PROWSE, BENJAMIN CHARLES, merchant and politician; b. 10 Dec. 1862 near Charlottetown, son of William Prowse and Eleanor Eliza Horne; m. first 30 June 1886 Amanda Maud Millner (d. 1928) in Charlottetown, and they had three sons, one of whom died in infancy, and one daughter; m. secondly 9 Jan. 1929 Clara (Clare) Eliza Isabelle MacMillan in Ottawa; d. 22 Feb. 1930 in Charlottetown.
Benjamin C. Prowse attended rural and Charlottetown schools and gained wide practical experience, but his formal education did not extend to the post-secondary level. He began his career in his teens as an employee of W. A. Weeks and Company, a dry goods firm in Charlottetown. In the early 1880s he worked as chief clerk in a men’s clothing store owned by his brother Lemuel Ezra, and by 1886 he had become a junior partner.
Known by 1889 as Prowse Brothers, the firm prospered, in part because of an aggressive marketing style. Using sobriquets like “The Wonderful Cheap Men” and “The Farmer’s Boys,” the Prowses catered to people with middling incomes and rural folk, the latter being a particularly important segment of the Island economy. Customers were drawn by claims that the brothers were “the most wonderful bargain givers on P.E. Island” who “slaughtered [prices] right and left” and by in-store attractions such as bean-counting contests and an exhibition of black bears, mountain sheep, and elk. In 1896, shortly after the store was voted the second most popular dry goods establishment in Charlottetown, in an informal poll at the city’s annual fair, Prowse Brothers absorbed the firm ranking third. By then the business had expanded into a wide range of dry goods and occupied one of the most prominent commercial sites in the city. Between 1903 and 1907 a branch store, Prowse Brothers and Crowell, operated in Sydney, N.S. Around 1906 the firm was restructured as a limited stock company with Benjamin as vice-president and general manager. He became president after the death of his brother in December 1925. By 1930 Prowse Brothers was reputed to be one of the largest businesses of its type in the Maritimes. Another firm in which Benjamin was involved was Carter and Company Limited, a stationery and giftware business. One of its incorporators in 1903, he served as president for a time around World War I.
Benjamin had followed his elder brother into politics, albeit in a less prominent role. Lemuel was returned to the Island’s Legislative Assembly in 1893; Benjamin began his political career in 1904 when he was elected a city councillor for Ward 4. An important issue of the day was civic ownership of the electrical utility. Prowse had demonstrated his interest in the generation of electricity as early as 1902 when he was one of the applicants for the incorporation of the Commercial Lighting Company Limited. He seems to have been a supporter of a municipally owned power plant during the election of 1904 but not to have been one of its principal proponents. He eventually backed a settlement for lower rates from the private supplier. He was re-elected in 1906 – again, as in 1904, by a wide margin. These were relatively prosperous times in Charlottetown, and city government was able to make improvements to roads and to water and other services. This increased activity was generally applauded by the public and was linked in the press to the appearance of a better class of municipal political candidate. Prowse was elected mayor in 1908 following a campaign marked by some slanderous accusations on his part. After a term in which the Patriot noted that “the affairs of our city have been so successfully and economically managed . . . that there is no opening for criticism,” Prowse declined to stand in 1910.
A year later, on 5 May 1911, Prowse was named to the Senate. The vacancy had existed for some time, and commentators focused on the appointee’s young age. Some believed that the position had been initially intended for Lemuel, who had served as an mp from 1908, but that Sir Wilfrid Laurier*, perhaps anticipating a difficult federal general election, instead chose to elevate the less politically valuable brother. Although there is evidence to support this story, the press acknowledged that Benjamin was popular, successful, friendly, and politically loyal. Prowse was not particularly noteworthy as a senator, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes. He was credited with advancing the claims of the government of John Alexander Mathieson* for an increase in the province’s federal subsidy in 1912 and with gaining tax benefits for Island car dealers in the 1920s.
Prowse had served as a member of the militia from 1878 to 1896, during which time he became a commissioned officer. He was also active in fraternal organizations and enjoyed outdoor pastimes such as bicycling (he rode competitively as a youth), fishing, and shooting. Admired for his “good fellowship and loyalty to his friends,” he was regarded as frank and outspoken, with a dislike of cant and hypocrisy, and quietly generous in his charitable endeavours. He was raised a Methodist but seems not to have sought a role of religious leadership. His life, essentially modest, was constructive and successful and balanced the demands of family, business, and public service. He serves as an example of the kind of individual found at the foundations of Island, and Canadian, society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
[The genealogical records at the PARO (P.E.I. Geneal. Soc. coll., reference files, Prowse family) provide many of the critical dates for Benjamin Prowse, as well as details concerning his second wife (MacMillan family file). Other collections there include the Prowse family file in the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation coll. (Acc. 3466, ser.73.100, no.15) and a biographical sketch in the Matheson papers (Acc. 3043/439–40).
Newspapers are important sources for events in Prowse’s life. His first marriage was noted in the Summerside Journal (Summerside, P.E.I.) on 8 July 1886, his wife’s death in the Charlottetown Guardian on 14 Feb. 1928, and his second marriage in the Guardian on 10 Jan. 1929, and with more extensive coverage, in the Charlottetown Patriot and the Ottawa Citizen of the same date. Prowse’s obituary appeared in the Guardian and the Patriot on 24 Feb. 1930 and in “Notes by the way” in the Guardian the following day. Discussion of his appointment to the Senate may be found in the Guardian and the Patriot on 5 May 1911, and in the Examiner (Charlottetown) on 4 and 5 May 1911. A letter in the Laurier papers (NA, MG 26, G: 159729–31) records L. E. Prowse’s interest in the Senate appointment.
The Atlantic Canada newspaper survey database (available to subscribers on the Canadian Heritage Information Network web site, administered through Communications Canada, Ottawa) contains numerous references to Prowse Brothers. The firm’s day-book for 1885–86 is preserved at the PARO (Acc. 4327).
Details of Benjamin Prowse’s activities in connection with the controversy over city lighting are found in the Guardian for 12 July 1904. This and other matters connected with his municipal political career are documented in the Records of the City of Charlottetown (PARO, RG 20), particularly in the council minutes, vols.12–13. Prowse’s involvement with the incorporation of the Commercial Lighting Company is recorded in P.E.I., Acts, 1902, c.23. The issue of civic street lights is described in H. [T.] Holman, “‘A lamp to light their paths’: lighting the streets of Charlottetown,” in Gaslights, epidemics and vagabond cows: Charlottetown in the Victorian era, ed. D. [O.] Baldwin and Thomas Spira (Charlottetown, 1988), 138–52. p.e.r.]§