Sunday, December 13, 2009

Elizabeth Bethune Campbell - Socialite, Minister's Wife and Legal Pioneer

St John's Rectory, Alveston street.

Twenty-four Alveston street is a rather architecturally busy, if not particularly notable house on Jamaica Plain’s Sumner hill. It was not present in 1884, but shows up on an 1896 property map. It was apparently built as, and today remains, the rectory of St John’s Episcopal church, which sits around the corner at the intersection of Roanoke avenue and Revere and Elm streets. While the ministers who lived in the parsonage over the years may be the subject of future articles, this on will focus on one minister’s wife - Mrs. Elizabeth Bethune Campbell.

Elizabeth Bethune Campbell - wedding picture.

Elizabeth Louisa Bethune was born in Toronto in 1880. Elizabeth’s father was a successful politician and barrister, and her mother was a popular society hostess. When Elizabeth was just four years old, her father suddenly died, leaving her mother an estate of between $40,000 and $60,000. This the widow Bethune left to the management of her brother-in-law, lawyer William Drummond Hogg. Mrs. Bethune later remarried and separated, but her inherited property was kept in trust through this temporary relationship.

Reverend Thomas Campbell - in military Chaplain's uniform.

Young Elizabeth traveled through Europe, spent time in a French convent school, and was introduced, as befitted her social standing, as a “debutante” in her late teens. After receiving the attentions of William Lyon Mackenzie King, a future prime minister of Canada, Elizabeth married Reverend Thomas Clyman Campbell, an American Episcopalian minister, in 1907. After the Toronto society wedding, the couple moved to the United States, where Reverend Campbell took a position at St John’s church in Jamaica Plain. The Campbells lived in the rectory on Alveston street for the next thirty years, raising two children, James Bethune and Elizabeth Thomasine.

At right - the Campbell children --->

During the First World War, Reverend Campbell served as a chaplain in England. The children were sent to exclusive boarding schools, with parishioner Susan Revere Chapin (great grand-daughter of Paul Revere) apparently contributing towards their tuition. James went on to earn a medical degree from Harvard, and Thomasine (as she was known) attended Barnard College and studied in Vienna.

Described as a tall, striking figure, Mrs. Campbell did not take part in the affairs of the parish, nor did she join in the local women’s clubs of the time. She spent much time in Toronto and London, England, and that brings us to her claim to fame.

In 1922, at age eighty-two, Elizabeth’s mother had deteriorated sufficiently that control of her estate was put in the hands of the Toronto General Trusts Corporation, with Elizabeth’s two older sisters appointed “committee” - guardians of a sort. When she died two years later, Elizabeth’s mother’s estate was valued at $17,450, much less than Elizabeth believed proper.

Here, Elizabeth Campbell began a long, dramatic battle to learn what had happened to her mother’s estate. Out of it came a book, Where Angels Fear to Tread, her story of her travails, and of the people she dealt with along the way. She was represented my multiple lawyers. At the time, this meant travel across the Atlantic to London, as Canada had not yet made its peaceful break with the United Kingdom as a subject state and join the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Mrs. Campbell’s two main opponents were William Drummond Hogg, her uncle and the manager of her mother’s estate following her father’s death, and the Toronto General Trusts Corporation. Hogg was a major figure in the legal world of Ontario - a world in which it seems social and familial connections lent an almost aristocratic air. Toronto General Trusts Corporation was founded by men of similar social and professional standing, pillars of the establishment of the time.

So far, we have the story of a woman of moneyed background and born into social position battling men taken from that same class. What makes Mrs. Campbell notable is that in 1930, she went before the Privy Court in London to argue her own case, and she won. Without being a barrister, and without even attending college, Mrs. Campbell became the first woman to argue a case before the Privy Court.

So Jamaica Plain has still another trailblazing woman to claim. Her trail took her out of Jamaica Plain, and indeed clear out of the United States, but she seems like a remarkable woman in any case. Whether she was uncovering and battling an injustice, or a money-driven monomaniac, is impossible to tell, but she was a trailblazer nonetheless. And all the while, her husband continued tending his flock at St. John‘s. Which just goes to show that not all the fascinating stories on Sumner Hill are found in the most architecturally impressive houses.


Backhouse, Constance. "The Heiress versus the Establishment: The First Female Litigator Before the Privy Council."

1 comment:

  1. This is brilliant. We are intending to include Elizabeth Bethune Campbell in our database at Canada's Early Women Writers ( and would love to include a photo. Do you have, and can you grant, permissions for the image you use? Could you please email me at Thank you! Karyn Huenemann