Robert Gowan – Banker and Journalist

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Robert Gowan – Banker and Journalist

Starting as a drummer-boy in the 74th Regiment, Robert Gowan eventually became a banker, journalist, and civil servant. After entering civilian life as an accountant for a lumber merchant and shipbuilder, Gowan played a key role in the establishment of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Fredericton and helped organize freemasonry in New Brunswick. 

St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Fredericton
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Fredericton

In partnership with Henry Garrett Clopper, he co-founded the Central Bank of New Brunswick in 1834, which provided a competitive alternative to the Saint John-based Bank of New Brunswick. 

Bank of New Brunswick, Saint John
Bank of New Brunswick, Saint John

In 1832 and 1833 Gowan wrote a series of letters, under the nom de plume of John Gape, to the New Brunswick Courier. These letters concentrated on attacking the inefficiency of the Crown Lands Office and the arrogance and alleged graft of Baillie. They hardened public opinion against the government in power and gave impetus to the movement led by Charles Simonds and Edward Barron Chandler that in 1837 resulted in the surrender of the crown lands to legislative control. Witty and homespun and reflecting the libertarian prejudices of the timbermen against overbearing bureaucracy, these letters could scarcely be described as literary, but they were influential. “He wielded a facile and sprightly pen; and his Johnny Gape letters to the St John Courier have created a wider influence in the province than any letters before or since . . . . What old resident of New Brunswick has forgotten those famous letters?” Perhaps the most impressive of his journalistic contributions was a drama in three parts, commencing in the Courier 23 Feb. 1833 and entitled “The triumph of intrigue.” This depicts Baillie and his father-in-law, William F. Odell, presiding over the crown lands after the fashion of Scottish lairds.

Robert Gowan’s experience in the timber trade gave him a strong dislike for the authoritarian control exerted by the commissioner of crown lands, Thomas Baillie, who imposed heavy charges on the timber trade to create a fund that would make the government independent of the legislature. In response, Gowan wrote a series of influential letters to the New Brunswick Courier under the pseudonym John Gape, criticizing the inefficiency and alleged corruption of the Crown Lands Office and fueling public opinion against the government. They hardened public opinion against the government in power and gave impetus to the movement led by Charles Simonds and Edward Barron Chandler that in 1837 resulted in the surrender of the crown lands to legislative control. 

Edward Baron Chandler
Edward Baron Chandler

In 1840, likely as a reward for his political service, Gowan became chief clerk in the Crown Lands Office, a position he held until his retirement in 1870. He was also known among freemasons for his determination to maintain the independent jurisdiction of Scottish lodges. Although his writings may not have been literary masterpieces, they were witty and homespun, reflecting the libertarian beliefs of the timbermen and had a significant impact on the province. 

Robert Gowan died on January 30th, 1879 in Fredericton. 

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