MAGOWAN (McGowan), PETER, lawyer, politician, and office holder; b. c.1763, probably in Ireland; d. 19 June 1810 in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
A disgraced young lawyer who had left London, England, under a cloud of scandal that involved certain “pecuniary embarrassments,” Peter Magowan immigrated in 1789 to St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, where he was immediately admitted an attorney by the Supreme Court. The following year he was elected to the House of Assembly from Kings County. After the death of Phillips Callbeck* in 1790, Magowan was for years the only practising lawyer on the Island besides Attorney General Joseph Aplin. Inevitably, he found himself acquiring as clients all those who were critical of the administration. In 1791, for example, when John Cambridge*, William Bowley, and John Hill* brought before the Privy Council in London complaints of malfeasance against Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning, Chief Justice Peter Stewart, and other officers, Magowan acted as Cambridge’s agent on the Island and personally swore an affidavit charging Stewart with gross partiality on the bench. Not surprisingly, his legal talents were constantly disparaged by Fanning and Stewart, and he seldom won his cases. But clients complained as well. One member of the assembly charged that Magowan had altered the wording of a document, and in so doing had cost him the cause, and a sailor insisted vehemently before the Council that the lawyer had embellished an affidavit which he had signed without being able to read. Such accusations were a familiar part of the Island’s legal and political scene, and it is impossible to determine either their veracity or their implications.
Six years after his arrival in the colony Magowan finally received official preferment. In 1795 he was made deputy to Thomas Desbrisay in his capacity as secretary and registrar of the Island. Having accepted the post solely for the fees of office – Desbrisay retained the salary – Magowan found that the expense of employing a copyist exceeded his income, and he abandoned the job in 1800. Nevertheless, after 1795 he gradually moved closer to the administration, at the same time that Joseph Aplin was moving away from it. In 1797 it was Magowan who brought to the attention of the assembly the “libellous” letter Fanning had received from Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale, which accused the lieutenant governor of countenancing the activities of “a Levelling Party” determined to bring about an escheat of proprietorial holdings on the Island. That same year Magowan served as clerk of the committee which reported on the state of the proprietors’ lots and petitioned the crown for the institution of a court of escheat. This popular stand was to ensure his re-election to the assembly in 1803. In the wake of MacDonald’s charges of maladministration, Magowan brought on his own behalf a £3,000 libel action against the outspoken Scotsman. With Lieutenant Governor Fanning testifying personally for Magowan, the jury awarded the plaintiff costs and £7 10s. in damages. Magowan supplemented this small award by charging himself heavy legal fees for pleading his own case. About the same time he was broken as an ensign in the Island militia by a Halifax court martial investigating an illegal liquor shop set up to “intoxicate” privates, but he was restored to his rank when he persuaded the court he had not known of the operation.
By 1798 Magowan was helping to draw up complaints of malpractice against Attorney General Aplin, and one critic of the government, James Douglas, labelled him “the favourite tool of Governor Fanning and the Stewart party.” When Aplin was relieved of his office that year, Magowan served for a time as acting attorney general. He gained the post permanently in 1800, succeeding Aplin’s replacement, John Wentworth, who had been slow to take up local residence. At the time his appointment was announced Magowan was in Quebec, Lower Canada, looking for employment, but his new position enabled him to remain on the Island in some security. After a decade of controversy, he now found a few years of peace as attorney general. By 1806, however, he had become an outspoken critic of Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres* and his supporters, particularly James Bardin Palmer*. Palmer had helped organize a new political association known as the Loyal Electors, and his influence on DesBarres was suspected by Magowan, Charles Stewart, and other members of the official clique that had long dominated local politics. Magowan objected to the manner in which appointments were made under DesBarres, and he was particularly upset that commissions of the peace were being issued to people he considered unqualified for the position. He was also critical of the way DesBarres issued writs of election, finding it unfavourable to the interests of the “old party.” As party politics again heated up, he remained loyal to the Stewart faction until his unexpected death in 1810.
Magowan’s colourful and controversial career well illustrates the complex and personal nature of contemporary Island politics. The struggles in which he was involved continued after his death. It was, in fact, the vacancy in the attorney generalship that his demise created, and the dispute over who should fill it, that led ultimately to DesBarres’s recall and Palmer’s dismissal from public office [see Charles Stewart].
PAC, MG 11, [CO 226] Prince Edward Island A, 17: 439–40. PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., petition of Peter Magowan, 30 Sept. 1803; RG 3, House of Assembly, Journals, 1791, 1797; RG 6, Supreme Court records. PRO, CO 226/21. SRO, GD293/2/19/6, 10. G.B., Privy Council, Report of the right honourable the lords of the committee of his majesty’s most honourable Privy Council, of certain complaints against Lieutenant Governor Fanning, and other officers of his majesty’s government in the Island of St. John ([London, 1792]).