Sir James Robert Gowan: Simcoe County’s first judge

The Barrie Historical Association and Simcoe County Historical Association are undertaking a joint project to have Ontario Heritage Trust erect a plaque commemorating Sir James Robert Gowan, the first judge of Simcoe County.

Gowan was appointed county judge in 1843, at the tender age of 27. He was the youngest judge ever appointed in the British empire. Gowan oversaw the administration of justice in Simcoe County for forty years until his retirement, during a crucial period in the development of the county from a remote frontier region to a bustling and productive municipality.

During his long career, Gowan also played a vital role in the development of the legal systems of Ontario and Canada while acting as a friend, confidant and adviser to many leading provincial and federal politicians, including Sir John A. Macdonald.  Gowan was a key figure in the establishment of the Crown Prosecutor system in 1857, the consolidation of the statute law of Ontario in 1859 and 1877, and the codification of Canadian criminal laws in 1892. In 1873, he was also one of the three judges appointed to investigate the notorious Canadian Pacific Railway scandal that brought down the government of John A. Macdonald. Gowan’s dedication to the legal profession was also evident in the 1855 creation—at his own expense— of the Upper Canada Law Journal, which eventually became the Canadian Bar Review, the leading legal periodical in Canada.

Much of what we now know about Sir James Gowan is contained in a treasure trove of personal correspondence that includes 85 letters from John A. Macdonald alone, in addition to many more letters from other prominent individuals of the era.

The Gowan collection was found in a Barrie law office by 12-year-old David McTurk in 1958 and narrowly avoided destruction before it was eventually purchased by the Simcoe County Archives in 1999. Over that 40-year period, the papers followed a twisted and convoluted path and were the subject of acrimonious debate, widely fluctuating valuations, and a flurry of lawsuits. It is a story richly told in a recent publication by Mark W. Fisher entitled The Gowan Papers.

The Heritage Trust plaque will be located in Barrie’s Kempenfelt Park, originally part of Gowan’s seven-acre estate of Ardraven. After his death, in 1909, this portion of his property overlooking Kempenfelt Bay was donated to the town of Barrie for use as a public amenity.

The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, lieutenant governor of Ontario; Chief Justice George Strathy, a descendant of Gowan; and representatives of the legal community and municipal governments are all expected to be in attendance at the unveiling of the new plaque in the summer of 2018.

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