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MOWAT, JOHN, soldier, merchant, office holder, justice of the peace, politician, and college administrator; b. 12 May 1791 in Mey, Scotland, son of Oliver Mowat, a tenant farmer, and Janet Bower; m. 16 June 1819 Helen Levack in Montreal, and they had three sons, including Sir Oliver*, and two daughters; d. 4 Feb. 1860 in Kingston, Upper Canada, and was buried at nearby Waterloo (Cataraqui).

According to family accounts, John Mowat was intended for the ministry, but at 16 he joined the British army. Although his parents purchased his release twice, he re-enlisted once again in 1809 and with his regiment, the 3rd Foot, served in the Peninsular War. In 1814 the 3rd was sent to the Canadas for the duration of the War of 1812, during which it fought at the battle of Plattsburgh, N.Y. (11 Sept. 1814). When the regiment left the Canadas in June 1815, Mowat, who had attained the rank of sergeant, procured his discharge. He first tried farming near Kingston, but in 1816 moved into the town and became a merchant. By mid 1818 Mowat was in business with Joseph Bruce selling dry goods, groceries, crockery, and glassware.

When the partnership with Bruce was dissolved on 21 May 1822, Mowat bought the business and enlarged the shop. In 1841 he built a larger shop with two dwellings above, one of the impressive round-corner buildings designed by George Browne*, and three years later his second son, George, became his partner. In 1849, however, they sold the business and leased the store to John Carruthers. At the age of 58 John Mowat could devote his time to several new business interests such as his directorships for the Commercial Bank of the Midland District, Kingston Building Society, Mutual Fire Insurance Company of the Midland District, Kingston Waterworks, and Kingston Gas Light Company as well as to the board of trade and mechanics’ institute. He also played a minor role in Kingston’s civic affairs. Elected a township commissioner in 1836, he served as a justice of the peace, as a grand juror, and on the town’s board of health. In 1846 he succeeded as alderman his life-long friend, John A. Macdonald*, who was becoming increasingly involved in provincial politics, but the next year was defeated by one vote.

Named one of the first elders of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in 1822, Mowat was a fervent advocate of Church of Scotland rights. In 1825–26 he supported the Reverend John Barclay*, a Presbyterian, in his bitter dispute with Anglican archdeacon George Okill Stuart* over the rights of Presbyterians to be interred in the Kingston burial-ground according to the rites of their church. Although he sided politically with the tories, Mowat opposed high church Anglicans among them, especially on the questions of church establishment in Upper Canada, the clergy reserves and rectory endowments, and university control.

John Mowat’s most notable contribution was in education. In 1829, dissatisfied with the Midland District Grammar School and its Anglican managers, he and other Kingston-area Scots had persuaded the Reverend John Cruikshank to open a school “for classical and general education.” Both John A. Macdonald and Oliver Mowat were students there. John Mowat’s interest in higher education pertained particularly to opportunities for Presbyterians in Canada. One of the group that met in 1837 and 1839 to establish a college in Kingston, he was a member of the first board of trustees assembled at St Andrew’s Church in May 1840. Under the influence of Mowat, William Morris, and others, the college evolved from the Presbyterian seminary first suggested to a true university on the Scottish pattern. Mowat’s name is enrolled on the royal charter of Queen’s College and amongst its first students in 1842 was his son John Bower. Intimately involved with the college for many years, Mowat was a member of a small group in Kingston (including the Reverend John Machar*, Alexander Pringle, and the Reverend Professor James Williamson*) upon whom much of the college’s routine business fell. He was appointed in 1846 to a committee of general superintendence for student housing and he frequently arranged property rentals for the college. In 1853, with Andrew Drummond, he negotiated the purchase of Summerhill, George Okill Stuart’s great country house, which still stands on the Queen’s campus.

The relationship between Mowat and his sons was unusually close and informal. His letters to them, when they were away at school, are full of warmth and humour. He also gave his sons remarkable freedom in their choice of profession, perhaps because his own parents had been so strict. His obituary mentioned his “unbending integrity,” benevolence, and public zeal, and noted that he possessed a “fervency of spirit which made him willing to spend himself and be spent in all that he undertook.”

Margaret Sharp Angus

AO, RG 1, C-IV, Richmond Township, concession 11, lots 18–19; RG 22, ser.159, John Mowat. GRO (Edinburgh), Canisbay, reg. of births and baptisms, 1791. PAC, RG 1, L3, 339a: M11/439; RG 8, I (C ser.), 55: 6–7; 274: 37–40; RG 9, I, B5, 5: 18; 6: 24; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 497, 505. QUA, Angus Mowat papers, “Genealogy and story of the Mowat family,” comp. R. McG. Mowat, 1928; John Mowat, letters; Queen’s Univ., Board of Trustees, letters. Chronicle and News, 27 March 1849. Daily British Whig, 6 Feb. 1860. Daily News (Kingston, [Ont.]), 7, 9 Feb. 1860. Kingston Herald, 23 April 1844. C. R. W. Biggar, Sir Oliver Mowat . . . a biographical sketch (2v., Toronto, 1905), 1: 4–7, 98–102. J. K. Johnson, “John A. Macdonald and the Kingston business community,” To preserve & defend: essays on Kingston in the nineteenth century, ed. G. [J. J.] Tulchinsky (Montreal and London, 1976), 141–55. H. [M.] Neatby, Queen’s University: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield, ed. F. W. Gibson and Roger Graham (1v. to date, Montreal, 1978–  ), 1: 5, 21, 28–29, 56, 67–70. Margaret [Sharp] Angus, “The Mowats of Kingston,” Historic Kingston, no.13 (1965): 41–49, 90.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Margaret Sharp Angus, “MOWAT, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mowat_john_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mowat_john_8E.html
Author of Article: Margaret Sharp Angus
Title of Article: MOWAT, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: December 18, 2014