What’s in a (street) name? The Clemows and Powells

Editor’s note: I am saddened to say that this article is the last in the series “What’s in a (street) name” by Christa Zeller Thomas, a talented historian and writer who suffered an untimely death in early January.

Clemow Avenue in the 1920s, looking west. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Clemow Avenue in the 1920s, looking west. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Two of the Glebe’s most fascinating streets surely are Clemow and Powell avenues, because they are not just exceptionally good-looking (wide boulevards, grand old homes, plenty of trees) but also because they exude an aura of influence and prestige. Even without knowing anything about the men and women behind these two names, one can easily surmise that they were part of Ottawa’s elite. But reading about Francis Clemow, the family patriarch, I find that counting him among Ottawa’s early “in” crowd is almost an understatement: the man was such a wheeler and dealer, so “firmly entrenched in the sinecures of the city corporation,” as John Taylor observed in his illustrated history of Ottawa, that it seems as though he had a hand in a great many of the city’s affairs.

Francis Clemow as a young man and around the time of Confederation. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Francis Clemow as a young man and around the time of Confederation. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Born in 1821 in Trois-Rivières, Francis Clemow was the son of Captain John Clemow, an officer in the British army who had seen active service in the War of 1812. Francis was educated at Upper Canada College in Toronto and then came to Bytown as a young man of just 20 years. He began to work in the freight-forwarding business of Macpherson & Crane, where, despite his youth, he was a manager. He was also the immigration agent and law court officer for Ottawa, Carleton and Russell counties, responsible for distributing bankruptcy assets to the creditors. He was a merchant as well.

As though that were not enough, and being “possessed of great energy and the initiative spirit” according to the History of the Ottawa Collegiate Institute (now Lisgar Collegiate), whose sixth chairman was Clemow, he also lobbied the city for the construction of its first waterworks. Action was accordingly taken in 1871 and in 1874 the project was completed on land (donated by another great Ottawa man, Henry Franklin Bronson), near the Chaudière Falls.

Still not satisfied, Clemow also became manager and later president of the Ottawa Gas Works, a lucrative job since gas provided city lighting at the time. And when electricity replaced gas – in the 1880s, Ottawa was lauded as “the only city in Canada that is entirely lighted by electricity” – Clemow fortuitously became the managing director of the electric company.

In addition, and aside from a whole number of other public offices he held, including that of city councillor, Clemow served in the Senate after being appointed by Prime Minister Macdonald in 1885. He held the position until his death in 1902.

Margaret Clemow with one of her 
children. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Margaret Clemow with one of her 
children. Photo: Library and Archives Canada

In 1847, Francis Clemow married Margaret Powell of the Perth Powells – her father was Col. James Hamilton Powell, who once entertained the Duke of Richmond at his home – and thus the association of Clemow and Powell began. The couple lived in a mansion, “Hill and Dale”, on Maria Street (now Laurier Avenue). Together with his wife’s family, Clemow owned a large piece of land in the Glebe, the Clemow estate, including Clemow Avenue, which The Ottawa Journal in 1931 described as “one of the Capital’s loveliest streets” with “lovely homes.” When the Ottawa Improvement Commission, the forerunner of the NCC, was established in 1899, Clemow’s political clout helped to persuade them to develop the area to high standards.

After the couple’s deaths (Francis in 1902, and Margaret after a lengthy period of invalidism, in 1907), their eldest daughter, Henrietta Adelaide Clemow (“Ada”), inherited the estate. Despite being a very private person, Henrietta Clemow ventured into public life when she and her cousin William Frederick Powell (Jr.), whose father had been a Conservative MPP and Sheriff of Carleton County, formed Clemora Realty to develop their estate portions in the Glebe.

Ada Clemow, photograph of a painted portrait, ca. 1868.

Ada Clemow, photograph of a painted portrait, ca. 1868.

At a time when women’s role was mostly domestic, Henrietta Ada Clemow showed Ottawa that being a single woman – in 1907 The Ottawa Citizen, in the public notice of a land transaction, referred to her (in the contemporary terminology but unnecessarily) as a “spinster” – was no hindrance to real estate development and speculation. She died in 1931, still living at the Clemow mansion.

William Powell moved to 85 Glebe Avenue, into the beautiful home designed for him by W. E. Noffke (now the Vietnamese embassy). The building to this day reflects by its gravitas and location the influence of the Clemow and Powell families.

Christa Thomas wrote several articles about the history of the Glebe for the Glebe Report. Her contributions will be greatly missed.

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