GOWAN, ROBERT, banker, journalist, and civil servant; b. in Scotland, c. 1800; d. 30 Jan. 1879 at Fredericton, N.B.
Robert Gowan came to Fredericton about 1816 as a drummer-boy in the 74th Regiment and later became a hospital sergeant. He entered civilian life as an accountant in the firm of Robert Rankin*, lumber merchant and shipbuilder. Gowan took a leading part in the founding of St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Fredericton and in the organization of freemasonry in New Brunswick. In association with Henry Garrett Clopper, Gowan was a founder of the Central Bank of New Brunswick, which opened in 1834. This bank was a Fredericton corporation capitalized at £15,000 which helped break the monopoly of the Saint John-based Bank of New Brunswick.
His experience with Rankin and Company in the timber trade gave Gowan a powerful bias against the authoritarian control exercised by the commissioner of crown lands, Thomas Baillie*, who levied heavy charges on the timber trade in the hope of creating a giant fund that would make government independent of the legislature. In 1832 and 1833 Gowan wrote a series of letters, under the nom de plume of John Gape, to the New Brunswick Courier. These letters concentrated on attacking the inefficiency of the Crown Lands Office and the arrogance and alleged graft of Baillie. They hardened public opinion against the government in power and gave impetus to the movement led by Charles Simonds* and Edward Barron Chandler that in 1837 resulted in the surrender of the crown lands to legislative control. Witty and homespun and reflecting the libertarian prejudices of the timbermen against overbearing bureaucracy, these letters could scarcely be described as literary, but they were influential. “He wielded a facile and sprightly pen; and his Johnny Gape letters to the St John Courier have created a wider influence in the province than any letters before or since . . . . What old resident of New Brunswick has forgotten those famous letters?” Perhaps the most impressive of his journalistic contributions was a drama in three parts, commencing in the Courier 23 Feb. 1833 and entitled “The triumph of intrigue.” This depicts Baillie and his father-in-law, William F. Odell*, presiding over the crown lands after the fashion of Scottish lairds.
Probably as a reward for political service Gowan became chief clerk in the Crown Lands Office in 1840, and held the position until his retirement in 1870. Among the freemasons he was notable for a determination to maintain the independent jurisdiction of the Scottish lodges.
New Brunswick Courier (Saint John, N.B.), 1832–33. New Brunswick Reporter (Fredericton), 5 Feb. 1879. W. F. Bunting, History of St John’s Lodge, F. & A.M. of Saint John, New Brunswick together with sketches of all Masonic bodies in New Brunswick, from A.D. 1784 to A.D. 1894 (Saint John, N.B., 1895), 21, 358, 378. MacNutt, New Brunswick, 234, 236, 476. The old grave-yard, Fredericton, New Brunswick: epitaphs copied by the York-Sunbury Historical Society Inc., ed. L. M. Beckwith Maxwell (Sackville, N.B., 1938), 139.