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ROWSELL, HENRY, bookseller, stationer, and publisher; b. 21 Feb. 1807 in London, England, son of Samuel and Sarah Rowsell; m. 1 Aug. 1835 Elizabeth Lewis, and they had one son and two daughters; d. 28 July 1890 in Toronto, Ont.

Henry Rowsell learned the book business in his father’s Cheapside bookshop, and in 1829 established his own business in London. In 1833 he immigrated to Canada with his brother William, and by 1835 had opened a book and stationery store in Toronto. From 1 July 1835 to 11 July 1836 he kept a diary which throws some light on polite society in the provincial capital. When the diary begins Rowsell is awaiting his English fiancée. She arrived on 19 July and they were married two weeks later in St James’ (Anglican) Church, of which they became members. He indulged his fondness for sports, literature, and music, joining the Toronto Cricket Club, the Shakespeare Club (immediate forerunner of the Toronto Literary Club), and an amateur musical society. He went to the races, to an exhibition of the Toronto Horticultural Society, and to the Theatre Royal when it opened in 1836. Henry and William Rowsell were both founding members of the St George’s Society in 1835 and Henry later held office as treasurer. Henry was also a charter member in 1844 of the Toronto Board of Trade, of which he became secretary, and of the Toronto Building Society. In 1848 he was treasurer of the Toronto Philharmonic Society, and in 1849 local secretary of the American Art Union. He also took an active interest in the House of Industry, serving for some time as secretary and treasurer.

In the politics of the pre-rebellion period Rowsell was a strong supporter of the Tory group in Upper Canada. In March 1836 he joined the executive committee of the British Constitutional Society, founded in 1832, and in the election called by Sir Francis Bond Head* for May 1836 canvassed on behalf of William Henry Draper* in Toronto. He also published in October The speeches, messages, and replies of His Excellency Sir Francis Bond Head, which he dedicated to the lieutenant governor. The pamphlet was printed at the press of the Patriot, but shortly thereafter, Henry and William opened a printing office, H. and W. Rowsell Company. They also inaugurated a lending library, containing, according to Anna Jameson [Murphy*], “two or three hundred common novels.” Their own advertisement states that the library was “constantly supplied with all the new and interesting publications as soon as published.” It was still in operation in 1849. A branch library and bookshop was established in Kingston probably in the late 1830s and it lasted until about 1842.

After William Rowsell returned to England in October 1846, Henry’s partners were Samuel Thompson, 1846–59, William Ellis, 1859–72, and Henry Hutchison, 1872–80. Rowsell devoted his attention largely to bookselling while his partners managed the printing and publishing end of the business. By about 1850 the firm was for a short time the most important publishing house in Canada West. It published a constant flow of pamphlets, tracts, annual reports, almanacs, directories, music books, school and university texts, legal and medical works, and books of general interest. The most ambitious undertaking was the publication, under the editorship of John McCaul, of the Maple-Leaf; or Canadian Annual, a Literary Souvenir (1847–49), an illustrated Canadian annual, described by Samuel Thompson in 1884 as “not since . . . surpassed, if equalled . . . in combined beauty and literary merit by any work that has issued from the Canadian Press.” In Rowsell’s city of Toronto and county of York directory, for 1850–1 . . . , Rowsell and Thompson are listed as “publishers to the University [of Toronto] and booksellers to the University and Upper Canada College.” They also published the Church, an Anglican newspaper (1846–55), the Patriot (1849–53), the British Colonial Magazine (1853), the British Colonist (1853–57), and the Canadian Ecclesiastical Gazette (1854–62). As Rowsell and Ellis, the firm, while continuing as publisher to the Toronto synod of the Church of England, specialized in legal publications, including the Upper Canada law and equity reports.

Publishing seems always, however, to have been a secondary interest for Henry Rowsell who was primarily a bookseller. He was intent on making his bookstore the best in Toronto, and it became the favourite rendezvous of writers, scholars, sportsmen, and professional men, who were attracted not only by the large and varied stock but also by the courteous manner, wide book knowledge, and public spirit of the proprietor. At this period a publisher could build up sufficient capital to extend his publishing activity either by entering the wholesale book and stationery distribution business or by obtaining lucrative government printing contracts. James Campbell and Son, Copp, Clark Publishing Company, W. J. Gage, and others chose the former; John Lovell and Company and Hunter, Rose and Company chose the latter. Rowsell elected to stay in the retail book business. In addition to books, he regularly sold lithographic maps, prints, and pictures, and occasionally held art exhibits in his store. Rowsell published at least seven catalogues of his bookstock, advertising a wide range of books both general and specialized from British, American, and Canadian publishers.

Henry Rowsell retired in 1880, and for the next decade lived in seclusion in Toronto. Increasing deafness and loss of eyesight prevented him from taking part in the social activities which, like his business concerns, had won him respect. He left an estate of close to $50,000 with legacies to five grandchildren and to the Church of England. From 1880 until his own death in 1909, Henry Hutchison carried on the retail store and publishing house as Rowsell and Hutchison.

H. Pearson Gundy

[Henry Rowsell issued sales catalogues including the following held by MTL: Rowsells’ catalogue of books, January 1st, 1846 (Toronto, 1846); Rowsell’s catalogue of books, March, 1848 (Toronto, 1848); Catalogue of books, for sale by Henry Rowsell, King Street, Toronto (Toronto, 1852); Catalogue of books, for sale by Henry Rowsell, King Street, Toronto (Toronto, 1856); 1872–73 price list of university books, for sale by Rowsell & Hutchison . . . ([Toronto, 1872]); 1873–4: a select catalogue of books for the young, adapted for presents, and for Sunday school prizes; for sale by Rowsell & Hutchinson . . . ([Toronto, 1873]); and 1873–74 price list of university books, for sale by Rowsell & Hutchison . . . ([Toronto, 1873]).

A few of his letters, all of minor importance, are in CTA, Toronto City Council papers (mfm. at AO). His last will and testament, probated 7 Aug. 1890 (no.8022), may be found in the York County Surrogate Court records (mfm. at AO). The Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Arch. (Toronto) holds a typewritten transcript of Henry Rowsell’s diary for the period 1 July 1835 to 11 July 1836. Much of the diary was published in F. N. Walker, Sketches of old Toronto (Toronto, 1965). Another diary, concerning mainly a trip to England in 1882–83, is held by UWO.

Samuel Thompson, Reminiscences of a Canadian pioneer for the last fifty years: an autobiography (Toronto, 1884; repub. Toronto and Montreal, 1968), includes information on the Rowsell brothers, and there is a brief but inaccurate biographical sketch in Landmarks of Canada; what art has done for Canadian history . . . (2v., Toronto, 1917–21; repr. in 1v., 1967), no.3709. Advertisements of the Rowsell firm under its successive partnerships may be found in Toronto directory, 1837–80, and in the British Colonist, the Canadian Family Herald, the Church, and the Patriot of Toronto; in the Canada Bookseller; Miscellany and Advertiser (Toronto), 1872; and in the Kingston Chronicle & Gazette and Daily News. Many Rowsell imprints can be found in Biblio. of Canadiana (Staton and Tremaine) and Biblio. of Canadiana: first supp. (Boyle and Colbeck).

William Rowsell’s return to England and the dissolution of the partnership are referred to in the Church, 11 Sept. 1846, the Globe, 15 Aug. 1850, and in the obituary notices for Henry Rowsell in the Globe, 30 July 1890, and in the Canadian Churchman (Toronto), 14 Aug. 1890.  h.p.g.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

H. Pearson Gundy, “ROWSELL, HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rowsell_henry_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/rowsell_henry_11E.html
Author of Article: H. Pearson Gundy
Title of Article: ROWSELL, HENRY
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 1982
Access Date: July 31, 2014