TURNER, JOHN HERBERT, businessman, politician, and agent general for British Columbia; b. 7 May 1833 in Claydon, Suffolk, England, son of John Turner and Martha ———; m. 1860 Elizabeth Eilbeck (d. 1918) in Whitehaven, England, and they had one son; d. 9 Dec. 1923 in Richmond (London), England.
John Herbert Turner was educated in Whitstable, England, and came to British North America in 1856. He spent two years in Halifax before moving to Charlottetown, where he became a merchant. Moderately successful, he returned to England in 1860 to marry Elizabeth Eilbeck and then brought his wife to Prince Edward Island. News of the gold discoveries in the Cariboo district of British Columbia soon caught his attention. He decided to move to the Pacific coast, and reached Victoria in July 1862. His original plan was to travel to the goldfields and take up mining, but he abandoned the idea shortly after his arrival. Instead, he opted to take advantage of Victoria’s booming economy and became a merchant once more, entering into a brief partnership with Jacob Hunter Todd* in the Victoria Produce Market. By late October 1863 the partnership was dissolved.
In 1864 Turner established J. H. Turner and Company, an importing and millinery business, in an imposing building known as London House, on Wharf Street. The venture soon became a success. In 1871, with two London-based men, John Partridge Tunstall, who had been his agent in that city, and Henry Coppinger Beeton, he formed the partnership Turner, Beeton, and Tunstall. When Tunstall left the business in 1878, it became Turner, Beeton and Company, under which name it operated successfully for many years.
Turner played a noteworthy role in Victoria, where he was well known for his genial nature, his attractive home and garden, and his participation in numerous local organizations. Active in the militia for many years, he had helped to form the Vancouver Island Volunteers in 1863. He would retire in 1882 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 1869 the governor in council appointed him to the tariff commission, established to monitor the duties and excise of the colony. Three years later he was named as one of the trustees for the Ogden Point Cemetery, then being planned. Shortly afterwards, he was made a justice of the peace. In 1871 a group of Victoria businessmen had tried publicly to persuade him to stand in the upcoming provincial election, but he declined. By 1876, however, he had entered municipal politics. He was an alderman from 1876 to 1879 and then in 1879 he was acclaimed mayor; he served in that role until 1881, when he retired from municipal politics. While mayor, he also acted as chair of the British Columbia Benevolent Society, the Royal Jubilee Hospital, and the British Columbia Agricultural Association. He left the Pacific coast in June 1882 for an extended stay in England, during which time he represented the province at the International Fisheries Exhibition, held in London the following summer.
Turner entered provincial politics in 1886, winning election in July as one of four members representing Victoria City. Although formal party labels were not then used in British Columbia, he was associated with the governing group; under various leaders it had held power since 1883 and would remain in office until 1898. He was appointed to the cabinet on 8 Aug. 1887, becoming minister of finance and agriculture under Premier Alexander Edmund Batson Davie*. After Davie’s death two years later, he continued to hold these portfolios in the cabinets of John Robson* and Theodore Davie*. When Davie resigned in March 1895, Turner became premier. He took office on 4 March and retained the portfolios of finance and agriculture.
Opponents of the governing group bitterly criticized its fiscal management. Throughout the period that Turner was minister of finance (1887–98), the provincial budget was in deficit each year and by the time he left office the gross public debt had climbed to nearly $7,500,000, a sevenfold increase from 1886. The government’s generous grants to railway promoters were also denounced and were the reason given by David Williams Higgins* for his resignation as speaker of the house in the spring of 1898. By then, opposition newspapers were condemning what they called “Turnerism.” R. Edward Gosnell*, Turner’s secretary while he was premier, would define the term in 1921 as “favoritism, a lax civil service, extravagance in expenditure of public moneys, . . . encouragement of speculators and promoters at the expense of public assets, recklessness in railway charters and subventions, lack of definite and comprehensive policies, non-sympathy with labor aspirations, and everything else that might be chargeable against a government, which had been for a long time in power.”
Turner was also criticized for using his political position and public profile for private gain. As with other public men of his time, it is difficult to distinguish his political activities from his business interests. He had become involved in new ventures after entering provincial politics. In the late 1880s, for example, he and his brother-in-law had acquired a mining property south of Kamloops. In 1887 they formed the Nicola Mining Company Limited, a London-based company for which they acted as local representatives. Although the business initially attracted favourable publicity, by 1890 it had suspended operations. As minister of finance, Turner had extensive official dealings with the province’s London representative, who until 1895 was Beeton, his partner in Turner, Beeton and Company. His most controversial move came in the autumn of 1897, when he and Charles Edward Pooley, a member of his cabinet, agreed to serve on the advisory boards of two British-based companies, the Dawson City (Klondyke) and Dominion Trading Corporation and the Klondyke and Columbian Goldfields Limited, both of which were highly speculative enterprises. Their participation provoked polite disapproval in Britain’s financial press and bitter denunciation from British Columbia’s opposition newspapers. On 11 Dec. 1897 the Victoria Province, for example, dismissed the premier and Pooley as “mere political strumpets,” prompting Turner to sue for libel. The subsequent trial, held in January and February 1898, attracted much publicity; Turner’s failure to win was a blow to his and his government’s credibility.
The Turner administration steadily lost public support in the months leading up to the provincial election of July 1898. The premier and his colleagues could not shake the widely held view that their government was at the beck and call of powerful corporations and the willing tool of the influential Dunsmuir family [see James Dunsmuir*]. They were also criticized for their refusal to ensure equitable political representation for the mainland generally and for the growing city of Vancouver in particular. The Parliament Buildings in Victoria, designed by Francis Mawson Rattenbury* and officially opened in early 1898, were seen as a monument not only to the government’s extravagance but also to its support of the interests of Vancouver Island.
The results of the highly controversial election in July seemed to suggest a draw between government and opposition representatives, although numerous protests were launched by defeated candidates and the two-member riding of Cassiar did not go to the polls until a month after the rest of the province. Lieutenant Governor Thomas Robert McInnes nonetheless demanded Turner’s resignation. Turner refused and angrily challenged the constitutionality of the move, but ultimately had to accept defeat. He resigned on 8 August and was succeeded by Charles Augustus Semlin.
Turner’s removal from office brought to an end the Victoria-based political dynasty that had long dominated British Columbia. The defeat also reflected structural changes in the province’s economy. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 had led ultimately to the ascendancy of Vancouver over other coastal cities and by the turn of the 20th century the economic centre of gravity had shifted from Victoria to the mainland. Businesses based in central Canada gradually eclipsed the tightly knit group of Victoria merchants from whose ranks Turner had been recruited.
Turner became leader of the opposition, a post he held until June 1900, when James Dunsmuir won election as premier. Dunsmuir’s ministry was in some ways a reprise of the governing group that had held power from 1883 to 1898 and Turner returned to the cabinet on 15 June 1900 to become minister of finance and agriculture once again. By this time he was 67 and perhaps tiring of the province’s tumultuous political scene. He resigned on 3 Sept. 1901 in order to assume the post of agent general for British Columbia in England.
On 11 Feb. 1902, shortly after his arrival in London, Turner gave a paper at the Royal Colonial Institute entitled “British Columbia of to-day.” He emphasized the province’s salubrious climate, its magnificent scenery, and its abundant forest resources, before turning to boast of the many opportunities awaiting the British investor in its mines. These comments raised some eyebrows, for Turner’s involvement with speculative mining companies had not been forgotten or entirely forgiven; indeed, his appointment as agent general had generated critical comment in the London press for this reason. During the more than 15 years that he would hold this office, however, his efforts to promote British Columbia would win him respect from many quarters.
As agent general, Turner arranged for many exhibitions of the province’s agricultural produce at fairs and shows throughout Britain. In London he left a more permanent symbol of the province with the construction of British Columbia House on Lower Regent Street. Ironically, the formal opening of British Columbia House in late 1915 coincided with Turner’s removal from office, to make way for the appointment of Sir Richard McBride*, another recently retired premier. McBride died in August 1917 and Turner once again became agent general; he retired permanently in 1918. He had become a symbolic figure by this time, having taken on such honorary roles as presiding over a dinner held by Canadians in London to celebrate the appointment of Lord Beaverbrook [Aitken*] to the British cabinet, in the spring of 1918.
Six weeks after his 90th birthday, Turner participated in a commemorative tree planting at the graveside of explorer George Vancouver* in Petersham (London), not far from his retirement home in Richmond. The Native Sons of British Columbia had arranged the event, which included the participation of the Prince of Wales as well as delegates from the Vancouver Board of Trade. It was a fitting end to Turner’s long association with British Columbia; he died at home less than six months later and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
A few speeches and other documents written by John Herbert Turner while he was premier or agent general of British Columbia can be found in the CIHM Reg. “British Columbia of to-day,” an address he presented to the Royal Colonial Institute, appeared in its Proc. (London), 33 (1902): 110–31 and was also published separately in Victoria in 1902.
BCA, GR-0441; GR-1197; MS-0471; MS-0699, box 1, file 1; MS-1130. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 11 Dec. 1923. R. E. Gosnell, “Prime ministers of B.C., 10: Hon. J. H. Turner,” Vancouver Daily Province, 17 May 1921: 12. Times (London), 15 July 1898, 5 April 1918. Vancouver Daily Province, 19 Oct. 1922. J. D. Belshaw, “Provincial politics, 1871–1916,” in The Pacific province: a history of British Columbia, ed. H. J. M. Johnston (Vancouver and Toronto, 1996), 134–64. R. E. Cail, Land, man, and the law: the disposal of crown lands in British Columbia, 1871–1913 (Vancouver, 1974). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). Edith Dobie, “Some aspects of party history in British Columbia, 1871–1903,” Pacific Hist. Rev. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.), 1 (1932): 235–51. Electoral hist. of B.C. S. W. Jackman, Portraits of the premiers: an informal history of British Columbia (Sydney, B.C., 1969). E. B. Mercer, “Political groups in British Columbia, 1883–1898” (ma thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1937). W. N. Sage, “Federal parties and provincial groups in British Columbia, 1871–1903,” British Columbia Hist. Quarterly (Victoria), 12 (1948): 151–69. J. T. Saywell, “The McInnes incident in British Columbia (1897–1900), together with a brief survey of the lieutenant-governor’s constitutional position in the Dominion of Canada” (ba thesis, Univ. of B.C., 1950). G. F. G. Stanley, “A ‘constitutional crisis’ in British Columbia,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (Toronto), 21 (1955): 281–92. [J. H. Tunstall], The life & death of John Henry Tunstall: the letters, diaries & adventures of an itinerant Englishman supplemented with other documents & annotations, comp. and ed. F. W. Nolan (Albuquerque, N. Mex., ).