Newton Wesley Rowell letter books

Newton Wesley Rowell

Newton Wesley Rowell (1867-1941) is perhaps best known as a provincial and federal politician, a Chief Justice of Ontario (1936-1938) and a leader in the United Church of Canada. However, for all of Rowell’s later accomplishments, he began as all lawyers do in Ontario, articling as a student-at-law for a lawyer or law firm. Like many at the time, Rowell did not attend university, instead completing a commercial course in 1883 and passing his high school matriculation exams in 1886. This allowed him enrollment as a student-at-law of the Law Society of Upper Canada and a position with the law firm of Fraser & Fraser, located in London, Ontario. Without a university degree, Rowell was required to spend five years articling with the firm from 1886 until 1891, following which he was called to the Bar. As was common during this period, much of Rowell’s legal education came from his experience working at Fraser & Fraser.

In 2016, Senator Nancy Ruth, the granddaughter of Newton Rowell, donated three letter books belonging to her grandfather to the Archives of the Law Society of Upper Canada. The letter books, which consist of carbon copies of letters handwritten by Rowell, document his trip to Western Canada and the United States on behalf of Fraser & Fraser while a law student in late 1890 and early 1891. The firm had been hired by the London branch of Molson’s Bank to collect debts on behalf of two bankrupt London farm implementation distributors. Rowell was assigned to travel west and visit the farmers who had not paid the debts owed from the purchase of their farm equipment, with the purpose of gathering new promissory notes for those debts.

The letters in these books, which have been digitized in their entirety by the Archives, document Rowell’s communications with his firm’s lawyers, namely M.D. Fraser of the London office, T.H. Gilmour and F.J. Calvert in Winnipeg, and other associated local lawyers and clerks. In the majority of his letters, Rowell discussed his daily work activities and strategies for debt collection, with occasional anecdotes about his interaction with the farmers in question, as found in this letter written to Fraser:

“I had quite an instructive address from a farmer’s wife yesterday about this machinery. I was talking to her husband about notes when she came up. Her vigorous language for about 15 minutes was along this line: ‘I would see them all in H--- before I would pay another cent for the d--- thing’, etc., etc. & wound up by saying that it had caused more swearing ten times over than it was worth. I settled with her husband, however, notwithstanding her protest. The best plan, I find, is to use a slang expression, ‘To stay right with them’ & after they have worked off their bile, you can generally get down to business” (Book II, p. 32-33). 

Rowell’s letters to Fraser also often include his impressions of the landscape, the weather, and the forecast for farmers’ crops, an important factor for the repayment of their debts. One particular challenge for Rowell was how to navigate the countryside in order to locate and visit the farmers on his list in an expedient fashion. After first hiring a local livery driver to take him from farm to farm, Rowell tried his hand at travelling alone in Saskatchewan:

“During the past three weeks I have been navigating the country without a drive. It saves $2 per day & I have not got lost very often. On two or three different occasions I have driven from 20 to 30 miles after dark through an unknown country & turned up safe & sound at the end of the journey. I could not do it of course if the days were not bright and the nights clear for if there is not much settlement where I can make inquiries, I have to guide my course by the sun or stars as the case may be. As I think I have before written, there are no roads or fences in this country and the trails wind in every direction” (Book II, p. 39). 

As his travels took him further west, Rowell shared his excitement at seeing mountains and offered his first impressions of Vancouver in a letter to lawyer F.J. Calvert:

“The trip through the mountains is past description. It must be seen in order to have an idea of its appearance. I would not have missed it for a good deal. Vancouver is a pushing town where everything is new & fresh. No old houses. The stores are large & fine, equal to Winnipeg & judging from appearances it is to be one of the cities of the future.” (Book III, p. 13).

One of the only letters in these books that is not at all work-related is a rather amusing three-page letter written by Rowell to the manager of a hotel in Tacoma, Washington, in which he doggedly tries to track down his overcoat, believed to have been lost at the hotel. The seriousness with which Rowell takes this matter may indicate his inability to afford a new coat or may simply be a sign of his determination to right a perceived wrong:

“Yet I think the best course to pursue if you cannot find any trace of coat around hotel, and I am prepared to take your word for it, though you appear to doubt mine, would be to notify the police and give description of coat as the party taking coat might still be around town or have pawned it as thieves often do and also advertise it in your daily papers as having been taken from your hotel on the night of 10th December either by mistake or intentionally & offering a reward for its return and threatening prosecution if not returned. As the coat is worth between $20 and $30 or more out here I do not feel like letting the matter drop without making an effort either to get back the coat or its value, and apart from the question of legal rights in the matter, I think it is only fair that you should make some effort to recover the coat” (Book III, p. 17).

The value of these letter books to a modern researcher is substantial. They offer an insight into the early professional life of a prominent Canadian lawyer, judge and politician, who wrote these letters not for posterity but for practical necessity. Consequently, they reveal the honest preoccupations of a young man at the beginning of his life and career. 

In addition, little is known about the specific activities of law students apprenticing in law firms during the 19th century, which makes these letter books both illuminating and also a bit mysterious. Was it a sign of trust in Rowell’s competence that he was sent to undertake this work or, given the gruelling nature of the travel and the interpersonal challenges of debt renegotiations, a tedious and mundane assignment that would have been undesirable to the lawyers in the firm? Whatever the case, the letter books show Rowell to be in almost constant communication with the lawyers from his firm and others to apprise them of his progress, account for his expenses and get guidance, indicating his own serious approach to the work.

For a young man of 23, the opportunity to travel, likely for the first time, outside of Ontario would undoubtedly have been an exciting and educational experience. Rowell’s letters express both his dedication to his assignment as well as his interest and curiosity about the new places and people he encountered, providing significant detail about his work while also offering the modern reader a glimpse of life in Western Canada and the United States in 1890.

The letter books are available to read or download in .pdf format: 

Book I, Book II, Book III

The Law Society of Upper Canada would like to thank Senator Nancy Ruth for the generous donation of these letter books to the Archives.