Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
ROBERTSON, ALEXANDER ROCKE, lawyer, judge, and politician; b. 12 May 1841 in Chatham, Canada West, second son of Alexander Rocke Robertson and Effie Eberts; m. in 1868 in Chatham his cousin Margaret Bruce Eberts, and they had seven sons; d. 1 Dec. 1881 in Victoria, B.C.
Alexander Rocke Robertson’s grandfather, who served for 30 years with the East India Company in Bengal, and his father were both graduates of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; probably in the 1830s, his father immigrated to Chatham. Robertson attended the Caradoc Academy in Middlesex County. A precocious student, at the age of 16 he entered the law offices of Alexander D. McLean in Chatham where he completed articling before he was of age to write his final examination. To fill out the time before he could take it he spent a term in the office of Albert Prince. Admitted to the bar in 1863, Robertson went into partnership with Samuel Smith Macdonell in Windsor.
Perhaps encouraged by his uncle, John Waddell, who had immigrated to British Columbia in 1862, Robertson left Canada West for Vancouver Island at the end of March 1864. Travelling the Panama route with his aunt and cousin, he arrived in Victoria on 14 May 1864. He found, however, that the bar of Vancouver Island was open only to lawyers of British training and therefore closed to Canadian barristers. For a short time Robertson worked as editor of one of Victoria’s newspapers, the Daily Chronicle. Displaying a keen mind and a breadth of reading, he wrote a series of penetrating editorials critical of the insularity of the local legal fraternity. Meanwhile George Anthony Walkem*, another Canadian lawyer, managed to break the British monopoly in the mainland colony by petitioning Governor James Douglas* and the imperial authorities. When Island legislation to admit colonial lawyers on the same footing as those of British training stalled in Victoria, an impatient Robertson moved to New Westminster in November 1864, and was immediately admitted to the bar of British Columbia. The following February, after appropriate legislation had finally been enacted, he was also admitted to the bar of Vancouver Island.
Robertson rapidly established a reputation as an outstanding advocate. From 1865 to 1867 he acted regularly both for the crown and as a defence attorney at sessions of the assize court held at Barkerville, even though in 1866 he moved his residence to Victoria upon the union of the two colonies. After the young lawyer’s first case in New Westminster, even the sceptical chief justice, Matthew Baillie Begbie*, complimented him on his able and successful defence of an Indian charged with murder. Robertson attended the founding meeting of the Law Society of British Columbia on 22 July 1869, and became one of the original, and more active, benchers of the society. Hard working and erudite, Robertson gained a public reputation through his early professional success. In 1867, at two meetings to discuss the moving of the capital to Victoria and the union of British Columbia with Canada, he had spoken impressively in favour of both proposals. Though the latter cause met pockets of stern resistance among the colonial élite, Robertson, with his Upper Canadian origins, continued to be a staunch supporter of the link with the new Canada.
Robertson began his political career in 1870 when he served one term as mayor of Victoria. After Governor Anthony Musgrave steered the colony through the shoals of opposition to confederation, Robertson, the object of a virtual draft by his constituents, topped the poll in Esquimalt in the 1871 election of the first provincial Legislative Assembly. The premier, John Foster McCreight*, selected Robertson as provincial secretary. Though his cabinet post, like McCreight’s administration, lasted only a year, Robertson produced one major legislative landmark. Working with John Jessop*, the first superintendent of schools, he drafted the Public Schools Act of 1872, which, drawing heavily on Ontario’s experience and legislation, maintained the non-sectarian, public system established in British Columbia’s colonial era. A great believer in extending public support to the high school level and beyond, Robertson, when in opposition during 1873 and 1874, presented two resolutions in the assembly proposing the establishment of a provincial university.
Robertson served only one term in the legislature. Even during his year as minister he had continued to practise law, and he declined to stand again in 1875 despite pressure. In 1876 he acted as law agent for the dominion government, and in March 1880, along with McCreight and Walkem, represented the crown in the celebrated trial of Allan McLean, his brothers, and Alex Hare.
In November 1880 Robertson accepted appointment to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and took up residence in Kamloops. However, during the summer of 1881, he injured his knee while swimming and remained lame throughout the autumn. In November four doctors in Victoria attended the amputation of his leg. Robertson never recovered from the operation.
Though his obituary referred to Robertson as a man of “quiet and retiring habits,” perhaps in deference to his modest and serious approach to the rough and tumble of frontier politics, he was known by his friends and family for his liveliness and humour, and for the delight he took in singing and music. A man of many sides, who acted for years as superintendent of the Sunday School of the Anglican St John’s Church in Victoria, Robertson won the respect of his professional peers and of the wider community. The son of a medical family, Robertson began another family tradition, for two sons and a grandson were to follow him on the bench in British Columbia.
PABC, B.C., Colonial secretary, Corr. inward, ff.142f, 1816; H. B. Robertson, “Alexander Rocke Robertson.” Cariboo Sentinel, 4 July 1867. Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 16 Feb. 1865; 8 Jan., 19 March 1867; 28 Oct. 1871; 1 Dec. 1880; 3 Nov., 2 Dec. 1881; 30 Dec. 1882. Victoria Daily Chronicle, 27 Aug. 1864. F. H. Johnson, A history of public education in British Columbia (Vancouver, 1964), 44, 74; John Jessop: goldseeker and educator; founder of the British Columbia school system (Vancouver, 1971), 77, 80, 168. Alfred Watts, “The Honourable Mr. Justice Alexander Rocke Robertson, Justice, Supreme Court of British Columbia, 1880–1881,” Advocate (Vancouver), 25 (1967): 142–43.