth had made it a treasonable offence. Low Hall and its lands were attainted to the crown and the attainder was never removed, the main branch of this family having always remained strict adherents of the Roman Church. Judge Rhodes, who condemned him, was an ancestor of the Hon. E.N. Rhodes, Premier of Nova Scotia at the time of Mister Bickerdike’s death. When Mr. Bickerdike and Mr. Rhodes were colleagues in the Canadian House of Commons, they often twitted one another about that ancestral event. This ancestor was known in the family history as “Robert the Martyr”, and from that day to this the eldest son of every branch of this old family is called Robert. 
(Malcolm Paterson’s note: It pains me to add that this honourable tradition has not been adhered to in the recent family lines from which I descend. Either someone forgot to tell them, or perhaps my grandfather decided and old-world traditions were best left behind. I should take this opportunity to say that the Robert Bickerdike who is the subject of this essay was my maternal grandfather’s uncle.
These Roberts are found fighting in most of the subsequent battles in which England was ever engaged, one of them having been captain of a ship at the Battle of Trafalgar, and another having fought at Waterloo. Three of these Roberts fought in the Great War, two of them having gallantly given their lives for King and country. The third, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Bickerdike, D.S.O., Mr. Bickerdike’s eldest son, though severely wounded, survived, and was twice mentioned in dispatches. Mr. Bickerdike’s father, the late Thomas Bickerdike, thirteenth child and youngest son of one of the branches of the family came to the old colony of Canada in the reign of George III and bought a piece of land at St. Louis near Montreal, where he decided to locate. (Malcolm’s note: It was very close to the end of the reign of George III, about 1820. The St. Louis in question was St. Louis de Gonzaque in the Chateauguay Valley.) He married Miss Agnes Forster Cowan, a sister of  Dr. John Cowan, the noted surgeon and author, whose estate adjoined his.

Robert Bickerdike, of whom this is primarily a record, was born at Kingston, on August 17, 1843 and received his his education in the public schools of the county. He came to Montreal as a young man and started the exportation of cattle to England.He was the first to see the possibilities in exporting cattle to the Mother Country from the Canadian ranches and he became the largest exporter from the Dominion.At one time he served as Presedent of the Board of Trade, and in 1897 was acting chairman of the Harbour Commissioners, on which he served for a number of years. Bickerdike Pier in Montreal Harbour is a lasting Monument to his zeal and enterprise in building up the great harbour. Later he turned from the live stock business to insurance, becoming a director of the Canada Life Assurance Company, the Western Assurance Company, the British American Assurance Company, the Imperial Guarantee and Accident Assurance Company. His intimate knowledge of current affairs brought him into close contact with financial organizations and he was elected vice-president of  Hochelaga and later of the BanqueInternationale du Canada.

Although he was a member of an old Tory family, he was a life-long Liberal in his political conviction. He was elected a member of the Quebec Provincial Legislature in 1897, winning victory in the St. Antoine Division, Montreal, an old Conservative stronghold which had never before been carried by a liberal. During his service in the Legislature, he put into effect the Montreal City Bill for widening of streets and relieving of congested traffic conditions. In 1900, he was elected to the House of Commons for the St. Lawrence-St. George Division, Montreal, by a large majority; and he sat for this division continually for seventeen years. His previous membership in the Provincial Legislature of Quebec had lasted for three years, from 1897 to 1900. Through all these years he ever manifested great zeal in sponsoring all measures for social reform, and always supporting policies of broad humanitarianism, notable among which was his advocacy of prison reform and the abolition of capital punishment. A fluent linguist, he was as much at home among the French Canadians as among the English, and his political speeches in French districts were always clearly delivered in the French language. Mr. Bickerdike had an inborn hatred of capital punishment. His speeches in the House on this subject were earnest and thoughtful, and he spent the best years of his life in writing and lecturing on this subject, and in endeavouring to influence public opinion. In 1916 he became the founder and president of the old National Prison Reform Association, which, in 1919, was merged with the Honour League of Canada under the name of the Canadian Prisoners’ Welfare Association, of which he was honourary president at the time of his death. This association, in addition to carrying on propoganda against capital punishment, has done wonderful work in caring for the prisoners’ families and in securing employment, particularly for short-term offenders, after their release. His work in this connection was not only a hobby with Mr. Bickerdike, but part of his religion, and scores of unfortunates will revere his memory as long as they live. While Mr. Bickerdike did not live long enough to see the scaffold abolished, he saw the establishment of an organization which stands for the study and for the improvement of that part of the community in which he was particularly interested.His work and example will go down in the traditions of the association in which he was a pioneer spirit. Never at any time did he seek honours for himself. Mr Bickerdike’s views were so strongon the subject of capital punishment that he frequently declared that no minister could consistently advocate carrying out of the death sentence. While some people supported their case by general humanitarian arguments and expressions towards the progress of the race, Mr Bickerdike contended that hanging was contrary to the teachings of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures. In general benevolence, too, Mr. Bickerdike was always well known for his readiness to help. He gave constantly to individuals, and into his office there often filed old men and women who sought doles as if such gifts were regularly to be expected; and they went out with something in their hands in almost every instance. In his home town of Lachine he had an understanding with the vicar of his parish that no one was to go hungry.

 In many other phases of social welfare work, Mr. Bickerdike was also a leader. He was vigourous in his support of hospital activities and was a Governor of  Royal Victoria Hospital, the Montreal General Hospital and the Western Hospital, and was for a time president of the last-named of these. He was also interested in education, having been a member of the Protestant Committee of Public Instruction for the Province of Quebec; and he was ever the chapion of popular primary education, declaring that proportionally public funds were given too liberally to universities and higher education in comparison with the public schools. On this committee he served until ill health caused his retirement. He was also a member of the National Battle Fields Commission, and in this capacity acted as one of the hosts to the Prince of Wales on his visit to Canada in 1919. In 1899, the Montreal Board of Trade, which he served as president, entertained him at a public banquet in recognition of his services at Quebec in connection with the Montreal City Bill.

His own business activities were extensive, entirely aside from those fields in which he was a noted leader, and included: the Life Stock Insurance Company, which he founded; the Standard Light and Power Company, of which he was also the founder; the Union Marine Company; the Montreal, London Gold and Silver Development Company; the British American Bank Note Company; the Smith Marble and Construction Company; the Marconi Wireless Company, of which he was for many years president; La Compagnie de Publique du Canada; the Montreal and Great Lakes Steamship Company, of which he was also president for some years; the Canadian Transit Company; the Canadian Lloyds; and the Underwriters Association and Montreal Industrial Exhibition Association, of which he was vice-president. He was one of the founders of the Canadian Numismatic and Antiquarian Society, an institution that preserved for posterity many valuable relics of the old régime in Canada. He was one of the principle advocates for a monument that was erected to the late Hon. George Young; and was president of the committee appointed to carry it to completion.

Mr Bickerdike was always a staunch supporter of the Liberal Party, and was said by the Ottawa “Citizen” to be “universally acclaimed one of  the pillars” of  this party. He was a lifelong  friend and supported of  Sir Wilfred Laurier, and it was only during the war period that he parted company with his old chief on the issue of conscription. In parliament, as already noted, he had distinguished himself by instituting a bill for the abolition of capital punishment.

Robert Bickerdike married in 1866, Helen Thomson Reid, daughter of the late James Reid of Aberdeen, and a cousin of  Bishop Strachan, of  Toronto. Mrs. Bickerdike predeceased her husband in 1907, and they were survived by three sons and six daughters.

The death of Mr. Bickerdike occurred on December 28, 1928, at “Elmcroft”, Lachine, his country seat near Montreal. With his passing there not only disappeared from Canadian life a man who had been successful in the life stock and insurance business, but who was a lover of live, especially of outdoor recreations, like hunting and fishing,, as well as of the cultural branches of human activity, such as art and music. A citizen of sterling worth, he was earnest and straightforward in every respect, devoted to the best interests of his fellowmen and a lover of human kind. He was especially fond of travel and spent not a little time in studying the manners and customs of other people. Public and private charities found in him a generous and unobtrusive giver, and his benefactions helped many individuals. He was especially eager to aid aspiring young men, and many leaders in government circles and in the judiciary of Canada have Mr. Bickerdike to thank for their first advancement. Numerous tributes were paid to him on the sad occasion of his passing, but oustanding among these was the resolution passed by the Council of the Montreal Board of Trade, which follows:
 

Resolved,—That the council of the Montreal Board of Trade records its regret at the passing of Mr. Robert Bickerdike, who died full of years and honour on 28th December, 1928; That from the date of his joining the board in 1887, Mr. Bickerdike never failed in interest in its affairs, his service as member of council in 1891 and 1892 and as president in 1896 calling for special acknowledgment; That Mr. Bickerdike’s long and busy life covered extensive public activities in many forms, notable some seventeen years of service in the House of Commons, where he won for himself an enviable reputation for political wisdom and for a broad humanitarianism which was shown particularly by his unceasing advocacy of prison reform and the abolition of the death penalty; That the council extends to the members of the family its sincere sympathy in their bereavement.

Also of interest was the editorial comment of a Montreal paper:
 

Robert Bickerdike belonged to a generation of merchant-financiers who had much to do with the progressive development which raised the City of Montreal to its present proud position as the Metropolis of Canada. He was in the front rank of the builders, interesting himself always in public affairs, and cheerfully assuming whatever responsibilities comported with the high sense of citizenship which actuated him throughout his adult life. He came of sturdy English stock, (Malcolm's note: I’m not making this stuff up, folks; that’s really what it says!
and was a Canadian of the finest type, proud of his city and province, proud of the Dominion, tolerant, charitable, hopeful in his disposition and broad in his vision. Born in the city of Kingston, he came to Montreal as a young man and identified himself with the commerce of the port, rising through his own efforts to a position of influence and honour, not only in commerce, but in the public life of the community also. For many years a dominant figure in the cattle-shipping trade of this Dominion, he became actively interested in shipping conditions generally, in marine insurance and his interests extended to general insurance and banking as ability in these fields came more and more into recognition.

A man of many philanthropies, Mr. Bickerdike was particularly devoted to the cause of prison reform and was an ardent and consistent opponent of capital punishment, speaking and writing upon this subject with vigour and conviction. He was generous in his support of hospital work and of educational measures and was a directing force in these activities for many years. He sat in the Quebec Legislature and later in the House of Commons, where he was an earnest and zealous advocate of reform measures. A strong Liberal and a personal friend of Sir Wilfred Laurier, he was able, upon occasion, to put party considerations aside if larger issues were involved; this indeed, was the key to his character, his convictions being in all circumstances the guide to his actions. There have not been too many in public life of whom that could be said.

He spent the best part of his life working for the abolition of capital punishment; but he died with his work unfinished. He was ahead of his time and public opinion has not yet become educated up to that point. But eventually it will come as civilization progresses, and he will go down in history as one of the great pioneers of  this cause. He never sought honours for himself; but for his war services in connection with the Canadian Remount Depot, situated on his place at Lachine, he was offered a knighthood by his sovereign.
But, before the next honours list, the Canadian Parliament had passed the law prohibiting the accepting of titles by Canadians from their sovereign, and the knighthood was never conferred.


See also : his son, Robert Bickerdike Jr.

*Researching Robert Bickerdike.............Malcolm Paterson (great great nephew)


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