LANGMUIR, JOHN WOODBURN, businessman, politician, and civil servant; b. 6 Nov. 1835 in Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Alexander Ralston Langmuir and Jane Woodburn; m. first 1 June 1858 Emma Lucretia Fairfield, and they had five sons and two daughters; m. secondly 7 July 1874 Elizabeth Harriet Ridout, and they had two daughters; m. thirdly 19 Aug. 1882 Catherine Mary Ludlow, née Bloodgood; m. fourthly 10 Aug. 1908 Georgina Herrick Thorburn in Toronto; there were no children in the third and fourth marriages; d. 12 May 1915 in Toronto.
Educated in Kilmarnock, Scotland, John Langmuir immigrated to Upper Canada in 1849 and settled in Picton. He worked for Millar and Brothers, general merchants, and for a time operated the firm’s store in Kingston. In 1853 or 1854 he set up business on his own account in Picton, where he became a produce and commission merchant. He was first elected to the town council of Picton in 1856, and was elected mayor in 1864. He also played a role in militia affairs, serving during the Fenian raid of 1866 and becoming a major.
It is not known why Langmuir shifted to an entirely different career in 1868, or why he, a reformer, was appointed inspector of prisons, asylums, and public charities for Ontario by the government of John Sandfield Macdonald*. Langmuir would hold the position through the critical years when the new province was developing its policies in social welfare and was establishing new institutions while expanding and reforming others. Under the British North America Act the province had assumed broad welfare responsibilities, and in 1868 it had passed an act which established the legal framework for Langmuir’s activities. Before 1867, the board for prisons, asylums, and public charities was composed of up to five inspectors [see Edmund Allen Meredith*], but the new act allowed for just one person, who would be paid about one-third less than they had been. Under the provisions of the act, that inspector would oversee institutions falling fully under provincial control (notably asylums for the mentally ill), those privately controlled but receiving some provincial funding (such as poorhouses and hospitals), and those under shared jurisdictions (mainly local jails and lock-ups). The 1868 statute also expanded the authority of the inspector, who, for example, now obtained extensive powers to supervise the construction of new jails and the renovation of old ones, though these institutions were administered locally. Some clauses of the act were to prove particularly potent, such as those requiring the inspector to frame by-laws for all provincial institutions and to provide full financial statements for them as well as projections “of the amount of aid likely to be required from the Provincial Exchequer.” In addition, the inspector was asked to prepare full statistical returns and recommend changes and improvements “as he may deem necessary and expedient.” Taken together, these were formidable responsibilities: according to an early anonymous biographer, many people believed “that the work of the office was too great for one man, but Mr. Langmuir showed that it depended on the kind of man.”
From the beginning, Langmuir had a love of order and efficiency and a commitment to social progress which reflected the ethos of post-confederation Ontario. In his report for 1877 he recalled the neglect he had found when he assumed office, attributing it in part to the politics of the old union which he claimed had hobbled the efforts of Upper Canada: “Perhaps in no branch of the various services bequeathed . . . to the Province of Ontario, was there greater necessity for vigorous action and the introduction of progressive ideas, than in that having charge of the Asylums, Prisons and Public Charities.” Blessed by buoyant revenues, Sandfield Macdonald and his Liberal successors, Edward Blake and Oliver Mowat*, gave Langmuir strong support. The result was an impressively reformed and expanded institutional structure. Amazingly, Langmuir achieved these gains with only a secretary, a clerk-accountant, and a messenger to assist him. Despite his complaints that he was overburdened, a second inspector, William T. O’Reilly, was added only in April 1881, the year before his retirement.
In one of his first initiatives, Langmuir journeyed in 1869 to the United States with Macdonald to inspect facilities for the deaf. In 1870 the Ontario Institution for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb was opened in Belleville, and it was followed two years later with the Ontario Institution for the Education and Instruction of the Blind in Brantford [see John Howard Hunter*]. Langmuir also urged the province to build intermediate prisons for men sentenced to hard labour for between 60 days and two years who, in the absence of more suitable quarters, were languishing in idleness in local jails. In 1874, after Langmuir had again looked at institutions in the United States, the Central Prison of Ontario was opened in Toronto with William Stratton Prince as warden. Under Langmuir’s direction it became known as a harsh facility, aimed at deterring minor offenders who were a nuisance and expense to local authorities. Langmuir’s other major initiative in prison foundation was the result of a long campaign for an institution for women operated by women. The Andrew Mercer Ontario Reformatory for Females, opened in Toronto in 1880, was one of the first prisons for women in North America. Designed by Kivas Tully* to look more like a college than a prison, it was premised on Langmuir’s belief, again gained from American sources, that only with a separate facility would women “be fully able to exercise and wield their great power and influence, in a practical way, towards reclaiming the criminal and fallen of their sex.” In its effort “to govern by kindness,” the Mercer reformatory offered a discipline more benign than that in male institutions, which were characterized by a punitive atmosphere.
Attached to the Mercer reformatory was the province’s first facility for female delinquents, the Industrial Refuge for Girls. Langmuir’s commitment to juvenile reformation was also demonstrated by his determination to bring a more enlightened regimen to the Reformatory Prison for boys at Penetanguishene. Under his leadership, the buildings were modernized; the veteran warden, William Moore Kelly, after a long struggle, was forced into retirement and replaced in 1879 by Thomas McCrosson*; and a new statute, passed in 1880, renamed the institution Ontario Reformatory for Boys and attempted to create a genuinely reformatory environment. His endeavours at Penetanguishene met with only limited success and, with a new emphasis on non-institutional approaches to child reform, the facility was closed in 1904.
Langmuir’s efforts to modernize and reform local and county jails met with equally mixed success. He found the majority to be poorly constructed, ineffectively managed, and lacking in discipline. Yet, the numbers in the jails were expanding, from 5,655 in 1869 to 11,300 in 1880. Langmuir was determined to force local authorities into action, and by 1878 he was able to report that most counties had either built new jails or remodelled old ones. He was less successful in introducing classifcation systems for prisoners or in implementing a structure which put them to work.
Similarly, with respect to asylums Langmuir was energetic in reforming old facilities and opening new ones. His responsibilities were onerous, requiring him to make regular (three times a year) and thorough inspections, oversee administration and budgets, formulate by-laws, and help set policy. Moreover, asylum superintendents were brought firmly under the control of the inspector. Sometimes they appreciated the powerful advocacy Langmuir brought to their cause; Joseph Workman* of the Asylum for the Insane in Toronto described him as “our intelligent, humane, and very hard-working Inspector.” Others resented the centralism exemplified by the need to itemize in advance requests for even the smallest expenditures: Henry Landor of the London asylum told Langmuir in 1876 that the system had become “too unbearably military for endurance.”
Early in his administration Langmuir closed small asylums in Orillia and Malden (Amherstburg) and constructed new wings to the Toronto asylum. Forced by the press of numbers to promote large, cheaply constructed institutions, he brought in a policy which saw the opening in 1870 of an enormous asylum at London, the purchase in 1877 from the federal government of Rockwood Asylum for the “criminally insane” to serve as a general asylum for eastern Ontario, and the conversion in 1875 to asylum use of a building planned for inebriates at Hamilton. By the late 1870s he was obliged to devise other policies to cope with renewed overcrowding. He began constructing cheaply built cottages attached to the main institutions to hold the expanding numbers of incurables. He also started providing spaces of better quality for paying patients at the Toronto asylum, where eight wards were set aside. As for treatment, in this area as in penal policy, Langmuir generally accepted prevailing expert opinion. Although he admitted in 1870 that many issues were unresolved, he later argued that “the physical causes” of insanity “preponderate in a very marked degree over the moral and mental; and again that debasing and vicious habits predominate largely in the assigned physical causes.” Convinced that high curability rates were possible in cases of early intervention, he strongly supported programs of moral treatment which reflected the conventional wisdom of superintendents of asylums in North America and which focused upon kind and humane treatment in a controlled environment. None the less, Langmuir seemed proudest of his efforts to achieve “efficiency and economy.” Under his administration, for example, the wages of attendants were well below those in other jurisdictions, as illustrated by a cost per patient in 1876 of $129 a year at Toronto and $131 at London, about half that at a major asylum in Pennsylvania. Always sanguine, in 1876 he said Ontario’s asylum system as it had evolved under his leadership was “second to none in the world.”
Indeed, in all aspects of welfare policy, Langmuir leaned heavily on informed opinion. His own originality was the product of his business training and his commitment to the bureaucratic imperatives of centralized control, systematic inspection, local responsiveness, and unremitting economy. Nowhere was this fact more evident than in his relationship with private charitable organizations. In his report for 1870 Langmuir provided information on these institutions for the first time. Perhaps it was his own sense that they needed to be more fully integrated into the provincial welfare structure that called forth the instructions he received in 1872 “to examine fully into the method of granting Legislative aid to Hospitals and Benevolent Institutions.” Acting on the assumption that some assistance was desirable and aware that many private bodies such as the Toronto General Hospital were facing serious financial problems, he commented that “it becomes of the utmost importance to determine what class of Institutions are entitled to aid, and to what extent, and upon what principle.” By the Charity Aid Act of 1874, grants were offered to institutions doing work which had provincial approval, maintained standards acceptable to the province, and agreed to inspection. Grants were made proportional not only to the work done by institutions but also to their ability to raise money from municipal or private sources. Although Langmuir does not seem to have raised the question of just what level of service was adequate to merit support, the act greatly extended provincial authority by requiring private bodies receiving public funds to submit by-laws for approval and by instructing the inspector to recommend new institutions for funding. Historian Richard B. Splane judges that the act encouraged the significant expansion of grant-aided private institutions and the maintenance of acceptable standards of performance.
In 1882 Langmuir, perhaps tired of the many burdens imposed by the inspectorship, including the endless travel, or perhaps satisfied that he had achieved his goals, returned to private business. With his many contacts in business, government, and charitable affairs as well as a wide network of family connections, surrounded by his children, and highly respected by his community (he was a member eventually of the prestigious Toronto, Ontario, and York clubs in Toronto and the Grosvenor Club in London, England), he settled into what must have been a thoroughly comfortable existence. He had won an international reputation after presiding with an imperious will and unflagging energy over a range of institutions which would evolve into large government departments covering welfare, health services, and corrections. It was with justifiable exaggeration that he had told the National Conference of Charities and Correction at Cleveland, Ohio, in 1880 that Ontario had created “one of the most complete charitable and correctional systems on the continent.” To his American audience he explained that the extensive powers he had exercised were possible only because of the direct check imposed by the need for him to be “in constant communication” with a member of the cabinet who was responsible to the people of Ontario. Not the least of Langmuir’s accomplishments was the confidence placed in him by the province’s political leaders.
One of Langmuir’s responsibilities as inspector had been the administration of the estates of mentally ill persons when no one else was available to look after them. This experience was valuable in his role in establishing Canada’s first trust company, the Toronto General Trusts Company. Although incorporated in 1872, it was organized only in February 1882 with Edward Blake as president, Edmund Allen Meredith as vice-president, and Langmuir as manager. Almost immediately an order in council allowed the High Court of Justice of Ontario to avail itself of the services of the company, which was authorized to hold estates and property on trust and to act as executor, administrator, trustee, or guardian for minors and for persons confined as “lunatics.” Until then all offices of trust were in the hands of private individuals. The company prospered under Langmuir’s leadership: its total assets at the end of its first year of operation amounted to $750,000, but in 1915 they attained more than $67,000,000. In 1899 it had merged with the Trusts Corporation of Ontario and by 1904 had absorbed the Winnipeg General Trusts Company and the Ottawa Trust and Deposit Company. By the period immediately before World War I, it also had offices in the four western provinces. When he retired as general manager in February 1915 because of poor health, he was succeeded by his son Archibald David, who had become assistant general manager in the firm in 1897.
Langmuir also played an active role in several companies associated with the Toronto General Trusts, including the Hudson’s Bay and Yukon Railways and Navigation Company and the Toronto Hotel Company. Further recognition of his financial acumen came in 1906 from the dominion government with his appointment as a member of the royal commission set up to look into the life insurance industry in Canada following unease over its rapid growth and attacks in the press on the Canada Life Assurance Company. This controversial investigation, chaired by Duncan Byron MacTavish, resulted in a report which sharply criticized some of the industry’s practices and led to significant legislative changes.
Nor was Langmuir forgotten by his erstwhile provincial colleagues. In 1885 he was named to a commission chaired by Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski* to report on means for protecting the surroundings of Niagara Falls. The Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission was subsequently set up in 1887, again chaired by Gzowski and with Langmuir as a member; it operated the park that was established but also contended with the increasing demands of promoters of railways and hydroelectric power. Langmuir, who chaired the commission after 1897, won the praise of the Toronto Globe for his work: “In the natural conflict between the commercial interests of power development and the aesthetic appreciation of scenic grandeur, he devised a policy that will insure a dual bounty to future generations.”
The provincial government had also appointed him in 1885 to a royal commission investigating charges of “cruelty, partiality and mismanagement” against James Massie, the warden of Central Prison. More important, he was named in 1890 to chair a commission on the prison and reformatory system of Ontario. Over ten months Langmuir and his colleagues, Timothy Warren Anglin*, Charles Alfred Drury*, Alfred Fredman Jury, and Abner Mulholland Rosebrugh, interviewed scores of people in Canada and abroad, visited numerous American institutions, and read widely in European and North American prison literature. Langmuir’s report was a truly progressive and wide-ranging document which demonstrated once again his ability to cut to the core of issues and grasp not only what was best in theory but what was most suited to Ontario’s needs and circumstances. Not all of the recommendations were implemented, but some, especially in the areas of juvenile delinquency and child welfare, were enshrined in legislation, and the commission’s report remains an eloquent testimony to the intellectual grasp and practical abilities of a brilliant public servant.
Langmuir’s experience led to one other significant venture. Drawing on his conviction that there was a need in Ontario for private asylum care, he persuaded Stephen Lett*, the assistant medical officer of the Toronto asylum, to join him in establishing at Guelph in 1883 the Homewood Retreat Association “to provide suitable accommodation for those who are able and willing to pay for the special comfort and treatment that their cases require.” Langmuir was joined on the board of Homewood by Meredith, Robert Jaffray, and Frederick William Jarvis, all well-known Torontonians who were connected by family and business. Although Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, in a history of Homewood, is critical of Langmuir’s “imperious style of leadership,” Homewood survived numerous early financial and managerial difficulties and played an important medical and social role in the lives of its middle-class patients.
AO, RG 22-305, no.30079; RG 83-2-0, 145.1–146.4. Globe, 13–14 May 1915. Monetary Times (Toronto), 5 Feb. 1915. Rainer Baehre, “The ill-regulated mind: the making of psychiatry in Ontario, 1830–1921” (phd thesis, York Univ., North York, Ont., 1985). T. E. Brown, “‘Living with God’s afflicted’: a history of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum at Toronto, 1830–1911” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, Ont., 1981). Canadian annual rev. (Hopkins), 1906–7. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). S. B. Connors, “John Woodburn Langmuir and the development of prisons and reformatories in Ontario, 1868–1882” (ma thesis, Queen’s Univ., 1982). Directory, Picton and Prince Edward County, Ont., 1866. J. E. Hodgetts, From arm’s length to hands-on: the formative years of Ontario’s public service, 1867–1940 (Toronto, 1995). Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, Moments of unreason: the practice of Canadian psychiatry and the Homewood Retreat, 1883–1923 (Montreal and Kingston, 1989). Peter Oliver, “‘A terror to evil-doers’: the Central Prison and the ‘criminal class’ in late nineteenth-century Ontario,” in Patterns of the past: interpreting Ontario’s history . . . , ed. Roger Hall et al. (Toronto and Oxford, 1988), 206–37. Ont., Commission appointed to enquire into the prison and reformatory system of Ontario, Report (Toronto, 1891); also issued in Ont., Legislature, Sessional papers, 1891, no.18; Sessional papers, reports of the inspector of prisons and public charities, 1867/68–1881/82. Pioneer life on the Bay of Quinte . . . (Toronto, 1904; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972), 478–79. R. B. Splane, Social welfare in Ontario, 1791–1893; a study of public welfare administration (Toronto, 1965). R. L. Way, Ontario’s Niagara parks: a history ([Fort Erie, Ont.], 1946).
© 1998–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Peter Oliver, “LANGMUIR, JOHN WOODBURN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/langmuir_john_woodburn_14E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Peter Oliver|
|Title of Article:||LANGMUIR, JOHN WOODBURN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1998|
|Year of revision:||1998|
|Access Date:||June 1, 2023|