OWEN, ELIZABETH LEE (Macdonald), homemaker and author; b. 11 May 1835 at Cardigan River, P.E.I., daughter of Thomas Owen and Ann Campbell; m. 25 Nov. 1863 Andrew Archibald Macdonald* in Georgetown, P.E.I., and they had four sons; d. 12 July 1901 in Charlottetown.
Elizabeth Owen was the third daughter in a family of 12 children. Her father, a member of the Church of England, was involved in commerce and from 1842 to 1860 he served as the Island’s first postmaster general. This office was located in Charlottetown, so Elizabeth moved there as a child.
In 1863 she married A. A. Macdonald, a Georgetown merchant and legislative councillor. He too was a member of an established family, but it was Roman Catholic. Their marriage was notable, even daring, considering the animosity between many Roman Catholics and Protestants found then in the Island’s politics and press. A. A. Macdonald was appointed postmaster general of the Island in 1873 and later served as postmaster at Charlottetown; from 1884 to 1889 he was the province’s lieutenant governor. After his appointment to the Senate in 1891, Elizabeth travelled regularly to Ottawa with him.
No doubt much of her life was spent raising their sons, who became Catholics, and supporting her husband. Throughout their marriage – and it appears to have been a strong one – they maintained their original church affiliations. Elizabeth gave time and money to St Peter’s Cathedral (Anglican). In 1889–90 she was president of the Sewing Society and a district visitor. At this time women’s contributions to the work and development of churches were substantial but seldom recognized. In 1891, however, the priest at St Peter’s did note that one “fancy sale” held by the sewing societies had raised $400 towards the purchase of a house for his residence.
Known to her family and friends as Dibbie, Elizabeth led a particularly busy life when her husband was lieutenant governor. She accompanied him at the opening and closing of sessions of the provincial legislature, but more was demanded. In the summer of 1889, for instance, she and her husband hosted a ball for 300 in honour of top-ranking military figures visiting Charlottetown. A promenade concert was also held that summer under the couple’s patronage, and on her own Elizabeth distributed prizes at a lawn-tennis tournament. A. A. Macdonald, a temperance advocate, allowed no alcohol at Government House – a matter of concern to some. The Charlottetown Herald later noted that Elizabeth discharged her duties “with dignity, grace, and hospitality.”
“Possessed of a good memory and withal a good conversationalist,” the Daily Examiner recalled in an obituary, “she was a . . . communicative authority upon the history of her native province.” Elizabeth’s first article about life in Charlottetown, based on her recollections of the mid 1840s, was published in October 1900 in the Prince Edward Island Magazine. This publication was relatively new and few articles were written by women, a situation that may explain why Elizabeth’s nine articles on “Charlottetown fifty years ago” were simply signed E.L.M. She wrote in plain but descriptive language, not in the formal, flowery style then common. Her portrait of the city, an early example of social history, is both vivid and revealing. Elizabeth’s anecdotes crossed classes and often included children and women, two groups overlooked in most early historical accounts. Perhaps because she had been a child in the 1840s, her articles describe children’s haunts and games, and convey a child’s sense of wonder at unusual characters and events. She recalled the routine experiences of women, at market, for example, or manœuvring with difficulty on muddy streets in long dresses and flimsy rubber shoes. Noted too were the contributions made to the city by such women as the wife of Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy*, Lady Mary FitzRoy, who established an interdenominational sewing society and held sales for the benefit of the poor. Balanced in her depictions of the city’s development, Elizabeth Owen Macdonald lamented some changes but celebrated others. In an issue in 1900 she thought that the Charlottetown of 1845, when it was home to many retired British officers and others of wealth and status, “seemed of more importance than now.” Criticizing the destruction of a beautiful wooded area, she wondered, “Has the hand of man been an improvement on the works of God?” She did, however, highlight numerous improvements in the city’s schools.
One wonders how much more information she would have shared had she not died suddenly of diabetes on 12 July 1901. Commenting on her death, Archibald Irwin, editor of the Prince Edward Island Magazine, said that many readers had expressed the pleasure they had “derived from recalling the old times written about by E.L.M.” He himself keenly felt her loss: “Her interest in the publication was sincere . . . ; and her assistance, so generously given, was of great value.”
Elizabeth Lee Owen Macdonald’s nine-part series, “Charlottetown fifty years ago,” was published under the initials E.L.M. in volumes 2 and 3 of the Prince Edward Island Magazine (Charlottetown), from October 1900 to June 1901.
PARO, Acc.3373 (mfm.). Charlottetown Herald, 30 March 1887; 13–14 Aug. 1889; 17 July 1901. Daily Examiner (Charlottetown), 13, 15 July 1901. Daily Patriot (Charlottetown), 14, 16, 26 Aug. 1889; 13, 15, 18 July 1901. Examiner (Charlottetown), 30 Nov. 1863. A. A. Macdonald, “Ships and weather, by a father of confederation,” ed. George Leard, Guardian of the Gulf (Charlottetown), 28–30 Jan. 1952. Morning Guardian, 13 July 1901. C. W. J. Eliot and Reginald Porter, “The changing face of Fanning Bank,” Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.29 (spring/summer 1991): 29–33. [Archibald Irwin], “Death of ‘E.L.M.,’” Prince Edward Island Magazine (Charlottetown), 3 (1900–1): 197; “Our prominent men – XII: Hon. A. A. Macdonald,” Prince Edward Island Magazine and Educational Outlook (Charlottetown), 6 (1904–5): 25–30. A. A. Macdonald, A souvenir of my beloved wife Elizabeth L. Macdonald (Charlottetown, 1901; copy in PARO, Ace. 2305, no.19). Maple Leaf (Oakland, Calif.), 3 (1909), no.12: 3 (mfm. in Univ. of P.E.I. Library, Charlottetown, P.E.I. Coll.). St Peter’s (Anglican) Cathedral, Annual report (Charlottetown), 1891/92–1901/2 (copies in PARO, Acc. 2594A).