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The Maber Investigation

May 20, 2013

In the first decade of the 20th century public demand and political pressure for settlement of land claims within the Railway Belt of British Columbia had found no satisfactory resolution.   Some government land was still closed to settlement and other sections were in the possession of “squatters” who could not satisfy regulations to obtain title.

In the fall of 1911 a change of government in Ottawa brought a new impetus to accept claims of squatters and throw open unclaimed lots to bona fide settlers. 

On May 14,  1912 the Deputy Minister of the Interior instructed Samuel Maber, Superintendent of British Columbia Dominion Lands to proceed to this province and "deal with all unsettled cases and hear and adjudicate on claims of settlers, squatters and others to entry or patent."

Samuel Maber, born January 28, 1877, had been in the Interior department since 1908 and received his appointment as Chief of the BC Lands Branch in April 1911.

In his role as investigator,  Maber  was vested by the Cabinet with the power to  "summon before him any person; to examine such person under oath; to compel the production of papers and writing, etc."  In addition he was to prepare a revision of existing land policy and regulations. In his authority and the scope of his mandate, Maber appears to have been a one-man Royal Commission in all but name.

Of particular interest in New Westminster District, which included the Fraser Valley, were the claims of squatters at the old Langley townsite of Derby, and  the longstanding case of the Herring family at Brownsville, who had been residing here since 1860 and had long since been denied title to their property.

Map of squatter locations in Surrey - Langley - 1912   Map at left indicates the western boundary of the Railway Belt lands at Scott Road.
Upper right on Fraser River is Langley townsite.
Upper left on south bank of Fraser is Brownsville.
Dark squares are squatter claims.
Additional government land would be thrown open to homestead entry in May 1913.

Samuel Maber arrived in BC in the spring of 1912 and turned first to settlement of the Langley claims. A few farmers had been residing there on the old townsite lots which had been previously sold at the auction in November 1858.  After Colonel RC Moody moved the site of the capital downriver,  lot-holders at Langley were entitled to transfer their interests to lots in New Westminster.  Some did not,  and while the townsite was abandoned and later taken up by settlers, the lots remained the property of the first owners. Records in Victoria were consulted, and inspections were made of the properties.

Working closely with Maber were officials in New Westminster,  notably Dominion Land Agent William Duffy Magee and his assistant John A Lewis, as well as the Crown Timber Agent, EW Beckett, because some properties in the district were held by timber licensees.

Maber, Magee and Beckett were experienced, but all three were new to their positions and brought a fresh approach to sorting out claims. Magee accompanied Maber in the summer and autumn of 1912, travelling over 6,000 miles and making 469 inspections, leaving the New Westminster office in charge of Lewis.

Jason Allard - squatter - Langley townsite   Left, part of a homestead inspection at the Langley townsite of Derby, showing dwelling of Jason Allard.

In December 1912 Maber submitted his first report. Settlers at Derby were gratified to be granted homestead entries.

The Herring case would prove stickier to sort out — a complicated history involving the lands departments of British Columbia and Ottawa and the Department of Indian Affairs– and would merit its own lengthy report. 

By the end of March 1913, less than a year since Maber began his investigation, about 150 entries of squatters to 40-acre grants had been approved.

Maber instructed Magee at New Westminster to advertise a last chance for squatters to apply, before May 19, 1913 at which date unclaimed lands and surplus Dominion properties in the district would be thrown open to the public.

  1913-04-09 advert deadline for squatters claims and land thrown open for sale at New Westminster

homestead inspection - WC Jones - Township 7   Left, homestead inspection report of a typical squatter claim.
Mrs John Holt, the first in line at the land rush of May 19, 1913 would choose a lot nearby this claim of William C Jones.

It was an era when the populace was gripped with land fever.  With the province attracting more settlers each year, real estate was at the forefront of public attention. 

Agricultural land was in high demand, as Magee had reported:

  "The general prosperity of this district which has been in evidence for several years, still continues, and the present activity in railway development, which will undoubtedly largely increase the population of the coast district, has given a stimulus to the owners of the farm lands. As a result large areas are being cleared and prepared for cultivation."

WD Magee served as Dominion Land Agent in New Westminster until about 1926. He died in 1941. 

EW Beckett, Crown Timber Agent, member of a  well-known Haney family, died in 1935. 

Samuel Maber, Chief of the BC Lands branch in Ottawa, holds a very low profile locally, though he played such an important role at the time and sorted out a mess that had plagued settlers and successive governments for many years. In 1918 he was appointed to the Soldier Settlement Board.

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