Biographical Sketch of James R. Gowan

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James Robert Gowan, Judge of the Judicial district of Simcoe, was born in the County of Wexford, Ireland, December 22nd, 181i; his parents being Henry Hatton and Elizabeth (Burkitt) Gowan. In 1832 the family emigrated to Upper Canada, and for years the father of our subject was Deputy Clerk of the Crown and Pleas for the County of Simcoe. He died in 186:3. The son was educated chiefly in Canada; studied law with Hon. James E. Small, of Toronto, Solicitor-General for Upper Canada; was called to the bar in 1839, and practiced in partnership with Mr. Small until January, 1843, when he was appointed Judge of the Judicial District of Simcoe, now embracing the Districts of Muskoka and Parry Sound this appointment coming from “the Reform Government of Baldwin and Lafontaine.” When Mr. Gowan went on the bench, he was just twenty-five years of age, the youngest man, we believe, in the Province ever called to such a position. His subsequent history has verified the wisdom of this appointment. He has probably been on the bench longer than any other man now living in the Dominion of Canada, and has made a very honorable record.

Judge Gowan aided very much in organizing the District over whose Courts he was called to preside, and in 1844 the magistrates of the District presented him with an elegant and valuable snuff box of wrought gold, with the following inscription on it:

“.Presented to His Honor Judge James R. Gowan, by the Magistrates of the District of Simcoe, who gratefully acknowledge his invaluable services in the Judicial organization of this new District, and his uniform kindness to them personally.

“Barrie, Upper Canada, July, 1844.”

A writer in the Orillia Packet, of October 27, 1876, thus speaks of the Judge’s District and his hardships and dangers at an early day:

“His district was then, as now, the largest in Upper Canada, and his position one of unusual difficulty. The officials under him were inexperienced, and he had to train them to their duties. A feeling of opposition to the appointments in the new country was rife, and added somewhat to the Judge’s difficulties, but it also led to some friendships of a firm and unbroken nature. Among these early supporters was the late Mr. James Dallas, who was then Warden. The Judge applied himself assiduously to his duties, and had to contend with hard ships and dangers incidental to a new country.

Many a time a ride of more than seventy miles in the day was necessary to meet Court engagements, and this through unbroken forests or over wretched roads; and it was no unusual circumstance to find from 200 to 600 cases to be disposed of at a single court. On one occasion he was obliged to journey through the Pine Plains between Barrie and Collingwood, when the woods were on fire. The whole forest was ablaze; the burning trees were falling in all directions, some on the road over which he had just passed, and others in front of him, while the smoke was stifling, and the heat almost unbearable. On another occasion, while crossing in his cutter, a river that was flooded, the harness gave way, and he was being carried away to certain death, when he seized his horse by the tail, twisted the long hair around his arm, and urging on his faithful horse, succeeded, by the exercise of almost superhuman strength, in being dragged out of the stream in his cutter. Added to such dangers from fire and flood, he suffered much from inhaling the vitiated air of the small, close and badly ventilated rooms in which he was obliged, in those early days, to hold his Courts. Yet with such diligence and exactness did he perform his duties, that, after the lapse of nearly twentysix years he was able to say, `I have never been absent from the Superior Courts over which I preside, and, as to the Division Courts (except when on other duties at the instance of the Government), fifty days would cover all the occasions when a deputy acted for me:”

The District Judges being ex officio Judges of the Division Courts in their Judicial Districts, in 1853 an Act was passed giving the Governor power to appoint five Judges to frame rules regulating procedure in such Courts, and for settling doubtful points, &c., under the Division Court law. The five appointed were Judges Harrison, O’Reilly, Campbell, Gowan and Malloch.

In October, 1857, the Judges of the Courts of Queen’s Bench and Common Pleas, being empowered to associate a District Judge with them in making certain provisions regarding fees, under the Common Law Procedure Act, selected Judge Gowan for that duty. “The Act assimilating the Canadian Law of Probate and Administration to that of England, and providing for Courts in every Judicial District, required the appointment, by the Governor, of three Judges: a Judge of one of the Superior Courts of Common Law, a Judge of the Court of Chancery, and a County Judge, to make rules and orders regulating procedure in these Courts, and for carrying the provisions of the law into full effect; and Mr. Justice Burns, Vice-Chancellor Spragge and Judge Gowan, were the three Judges appointed for the purpose in August, 1858, and who subsequently framed and settled the orders which now regulate the Courts.”

We also learn from the “Legal Directory,” just quoted, that the difficult task of consolidating the Public Statutes of the country, involving the classification and the recasting of the whole body of the Statute Law from 1792, being committed to Sir James Macaulay, at his suggestion, Judge Gowan was requested by the Governor-General to cooperate and assist in this important work, which he did, and in the published report, Sir James Macaulay speaks very strongly of the assistance rendered by Judge Gowan. This Consolidation became law, and the Statute provided that the public Acts of the same Session should be incorporated therewith, and the body of the Statutes thus Consolidated to the day, proclaimed as law.: Judge Gowan assisted in this delicate task. Sir James Macaulay thus wrote in regard to the services rendered by our subject in the work of Consolidation: “I feel every confidence that a good work has been achieved, and a desirable basis laid for future legislation; and for the able services rendered by Judge Gowan, the Government, the Legislature, and the public, as well as myself, are indebted to him.”

We learn further from the “Legal Directory,” that in 1862 special commissions were issued to Messrs Macaulay and Gowan to hold certain Courts, they taking the place temporarily of Chief Justice Draper, then absent in Europe. In the same year he was selected, with the Government Engineer and one other engineer, to settle disputed claims between the Government of Canada and the Contractors, for the erection of the Parliament Buildings at Ottawa. Of that tribunal he was chairman, and by a unanimous finding, in a very short time, they settled the perplexing and long pending dispute. In 1869 Judge Gowan was appointed Chairman of The Board of County Judges, a body which regulates the procedure of the Division Courts and settles conflicting decisions, their orders having the force of law throughout the Province.

After the Confederation of the Provinces, it became necessary to assimilate and consolidate the Criminal Laws of the several Provinces. This, under the auspices of Sir John A. Macdonald, was accomplished in 1869, in a, series of enactments, by the Parliament of Canada, which are now law. In the preparation of this important consolidation, Judge Gowan cooperated throughout.

In 1871, Judge Gowan was appointed, with four other gentlemen, Messrs Adam Wilson, now Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, J. M. Gwynn, now a Justice of the Supreme Court, S. H. Strong, also of the Supreme Court, and C. S. Patterson, now a Judge of the Court of Appeals, a Commission to inquire into the constitution and jurisdiction of the several Courts of Law and Equity, Superior and Inferior, Appellate and Original, and into the operation and effect of the present separation and division of jurisdiction among the Courts, &c., similar to the English Judicature Commission.

In August, 1873, Judge Gowan, the Hon. C. D. Day, and Judge Antoine Polette, were appointed Royal Commissioners to investigate certain charges against the Ministry in connection with the Canada Pacific Railway contract. In 1874 he was appointed one of the Commissioners to revise, consolidate, and classify the public general Statutes applying to Ontario; and in 1877 he was one of the Commissioners engaged in completing this consolidation of the same down to November of that year.

Judge Gowan’s ability as a legal draughtsman led the Honorable Robert Baldwin in 1843 to obtain his aid, and ever since, with scarcely an exception, the several Attorneys-General succeeding him have largely availed themselves of the suggestions and assistance of Judge Gowan in the preparation of many important measures of law reform now on the Statute book.”

Energetic and earnest, and fearless and firm as a Judge, yet his relations have always been pleasant with those having business before him, and he has secured the regard and respect of the legal profession. On the completion of a quarter of a century’s service on the Bench, he was presented by the Bar of the Courts, wherein he had presided so long, with a life sized portrait of himself in his official robes, accompanied by an address, from which we extract a couple of paragraphs

“We feel that to your wise counsels and examples are mainly due the existence of a Bar in this County, which will compare favorably with any in the Dominion, and that this result has been obtained without, in the smallest degree, fostering it at the expense of the public interests.

“We believe that to your firm and dignified administration of the Laws is mainly to be attributed the comparative freedom from crime, which, we rejoice to know, distinguishes the County of Simcoe, and the respect for law and order which pervades all classes of our community.

“The Profession have long felt that some public recognition of your extended and valuable services on the Bench, and your kindly spirit towards themselves, was due to you, and we now beg your acceptance, at our hands, of this life sized painting of yourself, in your official chair and robes, as a mark of the respect and esteem in which you are held by us; and while making it as we do, your own private property, we ask the favor that it may for a time be permitted to hang in the Court Room, so that all may have an opportunity of seeing it, and learning that the profession have paid tribute to your worth.”

This was followed shortly after by an address from the Simcoe County Council expressive of their “lively appreciation of Judge Govan’s long judicial services,”and assuring him that the same sentiments “of esteem and high respect that animated the Council towards his person were equally shared by the people at large,”.

The Judges throughout Ontario have the appointment of all the officers of the Division Courts, whose incomes from fees are, in some cases, double that of the Judge who appoints them. Of the way in which Judge Gowan exercised this very important patronage, an Ex M. P. thus speaks in the Barrie Examiner, November, 1876, in connection with Judge Gowan’s career, as “a matter which has deservedly long since obtained the approbation of thinking men of all parties in this community, namely, the wise and just manner in which, for over a third of a century the Judge has exercised the large patronage vested in his office; and, with a staff of some twenty-eight or more, clerks and bailiffs of courts, this is a matter of great importance to the public interest.

“In proof of this, I may mention a fact to show how well officers of his appointing stood with the public. No less than eight were elected reeves, and some of them were elected again and again; and three served in the honorable office of warden in the county; with several others chosen to fill the office of councilor in the local municipalities.

“I may say that I speak from actual knowledge of the matter, having resided in the county longer than the Judge himself, and am somewhat intimately acquainted with public feeling.”

In 1872, after the Judge had been on the Bench for twenty-nine years, to relieve him in part from judicial labors, John A. Ardagh, B. A., of Barrie, was appointed Junior Judge. Judge Gowan being the Senior Judge of the four judicial officers in the district which is the largest and most populous in Canada exceeding in population the Provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba together.

The author of “The Irishman in Canada” thus speaks of Judge Gowan: “A pioneer Judge, he is yet an erudite lawyer, and he has been a leading mind in all the great legal reforms. He has more than once been tempted in vain with offers of a seat on the Bench of the Superior Courts.”

Judge Gowan has always taken great interest in the cause of education, being intimately connected with the Provincial School system for over thirty-six years, as chairman of the Board of Public Instruction from its formation, and for many years past as chairman of the Senior High School Board of the County of Simcoe, finding time amidst his other engagements to perform, satisfactorily and acceptably, the duties of these honorary and honorable positions.

In early life, and up to a short time before his appointment, the Judge was a frequent writer for the lay press in Toronto; and The Law Journal, the only legal periodical in Ontario, was undertaken in 1855 at his instance, and for many years he largely contributed to its pages, and afterwards to its material support. Many of the law reforms enacted by the Legislature were first advocated in The Law Journal.
He is a member of the Episcopal Church, Reformed.

“Judge Gowan,” in the words of a leading county paper, the Examiner, of December, 1872,”is a gentleman possessing the esteem and confidence of all classes of the community in which he resides, whether social, religious or political. As an impartial Judge, we think we but speak the sentiment of the entire county when we say that no Judge in the Dominion of Canada can show as long and as clean a record. The justness of his decisions, and the clearness of his opinions, which stand second to none, have on several occasions been utilized in the framing of the laws of the country. As a citizen, he is ever foremost in every project that has for its object the welfare of the people and the general good of the country. In matters of business he is scrupulously exact, his word being as good as his bond. To acts of charity and benevolence few men have devoted the same amount of time and attention.”

He is a very old Mason, high up in the Order, but of late years has rarely attended a Lodge meeting, letting nothing interfere with his duties.

He was married in July, 1853, to Anna, daughter of the late Rev. S. B. Ardagh, Rector of Barrie, and incumbent of Shanty Bay. “Arrive,” their home, on the outskirts of Barrie, is a beautiful spot, the house surrounded by extensive ornamental grounds and gardens; Kempenfeldt’ Bay, an arm of Lake Simcoe, spreading out in front of the house, is one of the loveliest sheets of water in Ontario.



MLA Source Citation:

The Canadian Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self Made Men, Ontario, Volume 1. Toronto: Toronto American Biographical Pub. Co. 1880. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 29 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/canada/biographical-sketch-of-james-r-gowan.htm - Last updated on Aug 7th, 2012


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