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McCOWEN, JOHN ROCHE, inspector general of police and penitentiary governor; b. 1844 in Kilrush (Republic of Ireland), son of T. A. McCowen; m. 16 Nov. 1876 Elizabeth Sarah Netten in Catalina, Nfld, and they had four sons and two daughters; d. 8 Feb. 1908 in Montreal.

The son of a British naval officer, John McCowen failed his examination to become a cadet in the Royal Navy and enlisted instead as a private in the army. He was a strong believer in the empire, and his four sons would later serve it in various military capacities, one of them becoming the first Newfoundlander to pass successfully the examination for a cadetship in the Royal Navy.

After three years McCowen retired as a non-commissioned officer and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary. He served with it for nine years and was twice severely wounded during riots in Belfast. On another occasion he was injured while on special duty in Cork. Upon his retirement from the Irish force, McCowen on 22 Oct. 1871 signed on as a constable with the Terra Nova Constabulary, then being formed in Newfoundland following the withdrawal of the British garrison the previous year. The force was organized by Thomas J. Foley, who had also served in the Irish constabulary.

McCowen in 1873 was given special responsibility for a mounted section of the new force. He then served in several Newfoundland outports, rising to the rank of first-class head constable in 1874. Two years later he was posted in Catalina, where he married a daughter of the local Anglican clergyman, William Netten. In 1878 he helped to rescue the crew of a shipwrecked schooner, a feat that involved his walking over broken ice to reach the vessel. He subsequently received the Royal Humane Society’s medal for bravery.

In 1879 Premier William Vallance Whiteway transferred McCowen to the governorship of the Newfoundland penitentiary in St John’s. There he set up a department in which the prisoners made brooms for sale to help defray the cost of maintaining the facility. In 1882 he was elected a member of the Howard Association of Britain in recognition of his penal work in Newfoundland. McCowen was a strong supporter and friend of Whiteway, who greatly appreciated his organizational skills. The premier in 1890 made him a member of the Board of Health, which at the time was dealing with a serious diphtheria epidemic in St John’s. Two years later Whiteway appointed him honorary secretary of a fire relief committee which was established following the fire that on 8 July destroyed much of St John’s.

The conflagration necessitated an examination of fire protection in the city, which prior to that date had been provided by a voluntary brigade maintained by the Municipal Council. In November the government sent McCowen on a tour of Canadian and American cities to study the organization and maintenance of their fire departments. His report to government in January 1893 strongly recommended the creation of either a paid fire department or one that combined paid police and paid firemen, a system found in many English towns. He also called for the building of new fire halls, the installation of new hydrants and a telegraph alarm system, and the purchase of new steam-engines and other equipment. In July 1893 he was appointed chairman of a board of fire commissioners to oversee management of the existing voluntary brigade and to establish a permanent, paid fire department.

Following the resignation of Morris J. Fawcett to become inspector general of police in Jamaica, McCowen on 25 March 1895 was transferred back to the constabulary. He was appointed inspector general of the force (now known as the Newfoundland Constabulary) and of the St John’s Fire Department, which the government had decided to place under the control of the constabulary as McCowen had recommended in 1893. Rather than operate from one central building in St John’s, city policing was now to be provided through the creation of three wards, each of which also contained a fire station. Both policemen and firemen were to live in barracks at the fire station, the new arrangement enabling policemen to become more familiar with their individual wards. Further, McCowen established a more comprehensive filing and recording system for the police force and created a detective branch. He demonstrated considerable tact in policing arrangements during three major labour strikes in the early 1900s [see Simeon Kelloway], when a small number of policemen maintained law and order without any confrontation with strikers. In August 1905 the size of the constabulary for the whole colony was 89 men for a population of about 225,000 inhabitants.

In December that year McCowen asked the government of Liberal premier Sir Robert Bond* to examine charges of insubordination he had brought against his second-in-command, Superintendent John J. Sullivan*. Both men had joined the constabulary in 1871, the Newfoundland-born Sullivan several months earlier than McCowen, and Sullivan had hoped to succeed Fawcett as police chief in 1895. Although he had been appointed superintendent on McCowen’s recommendation, by 1905 relations between the two men were strained since McCowen had lost confidence in Sullivan’s ability. At the hearings of a three-man commission of inquiry appointed by the government, both men were represented by counsel, Sullivan by Martin Williams Furlong and McCowen by Sir James Spearman Winter*. In late April 1906 the two policemen reached an amicable settlement of their differences, agreeing that the language each had used in the heat of the moment had been too strong.

In 1903 King Edward VII made McCowen a companion of the Imperial Service Order, the first Newfoundlander to receive the honour, given to permanent civil administrative officials who had at least 25 years of continuous service. In November 1907 McCowen took ill with pleuro-pneumonia, and his condition worsened to the point where early in the new year he went to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal for medical attention. He died there on 8 February.

McCowen was a strong temperance man and an advocate of confederation of Newfoundland with Canada. A prominent member of the justice system in Newfoundland for 37 years as a constable and administrator, he was described in 1908 as the “iron hand in the velvet glove” who, although a strict disciplinarian, yet displayed “the utmost kindness” and accorded the “fairest and most considerate treatment to all under his control.”

Melvin Baker

PANL, GN 2/15/A, 22, J. R. McCowen to E. P. Morris, 28 Aug. 1905; GN 6, royal commission to investigate certain charges made against Superintendent Sullivan by Inspector General McCowen, 1906. Evening Chronicle (St John’s), 10 Feb. 1908. Evening Herald (St John’s), 10 Feb. 1908. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 27 March, 25 June 1895; 10 Feb. 1908. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 28 Nov. 1876. Melvin Baker, Aspects of nineteenth century StJohn’s municipal history (St John’s, 1982); “The government of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1800–1921” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1981). B. C. Busch, The war against the seals: a history of the North American seal fishery (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1985). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Arthur Fox, The Newfoundland Constabulary ([St John’s], 1971). Hiller, “Hist. of Nfld.” “J. R. McCowen, inspector-general, constabulary,” Nfld Quarterly, 2 (1902–3), no.1: 15; 3 (1903–4), no.3: 3–4.

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Cite This Article

Melvin Baker, “McCOWEN, JOHN ROCHE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mccowen_john_roche_13E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mccowen_john_roche_13E.html
Author of Article:   Melvin Baker
Title of Article:   McCOWEN, JOHN ROCHE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 27, 2023