On Sept. 1, 1873, only two months after Prince Edward Island had joined Canadian Confederation, its first premier James Colledge Pope had resigned to pursue a new career in Parliament.
Succeeding him would be a new man who had a long history in the island’s politics. It could be said, he was the first true premier of the province but as for why he was chosen to be the premier, that is still up for debate.
At the time, much of the island’s best political talent had chosen to pursue careers in Parliament, leaving a team of rookies in charge of the island itself.
Among those rookies was the veteran player, who had been a reeve in the 1840s, served as a merchant agent in the 1850s, before moving into island politics in 1860, Lemuel Owen.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is From John to Justin.
Long before Owen was born, his grandfather Arthur Owen moved to what was then St. John’s Island from England around 1780. Arthur Owen was joined by a group of immigrants who have become known as the founders of many prominent Island families, including that of the previous premier, James Pope. Arthur Owen eventually became involved in shipbuilding and launched The Bolivar in 1826. This ship was the largest built on the island to that point.
Thomas Owen would take over the family business from his father, and it was he who first took the family into politics when he became the postmaster general of the island in the 1840s, a post he held until he passed away.
Lemuel Owen would begin his life in Charlottetown on Nov. 1, 1822, the eldest of 11 children born to Thomas and Ann Owen.
As a child, Lemuel was educated at various private schools, and then attended Central Academy in Charlottetown.
Like his grandfather and father, he became involved in the shipping industry as a young adult, and he would work with James Ellis Peake, who ran the most successful shipbuilding enterprise on the island at that time.
Lemuel would buy ships from builders on the island, then sell them to England, while also engaging in coastal trade. He would also open several agencies for off-island merchants, and he began to serve as the Island agent for Lloyd’s of London, a highly profitable venture.
After his father, and his friend James Peake, died in 1860, Lemuel took over his father’s position as postmaster general. In that position, he created a postage stamp system for the prepayment of letters and packages, began regular mail to and from the island, and implemented a system to interchange money orders between the island and the United Kingdom.
At the same time, Lemuel began a partnership with William Welsh, carrying on the business of Peake, under the new company of Welsh and Owen. The connection with William Welsh would become very strong when, in 1861, Lemuel married William’s sister Lois, with whom he had two children.
Continuing his dramatic rise in prominence on the island, Lemuel became the commanding major of the Kings County Regiment of the volunteer militia in 1862.
In 1866, Lemuel entered politics for the first time on a larger scale than being the hog reeve in Charlottetown two decades previous. Elected to the House of Assembly, he came to the colony’s government just as two major issues were dominating discussion.
The first was the issue of Prince Edward Island joining Confederation, of which Lemuel, like his predecessor Pope, was opposed to. The second was whether there should be public grants for Catholic schools. As Lemuel was a member of the ST. Paul’s Anglican Church, while he didn’t say publicly, he was likely opposed to it.
One year after he was elected to the Legislative Assembly, he left his role as postmaster general, ending over 25 years of the family serving in that position.
In 1870, when the Conservatives came back into power under James Pope, Lemuel was made the chairman of the Board of Works and a member of the Executive Council. As a result of this, Lemuel was the administrator of the provisions that would be put into the Railway Act of 1871, which would bankrupt the colony, bring up charges of bribery, and push Prince Edward Island into Confederation.
Due to the fallout over the railway, Lemuel, like many others in Pope’s government, lost his seat in the 1872 election.
He would not be out of the colony’s politics for long, and returned in 1873, opposing confederation still but also seeing that with the island’s finances in tatters, it was the best solution. As a result, he came to support the idea and was a major reason why the island’s government would join Canada on July 1, 1873.
When Pope left his position as premier, it fell to Lemuel to take over, becoming the first post-Confederation premier of the province.
It is likely, along with his experience, he was selected as premier because of his business background. With the economy still recovering from the railway construction two years previous, it was likely believed that he was well suited to dealing with the economy, even as Canada assumed the debt of the island.
As premier, Lemuel would successfully deal with the problems that this new province was facing, including the land question.
In 1874, a land purchase bill was proposed. It would set up a land commission to value the remaining estates to be purchased by the province, and also provide arbitration for complaints.
On June 30, the Land Purchase Act came into effect in Prince Edward Island. This Act was meant to settle the land question that had come up as PEI joined Confederation. At the time, much of the land in the new province was owned by absentee landlords. The new act would force landlords to sell their estates to the provincial government, who would then sell the land at a lower price to farmers on the island. This legislation was one of the most important in the history of the province. The first Chief Justice of Canada, William Buell Richards, would state that it should be, “viewed not as ordinary legislation, but as the settling of an important question of great moment to the community, and in the principle like the abolition of seigniorial tenure in Lower Canada and the settling of the land question in Ireland. The great object of the statute seems to have been to convert the leasehold tenures into freehold estates, a matter of great importance, and one which, if not settled, would be likely to affect the peace as well as well as the prosperity of the province.” To this day, many principles of this act are still in place in PEI. Non-residents are not allowed to purchase land of more than 4.9 acres without approval of the legislature cabinet.
While this act would change Prince Edward Island forever, the schools question had not gone away. In April 1874, a Roman Catholic member of his caucus introduced a motion regarding the question that split along denominational lines in the Legislature, rather than party lines. With his party splitting and the Roman Catholic members against him, Lemuel chose to retire as premier rather than go through the 1876 election, which he felt he would lose.
That election was dominated by the schools question, and it brought in the first Liberal government for Prince Edward Island, but that is a story for the next episode.
Now out of politics, Lemuel settled down to a quiet life. He began to work on his home, called Birchwood, located at 35 Longworth Avenue in Charlottetown, which he would move into on Nov. 11, 1876.
For the remainder of his life, he kept out of politics and focused on trying to keep his businesses afloat. From the 1880s onwards, his businesses began to experience sharp declines due to the shipping depression. For some reason, despite his skill in business, Lemuel never diversified and he would see his fortune slowly begin to decline.
He would make very little news over the next few decades, beyond when he visited various locations, including a note in the Ottawa Daily Citizen on Feb. 19, 1892 when he was in the city to visit his children, who were living there. At the time, his son worked for the marine department, while another son worked as an inspector of the Bank of Ottawa.
The Ottawa Daily Citizen wrote,
“Although an Octogenarian, he stood the long journey to Ottawa well and received a joyous welcome from his family.”
Things would continue to decline for Lemuel as the years went on.
He would eventually sell his beloved property Birchwood in 1895, just before the death of his wife.
By the time 1912 rolled around, he was so unknown that news stories about him had most of the facts wrong. When he fell ill in mid-November 1912, his son, also named Lemuel, journeyed from Ottawa to see him. The Montreal Gazette would report on this, incorrectly labelling Lemuel Owen the senior as the one time Lt. Governor of Prince Edward Island.
He would pass away in the home of his son on Nov. 26, 1912.
Overall, his death passed with little notice in Canada. Very few newspapers reported on it, as he had been out of the public eye for almost four decades by the time he died.
The Ottawa Citizen would state simply,
“The late Hon. Mr. Owen was the first premier of the island province after it entered Confederation. His ministry extended from 1873 to 1876. He was in his 92nd year.”
Information from Biographi, Ottawa Daily Citizen, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia,