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Sir Hugh Allan

Sir Hugh Allan KCMG (September 29, 1810 – December 9, 1882) was a Scottish-born Canadian shipping magnate, railway promoter, financier and capitalist. He became the richest man in Canada with a personal estate estimated at about $8 million.


Early years

Born at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, he was the second son of Alexander Allan (1780–1854) of Saltcoats and his wife Jean Crawford (1782–1856). Alexander Allan was a first cousin of Robert Burns and a relation of John Galt, the father of the Canadian Minister of Finance, Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt. Originally a carpenter on the estate of Fairlie, North Ayrshire, Hugh's father moved the family to Saltcoats and became the captain and part-owner of a brig, which he named after his wife, 'Jean'. In 1815 he was running supplies from Scotland to the British troops engaged in the Peninsular War. By 1819 he had started the Allan Shipping Line, running dry goods from Greenock to sell in Montreal and returning with Canadian produce to sell back in Scotland, a route which quickly became synonymous with the Allan Line.

Hugh Allan received a parish education at Saltcoats before starting work in 1823 at the family's Greenock counting house of Allan, Kerr and Company. Three years later Hugh Allan was sent by his father to Montreal to work as a clerk for the grain merchant William Kerr. He left in 1830 to travel for a year, a trip which included Upper Canada, New York, Scotland and London.

Rise of the Allan Line at Montreal

Returning to Montreal in 1831 he became a commission merchant with one of Montreal’s leading importers. Aided by family and social connections he advanced rapidly within the firm, becoming a partner in 1835 in the now named Millar, Edmonstone & Co., expanding the company's shipping operations with capital from his family in Scotland.

In 1839 Hugh's younger brother, Andrew Allan (1822–1901), joined him in the company, which by then had the largest shipping capacity of any Montreal-based firm. Their eldest brother, James Allan (1808–1880) ran the shore-based aspects of the Allan Line at Greenock and Glasgow, later acquiring Ashcraig House, Skelmorlie. Another brother, Bryce Allan (1812–1874), ran the company in at Liverpool. He later bought Aros House [1] on the Isle of Mull, which his son, Alexander (1844–1927), succeeded to after his death, giving up the shipping business to devote his life to the estate.

Montreal Harbour from the Notre Dame Church, 1863

By 1850 the firm of Millar, Edmonstone & Co., Montreal, was described by a credit-rating service as an 'old safe & respectable House.' By 1859, Edmonstone, Allan and Company (as it was now known) was 'one of the wealthiest concerns in the Province', known for its responsible management, its links to trading houses in London, Liverpool, and Glasgow, and the spreading of its owners’ influence into allied shipping, railway, and banking concerns. The firm was said to have been 'as good as a Bank', and it continued as one segment of the intricate shipping interests of the Allan family in Scotland, becoming known as H. and A. Allan in 1863.

Allan Royal Mail Line

In 1851 Hugh Allan was elected President of the Montreal Board of Trade. He used his position to persuade the Canadian government to subsidize a regular mail ship to and from London and Montreal, and London and Portland, Maine. His firm, Montreal Ocean Steamship Company used sophisticated ships built in the Clyde, and with the help of his political contacts he ousted Samuel Cunard and took control of the mail contract from 1856.

An Allan Royal Mail Line Steamship at Montreal, c.1890

The Allan Line also carried immigrants under government subsidy. By 1859 service was on a weekly basis and Allan reported his capital investment in the company at £3.5 million.

Railway business

Though slow to move into the railway business, by the 1870s Allan had become Canada’s most flamboyant railway entrepreneur. He created a syndicate to build the national railway, promised as a condition of British Columbia joining Confederation. To get the contract, he bribed Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, suscribing over $350,000 for Macdonald's re-election campaign in 1872, but the Pacific scandal (and Macdonald's defeat) ended his dreams of supremacy in the railway business. Howvever, through his bank, the Merchant's Bank of Canada, he still financed and maintained a vested interest in many of the Canadian railway companies.

Merchant's Bank of Canada

While still in his thirties Allan became a director of the Bank of Montreal and remained on the board for ten years (1847–57). He also held significant shares in the Commercial Bank of Canada, the Bank of Upper Canada, the Maritime Bank of the Dominion of Canada and the City Bank of Montreal. He was a director of the Montreal Credit Company and president of the Provincial Permanent Building Society which became the Provincial Loan Company in 1875.

To service his financial needs and as a source of capital, Allan established the Merchants’ Bank of Canada. Run as a family business, it was chartered in 1861 but did not open until 1864. Allan served as president of the bank until his death when he was succeeded by his brother, Andrew. The bank soon became known as one of Canada's most aggressive. They took over the failing Commercial Bank of Canada and by the mid 1870's had branches in New York and London.

The Merchant's Bank on St. James Street, Montreal, 1870

Allan's association with the bank facilitated his growth in other profitable ventures. Allan had interests in new communications technology,[2] manufacturing,[2] and mining.[3] In 1852, he became president of the Montreal Telegraph Company,[3] ultimately selling MTC's "telephone plant" to Bell Telephone for $75,000.[3] He also established coal mines in Nova Scotia and factories for textiles, shoes, paper, tobacco, and iron and steel in Central Canada.[3]

Family life and death

In 1844 Hugh Allan married Caroline Matilda Smith, the daughter of John Smith, one of Montreal's wealthiest dry goods merchants. They brought up a family of nine daughters and four sons. In 1860 Hugh bought the estate of Simon McTavish and demolished the old manor house that stood there to make way for his new home, Ravenscrag, a sumptuous Italian Renaissance house on the slopes of Mount Royal. The house, which rivalled only Dundurn Castle in scale and grandeur, was completed in three years in 1863, and the ballroom alone could comfortably accommodate several hundred guests. After his death it was lived in by the Allan's second son, H. Montagu Allan, until he donated it to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal in 1940.

Hugh Allan was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1871,[3]. He died in 1882 whilst visting relatives in Edinburgh, of a heart attack, soon after his wife's death. His remains were brought back to Montreal where he is was buried.[2]. Sir Hugh Allan was one of the wealthiest men in the world at his death. The shipping line was continued by his brother Andrew Allan (1822-1901) before being passed on to Hugh's second second son [4] H. Montagu Allan.

External links




  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b c McCallum, p.63.
  3. ^ a b c d e McCallum, p.64.
  4. ^ Farr, D.M.L. "Allan, Sir Hugh Andrew Montagu", op.cit., p.64.



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