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Nellie Langford Rowell

A Methodist Upbringing

Nellie Langford was born on December 16, 1874, second daughter and youngest child in the family of Methodist minister Alexander Langford. At that time, "...evangelicalism had never been stronger in Canada, and its major bearer, the Methodist Church, was...the fastest growing Church in the land..."3 The life was strenuous, the minister's salary was not large and Mrs. Langford recalled of her first house, on the Cayuga Mission Circuit in the Village of York, that "the circuit had neither a parsonage nor furniture."4

Mrs. Langford was born Permelia Rowena Rich in Fonthill, Ontario, on October 17, 1841. At the age of fourteen she demonstrated independence of mind and a keen interest in education by obtaining a diploma qualifying her to teach in the public schools. In 1859, she moved with her elder brother to Hamilton, where she met Alexander Langford. The two were engaged in 1860 and married a year later.

Life as a minister's wife involved frequent relocations with consequent domestic upheavals and the constant need to form new relationships in the different parsonages. In addition, Mrs. Langford bore and raised nine children, although not all lived to maturity.

Outside the domestic sphere, she led the Women's Missionary Society, of which Richard Allen notes that "women themselves began their advance in church organizations, organizing in those years of revival groups like the Women's Missionary Society..."5 Permelia also lived through, and vividly remembered, Confederation in 1867 and the Riel Rebellion of 1885.

In 1930, her daughter persuaded her to write down her memoirs and these remain a rich source of information. Our regret, and that of her family, is that Nell Langford did not later follow her mother's example. Permelia's life and values were clearly important to her daughter. Nell's Methodist upbringing encouraged active participation in both Church and community affairs, and her mother's example fostered her interest in education and public service. Although higher education for women was not common at the time, in 1892 Nellie Langford entered Victoria College and began a lifetime of public service through her involvement in women's organizations.

University Years

Victoria College had just moved from Cobourg, where three of Nell's brothers had graduated, to a new location in Toronto. In Nell Langford's first year at university, there were 226 students at Victoria, but only 14 of them were women. The women students succeeded in establishing themselves as a "strong presence" within the college, and this was partly due to Victoria College's steady support of higher education for women.6

Nellie Langford chose to major in Modern Languages, still considered an appropriate area of study for women students. Her graduation is mentioned in Acta Victoriana, May 1896:

Glancing over the class our attention is first arrested by the little band of lady students who have been following the ideal of Ruskin for women: "To fill and temper her mind with all knowledge and thoughts which tend to confirm its natural instinct of justice and refine its natural tact of love." ... Of this band, Miss Langford and Miss Le Rossignol have been with the class from the first, and have pursued the course and won honours in the department of Modern Languages.7

In her first year, she achieved first class honours in German with second class honours in English, French and Italian. In her second year, she won first class honours in French, Italian and Spanish, with second class honours in English and German. In her third year, Nell Langford not only maintained her full honours course, but also began to branch out.

She joined the Victoria College Women's Literary Society, whose stated object was "literary improvement and social intercourse"8 and to provide "a focus for women's activities."9 Popular, enthusiastic and able, Nell Langford was elected Vice-President that same year.

In her fourth and final year in this predominantly male college, she not only served (as the only woman) on the Executive Committee of Victoria College's Missionary Society but became its Vice-President - succeeding in that position her friend and future sister-in-law, Mary Rowell. Nell was still involved in the Women's Literary Society and that year became its President.

From University to Public Service

Shortly after her graduation from Victoria College, Nell Langford embarked on - and successfully completed - the Teacher's Training Course in Hamilton. Then, for two years, she taught English literature and modern languages at Alma College, a Methodist Girls' school in St.Thomas, Ontario.

During the next year, Nell became better acquainted with Mary Rowell's brother Newton, her elder by seven years and her former Sunday School teacher. Their friendship deepened and, on June 27, 1901, they married.10

Newton was very involved in the Methodist Church and, in spite of his busy law career, had recently ventured into politics. The Rowell Family Papers note, "she was prepared to share the social and political life of a young lawyer who had already been a defeated political candidate..."11 She was also destined to serve the public interest in her own right.

The Young Women's Christian Association

Originating in England, the YWCA had been growing in Canada since 1870,15 along with other women's organizations, "testaments to women's growing awareness of social, and particularly urban, problems."16

As young women began to migrate to the cities in an increasingly industrialized Canada, the YWCA worked to provide some of the social services it recognized as lacking - affordable housing, opportunities for education, summer camps and religious guidance. Many of these services were accompanied by efforts to draw women into Christianity, but the Association was sympathetic to women who sought independence through earning their own livelihood.

Subsequently, the Association became active in other areas: war work (1914-18), missionary work and campaigning for improved conditions for factory workers. Pederson writes,

...through their own education, personal travels, and experience in reform work, [these women] were familiar with the most up-to-date trends in philanthropic work and were aware of the larger questions facing the Church and lay workers in Canada and other parts of the world... Their impact on the direction of Canadian YWCA policies and programs would be very great.17

Especially active in the National Branch, Nell Rowell was a member of the National Executive as early as 1910 and was elected President of the Dominion Council of the YWCA in 1913. At the Eighth National Conference, held in Winnipeg that year, "the keynote struck by the President, Mrs. N.W. Rowell, in opening her inspiring address, was a high one and it dominated the whole course of the convention."18 Mrs. Rowell presented a "Three Year Survey" of the YWCA's work, clearly outlining the functions of the Dominion Staff and reporting a 90% increase in membership - although, as she pointed out, the true symbol of growth lay not in membership figures but in active participation.

In 1917, Newton Rowell and Robert Borden formed the Union Government and the Rowells moved to Ottawa until Newton's resignation in 1920, when the family returned to Toronto.

Mrs. Rowell resumed her work with the Executive Council and broadened the scope of her work, as acting national President and as Chair of the committee on industrial work among women, to include the concerns of immigrant women and of girls and women in industry.19 These matters were major items at the 1922 World YWCA Conference in St. Wolfgang, Austria, where both Nell and her sister-in-law Mary Rowell represented the Canadian YWCA.

In 1927, Nell was appointed to the World Committee of the YWCA, increasing both her work and her travel. A YWCA history notes,

There has been continual growth in the bond that links the Canadian YWCA to the World's Council, ever since the day when the young Canadian Association was unwilling to be listed as "properly under the International Committee of the United States and Canada" and sought world affiliation as a national unit... Canada has had several executives at each biennial World Conference, and our present World Committee members, appointed in 1927 - Mrs. N.W. Rowell, Miss. Muriel Brock and Miss. M.L. Findley - have been frequently in Geneva.20

Nellie Rowell continued her work for the YWCA until 1934 when, after a year as Vice President of the National Executive, she finally resigned her position in the Executive Council.

As a mark of respect for her years of dedicated service, Nell Rowell was invited in 1955 to say the Grace at the "100th Anniversary of the YWCA" dinner. Aged 81, she did not feel equal to the task, but she did attend the dinner celebrating the Association's establishment and years of success - a success to which her national and international work had greatly contributed.

A New Beginning for Women in the Liberal Party

In 1913, "... a group of Toronto Liberal Women headed by Mrs. Newton Rowell came together to organize a new and (for that time) unique organization."21 Four years before Ontario women gained the right to vote, Nellie Rowell created a new beginning for women in the Liberal Party of Ontario - the Toronto Women's Liberal Association.22 Newton Rowell (who had declared his support for women's suffrage in 1912, before it was official Liberal Party policy) and Sir Wilfred Laurier, then leader of the federal Liberals, drew up the first TWLA Constitution. Nell was elected President, was subsequently re-elected and served as Honorary President for 22 years.23

Besides the Hamilton Women's Liberal Association (which Nell Rowell had helped to form,)24 others had sprung up. In 1914, Lady Aberdeen suggested "that the Ontario Women's Liberal Association (OWLA) be formed to give central direction to [the] newly organized local women's clubs which were scattered throughout the province."25 Nell Rowell was the first President of the OWLA and, with the assistance of the Executive, drew up its first Constitution. "The purpose of the Association is to form more clubs; to promote a knowledge of sound Liberal principles; to dispense literature helpful for programme material, and to assist in securing speakers."26 Mrs. Rowell was active in the OWLA during the war years (1914­1918) and, acting in an official capacity for the Association, spoke in support of the sale of Government Victory War Bonds.

The provincial election of 1914 provided a particularly active time for the women of the Liberal party. Newton Rowell, Liberal Party House Leader since 1911, made "abolish the bar" the main party platform. Rowell stated that abolishing the bar was clearly a "woman's question" since it was "womanhood which suffered most from the open bars."27 The OWLA threw their weight behind Rowell and the Liberal Party. The TWLA campaigned actively and, in a letter to her sister­in­law Mary Rowell, Nell stated that she thought the women "would undertake to put leaflets in each house in town on abolish the bar." She was also "glad that [she had taken her] courage in [her] hands a year ago and started the first meeting" and said, in her enthusiasm, that she could "talk of nothing else."28 In spite of the enthusiasm and hard work of the women, the Conservative government was returned, reduced by only three seats.

Newton Rowell, we know, discussed many different topics with his wife and valued her opinion a good deal. The 1914 campaign provides an example of their working together, each in their different sphere. In founding the TWLA and in working with the OWLA, Nell Rowell clearly demonstrated her commitment to women's contribution to the governing of society. She helped provide an opportunity for women to participate in politics before women's suffrage was achieved.

Victoria College

Nell Rowell had been inspired by her years at university and was keen to help other women further their education. In 1906, she joined the Board of Management of Annesley Hall, the women's residence of Victoria College. The Committee was composed entirely of women, an independent body appointed by the Board of Regents and working together with the Board. The Committee was responsible not only for the running of Annesley Hall and the physical and emotional well-being of its residents but also for "all the affairs pertaining to women at Victoria College."12

With her dedication to her beliefs and her strong practical ability, Nell Rowell was highly regarded by all members of the Committee and by the Board of Regents. She was elected Vice-President of the Committee in 1913. In 1914, she became Treasurer, which entailed an increased volume of work and responsibility. The Committee dissuaded her from resigning the position in 1916, but the following year they accepted "with a great deal of regret" her resignation on account of new family responsibilities.13

She continued to work on various committees - including the Finance, Joint, Advisory and House Committees - for Annesley Hall for the next nine years and did not withdraw from active participation on the Committee of Management until 1931. By that time, Nellie Langford Rowell had contributed 25 years' dedicated service to furthering the cause of women's education. Her withdrawal must have been made easier by the knowledge that her daughter Mary, having recently graduated, had been elected (temporary) Dean of Women for the Wymilwood Residence.

Nell Rowell's interest in Victoria College did not wane and she continued to attend the Women Alumnae meetings and to argue for higher education for women. At one such meeting in 1944, Nell discussed with the Honourable Pauline McGibbon, then President of the Alumnae Association, her conviction that women professors at Victoria College were not given the same recognition as their male counterparts. Pauline McGibbon, considerably impressed, pursued the concern and, 40 years later, she still remembers Nell Rowell as "an intelligent woman, with firm convictions, who was not afraid to speak her mind."14

Other Club Activities

The increase of active public involvement by women marked the beginning of a new era for women in Canada. Wendy Mitchinson writes that, by 1900, women's organizations had

increased in number; many continued the work of the Church and benevolent societies which had formed earlier in the century; others formed to provide new expressive outlets for women; still others organized to reform what women saw as problems in society.29

Nell Rowell's continuing interest in education and the welfare of women is reflected in her 45 year membership in the University Women's Club - from 1907 to 1952. The Club was established for the "purpose of uniting university alumnae for social, educational and any other work they decide upon."30 During those years, speakers to the Club addressed such issues as the minimum wage for women, work among refugee students in Switzerland and ways in which Canada could help in the war.

In 1922, acting in an official capacity for the YWCA, Nellie had presented a talk to the members of the Women's Canadian Club of Toronto, seeking their support for an upcoming YWCA fundraising campaign. She was actively involved in the Club and, for a short while, served on its Executive Committee. The Club's purpose was to:

provide an opportunity for the members of the Club to hear questions of general interest discussed. [Also], to foster patriotism by encouraging the study of institutions, history, arts, literature and the resources of Canada, and by endeavouring to unite Canadians in such work for the welfare of and progress of the Dominion as may be desirable and expedient.31

Veronica Strong­Boag notes that the Canadian Clubs also "educated Canadian women to the full responsibilities of citizenship, thus adding to the political sophistication of the feminine population."32

Continuing the activities she had taken up at Victoria College and following her mother's example of active participation in Church life, Nell was also a member of the local Metropolitan Women's Missionary Society and served as Vice President on the Executive Committee for many years.

Only limited information is available about Nell Rowell's involvement with other organizations but this, taken together with her heavier commitments to the Victoria College Board of Management, the YWCA and the Toronto and Ontario WLAs, is clear testimony to her belief in active public service - as well as to her energy, efficiency and enthusiasm.

Balancing it All

At every stage of her life, Nell Rowell was deeply involved with her family. She considered her life with her husband and children to be her first priority.

She deeply mourned the early death of two of her four children - Edward died of convulsions in his eighteenth month and Langford of a sports injury when he was 21.33 Nell's correspondence with Mary and Frederick over the years shows her joy and involvement with them and demonstrates, too, the importance she attached to traditional family life. Indeed, when Frederick served overseas in World War II, she wrote to him every day.

Newton Rowell's devotion to his wife was returned in equal measure. When Newton suffered a stroke in 1938, Nell devoted the three years before his death to keeping his interests going and his spirits up. After, she spent much time arranging his papers and searching for a biographer, efforts which culminated in Margaret Prang's biography, N.W. Rowell: Ontario Nationalist.

Nell Langford had been the second daughter and the youngest child in her own family and Mrs. Jackman "rather suspects that she was the pet of her several older brothers." Certainly she went on to create an atmosphere of security and happiness for her own children.

Her Methodist upbringing and, in particular, the example of her own mother must have strengthened her belief in public service and she spent her own time and energy freely in that direction. (She was aided in this by her material circumstances. Mrs. Jackman remembers that, when she was a child, the Rowells had a cook, a nanny, a parlour-maid, a coachman and a twice-weekly laundress.)

Nell Rowell believed that women and men each had different, specific contributions to make to the society in which they lived. Speaking to the OWLA on why women had chosen to organize instead of "leaving it all to the men," Nell said "we had a vision of the future."34

Nellie Langford Rowell, a beautiful woman who was "gentle, sweet, wise and perceptive,"35 lived according to the traditional ideals of family life and public service. In the process, she affected not only her close family but also those who benefitted by the organizations she supported. While working for her beliefs, she helped shape the society in which she lived.

The Problems of Research

Locating information relating to Mrs. Rowell was not an easy task - and sometimes proved quite frustrating. Unlike most library research, archival research and oral history require a great deal of work simply to find contacts who can point the way to worthwhile sources of information. Women's history can be especially difficult to reconstruct.

Archival material kept by the various organizations with which Mrs. Rowell had been affiliated was one obvious source. But this material was not easy to find. The Rowell Papers and the National Records of the YWCA, for example, had been sent to the Public Archives in Ottawa, while other records had been kept in Toronto and deposited at different locations. Working with limited information necessitated reading complete sets of documents and there was no guarantee that they would yield rewarding, or indeed any, information about Nellie Langford Rowell.

Since most women's organizations lack the money and the volunteers to house and update records, some had kept no archival material, some had kept incomplete records and still others had volumes of material which had not been organized or indexed. In addition, some records had been discarded as valueless, while others had passed into personal possession and were untraceable.

In situations where there are few or no written records, people are very often the only source of information. Of Mrs. Rowell's contemporaries, many who would undoubtedly have been able to provide rich sources of information have died. Those people who do remember Mrs. Rowell are too young to recall her earlier years, but they do remember her in her senior years as being a spiritually lovely person, as well as a beautiful woman.

Only two of Nell Rowell's four children survived her. They were unable to provide extensive information on her public activities, but Mrs. Jackman was most helpful and generous with her time in recounting her mother's background, character and personality; she also provided access to the Rowell Family Papers and the "Notes" she made about her mother in June 1975.

All available information has been used in compiling this sketch of Nellie Langford Rowell. Perhaps, as a result of this paper, other sources will emerge to complete the picture. Perhaps, too, readers will be inspired to undertake similar research and to create the "herstory" of Canadian women.

  1. Biographical Scrapbooks, Volume 15, pp.684-85.
  2. Unless otherwise identified, personal information about Nellie Langford was provided by Mrs. Mary Jackman.
  3. Richard Allen, The Social Gospel in Canada (Ottawa, 1975), p.20.
  4. Rowell Family Papers, Reminiscences of Permelia Langford, 1930.
  5. Allen, pp.13-14.
  6. Barbara Ibronyi, Early Voices: Women at Victoria (Toronto, 1984), p.18.
  7. Acta Victoriana, Volume 19, 1895-96, p.399.
  8. Victoria University Calendars, Catalogue of 1896-1897, p.142.
  9. Ibronyi, p.11.
  10. Margaret Prang, N.W. Rowell: Ontario Nationalist (Toronto, 1975), p.45.
  11. Rowell Family Papers, p.2.
  12. Victoria University, United Church Archives, Committee of Management of Annesley Hall Papers. Notes written by Miss Addison about N. L. Rowell. Undated.
  13. Victoria University, United Church Archives, Committee of Management of Annesley Hall Papers, Minutes of Meetings, April 3, 1916.
  14. Interview (by telephone) with the Hon. P. McGibbon, August 1985.
  15. Josephine P. Harshaw, When Women Work Together (Toronto, 1966), p.11.
  16. Veronica Strong-Boag, "'Setting the Stage': National Organization and the Women's Movement in the Late 19th Century," in Susan Mann Trofimenkoff and Alison Prentice, eds., The Neglected Majority (Toronto, 1981), p.89.
  17. D. Pederson, 'Keeping our Girls Good': The YWCA of Canada, 1970-1920, (Ottawa, Carleton University, unpublished MA thesis, 1981), chapter 1. This is also available in a shortened version in Canadian Woman Studies, Vol.7, No.4, Winter 1986.
  18. Minutes of Meetings of the National Executive: 1910-13, April 12, 1913, National YWCA Records, Public Archives of Canada.
  19. Prang, p.384.
  20. The Story of the YWCA in Canada (December 1933), p.20, National YWCA Records, Public Archives of Canada.
  21. Historian's Report: The Toronto Women's Liberal Association, mimeograph (Toronto: the Association, 1982), p.1.
  22. Catherine Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto, 1950), pp.43 & 114.
  23. Victoria University, United Church Archives, Committee of Management of Annesley Hall Papers, Canadian Newspaper Service: National Reference Book, (Sixth Edition), pp.614-15.
  24. Letter from Newton Rowell to Mary Rowell, 1913, Rowell Papers, Public Archives of Canada.
  25. Florence Tilden Harrison, Fifty Years with the OWLA, 1914-1964, mimeograph, (Harriston, Ontario, 1964), p.1.
  26. Ibid., p.1-2.
  27. The Globe, June 22, 1914, Rowell Papers, Public Archives of Canada.
  28. Letter from Nell Rowell to Mary Rowell, 1914, Rowell Papers, Public Archives of Canada.
  29. Wendy Mitchinson, "The WCTU: 'For God, Home and Native Land,' A Study in Nineteenth-Century Feminism," in Linda Kealey, ed., A Not Unreasonable Claim (Toronto, 1979), p.152.
  30. Constitution 1904, University Women's Club Archives, p.1.
  31. Women's Canadian Club Constitution, University Women's Club Archives, p.1.
  32. Veronica Strong-Boag, The Parliament of Women: The National Council of Women of Canada (Ottawa, 1976), p.106.
  33. Letter from Nell Rowell to Mary Rowell, Rowell Papers, Public Archives of Canada.
  34. The Globe (undated), National YWCA Records, Public Archives of Canada.
  35. Interview (by telephone) with Professor Gibson, History Department, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, September 1985

This document is the text of a pamphlet available from the Nellie Langford Rowell Library for $2.

Other library pamphlets are:
Equality in Sports: Perspectives
Pay Equity: Perspectives