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GOWAN, OGLE ROBERT, Orangeman, journalist, farmer, and politician; b. at Mount Nebo, County Wexford, Ireland, 13 July 1803, sixth son of John Hunter Gowan, a prominent landlord, magistrate, and captain of the Wexford yeomanry, and of his second wife, Margaret Hogan; d. at Toronto, Ont., 21 Aug. 1876.
Ogle Robert Gowan was raised at Mount Nebo and educated at home. The son of an important Wexford Orangeman and a godchild of George Ogle, one of the early grand masters of the Irish Orange Order, he was initiated as an Orangeman in 1818 in County Wicklow. He later moved to Dublin where he published, in collaboration with George Perkins Bull*, a small political newspaper called the Antidote. Gowan also wrote several tracts hostile to Roman Catholicism, including a lengthy address to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, the Marquis of Wellesley; these were undoubtedly printed in the Antidote and some may have been published in pamphlet form. His major work during this time was a book entitled The annals and defence of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland, published in 1825.
When the Irish Orange lodges were dissolved temporarily in 1825, Gowan became assistant grand secretary of the Benevolent and Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland, which was organized by Sir Harcourt Lees, a prominent Orangeman. Although this society received only limited support in Ireland, it carried on correspondence with Orangemen in Canada. Gowan was thus known to many Canadian Orangemen before he arrived in 1829.
Orangeism in Upper Canada was firmly established at this time in centres such as York (Toronto), Kingston, Perth, and Brockville. Orangemen numbered perhaps several thousands and had already attracted unfavourable attention because of riots in Perth and Kingston. In politics, the Orangemen of York supported William Lyon Mackenzie*, and elsewhere many supported local Tories who would not acknowledge Orange support. Most Orangemen felt the need for a grand lodge to provide central leadership and for an able spokesman who would act as their political champion. Gowan may have come to Canada with this possibility in mind, particularly as he had incurred the enmity of the reconstituted Irish Grand Lodge by his efforts to continue the Benevolent and Loyal Orange Institution as a separate organization, but his departure from Ireland may also have been influenced by the passage of the Roman Catholic emancipation act and by the general prospects of better opportunities in the new world.
Gowan settled in Escott Park, Leeds County, Upper Canada, with a household of nine, including two servants. Although he soon became a substantial “gentleman” farmer in the community, his real interest was in politics, and the obvious means of entering Canadian politics was by providing the Canadian Orangemen with a leader and a grand lodge. As a young gentleman who had played an active part in the Irish Orange movement (his quarrel with the Irish Grand Lodge was not generally known in Canada at the time of his arrival) and who was able to talk and write in a manner comprehensible to plebeian Orangemen, Gowan’s talents were ideally suited to the needs of the Canadian movement. He was able to call a meeting of representatives of most existing lodges in Upper and Lower Canada at the Brockville courthouse on 1 Jan. 1830. The Grand Orange Lodge of British North America was founded and Gowan was chosen deputy grand master. The Duke of Cumberland was invited to become grand master but he declined, and after several years of negotiations Gowan became the first Canadian grand master. The movement was dedicated to the defence of the Protestant religion and the preservation of the British connection, but it owed much of its vitality to its function as a fraternal society. Although it was potentially an agency of anti-clericalism, this aspect of Orangeism was overshadowed by its loyalism during the 1830s.
As the leader of the Canadian Orangemen, Gowan was a person of some consequence in the province. He therefore decided to run as an independent “immigrant” candidate in the election of 1830, appealing to Roman Catholics as well as Protestant Irish. His refusal to run in partnership with the Tory candidate, Henry Sherwood*, seems to have upset the Perth Orangemen, and he was denounced in the Tory Brockville Gazette in letters which were strongly nativist in tone.
Although defeated in the election, Gowan had established a position in provincial politics. This he sought to consolidate by founding a small newspaper in 1830 called the Brockville Sentinel (named the Antidote in 1832), but it did not flourish. His efforts with the Brockville Gazette, which had been founded in 1828, were no more successful: after Gowan took it over in December 1831 it appeared for a few issues and then ceased publication until July when it was acquired by Orangeman Arthur McClean.
While engaged in these journalistic ventures, Gowan, with the support of the Tory families of Ephraim Jones* and Solomon Jones*, attempted to found “independent” clubs and later “patriot” clubs; these were, in most respects, similar to the Constitutional Clubs that flourished later at the time of the 1836 elections. Although Gowan undoubtedly profited by his connection with the Joneses, he seems to have been embarrassed by this association. In an encounter with Mackenzie he felt it necessary to deny that he served either the Joneses or the Sherwoods, and during a Grenville by-election he denounced as calumny rumours that he had instructed the Orangemen to vote for the Joneses’ candidate. Mackenzie commented at the time that “Mr Gowan’s general manner of speaking pleased me much, and I really regretted to see an Irishman of his abilities acting the humble part of a deputy assistant to such as the Jones and Sherwoods.” Mackenzie’s comments were hardly a fair commentary on Gowan’s relations with the Compact families in Brockville, but Gowan was obviously sensitive to such criticism. He nevertheless continued to cooperate with the Jones and Sherwood families in 1832 in support of the immigrant societies of Sir John Colborne*, which were opposed by the Reformers.
In 1833, however, Gowan became involved in feuds with the Tory families in the Brockville area which had their origin in the refusal of Sheriff Adiel Sherwood to release an Orangeman convicted of arson. Relations further deteriorated when Gowan attacked members of the Family Compact for their outspoken criticisms of the Colonial Office at the time of the dismissal of Christopher Hagerman* and Henry John Boulton* in 1833. Relations between the Orangemen and the Family Compact at this time are indicated by a resolution of the grand lodge which declared that “The policy of W. L. Mackenzie is the one which should prevail,” although the grand lodge stated its disapproval of Mackenzie’s methods and suspected him of secret republicanism. At this time, Andrew Norton Buell of the Reform newspaper the Brockville Recorder, wrote, “Gowan was coming around to the liberal side and with a little management could be brought fully over.”
In 1834 Gowan stood for election in company with the attorney general, Robert Sympson Jameson*, who was a government rather than a Tory candidate. Jameson’s willingness to run with Gowan is a measure of the degree to which Gowan’s influence was supplanting that of the Compact families in Leeds County – influence gained to a large extent by his efforts to secure title deeds for immigrants, thus enabling them to vote. He was elected for Leeds in 1834 and in 1835, but his election was declared invalid each time because of Orange violence at the polls. In a by-election early in 1836 he was defeated, but was re-elected along with Jonas Jones* in the summer of 1836 after Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head had dissolved the House of Assembly.
During the general election of 1836, Gowan had arranged an alliance with Roman Catholics which he had always sought and which had been maturing since 1832. Under his leadership the grand lodge of British North America welcomed “the manifestations of loyalty on the part of the Roman Catholics and their Venerable Bishop,” and in an election address to the free-holders of Stormont and Glengarry, the Roman Catholic bishop, Alexander Macdonell*, acknowledged “having received from Orangemen unequivocal and substantial proof of disinterested friendship.” The alliance provided a combination of the bloc votes of Catholics and Orangemen in favour of candidates who supported Head. Before the election Gowan had also toured the Toronto area in company with the Tory journalist, George Gurnett*, helping to win Toronto Orangemen away from the lingering influence of Mackenzie. By 1836, Gowan was already a figure of consequence in provincial politics, and he consolidated his position by founding the Brockville Statesman in 1836, his first successful venture in journalism.
With the outbreak of the rebellion in Lower Canada in the late autumn of 1837, Gowan inspired the raising of a volunteer company named the Brockville Invincible. He was made a captain in the 2nd Regiment of Leeds militia, and later given a company of the Queen’s Own Rifles which he led during the capture of Hickory Island near Gananoque in 1838. He was then given command of a provisional battalion of militia of Upper Canada as lieutenant-colonel. At the battle of the Windmill near Prescott, where he was wounded twice, he was thanked for his services in general orders, and his provisional battalion was honoured with the name of Queen’s Royal Borderers.
Before his brief career of active service had come to an end, Gowan was directing criticism at the policies of Head, and of his successor, Sir George Arthur*. The Orange lodges in the United Kingdom had been dissolved in 1836 under threats of anti-Orange legislation and Head had expressed the hope that the Canadian Orangemen would also dissolve. Although a few Orangemen severed their connection with the movement in deference to Head, the grand lodge, led by Gowan, refused to disband. As Head and Arthur were unwilling and unable to make any public acknowledgement of the services performed by the Orangemen during the rebellion, the Orangemen were prepared to introduce their own reform programme.
There is a tradition that Gowan had written a letter on responsible government in 1830, and he always described himself as an independent rather than a Tory. In 1839 he published a letter on responsible government in the Statesman which Francis Hincks* reprinted in pamphlet form. As a result of this letter Gowan was removed from his post as agent of crown lands in the Johnstown District (which included Leeds and Grenville counties) and there was Tory pressure within the Orange lodges for his removal as grand master. Gowan placed still greater strain on the unity of the lodges and on his relations with the Tories by introducing on 8 April 1839 in the House of Assembly a bill for dividing clergy reserves among all legally recognized denominations. Under pressure from Tory Orangemen and the threat of the proposed union with Lower Canada, Gowan turned to other issues, without repudiating his stand on clergy reserves and responsible government.
In his views on the union of Upper and Lower Canada, Gowan differed little from the Tories in that he expressed fear of a combination of Upper Canadian Reformers with the French majority of Lower Canada. His opportunities to impose these views were limited as he failed to win a seat in the first election after the union in 1841. This defeat forced him to seek consolation in the politics of the Johnstown District. Here he became involved in a dispute with one of the Reformers, Buell, whom he accused of treason during the 1837 rebellion. Buell retaliated by charging that Gowan over-stated his property qualifications when seeking election. Gowan also had to bear the brunt of the attack on the Orange lodges launched by the administration of Robert Baldwin* and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, with the moral support of the governors, Sir Charles Bagot* and then, for some time, Sir Charles Metcalfe*.
The ministry’s attacks reached a climax in 1843 when a bill, introduced by Baldwin, was passed which was intended to prevent Orangemen from holding office under the crown and sitting on juries, and which endangered the liquor licences of taverns where Orange meetings were held. As the passage of the bill coincided with a cabinet crisis involving disputes between Metcalfe and Baldwin over patronage, the governor reserved it for the consideration of the imperial parliament, where it was subsequently disallowed, but he permitted the passage of a bill against Orange processions. Metcalfe’s action was undoubtedly undertaken as a concession to Gowan, whom he had consulted at this time on the prospect of forming an alternative ministry.
Gowan was returned as representative for Leeds and Grenville in the 1844 election and soon won the respect of his friends and enemies for his abilities as a parliamentarian. La Fontaine declared that Gowan was the most accomplished speaker in the house; Hincks found him formidable and the possessor of a “greater amount of tact and general information than any man engaged in public affairs.” His skill was demonstrated in 1846 when during the debates on clergy reserves, Gowan opposed Henry Sherwood’s motion calling for the division of the reserves among interested denominations on the grounds that it would lead to the establishment of a tenant system in Canada. He followed these comments by an amendment calling for the sale of the reserves at the least expense and as quickly as possible, an amendment which passed with a substantial majority.
During this period, Gowan formed a close association with John A. Macdonald* and was credited by the Montreal Pilot with leading the popular wing of conservatism against the Family Compact interest represented by Sir Allan MacNab*. It has been said that it was John A. Macdonald’s association with Gowan which influenced the leader of the government, William Henry Draper, in his decision to offer Macdonald the post of attorney general shortly before Christopher Hagerman’s death. Moreover, Draper urged Macdonald to visit Lord Elgin [Bruce*] in the company of Gowan to persuade the new governor that Conservatives were not ultra-Tories. The nature of Gowan’s relationship with Macdonald and the Draper administration is indicated by a letter which Macdonald wrote in May 1847, stating, “We cannot expect to obtain his [Gowan’s] services and refuse the reward and highly as I appreciate his powers of benefiting us, I confess I fear his means of doing mischief more.” The reward under consideration was the appointment of Gowan as assistant commissioner of crown lands, but Gowan’s prospects in this regard vanished with the fall of the Draper ministry.
The administration’s neglect of Gowan can be attributed partly to his position as Orange grand master, a position he was unwilling to renounce, but was more the result of the continued influence of Compact Tories who distrusted and disliked Gowan as a demagogue and a political manipulator. Gowan was inclined to blame Macdonald for not pressing his claim to office with sufficient force, and this conviction was strengthened by Macdonald’s neglect of him when the Conservatives were returned to office in 1854. Gowan seems to have nursed his grievances in private as he accepted the relatively minor post of supervisor of tolls on the canals west of Lachine, a post from which he was dismissed in 1849 by the Baldwin–La Fontaine government. Although it is possible that Macdonald might have pressed Gowan’s claims more vigorously, he would have done so without much support from other Liberal Conservatives, who felt no need to have Gowan in the inner circles of Draper’s administration from 1844 to 1847.
The growing political influence of Gowan did not help secure his hold on the Orangemen; he lost the office of grand master to George Benjamin* of Belleville in 1846. Benjamin, and later John Hillyard Cameron, represented a new type of Orange grand master, better able to conciliate vested interests and more acceptable to conventional Conservatives. But they were wanting in Gowan’s powers as a popular leader, and consequently they were less able to control the militant Protestantism of the lodges which so often posed a threat to Conservative political alliances.
In the elections of 1847–48 Gowan was defeated by a narrow majority by the Reformer, William Buell Richards*, and he suffered further loss of prestige when he led the Orange opposition to the rebellion losses bill. In the demonstrations against Lord Elgin during his visit to Canada West (still popularly called Upper Canada), Gowan took a prominent part and he attacked the governor viciously in the Statesman. These actions resulted in his removal from the commission of the peace for Brockville, to which he had been appointed in 1845, and the loss in 1849 of his commission as a lieutenant-colonel in the militia.
In 1849 Gowan was active along with the new Orange grand master, George Benjamin, in organizing the British American League, which was designed to rally public opinion against a supposed threat to the British connection. At the Kingston convention of the league in July 1849, Gowan introduced a motion calling for Canadian “protectionism,” which was supported by Macdonald. When the question of the federation of the British North American provinces was raised, Macdonald criticized it as premature whereas Gowan declared himself opposed to a federal union of the provinces on the grounds that it would leave the English in Lower Canada under French domination. He proposed instead a scheme for redividing the counties of Lower Canada (Canada East) which would give the river-front counties to the French and the back counties to the English. At the Toronto convention of the British American League in November, which was held after the Montreal Annexation Manifesto had appeared, Gowan took a strong stand against annexation, but announced his support of an elective Legislative Council, pointing out that the last of the 13 American colonies to revolt had had an elective Legislative Council.
Gowan remained active in the local politics of the Johnstown District and appears to have continued as a gentleman farmer since he was prominent in the local agricultural society. In 1851 he was again defeated in the Leeds election by the Reformer, W. B. Richards. Early in 1852 he ceased publication of the Statesman and moved to Toronto where he acquired the former Compact newspaper, the Toronto Patriot, and entered municipal politics, being elected a Toronto alderman in 1853 and again in 1854.
While engaged in these journalistic and political activities, Gowan challenged Benjamin’s leadership of the Orange lodges at the Kingston meeting of the grand lodge in 1853. Benjamin had become a formidable rival as he had gained credit with Orangemen for the repeal of the anti-Orange processions act. Yet Gowan’s supporters were more aggressive and better organized, and they succeeded in electing Gowan grand master. In the course of the contest and its aftermath Benjamin’s supporters made use of charges which had been brought against Gowan by Orangeman G. P. Bull, with whom Gowan had earlier quarrelled in Ireland. Bull had come to Canada in 1832 and had attacked Gowan, accusing him of being an imposter on the grounds that he had not been a member of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, reconstituted in 1828 on the eve of Gowan’s departure. As Gowan had been assistant grand secretary of an institution recognized by the British Grand Lodge, Bull’s charge had little substance. Bull also circulated a transcript of an Irish court case, Hopkins v. Gowan, involving a quarrel over a family will, during the course of which doubts were raised about Gowan’s legitimacy and one witness declared that Gowan had been a shoemaker’s apprentice. Although Bull had made careless statements before (he was imprisoned in Ireland for libel against a Roman Catholic priest), his charges seem to have induced Montreal Orangemen to repudiate Gowan’s leadership in the 1830s and the charges were from time to time circulated by Gowan’s enemies in Upper Canada. Yet they seem to have made no impression on his friends and little on the general public.
After its defeat, the minority supporting Benjamin formed a separate grand lodge which they claimed was the only authentic grand lodge of British North America. Although they charged Gowan with making the lodges subservient to political interests, the schismatic leaders were equally political and merely stood for a more consistently anti-clerical policy. Yet their accusations became more pointed when Gowan, after some wavering between a Protestant alliance with Reformers and a Conservative alliance with the French Bleus, chose the latter, leaving the Benjamin followers to support the “rep by pop” campaign of George Brown. Gowan sought the aid of Roman Catholics by arguing, in company with other Conservatives, that the complete secularization of clergy reserves would endanger the special position of the Roman Catholic church in Quebec and the aspirations of Catholics throughout the province. Gowan was able to rally most of the Orange vote for Conservative candidates, but he himself failed to win a seat in the new riding of Ontario North in 1854, and was compelled to sell the Patriot to James Beaty* who merged it with the Leader.
Gowan conducted a vigorous campaign against the schismatic Benjamin faction, which he accused on occasion and without evidence of attempting to create a nativist movement in Canada. Of the 563 lodges in Canada, only 106 adhered to Benjamin and all the Maritime lodges supported Gowan. Yet the schism was unpopular with the average Orangeman and Gowan agreed to step down as grand master in 1856, thus permitting a reunion under the leadership of George Lyttleton Allen who had been grand secretary for a number of years.
The following year Gowan again ran for the riding of Ontario North and again suffered defeat, as local Orangemen accused him of “being sold to the Pope.” He received some compensation for this humiliation in the spring of 1858 when he won a by-election in the riding of North Leeds. During these campaigns, Gowan infuriated George Brown by adapting his slogan of rep by pop, to “rep by pop and territory.” Brown denounced Gowan as an “uncompromising adherent of the priest party, whilst all the time professing to be an Orangeman and extreme Protestant,” and declared that no constituency would return him.
After Gowan’s victory in the by-election, Brown attacked him again, asserting that the ministry would regret his presence in the assembly and that he was more dangerous to his friends than to his enemies. But when Gowan retired from provincial politics in 1861, he was regarded as “the father of the House.” There is no obvious motive for Gowan’s retirement from politics at the age of 58, except a need for rest and possibly greater financial security. He accepted the office of inspector in the money order department of the post office in Upper Canada, an office he held for a number of years before becoming issuer and inspector of licences for the city of Toronto from 1869 until 1874. During the 1860s much of his attention was devoted to the Orange movement, particularly the founding of the Imperial Grand Council in Belfast in 1867. As early as 1855, Gowan had written to the Irish grand master, the Earl of Enniskillen, suggesting periodic meetings of Orangemen from different parts of the empire. He attended a preliminary conference at Belfast in 1866 as the representative of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Western Canada and there he proposed that an Imperial Grand Council be held annually “for the consideration of the state of Orangeism and Protestantism generally, with the view of devising means for the extension of Orangeism.”
Gowan was married to Francis Anne Turner of Wexford who died in 1852. Of his 11 children, two sons, the eldest, Nassau, who became a clergyman of the New Connexion Methodist Church, and Harcourt, were prominent Orangemen. Of his daughters, Aliza Amelia married the Reverend William Peck of Lansdowne and Frances Jane married Thomas Roberts Ferguson. Gowan married Alice Hitchcock in 1866.
In many respects Gowan resembles the Irish Chartist leaders such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien. Like them he learned the art of popular politics in the Ireland of the 1820s when Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association dominated politics. Like them, too, he was an effective orator with a flair for popular journalism and a master of machine politics and he went as far as these abilities could take him. Gowan differed from the Chartists in being more conventional in his politics; his views on general questions did not differ much from those of John A. Macdonald. After 1850 being an Orangeman no longer barred a man from high office, yet, though men such as Mackenzie, Hincks, and Macdonald could appreciate Gowan’s abilities as a popular leader, he was kept from it because most Reformers and nearly all compact Tories did not consider him “respectable.”
This impression of Gowan was largely the result of his style and manner, but it was enhanced by his continual involvement in private disputes which often resulted in legal action, the first and most serious of these being his long quarrel with G. P. Bull. But Gowan was undoubtedly the most impressive of all Canadian Orange grand masters, and he gave the movement the kind of prestige and energetic leadership it required during its formative years in the 1830s. By the 1850s the lodges had gained a secure place in Canadian society and could be better served by the more conventional leaders such as Benjamin and Cameron.
In his political writings Gowan offers shrewd commentary on contemporary affairs, spiced with quotations from Viscount Bolingbroke and Edmund Burke. The most influential was his letter on responsible government, published in 1839. His major literary work, however, was a multi-volume history entitled Orangeism, its origin and history, of which three volumes were published in Toronto in 1859–60. The fourth volume, dealing with the Canadian Orange movement, was never published and the manuscript has been lost. The published volumes provide much useful information on Irish Orangeism, but this is blended with Orange folklore and the Orange interpretation of history.
[O. R. Gowan was the author of The annals and defence of the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland (Dublin, 1825); An important letter on responsible government (Toronto, 1839); and Orangeism; its origin and history (Toronto, 1859–60). His other writings are listed in Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis.
The principal manuscript sources are MG 27, I, E30 (T. R. Ferguson papers) and RG 5, A1, at the PAC, and the A. N. Buell papers, the Sir James R. Gowan and Ogle R. Gowan papers (which are disappointing as they contain only a few letters exchanged mainly by Gowan and his cousin James R. Gowan* between the years 1825 and 1843), and the Mackenzie-Lindsey collection at PAO. A Gowan scrapbook, compiled by his daughter Mrs Emily Ferguson, and now in the possession of Colonel Ashmore Kidd, Kingston, Ontario, contains many interesting notes and clippings. A series of letters written by one of Gowan’s granddaughters was published in the Mail and Empire (Toronto), 15 March 1930, 12 July 1934, and in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), 12 Oct. 1938; they give valuable details on Gowan’s life.
The most extensive sources are the newspapers, especially Gowan’s Brockville Statesman, 1836–51, and Toronto Patriot, 1852–54. Also useful are the Colonial Advocate, 1829–34, Constitution, 1836–37, Examiner, 1838–55, and Globe, 1844–61, of Toronto; Pilot and Journal of Commerce, 1844–62, and Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser, 1828–37, of Montreal; Orange Lily and Protestant Vindicator, 1849–54, of Bytown (Ottawa); and Brockville Gazette, 1831–32, and Brockville Recorder, 1830–49. The Loyal Orange Association of British North America, Grand Lodge, Annual Reports, include some of Gowan’s addresses, and those for 1853–56 contain long accounts of the schism in the movement. Interesting trial: Hopkins against Gowan, Wexford spring assizes . . . (Dublin, 1827; Kingston and Toronto, 1837) is the most important pamphlet.
Creighton, Macdonald, young politician, discusses Gowan’s relations with John A. Macdonald; [Walter McCleary], One man’s loyalty; background of first grand master, Ogle R. Gowan. . . (History of the Orange Association in the Dominion of Canada, no.1, n.p., 1953) is an attempt at an official history of the Orange order and has a somewhat sketchy biography of Gowan. W. B. Kerr’s three articles on Orangeism, “The Orange order in Upper Canada in the 1820’s” and “The Orange order and W. L. Mackenzie in the 1830’s” in the Sentinel and Orange and Protestant Advocate (Toronto), 19 Jan., 2, 16 Feb., 2, 16 March, 6, 20 April, 4, 18 May 1939, and “When Orange and Green united, 1832–9; the alliance of Macdonell and Gowan” in Ont. Hist., XXXIV (1942), 32–42, present thoughtful narratives by an Orangeman and professional historian.
Brief but not always accurate summaries of Gowan’s life can be found in the obituary notices in the Toronto Globe, Leader, and Mail, in August 1876. There are also biographical sketches in Encyclopedia Canadiana, V, 5; Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians, 777–79; Sketches of the 13th parliament in Upper Canada (Toronto, 1840); Wallace, Macmillan dictionary, 274; and Davin, Irishman in Canada, 411. h.s.]