William Lyon Mackenzie King

William Lyon Mackenzie King



First elected to Parliament in 1908, Mackenzie King was Canada’s longest serving prime minister, being in office nearly 22 years (1921-26; 1926-30; 1935-48), including the difficult years of the Second World War. King initiated several enduring social programs such as old age pensions, unemployment insurance and family allowances. Mackenzie King retired in 1948 and died at Kingsmere in 1950. King kept a diary for 57 years (from age 18 to his death), a text that holds more than 7.5 million words. It remains a major source of information about him.

Lady Laurier left Laurier House to King in her will, believing it was appropriate to return the house to the Liberal Party which had purchased it in the first place and which King led. The wording in Lady Laurier’s will was ambiguous, however, and it would be a few years before King and not the Liberal Party would legally be confirmed as the house’s rightful owner. King moved in in 1923 after making substantial renovations  (including new wiring, plumbing, furnace, floors and an elevator), particularly on the top floor where he made a large living room and set up his principal office. Liberal benefactors set up a fund to help King pay for the house’s upkeep and bought most of the furnishings.

While his record shows that King was clearly a very skilled politician, he aroused mixed feelings among observers, with even a senior Liberal supporter noting that “there was something unwholesome about him” while the wife of a British diplomat more colourfully complained that “after a conversation with him she [felt] as if the cat had licked her all over and she ought to go and have a bath.” (MacMillan, 2015, p 45)

While at Laurier House, King liked to keep to a routine which involved getting up at 9, exercise before breakfast (until his fifties), reading a daily devotional book and the Bible, working at home in the mornings on correspondence, office memoranda and meetings. After eating lunch (usually alone), he would go to his office in the East Block. In the afternoon, he regularly had tea. He would have dinner around 7:30 and work in his library until midnight. In the evening, he also took his dog Pat for a walk.

If Laurier House was bustling during Laurier’s days, it was quieter after King moved in. He was a very private man who never married and was a workaholic by nature. He rarely entertained personal friends and did not like to have overnight guests.  He did, however, entertain small groups at Laurier House for political reasons and also welcomed a number of celebrities such as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, Winston Churchill, Charles Lindberg, Shirley Temple and Field Marshall Montgomery.

Mackenzie King and his dog Pat at Laurier House, August, 1939. King often took Pat out for a walk around Sandy Hill (LAC, MIKAN 3217611)

In December 1941, Winston Churchill visited Ottawa as part of his North American tour. On December 30th, Churchill delivered his famous “some chicken, some neck” speech to the Canadian Parliament and had his picture taken by Yusuf Karsh, a photo that would become one of the most famous photographic portraits ever done. King invited him for dinner at Laurier House. After the meal, when King, who had given up alcohol during the war, fell off the wagon in order to toast his guest whose love of alcohol was well-known, they retired to the third-floor library. This was King’s favourite room, his sanctuary, where he spent a great deal of his leisure and working time and which he used as his principal office. Among the many things King liked to show off was a copy of the 1837 Royal Proclamation that put a price of £1,000 on the head of his grandfather (William Lyon Mackenzie had led the Upper Canada rebellion). Churchill replied that that was a very good price indeed: during the Boer War, the Boers had put a price of only £25 on his head after he had escaped their captivity.

While King the politician was an amiable man and a good conversationalist, King the employer was difficult to please and a stickler for detail and protocol. He drove his staff hard, sometimes forgetting meals and was often indifferent to their needs. As a result, his domestic staff (a cook, two maids, a butler and a driver) turned over frequently. In 1923, reflecting his difficulty finding satisfactory staff, King wrote in his diary “’what a dam-d nuisance servants are”.

A romantic, King put some effort in creating faux ruins at his country estate in Kingsmere. When the Batson House at the corner of Daly Ave. and King Edward Ave. was turned into apartments, King took the bay window to Kingsmere where it still stands in the “cloister” ruins.

A frugal man throughout his life, King died a multi-millionaire. He donated Laurier House and his large country estate in the Gatineau Hills, Kingsmere, to Canada. Both are now National Historic Sites.