1: Article 6: Sir Hugh Allan
A remarkable Scot who became an even more remarkable Candadian
(This article first appeared on http://www.clydeshipping.co.uk)
On 22nd April 1856, the small (by today's standards), steam
ship ss NORTH AMERICAN left the quayside in Liverpool, bound for Londonderry
then to cross the cold Atlantic to Quebec and Montreal. On board would
be excited passengers, but also, crucially, the mails from Britian to
This followed Hugh Allan's successful winning of the contract to carry
mail. Previously it had been Samuel Cunard's company's ships, winning
the contract despite Allan initiating the idea with the government in
the first place. Allan put together an impressive company, backed with
money from family in Scotland and his chagrin must have been great. He
did not have to wait long, Cunard's venture was a flop.
Much is known about Cunard, and he is arguably more famous than Sir Hugh
Allan, but Allan was a remarkable man, and this anniversary gives me the
chance to redress the lack of exposure given to him, especially in his
native country of Scotland.
Born in Saltcoats on 29th September 1810 he was the second son of five
sons born to Alexander Allan and Jean Crawford. This family were well
known shipowners, J & A Allan, formed by his father and elder brother
James. At the age of 13 he was working in counting house of Allan, Kerr
& Co in Greenock but at 16 he emigrated to Canada, in 1826 to become
a clerk with William Kerr, the grain merchant. This he did until 1830
when he undertook a 'Grand Tour', around Canada, thence to New York, back
to Scotland and finally his first visit to London.
When he returned to Canada in 1831 he met up with James Millar, an agent
for J&A Allan and joined his company which was a general importer
based in Montreal. Young Hugh, helped along by family connections, soon
grew in stature, involved in shipping, shipbuilding and grain importing.
By 1835 the company was known as Millar, Edmonstone & Co and Hugh
was made a partner. His father encouraged him and the company in expanding
the shipping side of the business and J&A Allen became closely involved
in building up the merchant fleet. By 1839 his brother Andrew came across
the pond to join him, the firm was called Edmonstone, Allan & Co and
was the biggest shipping company in Montreal, trading between Glasgow
and Canada, losing the name Edmonstone in 1863 and become part of the
Allan empire, trading as a segment of J&A Allan as H&A Allan.
Fairlie House, on the Fairlie Estate where 'Sandy' Allan's carpenter father had a small cottage
As President of the Montreal Board of Trade, a post he held between 1851
and 1854, Hugh Allan urged the government to subsidise shipping services
between Canada and Britain, arguing that no only would this ensure regular
and permanent mail services, but (and here we see the beginnings of his
protectionist streak) it would ensure more immigrants to Canada and protect
imports and exports that the many thought were threated by the Americans
with their Drawback Laws of 1845.
He set about creating a company, carefully Canadian, but inextricably
linked (and financed) by the parent company over in Scotland. It is also
worthwhile noting that his Scottish links were not just across the ocean,
surrounding him in this venture were mostly Scottish-Canadian entreprenuers
Despite such a careful and experienced syndicate being formed, it was
Samuel Cunard's rival outfiit, Canadian Steam Navigation Company, that
secured the first mails contract in 1853. Their venture was not to perform
Despite losing the contract, Allan knew the Cunard organisation would
fail and so he and the syndicate turned their minds to improving their
alternative service by commissioning new, Clydebuilt vessels. These were
the CANADIAN and the INDIAN, built of iron and with screw propulsion,
the latest in technology.On 18th December 1854 they formed themselves
as The Montreal Ocean Steamship Company and a legend was born.
With the help of Conservative politicians, the new company wrested the
contract from Cunard's and with a subsidy of £24,000 they ran a
fortnightly service from Montreal and Liverpool in the summer season,
and Portland, Maine and Liverpool in the winter. This was increased to
a weekly service in 1859. By this time Allan's investment was reported
as £3,500,000 - a huge sum of money in those days.
After winning the contract, other ships were ordered, including the one
that left Liverpool today all those years ago.
But shipping mails wasn't all his company could do for the government,
there were troops to move, supplies to convey and all manner of government
contracts out there for the winning. Allan lost no time in woo-ing officials
on both side of the Atlantic and secured many valuable contracts during
wars in Africa and the Crimea. It was however a time when the halo of
rectitude rather slipped, after Sir George Cornewall Lewis brought a suit
against him for 'exhorbitant and enormous' charges for carrying military
baggage five times the rates of other carriers. Hugh Allan responded vigorously
- he impounded the baggage until the case was settled!
The company grew, taking immigrants and manufactured goods across to
Canada, returning with natural goods such as grain from there to a needful
Great Britain. By 1870 however, Allan was frustrated by the inadequacy
of rail links to the western side of the continent, he was also worried
that the railway company was getting to close to rival US shippers and
there were expressions being made that the railway company wanted to set
up its own shipping concern.
Accordingly he began again to subvert such rivalry and set about involving
himself in the railway business, using his same mix of capital, personal
contacts, and by now, his immense wealth, to insinuate himself and associates
at all manner of levels to ensure his syndicate ruled the roost in the
construction of new railways around the lands of North America. However,
a rival syndicate sprang up, based in Toronto. It was formed as the Inter-oceanic
Railway Company of Canada in 1872. Allan's was incorporated as the Canadian
Sir John A MacDonald (born 1815 in Glasgow, Scotland) - Canada's
first Prime Minister
The latter, after much wrangling, after much political and private discussions,
won the contract. It was also at a time of election. A Conservative government
was returned...and it was Allan money that helped boost their fortunes.
or so it was alleged, and finally those allegations were crystalised,
when Lucius Seth Huntington MP, rose on the 2nd of April 1873 to make
the charge that Hugh Allan had purchased the control of the western railway
by giving enormous sums of money to the Conservatives. To cut a long story
short, the scandal, which became known as the Pacific Scandal, brought
down the MacDonald government and resulted in Allan being no longer involved
in the Pacific railway.
Hugh Allan's interests covered much of Canada's banking systems. His
most important involvement was when he established the Merchants' Bank
of Canada in 1861. It opened for business in 1864, and as a matter of
routine, he was elected President every year until 1877. He was however,
re-elected in 1882, the year of his death.
An interesting insight into the character of the man - one so heavily
involved in manifold interests, companies and ventures, is that while
in Montreal he would go the Merchant's Bank every Saturday, there to supervise
the burning of bills that were taken out of circulation and to count the
money. It was as well he did, for on one occasion there was discovered
a shortfall of £500. This resulted in the sacking of the seven employees
and criminal proceedings against the head teller and accountant!
The Merchant's Bank was central to Allan's growing empire which included,
shipping, insurance, manufacturing, cotton, railways, elevators and the
Montreal Telegraph Company, ensuring capital was always available at a
time of need, and that each company could help generate more business
for the other.
However in 1877 the Merchant's Bank came close to collapse, mainly due
it being discovered that Allan's announcements of profits every year were
in acual fact as a result of carrying losses forward. Bonds were found
to be practically worthless and a number of indescrepencies were found
on further investigation. He resigned, bullishly maintaining this was
all a connivence between 'a few brokers' and enemies of Allan's.
Allan's interests not only involved ownership, he also invested his wealth
in capitalisation. In this field of endeavour the amount of industries
and firms he had extensive investments in are almost too many to list.
Tobacco, cotton, iron, textiles, coal mining, pulp and paper - the list
The involvement with textiles showed him to be less than concerned about
the textile workers. Many and vaious were the complaints about the conditions
under which his workers laboured - from poor wages, to child labour, to
industrial accidents. It was reported that ten year old girls worked barefoot
in his mills through the winter. He was not a man Charles Dickens would
have warmed to!
Crest of the Montreal Shipping Company
He was all in all a man concerned with wealth creation, retaining wealth,
ensuring it went his way, and someone who wished to dominate and control
his world, expanding its influence through politicians (notably Prime
Minister Macdonald, who was one of his debtors - a circumstance Allan
capitalised on cleverly), through the newspapers and through expert manipulation
of others at all levels.
So successful was he in this that he became quite arrogant in his demands.
He softened up local politicians and interests by advertising in their
papers, giving relatively low ranking officials and representatives undue
access to the cream of society, and then bluntly made his demands known.
For example whenever he found a law to his disliking, he simply let it
be known, indeed, ordered it to be repealed. The Quebec politician Hector-Louis
Langevin telegraphed Macdonald on one instance to say "Allan has
telegraphed wishing the St Lawrence navigation act repealed. The Quebec
government has promised it shall be done."
However, despite the criticisms levelled at him he was no more corrupt
or devious than anyone else in positions of power and influence in Canada
in those days. Other industrialists were equally manipulative and greedy,
it was probably a bit like our generation in the 1980's, when greed and
power and wealth accumulation actually became something almost honourable,
and how you got it was your business - literally, your business.
His great fortune came to anything between $6 million to $10 million,
he had extensive estates dotted all over the continent, he had his own
private steam yacht. All the trappings of an industrialist and capitalist.
Ravenscrag, Sir Hugh's mansion in Montreal, named after one of his
favourite childhood haunts in Ayrshire
That is what he shall be remembered as, but in his private life he showed
his Scottish roots more pleasantly, being a curler, quite a notable one,
he was president of the Montreal Curling Club in 1846/47 and again in
1874/75. He was also president of the St Andrews Society from 1848
Sadly, unlike another great Scottish industrialist, he was no Carnegie.
Whatever benevolence came from the Allan empire, it was mostly relatively
modest sums dispensed by his wife.
She died in 1882, and in 1883, back in Scotland to visit his son-in-law
in Edinburgh, Sir Hugh Allan (as he was now, knighted by Victoria in 1871)
suffered a heart attack and died. His body was taken to Montreal for his
funeral, at which thousands followed the final journey.
He was one of Canada's most important industrialists, moreso, most important
capitalist. Money was central to all he did, ensuring that capital stayed
in his hands as often as possible as he lent it to those he did not own,
and got it back with interest, as he carried his own goods on his own
ships, as he sold clothes to his own workers, and those workers the very
immigrants he had caried over the ocean, he ensured that the rule of success
was to centralise power in a web of commerce and industry that affected
everything from beginning to end.
In an age of Empires, he was a true Empire Builder.
Angus MacKinnon has written a very detailed account of the life of his
father, Alexander (Sandy) Allan.
With thanks to Stuart Cameron who posted most of the above images on Clydesite