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CARTER-COTTON, FRANCIS LOVETT, newspaperman, politician, and businessman; b. 11 Oct. 1843 in Shoreditch (London), England, son of Francis Cotton and Martha Ann Garrison; m. c. 1869 Maria Emily Little (d. 1937), and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 20 Nov. 1919 in Vancouver.

A very private man, Francis Carter-Cotton left almost no record of his youth or family, and no explanation of the change he made in his surname. Perhaps he chose to conceal his somewhat humble beginnings. His birth certificate shows that he was born plain Francis Lovett Cotton in Shoreditch in East Central London, at 90 High Street where his father carried on business as a pawnbroker. In his Vancouver years he was described as “scholarly” and “well-read in the English classics,” and he was known for the breadth and maturity of his editorial judgement. These qualities suggest that he had received a good education. The rest of the information on his early life is speculative – he is said to have “had some experience in the diplomatic service” and to have travelled in India before coming to North America.

His story becomes clearer from the mid 1870s when, as a young traveller in the American west, he decided to stop for a period at Fort Collins (Colo.). Here he made some money before returning to England. The lure of the west proved irresistible, however, and he went back to Fort Collins. According to a later account in the Denver Times, he undertook the construction of an irrigation canal, organized a cattle company, and acquired “control of some 10,000 acres of land.” He also “had contracts with the Union Pacific [Railroad] for lands belonging to the company in Wyoming.” He borrowed heavily to finance his canal and land investments, and when the price of cattle fell so did his business empire. Pursued by creditors in November 1886, he made a dramatic escape by locking them inside his office and “jumping on the Denver train just as it was leaving the station.” Creditors who were owed about $300,000 hired a detective agency to find him, but after being spotted in Kansas City, Mo., he disappeared. He resurfaced several months later in British Columbia.

Phoenix-like, Carter-Cotton emerged from the ruins of one career to construct another in the public life of British Columbia. At the end of March 1887 he and a Scottish financier, Robert William Gordon, bought two struggling newspapers in the infant city of Vancouver and amalgamated them into the Daily News-Advertiser. Its editor from 1887 to 1910, Carter-Cotton used the paper to launch his political career. He would sit in the provincial legislature from 1890 to 1916, with a one-term hiatus at the turn of the century.

In his capacity as editorial writer and politician Carter-Cotton presented a point of view that could be described as oppositionist. What he opposed was the blatant use of government power by British Columbia’s leading businessmen to enhance their material interests through privileged access to provincial resources. He stood against “the enrichment of a few” and for the idea that every man should “receive a fair share of his toil,” believing that labour was the source of all wealth and that employers and workers were united as creators of wealth. His rejection of class privilege allied him with working people and against “monopolists,” as did his desire to promote the public ownership of utilities and railways. As he would state in the News-Advertiser during a heated debate in 1894 over the granting of street-railway franchises for downtown streets: “Is the City to own and control its streets or are they to be under the control of private individuals and corporations? Are they to be utilized for the general advantage and convenience of the community or are they to be under the control of private parties?” At the same time he shared with other middle-class reformers a desire to make government more efficient. This he would do by reducing the power of elected officials, eliminating wards, and giving greater control to experts and managers. Over time his respect for experts and his opposition to class-specific labels in politics would lessen the support he received from working-class voters and participants in the labour movement.

Reformers in Vancouver first came together under the leadership of Carter-Cotton in the local elections of December 1889 when they challenged Mayor David Oppenheimer*’s control of the municipal administration. This civic group developed into a stronger political force during the provincial election of June 1890 when, again led by Carter-Cotton, they defined themselves as sympathetic to workingmen and opposed to the business-led provincial government. Supported by people of middling status, such as smaller businessmen, clerical workers, and skilled tradesmen, Carter-Cotton topped the polls in Vancouver and took one of the city’s two seats. The other went to his principal opponent, James Welton Home, a prominent real-estate and street-railway entrepreneur who ran as an independent but backed the provincial government. The following December oppositionists under Carter-Cotton captured every city council seat but one, that of Mayor Oppenheimer. The reformers triumphed again in the provincial contest of 1894 when a loose grouping of oppositionists swept all three Vancouver seats. One of the winners, carpenter Robert Macpherson, was the candidate of the Nationalist party, which supported all the oppositionists. A chapter of the Nationalist party, a proto-socialist group inspired by Edward Bellamy of Looking backward, 2000–1887 fame, had recently been started in Vancouver by the Reverend George Ritchie Maxwell* to represent the interests of wage-earners in the upcoming federal election.

The provincial significance of Carter-Cotton’s politics is to be found in the realm of political culture. He and others in the legislature challenged assumptions shared by the majority, assumptions about the need to promote economic development by granting public resources to private companies, especially land to railways. The historian Margaret Ormsby has called these giveaways “The Great Potlatch,” and criticism of them by pro-labour oppositionists would eventually bring down the government of John Herbert Turner* in 1898.

Carter-Cotton’s contribution to political culture also extended to its organizational structure. Political parties in the 19th century were not so closely knit as 20th-century parties were to become, although successive governments under five premiers had a stable majority in the provincial legislature for the 15 years up to 1898. The period 1898–1903 was one of change. It would see the emergence of more disciplined parties, symbolized by the adoption of federal party labels in 1903. Subsequently, party ties would be formed before elections, not after, and party nomination became in general a prerequisite for electoral success.

By helping to give more definition to the opposition, Carter-Cotton assisted in paving the way for the changes of 1903. In October 1893 he had gone to Victoria to create a more organized opposition by encouraging Robert Beaven, a former premier and a leading opponent of the administration of Theodore Davie*, to join him in an anti-government coalition. The attempt foundered on the shoals of Victoria-Vancouver competition: in the previous session of the legislature, Victoria mlas like Beaven had voted, successfully, to construct new parliament buildings in the provincial capital; Carter-Cotton, a member of the Mainland Association who supported a fairer distribution of provincial ridings between Vancouver Island and the mainland, had voted against them. But a mainland opposition grouping calling itself the Provincial party did emerge the following year under the leadership of Charles Augustus Semlin*, an mla from the interior. This seems to have been the first of many attempts by those who rejected the anticipated divisiveness of federal-style parties to substitute pan-British Columbia political organizations. The concept presumably appealed to Carter-Cotton, who had promoted just such a coalition in Vancouver civic politics.

After the provincial election of 1898 factions headed by Carter-Cotton and Joseph Martin* joined the Semlin group to form the Semlin-Cotton government, with Semlin as premier. From August 1898 to February 1900 Carter-Cotton served as minister of finance and, for most of the same period, as chief commissioner of lands and works. True to its reformist and pro-labour roots, the new government ended the granting of land bonuses to railway promoters and amended the Inspection of Metalliferous Mines Act of 1897 by limiting work in hardrock mines to eight hours a day, down from ten. The “foolish 8 hour day,” as Vancouver entrepreneur Henry Ogle Bell-Irving* labelled it, created a great deal of anxiety within the provincial business community and ignited a seven-month strike over wages in the silver mines of the Slocan valley. The government of 1898–1900 stands out in provincial political history because it set a new direction in public affairs, one less animated than its predecessors by the interests of leading businessmen and large property holders.

The instability of the Semlin-Cotton government resulted in part from an intense personal rivalry between its two strongest members, Carter-Cotton and Martin. When Martin, the attorney general, attacked his own cabinet colleagues in the summer of 1899, Semlin had no choice but to dismiss him. The government, left weakened and vulnerable, was defeated by a vote in the assembly on 23 Feb. 1900. Martin, an irascible, erratic, and partisan member of the federal Liberal party, was then asked by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Robert McInnes – a one-time federal Liberal mp and senator – to form a new administration. This he did, running as premier in the election that followed in June.

Carter-Cotton assumed the leadership of the Semlin-Cotton group, which entered the fray under the Provincial party label. He campaigned for labour men such as John D. Dixon in North Nanaimo, articulating support for working people, strident opposition to Asian immigration, and belief in the principle of state-owned railways. However, the increasingly class-conscious working people of Vancouver undermined his usual support by voting for labour candidates and for Martin, who also presented himself as a friend of the workman. Although eight members running under the Provincial party banner were elected, Carter-Cotton was decisively defeated. Consequently, he was out of the legislature during the following three years when a young upstart from New Westminster, Richard McBride, succeeded in reorganizing provincial politics along federal party lines and seizing the premiership as a provincial Conservative in June 1903. Carter-Cotton’s political career never recovered from the chaos of this period.

When Carter-Cotton returned to the legislature later in 1903, he was no longer a major political figure. Running under McBride’s Conservative party label, he had not again faced the voters of Vancouver, but had been elected for the constituency of Richmond, a curious riding that completely surrounded the city. Senior enough to require recognition, he could not be ignored by McBride, but he was not wanted in the government either. In June 1904 he was given the essentially honorary (and unpaid) position of president of the Executive Council. He held this cabinet post until 1910 when his growing business commitments led him to resign from the government and sell the News-Advertiser.

Carter-Cotton’s declining political fortunes may have resulted from the channelling of reform and pro-labour thinking into new parties of the left. They included the Vancouver Labour party, formed in 1900 by the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council, the short-lived Provincial Progressive party of 1902 [see Christopher Foley*], and the provincial Liberal party. Carter-Cotton was a federal Conservative, and when party government came to British Columbia his philosophical leanings to the left were in tension with his party affiliation. Nevertheless, on social issues he was much more progressive than McBride. The premier recognized this fact when, in February 1910, he designated Carter-Cotton to lead the defence of an important piece of reform legislation that created juvenile courts in British Columbia.

Carter-Cotton may also have been the victim of an important change in the tone of provincial politics. Journalist James Morton has argued that Carter-Cotton, whose “British reserve gave him a reputation for coldness” – his colleagues nicknamed him Confucius – was “not magnetic enough for leadership.” As the Victoria Daily Colonist noted in an editorial of March 1916, after he had announced that he would not run in the upcoming provincial election, Carter-Cotton’s “retiring disposition deprived him of much of the great personal popularity that might otherwise have been his. He has never exhibited the arts of the demagogue.” Such qualities were becoming more essential as the community-based and intensely personal character of Euro-Canadian society in British Columbia, which Carter-Cotton had found so congenial, gave way to a growing and increasingly complex society more to the liking of the young and charismatic McBride.

In his approach to newspaper publishing, where he rejected innovation, Carter-Cotton also presented himself as a man of the 19th century. A former employee observed that, under his management, the News-Advertiser “never became what is popularly known as an up-to-date newspaper.” Its editor could not “discriminate between what was important and what was valueless,” presenting instead long, detailed reports of city council meetings or legislative sessions, with accuracy and completeness the goal. Unlike his rivals at the Vancouver Daily Province and the Vancouver Daily World, Carter-Cotton resisted the creation of departments that specialized in such topics as sports or issues affecting women. But he did gain wide respect for his editorials, which he wrote “in a polished and vigorous style modelled on that of the English essayists.” The World once described Carter-Cotton as “the best editorial writer in British Columbia.”

His prestige as an editorialist may have “stood high to the last,” as Morton put it, but his reputation as a businessman did not. Although newspaper publishing and politics preoccupied him in the 1890s, he served as a director of at least three Vancouver-based companies at the beginning of the decade and joined the board of the Union Steamship Company of British Columbia Limited at the end. His business interests quickened in the 1900s and became his primary concern during the pre-war boom. The man who had written extensively against speculative capitalism became involved in two of the riskiest investment areas – trust companies and real estate. He constructed an impressive office building in Vancouver’s downtown core, invested in land in North and West Vancouver, and became president of the French-backed Franco-Canadian Trust Company. A charter-member of the Vancouver Board of Trade, he served as its president in 1913–14. He was also named first chairman of the Vancouver Harbour Commissioners, a position he held from 1913 until just before his death. Another harbour interest, the Burrard Inlet Tunnel and Bridge Company, is more telling, however. Clearly tied to his north shore land investments, this venture was highly speculative, and dependent on a federal subsidy. It failed, as did Carter-Cotton’s other investments, victims of the crash that ended Vancouver’s pre-war boom. Estate records show that his real estate was heavily mortgaged, and his trust company worthless. His debts exceeded his assets by more than $150,000. The one investment that retained its value was a small biweekly newspaper, the North Shore Press (North Vancouver), that he had purchased after selling the News-Advertiser.

Carter-Cotton had never participated much in Vancouver’s social rituals, though he belonged to the élite Vancouver Club and was a first-class horseman. He was very English in his manner and outlook and a staunch imperialist. His passion, apart from politics and publishing, was education. He became a trustee for the Vancouver Library Board soon after arriving on the west coast and was a member of the Free Library Board in 1892. He served as president of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning and also of McGill University College of British Columbia, which he endowed with a chair of mathematics. He had the honour of being elected the first chancellor of the University of British Columbia, a position he gained in 1912 by defeating another distinguished candidate, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper*.

He retained the chancellorship until his death, which came two months after he was found lying face down along the shore of False Creek, with the tide washing over him. Rumours suggested that he had attempted suicide, but a more likely explanation is that this frail individual, then in his mid seventies, had been seized by a spell of dizziness and fallen. An Anglican, he was buried in Mountain View Cemetery after a funeral from Christ Church Cathedral. He was remembered as a man “clothed with old-world courtesy,” whose writing and speeches never degenerated into vulgar abuse or personal vituperation. By bearing and style he was also an intellectual and a gentleman in a province where politicians tended increasingly to be measured by the rough-hewn standards of practical men. Carter-Cotton’s political career illuminates important changes in the political culture of turn-of-the century British Columbia.

Robert A. J. McDonald and H. Keith Ralston

BCARS, GR 1415, file 1919/6572. B.C., Attorney General, Registrar General (Victoria), Company registration files, file 713 (1910) (mfm. at BCARS); Ministry of Health (Victoria), Vital statistics, death registration, no.3698 (1937) (mfm. at BCARS). Canadian Pacific Arch. (Montreal), T. G. Shaughnessy papers, file 92558 (4 April 1910). City of Vancouver Arch., Add. mss ( (Bell-Irving family papers), vol.83, 12 July 1899. General Register Office (London), Reg. of births, Shoreditch (Middlesex), 11 Oct. 1843. NA, MG 26, G: 161311–18; MG 29, D61. Daily Colonist (Victoria), 24 March 1916, 21 Nov. 1919. Daily News-Advertiser (Vancouver), 1887–1910. Denver Times (Denver, Colo.), 11 July 1894, item on Carter-Cotton, repr. in Vancouver Daily Province, 16 Feb. 1900. Independent (Vancouver), 19 May 1900. James Morton, “The sphinx of B.C. politics,” Daily Colonist (Victoria), 6 Jan. 1952, magazine: 11. Vancouver Daily Province, 5 Feb. 1910, 21 Nov. 1919. Vancouver Daily World, 21 Nov. 1919. Victoria Daily Times, 21 Nov. 1919. H. J. Boam, British Columbia: its history, people, commerce, industry and resources, ed. A. G. Brown (London, 1912), 458. B.C. Executive Council appointments (Bennett and Verspoor). Electoral hist. of B.C. S. W. Jackman, Portraits of the premiers: an informal history of British Columbia (Sidney, B.C., 1969). Bessie Lamb, “From ‘Tickler’ to ‘Telegram’: notes on early Vancouver newspapers,” British Columbia Hist. Quarterly (Victoria), 9 (1945): 175–99. D. A. McGregor, “Adventures of Vancouver newspapers, 1892–1926,” British Columbia Hist. Quarterly, 10 (1946): 89–142. Martin Robin, The rush for spoils: the company province, 1871–1933 (Toronto, 1972). Scholefield and Howay, British Columbia.

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Cite This Article

Robert A. J. McDonald and H. Keith Ralston, “CARTER-COTTON, FRANCIS LOVETT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carter_cotton_francis_lovett_14E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carter_cotton_francis_lovett_14E.html
Author of Article:   Robert A. J. McDonald and H. Keith Ralston
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   April 16, 2024