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HIGGINS, DAVID WILLIAMS, journalist, politician, and author; b. 30 Nov. 1834 in Halifax, son of William B. Higgins, a merchant, and Mary Anne Williams; m. 12 March 1863 Mary Jane Pidwell (d. 1900) in Victoria; d. there 30 Nov. 1917 and was survived by two sons and two daughters.

The family of D. W. Higgins moved to the United States from Halifax when he was two, and he was educated in Brooklyn (New York City). He became an apprentice in the printing trades at age 13 and subsequently was a journeyman printer. In 1856 Higgins left New York for California. Not long after arriving in San Francisco, he helped begin a newspaper, the Morning Call. It was successful, but he sold his interest in it in 1858 and moved to what is now British Columbia. The Fraser River gold-rush was at its height, and for the next year and a half Higgins lived in Yale, where he ran a store and dabbled in mining. This eventful period provided him with much of the material that would later appear in his two books of reminiscences.

Higgins left Yale in early 1860, intending to return to California. A chance meeting with Amor De Cosmos, owner of the British Colonist (Victoria), brought an invitation to join the staff of that newspaper instead. Higgins and De Cosmos had a common background, both born in Nova Scotia and with later experiences in California. Their political views seemed congruent as well, for the two men opposed the undemocratic structure of Vancouver Island’s government. None the less, they became estranged and in the autumn of 1862 Higgins left the Colonist to start a competing newspaper, the Victoria Daily Chronicle. De Cosmos sold the Colonist the following year, but the new owners were unable to turn a profit, and in 1866 Higgins purchased it and amalgamated it with his other paper to form the Daily British Colonist and Victoria Chronicle.

As editor of the Colonist, Higgins was an indefatigable proponent of confederation; in the summer of 1868 he even travelled to Ottawa to meet personally with the federal cabinet. In 1869 he employed John Robson* as editor, and the two men worked hard to ensure that democratic reform accompanied British Columbia’s entry into the new nation. They went so far as to pay the expenses of a “People’s Delegate,” Henry E. Seelye, who accompanied Joseph William Trutch*, John Sebastian Helmcken, and Robert William Weir Carrall*, the official representatives dispatched to Ottawa in the spring of 1870 to negotiate the terms of confederation.

After Robson left the staff in 1875, Higgins resumed the editorship and held it until he sold the paper in 1886. The Colonist was the city’s foremost newspaper and through it Higgins helped to shape public opinion in Victoria. A political adversary claimed that Higgins controlled the opposition to the administration of George Anthony Walkem*. The part was one which carried its share of liabilities. Walkem brought a successful libel suit against Higgins for linking him too closely with the mismanagement of work on the Esquimalt dry dock.

Higgins was also active in municipal affairs throughout his time in Victoria. He organized the first Victoria fire department, sat on the city council, the school board, and the provincial Board of Education, and ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. A keen promoter of street railways, he led the company that secured the franchise for the city, but it proved a commercial failure as well as a personal financial burden. The call of provincial politics was too strong to resist, and in 1886 Higgins was elected to the Legislative Assembly as one of the two members for Esquimalt. In January 1890 he became speaker.

In his more than eight years in the speaker’s chair Higgins was associated with the various ministries which held power, a group without any clear party affiliation and with little ideological consistency other than a commitment to economic development. Toward the end of this period, however, he began to distance himself from the government, and in a dramatic gesture he resigned the speakership in March 1898. The reason is unclear, although several of his erstwhile colleagues suggested thwarted political ambition. In defence of his actions Higgins attacked the government’s policies of deficit financing and generous subsidies to railways. “The interests of the Province demanded that the present oligarchy and reign of syndicates be put down,” he insisted. Although he was returned in the provincial election of 1898, he played no significant role in the new ministry, and following an electoral defeat in 1900 he left politics altogether.

Higgins then embarked upon a career as an author, writing two volumes of somewhat fictionalized reminiscences, The mystic spring and other tales of western life (Toronto, 1904) and The passing of a race and more tales of western life (Toronto, 1905). These books were well received: one influential journal declared, “Mr. Higgins has done for Victoria and British Columbia what Bret Harte did for the Western United States mining districts.” A New York publishing house printed a revised edition of The mystic spring in 1908, and shortly before his death in 1917 Higgins attended a screening of a film based on one of his stories. He contributed a chapter on politics to R. Edward Gosnell*’s A history o[f] British Columbia (n.p., 1906). He also continued to write articles for the press and in 1906–7 was editor of the Vancouver Daily World. For a short period he resided at Port Angeles in Washington State, where he had earlier made some substantial investments, and he was appointed British consul there in 1916. In his last year his health failed and he returned to Victoria.

Higgins had been a member of a small but influential group of men who became prominent in colonial affairs in the 1860s and who subsequently exercised considerable political power in the province. Although not as clearly remembered as De Cosmos and Robson, like them he was an important journalist and advocate of confederation. He was less notable as a politician, but a Toronto magazine remarked that years after his resignation “many people still call him from force of habit Mr. Speaker Higgins.” His longevity as well as his literary work assured Higgins of a special place in the minds of many, and when he died the Daily Colonist observed that “his death signifies the passing of the race of British Columbia pioneers.”

Jeremy Mouat

Daily Colonist (Victoria), 10 March, 12, 15 Nov. 1898; 1 Dec. 1917. Victoria Daily Times, 11–12 Nov. 1898; 5 May, 30 Nov. 1917. B.C., Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1899: xxxi–lix. British Columbia & confederation, ed. W. G. Shelton (Victoria, 1967). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1893, no.10c (British Columbia fishery commission, report) [includes a minority report by Higgins, pp.431–33]. R. E. Gosnell, The story of confederation, with postscript on Quebec situation ([Victoria, 1918]) [includes excerpts from Higgins’s 1868 diary]. In the Supreme Court of British Columbia, on appeal to the full court; between the Honorable George Anthony Walkem, plaintiff, and David Williams Higgins, defendant . . . (Victoria, 1887). In the Supreme Court of Canada, on appeal from the Supreme Court of British Columbia; between David Williams Higgins (defendant) appellant, and the Honorable George Anthony Walkem (plaintiff) respondent . . . (Victoria, 1887). D. V. Parker, No horsecars in paradise: a history of the street railways and public utilities in Victoria, British Columbia, before 1897 (Vancouver, 1981). George Woodcock, Amor De Cosmos, journalist and reformer (Toronto, 1975).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jeremy Mouat, “HIGGINS, DAVID WILLIAMS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/higgins_david_williams_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/higgins_david_williams_14E.html
Author of Article: Jeremy Mouat
Title of Article: HIGGINS, DAVID WILLIAMS
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 24, 2014