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Constable Robert McBeath, V.C.

Constable Robert McBeath, V.C.It was 2:30 in the morning of October 9, 1922. Constable Robert McBeath and his partner, Detective R. Quirk were walking the beat downtown on Granville at Davie, when they noticed an erratic driver.

The driver was honking and the car moved from side to side as it headed north on Granville. Constable McBeath stepped into the road and signalled for the driver to stop. When he refused, both officers jumped on the car’s running boards.

The car finally came to a stop, and McBeath escorted the driver, Fred Deal, to the patrol box, while Quirk remained with Marjorie Earl, the passenger. A loud noise alerted Quirk to McBeath’s struggle with the driver.

Detective Quirk saw the flash of a gun as he ran to help, and saw that the gun was pointed at him. When he swatted it aside, he was shot in the hand. Deal fired the gun again, hitting Quirk on the side of the head as they struggled. He fell to the ground, hearing a third shot, and Constable McBeath fell on top of him. The detective moved out from underneath McBeath and Deal fired again as he tried to make his escape. The bullet went through Detective Quirk’s coat.

Quirk rolled McBeath onto his back and fired at Deal. More shots were exchanged as he attempted to follow the shooter. His injuries prevented him from keeping up.

Both officers were rushed to St. Paul’s Hospital. McBeath died shortly after they arrived. He was 24-years-old.

Officers showing a photograph of Deal around the area were able to find out where he was hiding out. Constable Langham arrested him shortly after. He was unarmed, but an area search located the murder weapon on the landing of a billboard at Drake and Granville where it had been thrown.

Deal was charged with the murder of Constable McBeath and the attempted murder of Detective Quirk. Once convicted, he was sentenced to hang on January 26th, 1923, however, the conviction was overturned on appeal and a new trial was ordered. This time Deal was convicted of manslaughter by judge and jury, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 16 years in prison in Canada and then was deported in 1938 to a prison near his former home in Florida for the rest of his term.

Only seven years earlier, Robert McBeath was a sixteen-year-old boy living in Kinlochbervie, Scotland, with his adopted parents, Robert MacKenzie and his sister Mrs. Barbara MacIntosh. World War One had been raging for a year, and McBeath was eager to fight. He told the recruiters he was 18 and joined the Seaforth Highlanders Regiment in Scotland.

On November 20, 1917, he was a two-year war veteran, fighting with his unit in the battle of the Somme in Cambrai, France. The Seaforths took part in the first battle ever carried out with massed tanks and easily broke through German lines. The Germans counterattacked the next day and recovered all the ground they had lost. The Seaforths were pinned down by intense gunfire from several machine gun nests and suffered heavy casualties.

Lance-Corporal McBeath volunteered to attack the guns alone, armed only with a Lewis gun and revolver. He stormed the first machine gun nest, killing all the enemy soldiers. He was joined by a tank, and then attacked the other four machine gun nests in succession, silencing them as well. The remaining enemy soldiers, fearing they were under attack by a larger force, retreated from their trench into the shelter of a tunnel. The Highlander’s warrior blood was hot, as he fearlessly pursued them into the tunnel and shot the first one dead who tried to fight; the remaining three officers and thirty soldiers surrendered to him.

As a result of his heroic action, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Prior to the Seaforths going overseas, they were reviewed by the Duke of Sutherland. The Duke promised “croft land” to every man who returned, and a farm to whoever won the Victoria Cross. When Robert McBeath returned home to Sutherland he was given a hero’s welcome. The people of Sutherland treated him like a lord and presented him with a silver tea service. He renewed his love affair with Barbara MacKay, the daughter of John and Williamina Morrison MacKay. They were married in Edinburgh on February 19, 1918.

Robert was awarded a farm as promised by the duke, but it was not for him. Seeking more adventure, he sold the farm and emigrated with Barbara to Vancouver. He joined the British Columbia Provincial Police, and then several months later, the Vancouver Police Department. After his death, Barbara was homesick and moved back to Scotland. She remarried and died childless in her mid-40s as Mrs. Alec MacDonald. She is buried in Scourie, Sutherlandshire.

Constable McBeath’s funeral was one of the largest ever in Vancouver history. All stores and banks were closed. Thousands of people attended to give their respect. The funeral procession took 20 minutes to pass by the main post office. It was led by Vancouver Police Inspector George Hood on horseback and two other mounted policemen, followed by the Vancouver Police Pipe Band, then the widow Barbara in a hearse. Next was the mayor and council members, followed by 300 Masons marching four abreast, and behind them were 80 hand-picked members of the Vancouver Police Department led by Chief Constable James Anderson. The rest of the procession included 100 members of the Vancouver Fire Department came next, 12 members of the Royal Canadian Mounted police in scarlet uniform, 50 members of the Seaforth Highlanders Regiment Vancouver, a contingent from the Irish Fusiliers of Canada, and several hundred World War One veterans. As well, there were 40 members of the BC Electric Railway, 12 members of the Canadian Pacific Police, several hundred members of the Foresters, St. Andrews, and Caledonia Societies. Bringing up the rear were several hundred members of the public. As the procession passed by, heads were bared and a reverent silence befell the crowd.

At the church service, Reverend J.S. Henderson eulogized him as follows:

“Probably not since the murder of Chief MacLennan has an event so stirred the entire community with profound sorrow as the tragic event of Monday morning when in the discharge of his duty, on one of our public streets, the life of this brave young officer was taken. Many did not know him by sight, could not call him by name, but there were few hearts in homes that were not sad when the news of the event became known.”

He then described how he won the Victoria Cross:

“Upon that splendid record I need not dwell, it will find a place in the annals of the Empires deathless dead. But I would that in the solemn atmosphere of this hour we might catch a vision of his great noble spirit, the high purpose and devotion and enthusiasm with which he gave himself to his life’s mission. Canada’s greatest need is just such men. This brave young officer will not have died in vain if his tragic passing will awaken a new civic spirit in relation to our police force. A new purpose on the part of the authorities to rid this city of that herd of undesirables, who through someone’s blunder has made Vancouver it’s breeding and feeding ground.”

Thousands of people viewed the open casket at the Vancouver Police station. The entrance hall was filled with floral tributes, with two Union Jacks forming a background for the grey casket, which was draped with another Union Jack. A wreath in the form of a Victoria Cross lay at the foot of the coffin and the Masonic Insignia was placed upon it.

Chief Constable James Anderson was quoted as saying,

“Orders went out last night for a thorough clean-up of the city. We have been doing the best we can with the small force at our command, but special precautions will be taken from now on to check all people carrying firearms and all cases of immorality and drug dealing. A high-speed car with three men armed with guns in an essential part of the police equipment of any large city. In Vancouver it is all a question of getting enough money.”

The Victoria Cross is the highest medal awarded for bravery in the British and Commonwealth armed forces. The medals are made from bronze, melted down from two Russian cannons captured by the British Army in the Crimean War, during the charge of the famous “Light Brigade” in 1854. The chance of surviving a Victoria Cross act is 1 in 10.

The Vancouver Police Department christened a police boat the “McBeath” to honour his death.

Mount McBeath, in Jasper National Park in Alberta, is also named in his honour.

Robert McBeath, V.C.: police officer, Highlander, husband, son.

Robbie McBeath by Tiller's Folly


More Information

British Columbia Law Enforcement Memorial

Wikipedia

Christening of the R.G. McBeath

Cairn Dedication for Fallen Vancouver Police Officer

Kinlochbervie's memorial to Robert McBeath VC

Lyrics for Robbie McBeath
Tiller's Folly


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