The Orangeman in Winter: Ogle Gowan, Masculine Frailties, and the Rise of the Orange Order

After many, many months of silence, I’m posting again.  The time since March has been slightly mad with conferences and research on the new book.  The next half-dozen or so posts will be versions of these papers that I gave at conferences in Boston, Montreal, Belfast, Galway, Vancouver, and Ottawa.  This first, “The Orangeman in Winter”, was first given at the Northeast Victorian Studies Association meeting at Boston University in April.  The subject of the conference was one specific year of the Victorian era: 1874.

*** *** ***

Picture Toronto in the cold spring of 1874.  There’s still frost and snow on the ground.  Your breath shows in the air.  In the lanes off Yonge Street in North York, a slightly haunted figure walks ahead of you.  In a kinder, more literary world, he could almost be Scrooge on Christmas morning, out in the snow in bed-slippers – if only he was smiling.  The man’s hair is grey, as are his sideburns and unshaven cheeks.  Seeing him, one can’t help but think that this is a broken man, an old man, someone who, perhaps, has lost something precious.  The man slips into a public house and makes his way inside.  Maybe the publican or a few boys at the bar recognize him; maybe not.  The old man looks up, checks that the liquor license for the premises is plainly visible, nods, and then heads out into the cold again until he comes across the next pub (and, this being Toronto, it’s not that far away).

1874 was a cruel year for Ogle Robert Gowan.  Forty-five years before in 1829, he had arrived in Upper Canada from Co. Wexford, Ireland; within one year, he had become one of the most important men in the colony.  As the founder and first Canadian Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of British North America, Ogle Gowan might not have walked with kings, but he certainly came close.  He received commendations for bravery from Queen Victoria, was a personal friend and professional asset for John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, helped to crush the oligarchical power of the Family Compact after the 1837 Rebellion, and was the centre of the Orange Order, the most influential fraternity in British North America and, later, Canada, for over a century.  And yet, during his own lifetime, he became a forgotten relic of the past.  In 1874, he was forced to retire as the liquor inspector for North York, a job given to him by the Toronto municipal council out of pity rather than respect, at the same time that Orangeism was defining itself as one of the most powerful aspects of the Irish Diaspora, not only in English Canada, but worldwide.  So, what happened?

This paper is an attempt to combine my two current research projects regarding Orangemen in Canada in the nineteenth century.  The first is an examination of Irish Protestant emigration from Co. Wexford to Upper Canada in the aftermath of the 1798 Rising in Ireland. Farmers, artisans and local gentry who had fought for the Crown against the United Irishmen in ’98 were later granted land parcels in what is now Eastern Ontario.  Among these were many friends and supporters of the Gowan family, and it was to them that Ogle turned when he arrived in the colony in 1829, a supposed “refugee” (his own term) from the horrors of Catholic Emancipation.  The second project (because I’m insane enough to be attempting to write two books at once) is to look at the role the Orange Order played in Canada’s greatest controversy: the life and death of Louis Riel, a hero and martyr in French Canada, and simultaneously, an insane traitor in English Canada.  Riel’s public life spanned from 1869 to his hanging in 1885; in 1874, the Orange Order of Canada was directly responsible for expelling Riel from the Canadian House of Commons (in absentia – Riel was already in exile in the United States).

Ogle Gowan is a part of both of these stories: without him, Orangeism would not have become the most powerful social institution in the history of Canada, and without his precedent-setting example, the Order would not have spread throughout the British Empire as successfully as it did.  And yet, when Orangeism was reaching new heights in 1874, he was notable not for his presence, but for his absence.  And all of this means that I am going to be spending the better part of the next decade consistently researching the life and times of a man who, hand to God, resembles the Notre Dame Leprechaun more than anything else.


The Orange Order was a fraternity of Irish Protestants established in 1795 during a time of harsh agrarian violence in Ireland.  It called itself “Orange” in remembrance of King William III, the Protestant prince of the House of Orange who defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  This victory secured the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland for the better part of two centuries.  The Order was originally made up of Church of Ireland adherents from a range of classes and backgrounds; their focus was securing the Crown in Ireland, advancing Protestantism (at the expense of Irish Roman Catholics), and triumphantly performing their interpretation of traditional, loyal masculinities through parades, violent altercations, and – eventually – political dominance.

The Order was banned in Ireland in the 1820s and remained relatively unpopular there until the end of the nineteenth century when questions about Irish independence prompted a revival of the Order and a uniting of Protestant denominations under one cause that has continued to the present day in Northern Ireland.  Orangemen already existed in the Canadas before Ogle Gowan arrived in Brockville in 1829, but there was no unifying institution to support their social, cultural and political aspirations.  Once the Order was officially established on 1 January 1830, it quickly spread throughout Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and the British colonies in the Maritimes.  By 1874, nearly 1/3 of all Protestant Canadians were members, including the prime minister, many cabinet members and members of parliament, Protestant clergymen, business owners, and an increasing number of non-Irish participants: as Catholicism was the only forbidden element in the Orange lodges, most of Canada could join, apart from French Canadians.


            Perhaps the greatest catalyst for Orange power in the new Dominion of Canada came in 1870 with the execution of an Orangeman, Thomas Scott, in the Red River Colony (modern-day Winnipeg).  By all accounts, Scott was… a “difficult” man.  One of my stand-by texts for my Irish Canadian history class is Will Ferguson’s Bastards and Boneheads, a fabulous tongue-in-cheek account of the Canadian past.  Ferguson – himself of Scottish and Irish descent and the most recent winner of the Giller Prize – quickly points out that Scott was “an asshole.”  (My classes love hearing that.)  However, being a cantankerous git is hardly justification for a death sentence, which is the great mistake made by Canada’s most controversial Father of Confederation: Louis Riel.


Riel was a Metis, half-French Canadian and half-aboriginal.  It is highly likely, in fact, that “Riel” was a corruption of “O’Reilly”, an Irish surname that had been Frenchified long before the British ever had possession of North America.  This makes the Thomas Scott-Louis Riel saga a variation on the familiar theme of tension between Irish Catholics and Protestants in the Irish Diaspora.  Riel was a natural leader and was in the midst of fighting a battle of words against the Canadian government’s seizure of Metis lands in their purchase of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Most historians agree that Riel’s cause was extremely just in the winter of 1869-70: the Metis had not been consulted during the negotiations, but were simply handed over to the Canadian government with no rights of representation in Ottawa.  As such, Riel seized control of the Red River Colony and established a provisional government that would hold power until negotiations with Canada reached a satisfactory point.

Just when it seemed that Riel was making headway with the representatives of John A. Macdonald, Thomas Scott sauntered onto the scene.  Scott was a native of Co. Down and an Orangeman with a noted violent past.  Upon arriving in Canada, he had joined the Hastings Militia (near Belleville, Ontario) and became an executive for the Orange Order in British North America.  Drawn by the adventure and job opportunities of the frontier, he headed west and quickly fell in with Canadian annexationists in Red River.  Ideologically, the Canadian annexationists had much in common with American proponents of Manifest Destiny, albeit with the slight difference of wanting to promote the British Crown as the centre of all loyalties rather than a republic.  When Riel seized control of Red River, Scott took this as a personal insult and led an attack on Upper Fort Garry that resulted in his arrest.  Thomas Scott was not an ideal prisoner – he constantly abused and insulted his Metis jailers, maintaining that they had no right to detain a loyal citizen of the British Empire.  After receiving a near fatal beating for his rude behaviour, Scott was tried for sedition (in French, a language he could not understand), sentenced and executed by firing squad on 4 March 1870, about which I’ve written before.


Canadian history never was the same again.

The reaction against Riel was immediate and vitriolic.  The tens of thousands of Orangemen in the province of Ontario saw Scott’s demise as nothing short of murder, making him a martyr to the Orange and imperial cause.  They demanded vengeance, held mass meetings demanding action from Macdonald, and eventually took part in the “Wolseley Expedition”, a 1500 mile trek through the Canadian wilderness to apprehend Riel in person.  The Red River Rebellion did not end with Riel’s death – he escaped to Montana before the Orangemen could hang him from the nearest tree – but the white-washing of Scott’s memory and the accompanying perfidy of Riel’s actions made him Public Enemy #1 for Canadian Orangemen.

Four years later, with Manitoba now an official province of the dominion, Mackenzie Bowell, the Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Canada, lobbied in parliament for Riel’s official expulsion from the Canadian House of Commons.  This was a direct attempt to reject Riel’s position as a Father of Confederation and to make sure he could never take a seat in Parliament as a representative from Manitoba.  By 1874, the Orange Order had become a de facto wing of the Tory Party and was as powerful a lobby group as any modern pro-gun lobby here in America, or pipeline supporters in Canada.

The expulsion of Riel in 1874 made Mackenzie Bowell a cult hero, not just in Orange Canada, but across the greater Irish Protestant Diaspora.  He received letters of congratulation from members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in Co. Down and Co. Antrim, from Orangemen in northern New York, and from St John’s, Newfoundland.  The date of this global interest in the doings of the Orangemen in Canada matched a growing awareness of the Orange presence throughout the British Empire.  By 1874, Orange Lodges had attained a greater presence in Australia, particularly following the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred), by Henry James O’Farrell during the Fenian uprisings.  Similarly, Orangemen in New Zealand took on new relevance in the 1870s, both for their increasing political clout, but also for their involvement in popular violence, such as the Timaru Orange Riot.

But, in the midst of this new popularity and power of Orangeism, where was Ogle?

After founding the first Orange Lodge in Upper Canada in 1830, Ogle Gowan heavily involved himself in local politics; in particular, he attempted to dismantle the power of the Family Compact in the Brockville area.  For decades after the War of 1812, Upper Canadian society lived by the whims and wishes of a select group of United Empire Loyalist descendants – the closest Canada has ever come to having a home-grown aristocracy.  Gowan opposed this oligarchy because of its exclusivity and, more pointedly, its disdain for non-Anglicans (Gowan was an Anglican himself, but he also knew that votes and political support depended on many other denominations).  When the Upper Canadian Rebellion of 1837 occurred, Gowan – as his father had done before him in 1798 – sided with the Crown, but he hoped his involvement in safe-guarding the establishment would, in the end, widen its membership.  After a botched, and particularly violent invasion near Prescott in 1838 by American Hunter Patriots, Gowan became a national celebrity cited for his bravery and leadership of the local militia.  He was wounded in the Battle of the Windmill, which lent further credence to his image as a new Irish Canadian hero (he managed to obscure the fact that he had backed up onto a friendly bayonet and instead promoted that he had a “hip injury”).

In the newly united province of the Canadas in 1840, Gowan continued his political career with great success; indeed, his only loss seems to have been his failed opposition to the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849, though he was no longer a member of parliament by that time, so his opposition was somewhat stifled.  This bill, which introduced responsible government to Canada, was opposed by most Tories and Orangemen, including John A. Macdonald, as it awarded reparations to the “losers” of the 1837/38 Rebellions, particularly those in Lower Canada who had led a true rising against British authority.

In the next decade, however, Gowan’s shadow over Canadian political and cultural life began to dim.  The Orange Order was the most popular fraternal organization in the colony, providing networks for employment, insurance, socializing, and politics; however, the creation had grown beyond the control of its one-time Grand Master.

I’m trying to piece together why Gowan faded from public life in the 1850s and 1860s, to the point where, by 1874, he had no voice in the Louis Riel saga.  Ageism is a first thought, though Gowan was still relatively young: he was born in 1803 and lived until 1876 – is he a political example of the young man who peaked too early?  (So trying not to think of Ogle as Orson Welles.)

Certainly, he lost friends over the years: his one-time intimate, his cousin Sir James Robert Gowan, disavowed any association with Ogle in the early 1840s, leaving the Orange Lodge and going so far as to write to Ogle to demand the return of any personal correspondence from years previous.  James Gowan went on to become a highly important justice in Ontario – but what was it about Ogle that necessitated such a definite end to their friendship?

Similarly, Ogle Gowan was rejected by Sir John A. Macdonald in the years leading up to Canadian Confederation in 1867.  Whereas Gowan and Macdonald had been together in the Canadian parliament in the 1840s, with Gowan controlling the Orange lobby that was so vital to Tory power in a deadlocked government, this close relationship ended abruptly.  There is evidence that, in the early 1860s, Ogle Gowan was charged with child molestation – accusations were brought by two twelve year-old girls, but were then dropped; he never went to trial.  Could this immorality have been what made Macdonald turn away from his one-time political ally?  Rather than having another Orangeman at his side as he tried to create a new country, Macdonald instead reached out to the French Canadian imperialist, George-Etienne Cartier, and to the former Fenian-turned-Irish moderate, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

The 1864 Charlottetown Conference Orangemen and Irishmen were present, but not Gowan

And so, in 1874, we are left with two very different images of Orange power: the collective versus the individual.  On the one hand, the Orange Order – thanks in no small part to its massive success on the Canadian political and cultural landscape – became one of the most powerful fraternities in the British Empire in the years before the Great War.  It was a representation of successfully transplanted imperial masculinities, demonstrating that proximity to Britain and Ireland was not needed in order to retain the tenets of Crown, Protestantism, Tradition and Empire that were at the heart of Britain’s territorial supremacy.  Alternatively, we have the picture of Ogle Gowan and his slippers in Toronto: a forgotten man, left to raise his grandchildren in relative obscurity, a man no longer needed by the very thing which had defined his life.

There is a codicil, however: these grandchildren Ogle raised continued, in their own way, the tradition of Gowans in public life.  His grandson, George Ferguson, was one of the most successful premiers in the history of Ontario, standing as a display of Orange power in the hey-days before the Second World War.  And his granddaughter, Emily Gowan Ferguson Murphy, was the driving force behind the 1929 Persons Case, which decided forevermore than women counted as people under Canadian Law, and, therefore, were entitled to equal rights and seats of power.

Ogle Gowan: the Grandfather of Canadian Feminism?
Further Reading:
Donald Akenson, The Orangeman
Public Archives of Ontario – The Gowan Papers
Donald Creighton, The Old Chieftain
Will Ferguson, Bastards and Boneheads
The Dictionary of Canadian
Creative Commons Licence
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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