COX, WILLIAM GEORGE, magistrate, justice of the peace, gold commissioner, and artist; b. in Ireland in 1821 or 1822, son of Charles Cox; d. in California, 6 Oct. 1878.
Late in 1857 William George Cox ended a 12-year banking career in Dublin and emigrated to New York with his bride, Sophia Elizabeth Webb, whom he had married in Donnybrook, Ireland, on 6 November. When his wife returned to Ireland in August 1858, Cox proceeded to British Columbia, arriving in December. He became a constable at Fort Yale the following February; three months later he was appointed a deputy collector of customs, and then, on 26 Oct. 1860, assistant gold commissioner and justice of the peace for the Rock Creek district. He continued to perform the functions of these offices in the Cariboo mines from 1863 until 1867, and in the Columbia and Kootenay district in 1867 and 1868. He was made a county court judge in 1866, and was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1867 and 1868.
In performing his official duties Cox was a capable, if unorthodox, public servant. Governor James Douglas thought him “Peculiarly well adapted for frontier service, where tact and a resolute will are indispensable qualities in managing the rough characters met with there.” Dr Walter Butler Cheadle described him as a “Fat, tall, thick set fellow . . . delicately polite, gentlemanly and jolly.” In 1864 he distinguished himself by leading a party of men from the Cariboo to capture some Chilcotin Indians who had massacred one of Alfred Waddington’s road parties and were threatening a widespread uprising. Among the miners themselves Cox was popular. His sometimes unconventional “legal” decisions added a lighter tone to the otherwise sombre official duties; on one occasion he required the disputants over a mining claim to settle their difference by a foot race from the court house to the disputed claim; on another he assisted in the ceremony of drumming out of Rock Creek an Englishman who had been robbing the sluice boxes. Court procedures he adapted as circumstances warranted; Chinese were sworn in by chopping off a cock’s neck or breaking a plate.
But Cox had his problems. His wife, abandoned in Ireland while he enjoyed the attentions of an Indian woman, demanded support, through official channels; the reluctant Cox was obliged to comply. Governor Frederick Seymour* reported that Cox resented authority, and his glib admission that he had “omitted some entries [in an official return] through my usual carelessness” was met by the cold charge that he endeavour to perform his duties “with care and attention, and not with admitted ‘Carelessness.’”
Unfortunately his most celebrated escapade was to contribute to his undoing. During the discussion in the Legislative Council over the site of the capital of the united colonies, Cox’s neighbour, magistrate William Hayles Franklyn of Nanaimo, a supporter of New Westminster, read his opening words three times since Cox had shuffled his papers after each reading. Then, when the inebriated Franklyn laid his glasses on the desk, Cox pressed the lenses from them and poor Franklyn could not see to read his notes. Amid pandemonium a recess was called, and when the council reassembled Franklyn was prevented from making a second speech. A short time later Seymour, a strong advocate of New Westminster, abolished Cox’s position and Cox angrily refused the new office offered to him. In 1869 he moved to San Francisco where he planned to earn his living as an artist, a calling which may, indeed, have been closer to his heart. He is reported to have had little financial success.
Cox was one of several Irishmen who played prominent roles in developing British Columbia and who, at the frontiers of the colony, helped to establish the nascent communities and to secure British institutions.
PABC, Sophia E. Cox correspondence; William George Cox correspondence; John C. Haynes correspondence; British Columbia, Colonial Secretary, correspondence outward, 1859–69; British Columbia, Dispatches to Colonial Office, 1859–69. St Mary’s Church, Donnybrook, Ireland, marriage certificate of William George Cox and Sophia Elizabeth Webb (copy in PABC). Daily British Colonist (Victoria, B.C.), 13 Nov. 1878.