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SPENCE, FRANCIS STEPHENS, teacher, journalist, prohibitionist, and politician; b. 29 March 1850 in Donegal (Republic of Ireland), third son of Jacob Spence, a Methodist minister, and Elizabeth Stephens; m. 1 July 1879 Sara Violet Norris in Eglinton (Toronto), and they had two daughters; d. 8 March 1917 in Toronto.

One of 12 children, Frank Spence came to Upper Canada with his parents in 1861 and the family settled in Toronto. Jacob Spence, who had been involved in Ireland in the abstinence movement led by Father Theobald Mathew, immediately took up temperance work in Toronto and would become secretary of the Ontario Temperance and Prohibitory League. An ardent crusader, he spoke from platforms across Ontario, towing his children in his wake to rouse temperance sentiment. He also operated a printing-press in his home to turn out pamphlets, a task for which the children were conscripted as printers and writers. The message of these temperance pamphlets – that material and moral progress were two sides of the same coin – would become a guiding principle for both Frank and his younger brother Benjamin H.

After attending Toronto Normal School, Spence taught near Lundy’s Lane (Niagara Falls), in Prescott, and in Toronto, where he rose to become a headmaster. But his childhood commitment to reform and his experience in publishing led him to leave teaching in 1883 to take on the editorship of the Canada Citizen and Temperance Herald, a task he performed for six years. As well, between 1884 and 1889 he managed its parent firm, the Citizen Publishing Company of Toronto Limited. Spence later edited other prohibition journals, including the Camp Fire, the Vanguard, and the Ontario Good Templar, and in 1902 he founded the Pioneer, which would become the official organ of the temperance movement in Ontario in 1904.

Having identified himself as a reformer, Spence was attracted to the Liberal party, in which he played an active role both federally and provincially. However, it was only in the city politics of Toronto that he campaigned for office. A member of the public school board in 1887–88 and a vigorous opponent of Sunday streetcars as early as 1893, he first ran for an aldermanic seat in 1894. He served as an alderman in 1896–97, 1899–1900, 1902–5, and 1914; as acting mayor in 1911; as a controller in 1904–5, 1908, 1910–11, and 1915; and as chairman of the Toronto Harbour Trust in 1904–11 and a board member in 1911–14 of the Toronto Harbour Commissioners, which he had been instrumental in creating. He ran for mayor twice, in 1905 and 1911, but lost both times, in part because of his announced determination to reduce liquor licences in Toronto, even in defiance of public opinion. Spence also held executive positions in both the Ontario Municipal Association – he was a vice-president in 1910–11 – and the Union of American Municipalities.

As a municipal politician and administrator, Spence was in the reformist mainstream. He favoured female suffrage (his mother had been a prominent suffragist) and was sympathetic to unions and public ownership of hydroelectric power. Indeed, he has been credited with being one of five key figures in the founding of Ontario Hydro [see Sir Adam Beck*]. He also supported the playground movement, and was an advocate of city planning, especially in the development of Toronto Harbour. All of these reforms were, in his view, bound together as elements of a compound of material and moral or spiritual progress. Spence had the twin faiths characteristic of many reformers of his day, faith in reason and faith in God. Their union was reflected in his writings and speeches, which were marked by evangelical righteousness – enemies would call it self-righteousness – hammered home with the reason of efficiency backed by statistics. Speaking to the Canadian Club in 1908 on the subject of Toronto’s street railways, he linked public ownership, efficient operation, the prevention of graft, and moral development. “The city highways ought to be controlled by the city council,” he maintained. “There is a social cohesiveness in the co-operation of a community . . . for the common good. When the man is working for the community he is working for himself. It is thus we attain the ideal. Ours becomes a better city. Ours is a truer Christianity.” The crucial requirement for both material and moral progress, however, was the destruction of the liquor traffic, and it was to this requirement that Spence devoted most of his life.

The Dominion Alliance for the Total Suppression of the Liquor Traffic, with branches in every province, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union [see Letitia Creighton*] were the major voices of temperance sentiment in Canada. Spence had become secretary (and sole full-time worker) of the Alliance’s Ontario branch in 1884 and, by 1891, of the national body as well. In these positions, from which he would dominate the Alliance until 1907, Spence was the chief organizer and strategist for the prohibition campaign. Yet his political affiliations, to the Ontario Liberals in particular, caused difficulty for both him and the movement. Though publicly more sympathetic to prohibition than the Conservatives, the Liberal government of Oliver Mowat* was slow to produce legislation. When in 1893 Conservative mla George Frederick Marter* introduced a bill to bar the retail sale of liquor in Ontario, a bill which Spence and other prohibitionists supported, the government substituted for it a measure requiring a court ruling on provincial jurisdiction in the matter. Spence, a gradualist in reform, was prepared to accept piecemeal legislation and to work within the Liberal party to achieve it. Less patient activists, the so-called Advanced Prohibitionists, wanted full prohibition immediately and were increasingly distrustful of the Liberals’ plodding pace. Their distrust was heightened by the provincial plebiscite on prohibition held by Mowat’s government in 1894; they had wanted a prohibition law without such a referendum. Spence, however, persuaded the Ontario branch of the Dominion Alliance to participate in the plebiscite and he was named secretary-general of its campaign. Prohibitionists won the vote, but the hostility of the Advanced Prohibitionists proved justified when Mowat deferred legislation, again pleading uncertainty over his constitutional powers.

Prohibitionists had also been active at the federal level. Spence met frequently with government leaders to demand national prohibition. The Conservative government responded in 1892 by appointing a royal commission to investigate the liquor traffic. Though Spence regarded it, correctly, as a delaying tactic, he agreed to act for the Dominion Alliance as its representative during the hearings. Most of the commissioners were opposed to prohibition, a sentiment reflected in their report, which was presented in 1895. It argued against prohibition, advocating instead more stringent controls on the sale of alcohol. Spence, feeling that the report ignored substantial testimony in favour of prohibition, published a response to it in The facts of the case: a summary of the most important evidence and argument used in the report of the royal commission on the liquor traffic (Toronto, 1896).

In 1893 Spence had been a delegate to the convention of the federal Liberal party, where he pressed for the adoption of prohibition in its platform. However, he grudgingly accepted a motion calling for a national plebiscite on the question, reasoning, again from his gradualist position, that a plebiscite was better than nothing. The Dominion Alliance supported him in this decision and named him its secretary-general for the national campaign. Held in 1898, the plebiscite resulted in another victory for prohibition. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier nevertheless declined to act on it since prohibitionists, though holding a majority among those voting, had only a minority of the full electorate and had suffered a defeat in Quebec. Disappointed and bitter over Quebec’s response, but not yet disenchanted with the Liberal party, Spence turned his attention once again to the provincial scene.

In 1899 George William Ross, a member of the Sons of Temperance and a vice-president of the Alliance’s Ontario branch, became Liberal premier of Ontario. In what seemed a vindication of Spence’s faith in the Liberals, a bill was passed in March 1902 that provided for prohibition. However, conditions were added: the bill had to be ratified in a referendum and ratification would require 214,000 votes in favour (representing a majority of the votes cast in the provincial general election of 1898).

Advanced Prohibitionists in the Ontario branch, led by the Reverend Samuel Dwight Chown*, staged a revolt over this requirement. They organized the Union Prohibition Committee (later the Temperance Legislation League) to run candidates in opposition to the Liberals in the provincial election of May 1902, before the referendum. Spence and the Alliance were able to defuse this revolt by permitting the prohibitionists in each riding to determine which candidate deserved their support and “whether or not it is desirable to bring out an independent candidate.” In the event, six such candidates ran but all were defeated. Third party movements would never again be a serious problem for Spence.

Prohibitionists carried the referendum in December, but they fell some 14,000 votes short of meeting Ross’s requirement, a shortfall Ross used to excuse his government from further action. The convention of the Ontario branch in 1903 stripped him of his vice-presidency, and Spence, at last, abandoned partisan politics to concentrate on winning prohibition gradually by fighting campaigns against the retail sale of liquor within municipal jurisdictions. These campaigns for local option gave the Ontario branch considerable political experience, but the financial cost was high. To meet it Spence induced Protestant clergymen to surrender their pulpits to branch speakers for at least one Sunday each year, with the collection to go to the branch. By 1911 proceeds from these “Field Days” had enabled it to build up a head-office staff of as many as 10 organizers and 30 clerical workers.

This local-option policy brought considerable success to the Ontario branch, with much of the province, especially the rural areas, voting to prohibit retail sales. An added gain was that the Conservatives, who defeated Ross in 1905, enforced liquor laws more effectively than had the Liberals and were cooperative in gradually restricting the issue of liquor licences [see Sir James Pliny Whitney].

In January 1907 Spence stepped down as secretary of the Ontario branch to be succeeded by his brother the Reverend Ben Spence. He was made honorary president of the branch, though his energies were far from being drained. He retained the managing editorship of the Pioneer and continued, in city council, to fight for a reduced number of liquor licences. In 1912 the Alliance’s Dominion Council elected him president and asked him to visit all the provinces “to strengthen the cause,” a job that would necessitate much travel.

When Spence had resigned in 1907, his gradualist strategy was making progress, with the prohibition movement seemingly freed from the Liberal party and the Ontario branch well staffed and funded. This situation, however, soon changed dramatically. By 1910 it was clear that most of those districts which had not adopted local option never would. Any further advance would have to come about through a provincial prohibition law. The Conservatives refused to act but the opposition Liberals, led by Newton Wesley Rowell* from 1911, came close with a policy of abolishing bars. By the provincial election of 1914, a combination of prohibitionist need and Liberal promise had effectively brought the Ontario branch back into the Liberal camp. Spence had taken the branch far in organization and funding, but, in terms of strategy, 1914 found it back at the impasse of 1894.

The stalemate was broken in 1915 when the campaign for prohibition gained enormous momentum as part of the war effort in Ontario. The movement of the Conservative government of William Howard Hearst* towards the enactment of prohibition in 1916 was strengthened in 1915 by a resolution of the Ontario branch, presented by Spence in March, and by the formation in October of the bipartisan Citizens’ Committee of One Hundred. Spence was not a member of this committee, possibly because of his resumption of work as a city controller and perhaps because his years of strong partisanship made him a liability. He was active, however, at the federal level, where a similar bipartisan approach was initiated in the form of the Dominion Prohibition Committee, organized in Ottawa in December 1916. Its “guiding spirit,” Spence prepared its manifesto and was part of the deputation that met with Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden* in January.

Frank Spence died suddenly of pneumonia at his Toronto home in March 1917, just as his life’s-work was about to be completed. All provinces but Quebec had adopted provincial prohibition, and federal prohibition was imminent, thanks in part to prohibitionist support for the Union government formed later in 1917. Though the movement departed from Spence’s strategy, in its focus on bipartisan committees, the organizational base from which it worked had been built largely by Spence. Luckily, he was spared knowing that most of his achievement would soon vanish as one province after another opted for government control and sale of liquor.

Graeme Decarie

In addition to his work as a journalist, Francis S. Spence wrote or compiled a number of booklets and pamphlets, including Shorter hours: an important public question ([Toronto, 1899]); several editions of The campaign manual for prohibition workers (Toronto, 1902, 1909, 1912; a 1915 supplement to the 1912 edition was also issued, n.p., [1915]); Canada (Toronto, [1912?]); Ontario local option handbook (Toronto, [1912]); and The street railway situation in Toronto, Canada (Minneapolis, Minn., [191-?]). The 1893 issues of one of his periodicals, Vanguard: a Journal of Moral Reform (Toronto), are available in a bound volume at the AO and in several Canadian library collections. His 1896 summary of the evidence and arguments presented to the royal commission on the liquor traffic, The facts of the case . . . , has been reprinted (Toronto, 1973), and a 1908 address delivered to the Canadian Club of Toronto, “Some suggestions as to Toronto Street Railway problems,” is reproduced in Saving the Canadian city: the first phase, 1850–1920 . . . , ed. Paul Rutherford (Toronto, 1974), 59–63.

The most thorough study of Spence’s work was prepared by his daughter Ruth Elizabeth Spence [Arndt] under the title Prohibition in Canada: a memorial to Francis Stephens Spence (Toronto, 1919). Details concerning his involvement with the Toronto waterfront were graciously provided by Michael Moir, records manager/archivist of the Toronto Harbour Commission Arch.

AO, F 834; RG 22-305, no.33509; RG 80-5-0-87, no.13372. Irish Canadian (Toronto), 21 July 1892. Toronto Daily Star, 8–10 March 1917. World (Toronto), 13 July 1892. Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, The revenge of the Methodist bicycle company: Sunday streetcars and municipal reform in Toronto, 1888–1897 (Toronto, 1977). Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). M. G. Decarie, “The prohibition movement in Ontario, 1894–1916” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont., 1972). Directory, Toronto, 1875–93. J. E. Middleton, The municipality of Toronto: a history (3v., Toronto and New York, 1923). James O’Mara, Shaping urban waterfronts: the role of Toronto’s harbour commissioners, 1911–1960 (York Univ., Dept. of Geography, Discussion paper, no.13, North York, Ont., 1976). W. R. Plewman, Adam Beck and the Ontario Hydro (Toronto, 1947).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Graeme Decarie, “SPENCE, FRANCIS STEPHENS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spence_francis_stephens_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/spence_francis_stephens_14E.html
Author of Article: Graeme Decarie
Title of Article: SPENCE, FRANCIS STEPHENS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: October 22, 2014