Alice Chown

Alice Amelia Chown

It’s a long way from the quiet sanctuary of Sydenham Street United Church to a police paddy wagon in Toronto. Alice Amelia Chown’s journey for workers rights put her into police custody in 1912.

Alice Amelia Chown was an unconventional social activist in a city and society where people stayed in their own lane. She came from a distinguished Kingston family, making her mark in unique ways as a social justice warrior with many interests. She spent decades as a member of Sydenham Street Methodist Church but parted with the church and became a national figure known for her advocacy of workers’ rights, pacifism, votes for women, and women’s rights to education. She supported the workers striking for improved wages and working conditions at the T. Eaton Department Store in Toronto in 1912, and was tossed into a police wagon along with other picketers – a long way from quiet contemplation in her Queen’s University classes and vigorous hymn singing at Sydenham Street Methodist Church. Alice was a force to be reckoned with.

Strikers in Toronto in 1912 protest working conditions for garment workers. Alice Chown joined picketers and was among those detained by Toronto police.

Close to home: early years in Kingston

Born in 1866 in Kingston, Canada West (Upper Canada), Alice Amelia Chown was the only one of Edward and Amelia Chown’s daughters who survived to adulthood. She grew up amongst several brothers in a well-known Kingston family in which her cousin, Rev. Samuel Dwight Chown, was a prominent and active leader in Canadian Methodism. It was Rev. Chown who led the Methodist congregations in Canada into the new United Church of Canada in 1925. Chown family members had of course been among the very first financial supporters of the Methodist church that was built on the land donated by John Counter in 1851, and Chowns occupied several pews and played important roles in the life of the congregation for generations.

Despite being raised during a time where women’s rights were not at the forefront of many people’s minds, Amelia insisted that Alice should be educated just as her brothers would be. She attended Kingston high school and then Queen’s University, studying political science and economics – not a common route for women in the late nineteenth century. There were many other uncommon paths for Alice to follow in the future.

Alice spent much of her adulthood at home, caring for her mother, Amelia and working for social justice causes in Kingston. After her mother’s death in 1906, Alice put her passion for social justice and reform into action outside of her Kingston base. She began her wide-ranging life of advocacy at the age of forty.

Breaking away: 20th century activism

A fiercely enthusiastic and independent individual, Alice participated in local philanthropic institutions such as the Kingston Charity Organization. Her goals were women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, changes to women’s fashion to loosen the restrictive dress women were expected to wear, trade unionism and sexual freedom. Her interests were wide-ranging: she was one of the founding members of the Toronto Equal Franchise League in 1912. One of her speeches about philanthropy given at the National Council of Women of Canada was chosen for publication in the Christian Guardian, a Methodist journal.

Alice Amelia Chown was recognized in 2017 by PeaceQuest as one of 150 Canadians who contributed to peace.

Her passion for reform was unending and in 1921, she published a collection of notes from her personal journal entitled, The Stairway, in which she shared her views on many of her preferred social improvements. Among her most prominent concerns was the right of women to higher education and her unhappiness with the subservient role women often played in church life.

She later left the church to become one of her cousin Samuel Dwight’s critics, most notably, during the Great War. She opposed the war and remained a determined pacifist. In a letter to Samuel, an army chaplain during the war, she condemned his contributions and support for the allied cause. She ended the letter with: “Now we are on different roads, but perhaps you may turn and join me on my way.” It is possible that this letter was among the factors that convinced Rev. Chown to rethink his support of the war.

Her dedication to women’s suffrage and rights was unwavering. Passionate about social reform, pacifism, women’s suffrage and sexual freedom, her legacy places her in the broader picture of feminism in Canada as well as Kingston and Sydenham Street United Church’s history. She put her beliefs into action for decades, although her advocacy for so many reforms in the everyday lives of Canadians was not part of the specific social justice work of Sydenham Street United Church. However, Alice Chown has a strong connection to SSUC, through her Grand-Niece, and current member of SSUC, Beth Robinson (read more). Alice died on March 2, 1949.

Alice Chown contributed to peace by advocating for women’s rights and pacifism before and during WWI. ‘Personal relations have taught me that there is a life force in every individual urging to order, harmony, beauty. We may set this wonderful force for righteousness free by granting to all freedom to live out the truths inherent … PeaceQuest 2017.

Special thanks to Kaitlyn Macdonald, Queen’s University student intern, 2018. ED April 2020

Updated 2021 06 23