Vol. 14 No.11 (November 2004), pp.933-936

THE HEIRESS VS. THE ESTABLISHMENT: MRS. CAMPBELL’S CAMPAIGN FOR LEGAL JUSTICE, by Constance Backhouse and Nancy L. Backhouse. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. 344pp. Cloth CDN$ 53.89 / US$45.00. ISBN: 0-7748-1052-1.

Reviewed by Thomas C. Shevory, Department of Politics, Ithaca College.

I was not entirely sure what to expect when I agreed to review this book.  I had not heard of Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, the main subject of the book, nor am I an expert in Canadian law (although I have some knowledge of Anglo-American legal history in general).  When I first perused the review copy, I was somewhat puzzled.  It did not appear to be a legal treatise or analysis of any sort, but was simply a reprint of a memoir published by Mrs. Campbell, sometime in the 1930s, entitled WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD.  Based upon these first impressions, I began to wonder whether agreeing to review the book was such a good idea.  Still, the Backhouses seemed to have the necessary credentials to write a book on Canadian legal history.  Constance is Professor of Law and University Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, and Nancy sits on the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario.  I decided that the book, as odd as it struck me on the face of things, deserved a fair reading. What followed was, to say the least, quite a revelation.  I began reading THE HEIRESS VS. THE ESTABLISHMENT on a Saturday afternoon and hardly put it down during my waking hours until I had finished it the following morning.

Mrs. Campbell of the book’s subtitle, it turns out, was the daughter of Toronto attorney, James Bethuene, a man who achieved some eminence before he died in 1884 of typhoid at the relatively young age of 44.  His daughter, Elizabeth, the future Mrs. Campbell, grew up in an atmosphere of protection and privilege. Her mother would eventually marry again, this time to Sir William Pearce Howland, who became the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.  Elizabeth was a debutante whose only formal education was at a French convent.  She married Thomas Clyman Campbell an Episcopalian minister and moved to Boston, where he held a position as minister of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain.  There was little in her background, education, or social circumstance to herald what would become the defining battle of her life.

On August 14, 1924, Elizabeth Campbell’s mother, Lady Howland died at the age of 84 after a relatively lengthy period of time during which she had apparently not been fully in control of her faculties.  In fact, Elizabeth’s sister, Cora Ann, had had Lady Howland declared incapable of managing her own affairs in 1915.  After that declaration, the Toronto Trusts Corporation was appointed to oversee her “estate,” while Elizabeth’s two older sisters were appointed to oversee her “person.”  After Lady Howland’s death, her estate was valued at $17, 450, an amount much less than had been anticipated and estimated by Elizabeth.  And it was the value of [*934] this estate that became the central issue in a series of legal battles that were to follow.

What initially piqued Elizabeth Campbell’s concern was a dispute about her mother’s will.  Elizabeth discovered a copy of it while sorting through her mother’s effects.  In it, Elizabeth was named as the primary beneficiary of the estate’s assets.  The Toronto Trust Company had been named as the executor, but, when pressed, officials there claimed no knowledge of it.  Undaunted, Elizabeth sued the Trust Company and her sisters for the part of the estate that she felt she deserved, hiring a colorful, rakish, and exceptionally skillful Ontario lawyer named Arthur Graeme Slaught to take the case.  Things did not go well for Elizabeth.  The court ordered her to settle with her sisters and the Trust Company.  As a result of this settlement, which Elizabeth felt pressured into accepting, the estate’s assets would be equally divided among the three sisters.  Because one of the central issues at stake was whether or not Lady Howland had chosen to destroy or nullify the (missing) will, Elizabeth was also forced to declare that her mother “to the day of her death” had been “of sound mind and testamentary capacity” (p.51).

Already unfavorably disposed toward the Trust Company, and now her sisters as well, to whom she apparently never spoke again, Elizabeth Campbell was antagonized even further when she discovered the size of the estate to be considerably less than the original value.  William Drummond Hogg, Lady Howland’s brother-in-law, Chair of the Toronto Trust Company, was administrator.  Hogg supplied few records as to how he had administered the estate, and those that he did supply seemed suspicious.  Records existed, for example, of Mr. Hogg having sent checks to Lady Howland for interest paid on mortgages that were made in her name.  Further checking by Mrs. Campbell revealed different amounts to these mortgages than stated by Mr. Hogg. In some cases, there was some doubt as to whether the mortgagees had ever existed at all. At best, Mr. Hogg seemed to have kept very sloppy records.  At worst, he may have engaged in fraud, paying out fictitious interest to Lady Howland, while drawing down her capital, and skimming off some of the assets  for himself.  While the original amount of Lady Howland’s estate was (and is) difficult to determine with complete accuracy, Mrs. Campbell believed it to be in the neighborhood of $60,000.  Had the lost will been found, or the copy validated, and the original amount been kept in tact, she would have received nearly all of what at the time would have been considered to be a substantial sum of money.

Mrs. Campbell decided to pursue William Hogg and the Toronto Trust Company in court to recover the money that she felt had been improperly managed.  The book, WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD, self-published in various editions, beginning in the late 1930s, is the story of her various legal cases.  Mrs. Campbell’s memoir of her legal battles is a lively and revealing peek into the complicated inner workings of what might now be called the “good-old- boy” network of the Toronto legal establishment.  She was clearly a woman on a mission.  One fascinating aspect of the case is that the challenge to the legal power structure [*935] was coming from someone who was connected to the Toronto elite via class, race, and background, but who was marginalized due to her status as a woman.  Thus, while, there is a David and Goliath quality to the narrative, Elizabeth Campbell was not a person without means.  She had some exceptional legal counsel along the way, especially the inimitable Mr. Slaught, who eventually withdrew from the case, apparently because his affiliation with it may have been putting a crimp into his professional ambitions.  Many of the judges involved obviously considered Mrs. Campbell to be little more than an impertinent woman.  Some of those who determined the merits of her case revealed to her, occasionally in open court, that they were good friends with Mr. Hogg and were highly resentful of challenges to his good name.  Partly, no doubt, as a result of this, Mrs. Campbell was mostly unsuccessful in her claims within the Canadian courts themselves.  But, having lost in Canada, and with no assets to hire an attorney, she, on her own, filed an appeal to the Privy Council in London.  (The Privy Council was the highest Appeals Court for subjects of the British Empire, outside of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.)

Elizabeth Campbell then traveled to London, where she lived alone for a year, separated from her family in Boston, first filing the various papers involved and then arguing the case herself before the esteemed three judge panel.  It was very unusual that anyone would argue his own case before the Council.  It was unheard of for a woman to do so.  In fact, Mrs. Campbell was the first woman to argue a Privy Council case.  By the time she did so, she and her dispute had become a cause celibre.  Canadian, British, and American newspapers had become captivated by the “Privy Council Portia.”  Reams of articles were written about her quixotic quest to receive her legal due.  Throngs of reporters were on hand to greet her as she left the chambers after making her oral arguments before the Council.  Most improbable of all, she won the case and was awarded a substantial sum as interest and in payment of her legal fees.  WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD ends with her recollections of the tremendous satisfaction that she felt upon returning triumphantly to Boston.

Fortunately for us, THE HEIRESS VS. THE ESTABLISHMENT does not end at this point. The Backhouses tell the continuing legal struggles that Mrs. Campbell faced in Canada to have the Privy Council’s decision enforced.  In the end, she and her sisters divided only about $2000, deemed to be the remainder of the estate after ten years of litigation. Even after her legal avenues for gaining restitution were exhausted, she was unwilling to concede defeat. For a period of time she picketed with a sandwich board in front of the Toronto Trust Company to protest her treatment by that institution.  She unsuccessfully pursued disciplinary actions against Mr. Hogg, eventually even attempting to have criminal charges brought against him. Whatever Hogg’s intentions or failings, he was destroyed by the case professionally, financially, and perhaps personally as well. Mrs. Campbell herself may have been driven to distraction in her single-minded pursuit of what she felt was justly hers. Whether it was worth it for her is left in the end for the reader to judge.

If this book were simply a reprint of [*936] Elizabeth’s Campbell’s fascinating memoir, it would be worthy in itself.  Campbell gives insights into the workings of elite systems of legal power in Canada in the early part of the twentieth century that are unique.  While I would not want to make facile comparisons to Charles Dickens, who is after all, one of the greatest English writers, Campbell’s book has narrative elements that are in some respects similar.  Themes include the interplay of virtue and vice, the intensity of family conflicts, and the potentially suffocating power of institutions.  There is a cast of colorful characters, and, there are wonderful names.  Dickens himself could not have chosen a better name for one of his evil protagonists than “William Drummond Hogg” or for the very sharp and aggressive lawyer, Mr. “Slaught.”  And Campbell, like Dickens, had nothing but the highest regard for all things British, including, of course, a vast (but at this time fading) empire.

Apart from its novelist elements, however, what marks this work as especially useful for scholars of law and politics are the forward, epilogue, and meticulous endnotes that explain in detail the particularities of, not only the case, but the legal and political system of which it was a part.  Anyone can learn a great deal about Canadian legal history from reading this book.   Especially important is the Backhouses’ recognition of the significance of class, race, and gender issues as central to the various legal conflicts that unfolded. In the end, this book is really about systems of social and legal power—how they can be challenged, with what effects, and the tremendous losses (and occasional victories) that can be entailed from such challenges. The book is tremendously relevant for understanding the operations not only of the Canadian legal system, but the operations of legal systems in general. As such, it would be a valuable addition to any law and society or legal history course. The ambiguities of the case, which Backhouse and Backhouse are wise not to tie up too neatly, would make for great class discussions.

In the end, I was left hoping that some enterprising independent Canadian film-maker has bought the movie rights.


© Copyright 2004 by the author, Thomas C. Shevory.