ANYONE who takes the trouble to glance through the pages of that worthy volume, the Encyclopaedia, will notice that the art of printing from movable type was introduced into Europe about the middle of the 15th century. Germany claims the distinction of being a-pioneer where printing is concerned, and throe German craftsmen are accredited the honor of having taken the art into France—Paris—for the press of the Sorbonne. Not long after the Parisian innovation, some forty other towns established printing plants of their own, and amongst these was Pau, where one of the first printers and booksellers is chronicled as being Pierre Desbarats.
The Desbarats linked their fortunes permanently to the printing press, as they are printers even to this day. For generations, in France, they were King’s printers and only very recently, as history goes, was that title relinquished by them there and also in Canada.
In the interesting reign of Louis XIV., one of the family, Isaac Charles, received an added appointment. He was invited into the Etats Generaux and offered a title —Seigneur de Labarthe-Buisson— the only stipulation being that he should forego the selling of paper and lead pencils!
In 1774 Joseph Desbarats crossed the Atlantic and established himself in Quebec. In 1800 he was appointed King’s Printer, which appointment was held by his son and his grandson. The latter moved to Ottawa in 1864 when the seat of Government was fixed and built the handsome residence which afterward became the home of Sir Sanford Fleming and which is now the Sanford Fleming Convalescent Home. It was set in the wilderness, the last house save one in the neighbourhood, and the all-day journey from effete Quebec to this outpost of civilization presented terrors which, in the mind of Madame Desbarats, have scarcely dimmed to this day.
In a very short time, however, the family was comfortably settled and the Desbarats home became the scene of some of the most brilliant assemblies attended in the capital. During one of these fashionable gatherings the printing plant, situated at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets, was set on fire and completely destroyed. The events leading up to this piece of incendiarism are not uninteresting.
Mr. D’Arcy Magee, who had incurred the enmity of a band of Fenian Irishmen, was shot down and instantly killed one night as he returned from the House of Commons. This cold-blooded murder occurred at his very door—which happened to be a side entrance to the Desbarats plant, a portion of which building was given over to bachelor quarters. A number of Mr. Magee’s friends received permission from the King’s Printer to erect a tablet marking the spot upon which Mr.
Magee fell, and this memorial was in nowise acceptable to the opposing faction. They made sundry threats to tear it down and destroy it.
For some time a watch was kept, but gradually vigilance was relaxed and excitement regarding it, cooled down. On the night of the Desbarats’ fancy dress ball, however, the threat was made good; the tablet was destroyed and incidentally the entire plant.
Eye-witnesses describe the dramatic scene. Groups of revellers thronging the broad stairway as they passed to the supper tables; the hostess chatting gaily to some bewigged grandee—a workman pushing his way amongst velvet-coated courtiers, brushing past queens and princesses without apology in his haste to reach Madame Desbarats. Catching sight of him, she enquired the reason for his presence.
“Your plant is on fire,” he shouted and rushed out again.
Instantly supper was forgotten. Vikings and peasants, kings and beggars, Moors and Zulus leapt into cabs or ran into town to help fight the fury of the flames. But without success. Nothing was saved.
JUST about that time, the Government decided upon a new policy, and instead of giving out contracts as heretofore, a King’s Printer was appointed on a salary. This post was offered Mr. Desbarats, but he declined it. He felt that he could do better as an independent printer and left the capital for Montreal, where his business still lives. For him, though, it did not exactly flourish. His artistic ideal-
ism, his extravagant love of the beautiful, led him into financial pitfalls, of which his “Picturesque Canada” was one. He practically lost his fortune and died a broken-hearted man, while still in his
His son, George, Junior, left the traditional vocation to his brothers and sounded an original note. After going through Terrebonne College, he graduated with honors and won the Gold Medal at the Montreal Polytechnic School at the age of eighteen. Construction work on the Carillon Canal was his first experience as a full-fledged engineer.
That destiny which shapes our ends required that he should write a report of the work and this fell k into the hands of the Deputy Min-
I ister of Railways and Canals, at
Ottawa. Its comprehensiveness, its accuracy, its brevity, caught and held his attention.
“Whoever that man is,” he said, “I must have him in my office. See that he is brought to Ottawa.”
So George Desbarats, a mere lad, returned to the place he had left as a child, under conditions almost as favorable as his father could have wished.
But his life did not run with monotonous smoothness. The Curran Bridge scandal thrust an element of turmoil into it. While at work on the bridge, the young engineer became aware that a stupendous system of graft was being carried on without check. There were padded pay rolls, doctored contracts —all sorts of clever devices to defraud the Government. His disapproval was too frank and fearless to be safe, so he was removed by a discreet department and given a berth in the most remote section of the Dominion—British Columbia. But the Liberals, then in Opposition, demanded that he make frequent trips to Ottawa in order that he might give evidence and thus enliven what otherwise might have been a dull session.
Naturally, rogues and rascals viewed him with considerable uneasiness and perhaps covert dislike, but his rigid honesty won him the trust and confidence of his superiors and he was given the post of Chief Inspector of Railways in British Columbia. At that time the C.P.R. was reconstructing some of its lines for the Government, and this branch of work also came under Mr. Desbarats’ supervision.
For four years his life was just about as picturesque as the brain of a Jack London could conjure. Inspecting and a palace Pullman car, were not in those days synonymous. The railway lines, built to facilitate the transportation of gold and silver ore, led into small min'ing towns—often merely a collection of tents, a third of which were saloons. “There were sounds of revelry by night,” as the poet so aptly expresses it.
Returning to Ottawa, two positions were simultaneously offered Mr. Desbarats, one by the Hon. A. G. Blair and the
other by the Montreal contractors, Larkin & Sangster.
That level-headedness and far-sightedness which is so characteristic of him, prompted á refusal of the Government offer. True, it was safe and sure, and it would be quite a simple matter to muddle along for the rest of his life, an atomic part of the great system, on a small salary as “something in the Government.” But George Desbarats was not that sort of a man. He saw that the work under Larkin & Sangster would add immeasurably to his experience and fit him for— well, he did not know what.
It kept him busy for three years at Iroquois, where he learned a good deal about lock building. Then from Ottawa came another offer, one with more individuality, if one may use such a word. The Hon. Mr. Tarte asked Mr. Desbarats to take charge of the Hydrographic Survey on the Upper St. Lawrence. From there he went to the Lower St. Lawrence where the work had been going badly, to speak with consideration. As a result of his excellent system, his unfailing thoroughness and the order he brought out of chaos, Mr. Desbarats was given a much more important position — that of Director of Government Shipyards, at Sorel.
HE might have been there yet, had the administration of the Department of Marine and Fisheries pleased everybody. Instead of this, people became very much annoyed with certain members of it, and the Cassiis Investigation Commission required that a change be made in the heads of the department. Considering the circumstances, the fact that Mr. Desbarats was asked to act as Deputy Minister means more than appears on the surface.
It is rather humorous to recall the condolences and regrets which were forced upon the wife of the acting Deputy, because her husband’s post was not permanent There lurked in the minds of a considerable number of people the idea that as soon as public confidence was restored, Mr. Desbarats would be removed and the old regime would thrive as merrily as before. “The appointment is a political one.” said they, “and nothing can alter that”
But something did! The big shipping interests took a hand and demanded that the Government appoint a practical man; politics, they declared in effect, would not run that department, so Mr. Desbarats, the practical man, became a real Deputy in 1909.
In 1910 when, after conferences with the British Government and the Admiralty, the Laurier Government decided to adopt a naval policy and build a Canadian navy, a new department was created. This was designated as the Naval Service Department and to Mr. Desbarats belongs the credit of building it up to its present splendid systematic usefulness. It comprised originally the hydrographic survey, the tidal current survey, radiotelegraphy, and the navy. A little later fishery protection and the life-saving stations came under its supervision.
The difficulties of organizing a new department with an administrative staff composed of men without any previous experience in departmental work were not exactly slight. The overworked deputy did everybody’s work—taught this one, and explained to that one—a less poiseful and capable person would have ended in Brockville. But his training in four
departments, his varied practical experience and his actual working knowledge of all branches of his work, helped enormously. In an amazingly short time the Naval Service Department was running as smoothly as though it had been established in Sir John Macdonald’s day.
A word just here about the wireless part of it may prove interesting. This work, now so much a necessity, so well organized that it is accepted as any other public utility, sprung out of what might be called a fluke. Marconi, early in the nineties, after his rather limited successes in Great Britain, came out to Newfoundland and tried to interest the people in his experiments there. He failed and came to Canada, extracting from the Laurier Government the sum of eighty thousand dollars, which he used to establish a station at Glace Bay. That was about the biggest investment Canada ever made! Under the terms of the contract our Dominion enjoys the privilege of using ail the Marconi devices without paymentCanada is in this sense the most privileged nation in the world. Further, her system of coast wireless stations extends continuously fiom Belle Isle to Port Arthur and the Pacific Coast is also covered. No other country can boast of a 2,000-mile system.
UNDER Mr. Desbarats’ supervision this magnificent achievement has been accomplished, and this feat alone would make him notable. But there are other stars to his crown. He became internationally prominent in 1912 when he went to London to the International Radiotelegraphy Conference, as plenipotentiary delegate for Canada. He received a commission from the King which empowered him to sign a convention for Canada—as a Canadian representative, and not as a part of the British Empire. In other words, Mr. Desbarats, for the first time in history, promised on behalf of Great Britain that Canada would do thus and so; the previous custom had
prevailed whereby a delegate promised that a colony would abide by the decision made by the Mother Country. The mighty seal and accompanying document, signed by His Majesty George R.I., remain a picturesque souvenir in the Desbarats home of one of the most unique occurrences in our latter-day political history.
Like many modest and unassuming men, Mr. Desbarats impresses one more and more favorably as acquaintance grows. He combines a fine old courtliness and chivalry with abundant humor, none the less keen because it is quiet His bon mots are so frequent that one takes them, like the wireless, as a matter of course, and forgets to record them.
Once when renting a house from a very portly gentleman, his wife asked, “How long did Mr. Blank live here?” And he answered with a twinkle in his eye, “1 don’t think he lived here long at all; he lived here wide.”
There are those who assert that he is at his best in the office; others protest he is at his best in his home. He goes scarcely anywhere else. But while he is in no sense a social man, he is a charming guest who gives the impression of being neither engrossed nor abstracted nor of wishing he had not come.
He speaks without a trace of accent, having learned French and English at the same time. His mother tongue “is
Not the least of his achievements was his marriage with Lilian, youngest daughter of the late Sir Richard Scott He takes inordinate pride in four half-grown Desbarats, the eldest of whom bears a strong resemblance to her famous cousin. Margaret Anglin.
And finally, as though it were a matter of no particular moment, we might mention the C.M.G. which was conferred upon Mr. Desbarats in 1915. There was but one criticism regarding it There were those who felt the honor might have been even higher!
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