PYKE, GEORGE, lawyer, office holder, politician, and judge; b. 19 Jan. 1775 in Halifax, son of John George Pyke* and Elizabeth D. Allan; m. 10 May 1809 Eliza Tremain, and they had three sons and three daughters; d. 3 Feb. 1851 in Pointe-à-Cavagnal (Hudson), Lower Canada.
Little is known about George Pyke’s early years in Nova Scotia, except that from 1787 he prepared for a legal career by studying under Richard John Uniacke*. Probably some time after 1794 he left Nova Scotia for Quebec, where he was called to the bar on 6 Dec. 1796. He seems to have successfully integrated himself into society there and probably benefited from the support of James Monk*, chief justice of the Court of King’s Bench at Montreal, and of Monk’s family. He knew how to advance himself in government circles, for in 1799 he obtained the position of deputy surveyor general of land for Lower Canada.
From then on Pyke was, as it were, adopted by the government; he held a variety of offices in the public service without a break until 1820, including those of deputy clerk of the crown in 1800; protonotary, with Joseph-François Perrault*, of the Court of King’s Bench at Quebec, and clerk of the Court of King’s Bench from 1802 to 1812; advocate general of the province in 1812 in succession to Olivier Perrault*; law clerk of the Legislative Council from 1816 to 1819, and interim Vice-Admiralty judge in 1816; acting judge of the Court of King’s Bench at Montreal from 1 June 1818 to 1820 in the absence of judge Isaac Ogden*, whom he replaced permanently on 1 May 1820. The various posts Pyke obtained at the outset of his career were not unrelated to the political patronage quite natural to the age, a favouritism accepted by those profiting from it and coveted by those excluded. His political ideas ensured that he would be a loyal subject of the crown in the House of Assembly, where he represented the constituency of Gaspé from 1804 to 1814.
Pyke’s appointment to the bench did not remove him completely from politics. As a judge of the Court of King’s Bench at Montreal from 1820 to 1842, he was called upon to hear several political cases directly connected with the rise of the Patriotes and the insurrections of 1837–38. Two of them have been of interest to historians. The first arose from an article by Ludger Duvernay published in La Minerve in 1836. Charged with libel for the third time since 1828, Duvernay was tried before Pyke, who denounced the newspaper’s insinuations as likely to sully the reputations of jurors as well as the good name of justice itself. Proclaiming his own clemency, Pyke at the same time imposed upon Duvernay a fine and a month in prison, a sentence that only enhanced the convicted man’s status with the Patriotes.
The other trial, more dramatic in its implications, took place from 3 to 10 Sept. 1839. François Jalbert, a militia captain from Saint-Denis on the Richelieu, had been in jail for two years on a charge of having murdered Lieutenant George Weir in 1837 when Weir was a prisoner of the Patriotes [see Charles-Elzéar Mondelet*]. The jury included eight French Canadians and four English Canadians, of whom only two were British in origin. Judges Pyke, Samuel Gale*, and Jean-Roch Rolland* heard the case in an emotion-charged court-room. After several days of waiting, the excited audience heard the verdict: by ten to two, the jurors found Jalbert not guilty. The crowd jumped up in fury; the judges and jurors barely managed to make their escape. The heroes in the room, the two British jurors who alone had favoured a conviction, were borne out on the shoulders of those loyal to the régime.
Immersed as he was in the events of his time, Pyke obviously did not lose his personal interest in politics. Although he said he was “not much of a politician,” in the period 1839–50 he aired his views on the changing political scene at length to various correspondents. His political creed does not seem to have changed: he professed an unswerving faith in the power of the British empire and considered it in the colonies’ interest to remain dependent on Britain. That is why, in his opinion, the real danger came primarily from the reformers who were seeking responsible government, and from the weakness of the governor and his executive in following a policy of political appeasement.
The upheavals that shook the province did not leave the administration of justice unscathed. The courts were overwhelmed with work, and also suffered from various dismissals, deaths, and suspensions within the judiciary. Consequently, during the reorganization of the judicial system between 1839 and 1842, Pyke had to shoulder heavy responsibilities. To the detriment of his already failing health, he was obliged to carry out the duties of both puisne judge and chief justice, the latter without either the title or the salary of the office. His confrères, Gale and Rolland, complained as much as he did, but none of them dared press Governor Sir John Colborne* to fill the vacancies and appoint a chief justice.
Sir Charles Bagot*, who served as governor from January 1842, undertook to resolve the problem. Despite the judges’ good will, there was increasingly insistent criticism, from which Pyke was not immune. Although the members of the bar at Montreal acknowledged that he had great qualities, in March they complained that “age, infirmities and poor health made it impossible for [Pyke] to attend to the duties of his office.” In the spring, without consulting him, the governor asked him to resign. Embittered, Pyke ended his career on 1 July, believing that he would thereby enable Bagot to accomplish his plans for the peace and prosperity of the Canadas. He refrained from any action except to seek recognition for the work he had done as de facto chief justice, in order to obtain a more generous pension.
Pyke then went into retirement on his vast estate at Pointe-à-Cavagnal, where he was able to attend to his most troublesome concerns: his business affairs and his health. Pyke’s children, about whom there is little information, seem to have done well and to have given him little cause for anxiety: one son became a lawyer, another a doctor, the third a pastor; his daughters, as he did, lived eminently respectable lives. His business activities, on the other hand, claimed more of his attention. The purchase of about 10,000 acres in the Eastern Townships around 1820, the acquisition of an immense estate at Pointe-à-Cavagnal, and other transactions, both for himself and his children, had entailed financial obligations that he could not always meet.
These worries notwithstanding, George Pyke enjoyed a tranquil retirement in the country, for despite frail health he lived to be 76. Shortly before he died, his intimate friend, Paul-Loup Archambault, parish priest of Vaudreuil, wrote urging him, albeit without success, to convert to Roman Catholicism. He exhorted him to rise above the combats, obstacles, and agitations besetting his “noble heart,” for “in the sight of eternity all must fall, all must vanish, all must disappear.” Pyke was interred in the Anglican parish of Vaudreuil.
George Pyke is the author of Cases argued and determined in the Court of King’s Bench for the district of Quebec in the province of Lower-Canada, in Hilary term, in the fiftieth year of the reign of George III (Montreal, 1811), the first collection of judicial decisions published in Lower Canada, consisting of 16 civil and commercial cases heard in the Court of King’s Bench at Quebec in February 1816. The cases were reported in the format being used in England, giving summaries of the pleadings of counsel and lengthy reports of the judgements of all the judges who drafted notes.
Letters from Judge Pyke to various people about his business affairs, career, and political opinions are at ASQ, Fonds Viger–Verreau, cartons 79, 80, 81, where there is also a collection of the cases on which he ruled from 1818 to 1841 (Fonds Viger–Verreau, Sér.O, 0189–96). The collection Baby (P 58, U) at the AUM contains some ten letters by Pyke written between 1815 and 1839, while the Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal is the principal repository for the Pyke papers, 1797–1850 (mfm. at PAC, MG 23, GIII, 25, D).
ANQ-M, CE1-67, 6 févr. 1851. PANS, MG 1, 926: 104; MG 100, 211: 41. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 5 March 1775. Doc. relatifs à l’hist. constitutionnelle, 1791–1818 (Doughty et McArthur), 516–21, 525; 1819–1828 (Doughty et Story; 1935), 241–85. F.-J. Audet, “Les législateurs du Bas-Canada.” P.-G. Roy, Les juges de la prov. de Québec. Buchanan, Bench and bar of L.C. David, Patriotes.