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OWEN, LEMUEL CAMBRIDGE, businessman, shipping magnate, office holder, and politician; b. 1 Nov. 1822 in Charlottetown, eldest of the 11 children of Thomas Owen and Ann Campbell; m. 9 July 1861 Lois Welsh in Charlottetown Royalty, and they had two sons and a daughter; d. 26 Nov. 1912 in Charlottetown.
Lemuel Owen’s grandfather Arthur Owen was one of a small but influential group of immigrants to St John’s (Prince Edward) Island from the West Country of England. These men, who included the founders of a number of prominent Island families, among them the Chanters, Peakes, Yeos, and Popes, as well as the Owens, came to control much of the colony’s shipping and shipbuilding industry. Arthur Owen came from Devon about 1780, settling originally around what is now Alberton; he eventually moved to Georgetown, where in 1826 he launched for Thomas Burnard Chanter* the Bolivar, one of the largest ships built on the Island to that point. Lemuel’s father Thomas succeeded in achieving two major goals of any 19th-century Island patriarch: he sired a large family, who eagerly intermarried with other children of the élite, and he acquired an office in the 1840s, postmaster general, which provided a steady income almost until his death.
Like many others of his generation, young Lemuel was educated at private “schools” and then at Central Academy in Charlottetown. Although always associated with the shipping industry, he does not appear to have travelled widely; he was a good example of a parochial Islander throughout his life. He began his business career with James Ellis Peake in James Peake and Company, merchants and shipbuilders. Peake’s firm was perhaps the most successful of its generation on the Island. He was diversified, obtaining ships from Island builders and selling them in England, engaging in the coastal trade himself, and provisioning and outfitting vessels for others. In addition to working for Peake, young Owen opened a number of agencies for off-island merchants and manufacturers, thus serving in the 1850s as Island agent for a number of patent medicines. More important, he was Island agent for Lloyd’s of London.
The year 1860 proved critical for Lemuel Owen, for in its course both Thomas Owen and James Peake died. In April Lemuel succeeded to the postmaster-generalship, a position he retained until 1867. In this capacity he introduced a postal stamp system for the prepayment of letters and packages, regularized mail service to and from the Island, and established a system for the interchange of money orders between the Island and the United Kingdom. The death of Peake enabled Owen, in partnership with William Welsh, to carry on much of Peake’s business under the name of Welsh and Owen; the partnership was sealed by the marriage in 1861 of Lemuel to Lois Welsh, William’s youngest sister. Lemuel’s rising stature was illustrated by his selection as commanding major of the Kings County Regiment of volunteer militia in 1862.
Although Lemuel had served a term as hog reeve in Charlottetown in 1843, he did not actively enter politics until 1866, when he was elected to the House of Assembly as representative from Kings County, 3rd District. The two great issues of the time were confederation and the school question (involving the question of public grants for Catholic parochial schools). Lemuel was opposed to the first, and as a member of St Paul’s Anglican Church in Charlottetown may be assumed to have been unsympathetic to the second. As was the case with many Island politicians, Lemuel’s relatives in the legislature could be found on all sides of the issues. One of his sisters was married to David Laird, a leading anti-confederate who would turn confederate, for example, and another to Andrew Archibald Macdonald, a leading Catholic. Not a good public speaker, Owen took little part in the debates.
Re-elected in 1870, Owen became chairman of the Board of Works and a member of the Executive Council in September, when James Colledge Pope* organized a coalition government committed to leaving the school question in abeyance for four years and the question of confederation unagitated. Owen thus was a major administrator of the provisions of the increasingly unpopular Railway Act of 1871, which many critics insisted would bankrupt the colony and which were surrounded with charges of bribery and chicanery. He was also one of the organizers and a subsequent director of the Merchants Bank of Prince Edward Island in 1871. That same year he began a term as trustee of the Lunatic Asylum, and became a member of the Prince Edward Island Rifle Association. In the election of 1872 he went down to defeat with the government, which was replaced by an administration headed by Robert Poore Haythorne*, but he was returned in 1873 still opposed to confederation unless it could be proved financially advantageous to the Island.
Beginning in 1871 (if not earlier), Owen had started a diary in copies of local almanacs. Unfortunately, his entries are quite laconic, containing little but appointments and weather information, occasionally interspersed with shipping news. While the diaries indicate that he was a private man, they do not tell us much about his activities or thinking. Owen was one of those opposed to confederation whose change of mind made possible the coming to terms with Canada in May 1873, and the following month he rejoined the Executive Council in the administration of J. C. Pope.
If the diaries are singularly unrevealing about Owen’s reversal on confederation, presumably because he became convinced of its financial advantage, they are equally silent on his reaction to being chosen the Island’s first post-confederation premier in September 1873. Why he was selected is not at all clear. The best explanation is that most of the available talent of the day, including Pope, had headed off for Ottawa after the Island electors had put their seal of approval on confederation and Owen was the most acceptable figure among those who were left. As a businessman with some financial expertise, he was, of course, particularly well suited to dealing with the immediate problems produced by confederation, which included the negotiation of the assumption of the Island debt by Ottawa, the transfer of the railway to the federal government, and the final settlement of the land question, the dominion having agreed to provide a grant for the purpose of buying out large proprietors.
Owen’s government, which included Thomas Heath Haviland* as colonial secretary, Frederick de St Croix Brecken* as attorney general, and William Wilfred Sullivan as solicitor general, successfully dealt with these problems. The land question proved difficult to the end. A land purchase bill of 1874 proposed the setting up of a land commission to value the remaining estates to be acquired by the province and produced complaints about the lack of “sufficiently impartial arbitration.” The bill was reserved and another with minor revisions passed in 1875 to great rejoicing within the province. One observer would later comment, “Mr Owen’s ability as Premier was displayed in the promptitude . . . and in the smoothness and punctuality with which the public business was conducted.” By the time of the passage of the revised Land Purchase Act, however, the fate of Owen’s government had been decided. The school question had re-emerged and Owen failed to hold the Roman Catholic members of his caucus in April 1874, when a Conservative Catholic member of the house presented a motion relating to education that all sides regarded as the thin end of the wedge. The subsequent vote was along denominational rather than party lines. At the time of the crucial division, Owen’s diary commented only, “Heavy storm . . . with a good deal of snow.” The premier pre-emptorily retired before the 1876 election, which was fought over the school question and was won by the “Free Schoolers” under Louis Henry Davies*. He put his energy instead into completing Birchwood, a splendid new house with decorated veranda and panelled frieze board at what is now 35 Longworth Avenue in Charlottetown. According to one local newspaper, he had himself “arranged the plans” for the house, and his diary reported on 11 Nov. 1876, “Fine day. Moved to our new House.”
After his retirement from politics, Owen refused to take any interest in it, devoting himself instead to his rapidly declining business interests. The dearth of Owen business papers makes it difficult to flesh out the palpable sense of financial deterioration in what little correspondence does survive, mainly for the later 1880s. Contemporaries blamed Owen’s problems on the decline of the Island shipbuilding industry, and the shipping depression of the 1880s was clearly important as well, but why Owen did not shift into other ventures is not at all clear. Perhaps he was too old and too weary. He retired from business in 1892, sold Birchwood in 1895, shortly before the death of his wife, and died himself at the home of his son Lemuel Cambridge in 1912.
A surviving photograph of Owen around the time of his premiership shows a man with mutton chop whiskers and keen, piercing eyes. He was an individual who had the credentials and the opportunity to become much better remembered by posterity than he has been. The successful shepherding of the Island into confederation was undoubtedly his major public accomplishment, perhaps deserving of more attention than it has received.
Lemuel Cambridge Owen’s diaries for 1871–1900 are in the PARO (Acc. 3466, ser.71.12), along with two other collections of his papers (Acc. 2744 and Acc. 4124). Owen correspondence is also found among the Silas Pierce and Company fonds (Acc. 2567) and the Peake–Brecken fonds (Acc. 2881). There is a photograph of him in Acc. 4124.
PARO, P.E.I. Geneal. Soc. coll., reference files. Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 13 May 1843. Examiner (Charlottetown), 18 Aug. 1856; 10 April, 31 Dec. 1860; 26 Nov. 1912. Herald (Charlottetown), 19 April 1871. Islander (Charlottetown), 25 June 1852, 7 Oct. 1853. Ross’s Weekly (Charlottetown), 21 Jan., 9 June 1864. Semi-Weekly Advertiser (Charlottetown), 10 Nov. 1863. Almanac, Harvie’s P.E.I., 1871. F. W. P. Bolger, Prince Edward Island and confederation, 1863–1873 (Charlottetown, 1964). L. R. Fischer, “‘An engine, yet moderate’: James Peake, entrepreneurial behaviour and the shipping industry of nineteenth century Prince Edward Island,” in The enterprising Canadians: entrepreneurs and economic development in eastern Canada, 1820–1914, ed. L. R. Fischer and E. W. Sager (St John’s, 1979), 97–118. Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle: a fragment of the great migration (Newton Abbot, Eng., and [Toronto], 1967; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1975). Frank MacKinnon, The government of Prince Edward Island (Toronto, 1951), 296–99. A. J. MacDonald, More than a lifetime of memories: diary of Archibald John MacDonald (1833–1917), ed. H. C. MacDonald and A. M. Tomilins (n.p., n.d.; copy in PARO, Acc. 4225/1), 30. J. B. Pollard, Historical sketch of the eastern regions of New France: from the various dates of their discoveries to the fall of Louisburg, 1758; also, Prince Edward Island, military and civil ([Charlottetown], 1898). P.E.I., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1873: 49–50. I. R. Robertson, “Political realignment in pre-confederation Prince Edward Island, 1863–1870,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 15 (1985–86), no.1: 35–58; “Religion, politics, and education in Prince Edward Island from 1856 to 1877” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1968), 216–50. I. L. Rogers, Charlottetown: the life in its buildings (Charlottetown, 1983).