Today in Canada's Political History - February 6, 1899: Former PM sued for not paying a bill for flowers at Sir John Thompson’s funeral four-years before!

Former Prime Minister Sir Mackenzie Bowell didn’t have a good day on February 6, 1899. He, of course, had served as PM in the aftermath of the death of Sir John Thompson in December of 1894. As Acting Prime Minister when Thompson died, Bowell ordered that flowers should be sent to Halifax to adorn the fallen PM’s casket.

There was only one problem with Bowell’s request: Nobody bothered to pay the florist! In a bureaucratic twist that only a crafty public servant could devise (and not tell anyone that he had!), it was decided that because Bowell had not been sworn-in as PM yet when he ordered the flowers, the government wouldn’t pay.

“Action is now taken against Sir Mackenzie Bowell alone on the grounds that when he gave the order, he was not premier, but merely acting as senior councillor of the cabinet, and therefore could not include his colleagues in any such order,” the press reported on this date in 1899, three-years after Bowell had left office. “In other words, it is contended that there was no government at the time.”

With interest, the flower bill now stood at over $1,000. Bowell was having none of it and engaged a lawyer to defend him.

“This raises an important constitutional point which will, no doubt, be fully threshed out when the case comes up for trial,” a press account of the lawsuit continued. “W. L. Barry, counsel for the plaintiff, sets forth in his pleadings, ‘that in consequence of the refusal of the Sir Mackenzie Bowell. to pay for the said floral wreath contributed by the said William B. Davidson, the plaintiff suffered very great distress and hardship and was put to considerable trouble and expense, all of which the said William B. Davidson and the plaintiff bore in silence, being unwilling to expose this national disgrace of nonpayment to which the Canadian people have been subjected.’"

As of the present, I have not as yet found out for Art’s History’s readers whether poor old Bowell had to pay for the flowers in the end. Stay tuned!


Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist. He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy. A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.