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HOWLAND, WILLIAM HOLMES, businessman, social reformer, philanthropist, and politician; b. 11 June 1844 in Lambton Mills (Etobicoke), Upper Canada, elder son of William Pearce Howland* and Mary Ann Blyth, widow of David Webb; m. 18 Oct. 1872 in Saint John, N.B., Laura Edith Chipman, sister-in-law of Samuel Leonard Tilley, and they had six children; d. 12 Dec. 1893 in Toronto.

Educated at Upper Canada College and the Model Grammar School in Toronto, William Holmes Howland stopped his formal education at age 16, after his father had become active in provincial politics; William Pearce was returned as Reform mla for York West in the election of 1857–58, became a father of confederation, and in 1868 was made lieutenant governor of Ontario. William Holmes took over his father’s grain and milling business and quickly rose to prominence in the commercial world. While still a relatively young man, he was president, vice-president, or a director of more than a dozen companies in the fields of insurance and finance, electrical services, and paint manufacturing. When he became president of the Queen City Fire Insurance Company in 1871, he was the youngest insurance company president in Canada. The number of executive positions he held shows the remarkable trust his fellow businessmen placed in him.

By 1870 Howland had become a strong advocate of commercial and industrial protection, a course he propounded as president of three influential organizations: Toronto’s Board of Trade (1874–75), the Dominion Board of Trade (1874), and the Manufacturers’ Association of Ontario (1877–78). His attitude to the tariff question led him to break with the federal Liberal party in 1877 despite his father’s long connection with it and his own loyalty to Edward Blake*. He claimed then to be an independent who supported Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservatives in Ottawa, but he continued to back the Liberal government of Oliver Mowat* provincially. A nationalist as well as a protectionist, in 1874 Howland was chosen chairman of the newly founded Canadian National Association of the Canada First movement [see William Alexander Foster*] and financed its weekly, the Nation, which took a protectionist editorial position. No doubt an important emotional component of the movement’s appeal to Howland was its anti-American attitude. His leadership was harmed because of an inaugural speech in which he also decried all forms of “toadying” to Britain. The resulting charge of disloyalty opened the door for the take-over of the movement by Goldwin Smith* and others.

An outgoing, enthusiastic individual, Howland was in the 1870s a man of increasing religious and social fervour. Born a Presbyterian, he had become not only a conventionally devout Anglican but an active member of the Anglican evangelical movement in Toronto; he was a founder in early 1877 of the low-Anglican counterpart to the ritualistic Trinity College, the Protestant Episcopal Divinity School (later Wycliffe College) [see James Paterson Sheraton*], which opened later that year. In February and March the Reverend William Stephen Rainsford, an Irish-born evangelist who lived in New York City, had come to Toronto to hold meetings at St James’ Cathedral, and he later returned to become an assistant clergyman there. It was under his ministry, which stressed the practical application of Christ’s teachings, that Howland became an ardent evangelical Christian. In 1877, when prohibitionists attempted to secure local option in Toronto, he became a total abstainer and vigorously threw himself into the temperance movement.

In the years that followed, Howland made evangelical philanthropy his main work in life, so much so, in fact, that his business interests suffered considerably. He was the founder and first president of the Toronto Willard Tract Depository (an evangelical publishing company) in 1877 and of the International Christian Workers Association; a founder of the Prisoners’ Aid Association (an advocacy and penal reform group); superintendent of the Central Prison Mission School; chairman of the Ontario branch of the Dominion Alliance (a temperance association); and a worker in the Prison Gate Mission and Haven (a home for unwed mothers), in the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for women, in the Hillcrest Convalescent Hospital, and in the Toronto branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association. He was a noted Sunday-school teacher and frequent church speaker. His weekends and many evenings were devoted to bringing religious and temporal relief to the poor of St John’s Ward, for years the heart of poverty and vice in Toronto. Emphasizing prevention, he was the founding chairman of a training-school for delinquent boys, the Mimico Boys’ Industrial School (established in 1887 and later named Victoria Industrial School).

Howland’s vocal evangelicalism soon ran foul of others in the Church of England. In 1882–83 he was at the centre of an acrimonious struggle over ritualism at Grace Church, which he and others had had built to minister to the poor in St John’s Ward and where he was a warden. Howland and his primary supporter, the well-known lawyer Samuel Hume Blake*, argued vociferously with the rector, the Reverend John Pitt Lewis, regarding the church’s apparent inability to fulfil its purpose. Howland and Blake were convinced that Lewis’s high-church liturgical style was an important reason why the slum dwellers were not being reached.

After considerable controversy, in April 1883 Howland was voted out as warden. He distanced himself more and more from the Church of England and, with Blake, Henry O’Brien, Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski, and other like-minded evangelicals, founded in 1884 the Toronto Mission Union. This nondenominational inner-city mission was designed to reach the poor through programs of social assistance, medical services, relief aid, and mission work. The successful effort grew and became a church in its own right, at which point Howland combined forces with the Congregational minister John Salmon and a Canadian-born Presbyterian, the Reverend Albert Benjamin Simpson of New York City, to form the first Canadian chapter of the Christian Alliance. Howland was the founding president in 1889 of the chapter. The alliance subsequently became a major evangelical church in Canada and changed its name to the Christian and Missionary Alliance.

In the midst of his evangelical and philanthropic work, Howland turned his considerable energies to municipal politics. Although he had not held office, he was no neophyte. Because of his family background, his business contacts, and his advocacy of protectionism and nationalism, he was well versed in the politics of Toronto and Ontario. Howland stood as the candidate of the reform group in the 1886 mayoralty election. His opponent, Alexander Henderson Manning*, the Conservative candidate, lost out when Howland was able to rouse the moral fervour of voters against Manning’s wealthy but ethically compromised politics and to win the endorsement of the newly organized labour movement in Toronto [see Daniel John O’Donoghue*]. This election was the first time that women – some 2,000 widows and spinsters who met the property qualifications – were allowed to vote in the city. Significantly, Howland had based his campaign on a specific platform, to reform the social and moral life of Toronto’s working class, but his first term was marked by controversy and little decisive action to implement his electoral plan. In February 1886 the Knights of Labor initiated a strike against the Massey Manufacturing Company in Toronto. Howland, who had been elected with the support of Hart Almerrin Massey and other manufacturing interests, as well as with the endorsement of the Knights, was forced to try to bring about a settlement that would alienate neither party. In the end, Massey capitulated, both sides appeared to be satisfied, and Howland retained Massey’s support. Later in 1886 there was a second skirmish involving organized labour, probably the most bitter labour dispute in Toronto in the 19th century. It centred on Tory senator Frank Smith*, the owner of the Toronto Street Railway Company. An arrogant, chartered monopoly known for its mistreatment of workers, this firm attempted to prevent their unionization by instituting a general lock-out. Howland again came out in favour of the workers, releasing a public letter which condemned the anti-union stance of the company and laid the responsibility for the accompanying mob violence on its shoulders. Unfortunately, in Howland’s first term only a minority on council supported his attempts at municipal reform. The major achievement of the year was the appointment in May of a new inspector in the police department, David Archibald, who brought a social dimension to Toronto’s police force through his attempts to clean up prostitution and saloons.

Howland’s second year as mayor, 1887, came with an increased plurality and the election of a sufficient number of aldermen who supported his reform program. In spite of the united opposition of the old guard during the electoral campaign, Toronto workers, mindful of Howland’s assistance in the Massey and street railway strikes, and the backers of the reform-temperance coalition had given him their overwhelming support. Combining his zeal for temperance, his ardent evangelical religious beliefs, and a passionate desire for civic reform, Howland moved quickly to try to end civic corruption, to close houses of gambling and prostitution, to control liquor interests, to improve sanitary conditions, and to implement campaigns to stop desecration of the Sabbath. Nevertheless, the term was not as successful as he and his supporters had hoped. It was full of frustrations. A by-law sponsored by Robert John Fleming*, Howland’s most important supporter, to cut tavern and shop licences by almost one half, barely passed after an acrimonious debate. Howland had great difficulty keeping the reform aldermen united through this debate and, in fact, once the by-law was passed there were few issues which could unify them and provide Howland with a base of support. Other problems included a badly flawed municipal reform bill which was presented to and then withdrawn from the provincial legislature because of the intrigues against Howland by the city’s solicitor, William G. McWilliams. Serious Orange-Catholic riots resulted from the injection of Irish nationalist politics into public debate during a visit of the fiery Irish editor William O’Brien. A report by judge Joseph Easton MacDougall documented a widespread conspiracy of fraud and theft within the administration of the city’s waterworks. Perhaps, in all of this, Howland’s greatest difficulty lay in his lack of political skills to bring his reform colleagues and followers into a coalition that could move forward in the work of reforming Toronto. Still, the nickname Toronto the Good was testimony to the reform programs first introduced into the city’s politics by Howland.

In 1888 Howland decided not to run for a third term of office. His chosen successor was alderman Elias Rogers, a strong supporter, a Quaker, an evangelical, and a well-known coal merchant. The dramatic eleventh-hour revelation of his central role in a monopoly to fix the price of coal was enough, however, to cause the reform group to lose a campaign that had been based on moral purification, and Edward Frederick Clarke became mayor.

Howland had retired from political office to help his ailing father with business, but he continued to give most of his wealth to charity as he pursued a multitude of worthy causes connected with poverty, temperance, and the dissemination of the Gospel. Among his most noteworthy achievements were his success, with S. H. Blake and others, in persuading the Ontario government in 1890 to appoint a royal commission on the prison and reformatory system, and his role in the formation of the Children’s Aid Society the following year [see John Joseph Kelso*]. Though he had acquired prominence, when he died of pneumonia in 1893 at 49 years of age, he left only a modest estate, valued at $42,298. Like many of his contemporaries, he had viewed his world from within a strongly held Christian framework. Yet there was something special about his blend of religion, politics, and business. His critics in the Anglican church recognized this distinctiveness in an obituary in the Canadian Churchman: “His nature was a curious study, as most people would probably agree – exhibiting an abnormal kindness of heart, leading the man to apparent or real extravagancies of action. . . . So excessive in the element of generosity as to be a rarity, his character was both example and warning.”

As mayor, Howland had broken the tradition of plutocracy and gentility which had characterized Toronto’s civic politicians. He was genuinely concerned for the common people and for the quality of life at all levels of society. Within this context it is understandable why this businessman, mayor, Christian philanthropist, and mission worker had such a tremendous impact on the life of one of Canada’s major cities.

Ron Sawatsky

York County Surrogate Court (Toronto), no.10144 (mfm. at AO). Canadian Manufacturer (Toronto), 15 Dec. 1893. Canadian Churchman, 21 Dec. 1893. Empire (Toronto), 13 Dec. 1893. Evangelical Churchman (Toronto), 21 Dec. 1893. Globe, 14 Dec. 1893. Toronto Daily Mail, 13 Dec. 1893. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charles worth), vol.1. C. [C.] Bergen The sense of power; studies in the ideas of Canadian imperialism, 1867–1914 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1970). C. St G. Clark, Of Toronto the Good: a social study; the Queen City of Canada as it is (Montreal, 1898). Andrew Jones and Leonard Rutman, In the childrens aid: JJKelso and child welfare in Ontario (Toronto, 1981). G. S. Kealey, Toronto workers respond to industrial capitalism, 1867–1892 (Toronto, 1980). G. S. Kealey and B. D. Palmer, Dreaming of what might be: the Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880–1900 (Cambridge, Eng., and New York, 1982). Desmond Morton, Mayor Howland: the citizenscandidate (Toronto, 1973). Lindsay Reynolds, Footprints: the beginnings of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada (Toronto, 1982). V. L. Russell, Mayors of Toronto (1v. to date, Erin, Ont., 1982–  ). R. G. Sawatsky, “‘Looking for that blessed hope’: the roots of fundamentalism in Canada, 1878–1914” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1985). Desmond Morton, “Mayor Howland: the man who made Toronto good,” York Pioneer (Toronto), 75 (1980), no.2: 23–30.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ron Sawatsky, “HOWLAND, WILLIAM HOLMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howland_william_holmes_12E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/howland_william_holmes_12E.html
Author of Article:   Ron Sawatsky
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   April 15, 2024