LESTER, ROBERT, businessman, militia officer, politician, and landowner; b. c. 1746 in Galway (Republic of Ireland); d., probably unmarried, 12 July 1807 at Quebec, Lower Canada.
Robert Lester arrived at Quebec around 1770, and by 1772 he had established himself there as a merchant. In the winter of 1775–76, during the siege of the city by brigadiers-general Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery*, he was a captain of militia. Along with Captain Anthony Vialar, he kept the orderly book in which were recorded the duties of the militia garrison. In 1779, when Governor Haldimand founded the Quebec Library, Lester was appointed treasurer in an executive that included Henri-François Gravé de La Rive, François Baby, James Monk*, Arthur Davidson, and the merchant Pierre Fargues. That February Lester purchased from Nicolas-Gaspard Boisseau for 15,200 livres a lot and two-storey stone house at 7 Rue Saint-Pierre, where he established his residence and business.
In the 1770s and 1780s Lester gradually built up a trade based principally on the import, for wholesale marketing, of cloth and spirits and on the export of wheat. For some years he conducted business as an individual, and he continued to do so after he formed Robert Lester and Company, which was in existence by 1786–. By March 1787 he had taken in as a junior partner his nephew Robert Morrogh, and as early as April 1790 the firm was known as Lester and Morrogh. Like many other merchants, he acted as a business attorney and an estate trustee. He was probably aided in this work by a certain fluency in French, a definite asset for a British merchant in Quebec at this time. In 1780 he was given power of attorney by Henriette Guichaud, Pierre Fargues’s widow, to regulate her husband’s succession. This assignment may have brought Lester into frequent contact with the influential merchant Thomas Dunn, who married Mme Fargues in 1783. In June 1785 Dunn gave Lester power of attorney to manage some of his affairs. A procuration the same year from the powerful Montreal firm of Todd and McGill may have been the start of Lester’s long and fruitful relationship with Isaac Todd, and helped extend beyond Quebec the reputation for probity that he had acquired. In 1789 he acted as attorney for Robert Ellice and Company of Montreal and for the merchants Robert Hamilton of Queenston (Ont.) and Richard Cartwright, Robert Macaulay*, and Thomas Markland* of Kingston (Ont.), for whom Todd and McGill were agents at Montreal.
Another aspect of Lester’s business was the making of numerous small loans to ordinary people. During the period of economic stress following the American revolution the number of Lester’s debtors, mainly tailors and tavern-keepers unable to pay for supplies, increased, and he was obliged several times to have property seized for sale at public auction. Lester himself apparently had to struggle to survive. By January 1782 he owed £12,000 in the Cochrane affair [see James Dunlop]. In November of the following year he borrowed £1,200 from the surgeon James Fisher*, promising to pay it back in three years; by December 1787, however, he had paid no more than £200, and could pay the remainder only with a loan from Dunn.
In the 1780s Lester began to participate in the public life of the colony. A devout Catholic, he earned the confidence of the clergy, and in February 1784 he was one of six men authorized to receive and remit to the parish priest of Quebec money and goods destined for the poor and sick of the town. The previous year, when a draft petition for political reform was sent by the merchants of Montreal for the concurrence of their Quebec colleagues, Lester and William Grant (1744–1805) led a successful drive to revise a clause on qualifications for members of a proposed elective house of assembly in order to admit Roman Catholics. He signed petitions requesting an assembly in 1784, 1788, and 1789, and in 1789 and 1790 he was a member of a 15-man committee formed to protest delay of constitutional and judicial reform. In 1786 he had been among those who signed a petition opposing the collection by government of lods et ventes on past property sales. The following year he was a member of a committee of merchants that submitted a report to the Legislative Council recommending the introduction of English law for the regulation of business, the incorporation of Quebec and Montreal, and the use of the Jesuit estates to establish an English-language college. That July he became a captain in the British militia at Quebec. He was among the founding subscribers to the Agriculture Society in April 1789, and the following month he was a member of the grand jury at Quebec. In December Robert Lester and Company was among those firms that protested recently introduced restrictions on the import of rum, arguing that they adversely affected the export of flour and biscuit. The following year Lester signed a petition in support of the founding of a non-sectarian university, even though it was opposed by Bishop Jean-François Hubert*.
Constitutional reform, including provision for a house of assembly, was finally achieved through the Constitutional Act of 1791. Lester ran for election to the assembly in Lower Town, a riding which, although in large part commercial, was inhabited principally by artisans and workers. The resident population, mainly Canadian with a significant Irish minority, was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and Lester may have benefited substantially from the support, no doubt discreet, of the Séminaire de Québec. Thus, as an Irish-Catholic merchant, well known in the community, Lester tapped a fairly broad base of sympathy, including both Canadians and British merchants, among the latter, John Purss, James Tod, and John Blackwood. He and John Young took 66 per cent of the vote to defeat Adam Lymburner* and Jean-Antoine Panet in the two-seat riding. In the first parliament, from 1792 to 1796, Lester was a faithful adherent of the minority English party, voting with it on 15 of 16 occasions. This adherence was also manifested by his election in 1794 to the standing committee of the Association, formed that year to support British rule in Canada in the context of war with revolutionary France, persistent rumours of a French invasion, and revolt among Canadian militiamen. In October, Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton] promoted Lester major in the Quebec Battalion of British Militia; he became lieutenant-colonel about May 1799.
Defeated by Young and Augustin-Jérôme Raby* in the elections of 1796, Lester none the less remained active in public affairs. In February 1797 he and Morrogh were among the petitioners against a prohibition on the export of unsaleable flour as causing a great loss to merchants. In June 1799 he joined 12 leading citizens of Quebec who opened a general subscription in support of Britain’s war effort; Lester subscribed £30 per annum for the duration of the war, a contribution exceeded only by those of Dunn and Jenkin Williams. Lester had continued to be active in the burgeoning social life of Quebec. He was elected a director of the Agriculture Society in 1792 and 1793 and treasurer from 1792 to 1795; he was also repeatedly elected treasurer of the Quebec Library. In November 1793 he made one of the largest individual contributions to a fund for the relief of sufferers in a fire on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot.
Lester’s relations with the Catholic hierarchy intensified during the 1790s. When the French revolution cut communications between Quebec and Rome by way of Paris, it may have been Lester’s firm that provided a new route; after 1792 exchanges were made through Francis Morrogh at Lisbon, Portugal, a regular port of call for Lester and Morrogh’s ships. Lester’s relations with Bishop Hubert had undoubtedly introduced him to the tatter’s secretary, Joseph-Octave Plessis*; when Plessis took possession of Notre-Dame Cathedral as the new parish priest of Quebec in June 1792, Lester was among the official witnesses. In 1794 Lester and Morrogh made cash advances to four exiled French priests, including Jean-Baptiste-Marie Castanet*, who had immigrated to Lower Canada. The following year Lester was the most active among four people designated to collect gifts of clothes and food from the citizens of Quebec for the subsistence of four French royalist families who had fled Guadeloupe.
The 1790s, a decade of economic prosperity in Lower Canada, were for Lester and Morrogh years of diversification and rapid expansion. Their business had led them to build up their own fleet of ships, and they undoubtedly chartered others. They became among the leading Lower Canadian exporters of wheat and flour. Lester’s close relations with Plessis may have given him access to an important source of grain, the tithe collected by parish priests; in 1798 Plessis, now coadjutor designate to Bishop Pierre Denaut, authorized the sale to Lester of the grain tithe from the parish of Saint-Laurent on Île d’Orléans. By 1790 Lester and Morrogh had moved into the trade in timber and staves. That year, with Todd and the Quebec merchant Peter Stuart, they took a 30-year lease from the Ursulines on three lots in the faubourg Saint-Jean. In February 1794 Lester gave power of attorney to Richard Cartwright to manage lands that he had acquired in Upper Canada. Lester himself continued to be an active business agent and attorney: among new clients were the priest Edmund Burke (1753–1820), who in 1794 left Quebec for the Upper Canadian missions; the London merchant Alexander Ellice, for whom Lester negotiated the purchase of the seigneury of Villechauve in 1795; and the Halifax merchants Thomas, James, and William Cochran. Since 1789 Lester and Morrogh had been partners in the Montreal Distillery Company, but in 1794 it was dissolved and the property sold to Nicholas Montour; Lester and Morrogh continued, nevertheless, to import spirits and supply local inns and taverns.
The firm’s increased activities necessitated an expansion of its facilities. In 1792 it was still being operated from the waterfront property on Rue Saint-Pierre. From 1795 to 1798 at least, the company also rented a wharf from John Blackwood for £175 per annum. In July 1795 it purchased for £850 from the London merchants Brook Watson and Robert Rashleigh a lot on Rue du Cap-Diamant (Boulevard Champlain) with house, wharf, bakehouse, potash works, stores, and outhouses. The following month the partners bought for £1,750 from Catherine Trottier Desauniers Beaubien, widow of the merchant François Lévesque*, a lot at 2 Rue Saint-Pierre with a two-storey stone house, vaults, storehouses, and wharf; by 1798 Lester had made this his residence, leaving 7 Rue Saint-Pierre to Morrogh. They also undertook major construction projects on their properties.
This expansion was paid for in large part by borrowing. The partners obtained £2,000 from Dunn in August 1795 and another £1,000 two years later. In September 1797 they borrowed £350 from Fisher and in August 1799 the Sulpician superior at Montreal, Jean-Henri-Auguste Roux*, lent them £500 from his personal fortune. In 1801 Lester and Morrogh were among the largest debtors to the estate of the Trois-Rivières merchant Aaron Hart*. That September they borrowed another £2,500 from Fisher. Perhaps sensing themselves over-extended, they sold their property at 7 Rue Saint-Pierre in July 1802 to the auctioneer John Jones for £1,000, paid over three years.
In June 1800 Lester again sought election to the assembly. He easily topped the poll in Lower Town, receiving votes from 357 of the 408 electors; Young was the other successful candidate. Between 1801 and 1804 Lester voted 15 times, always with the English party. In 1801 he was appointed one of five commissioners to execute a law for the relief of persons who had purchased lands on which heavy arrears of lods et ventes were due to the crown, and in 1804 he was appointed treasurer of a commission for the erection of a court-house at Quebec.
In the early 1800s Lester’s ties with the Catholic clergy broadened. He established excellent relations with Bishop James Louis O’Donel, vicar apostolic of Newfoundland. In 1802 he acted as financial adviser to the Hôpital Général of Quebec, and that August Bishop Plessis wrote to Denaut that Lester was “more than ever the friend of the priests.” In June 1803 Lester was at Halifax, a guest, along with Denaut, of Edmund Burke. His prominence in colonial politics and his unimpeachable credentials as a supporter of the administration may have been exploited by Denaut and Plessis in their relations with the colonial and imperial governments. By the early 1800s they had become aware that Lieutenant Governor Sir Robert Shore Milnes*, influenced by Anglican bishop Jacob Mountain* and Attorney General Jonathan Sewell*, was abandoning the quiet pragmatism that had characterized the state’s relations with the church under governors Murray* and Carleton. In its place appeared a certain aggressiveness on the part of the government, which now sought to control the church in the hopes of using its social power to strengthen the political position of executive government in the colony. Lester offered advice to Plessis and used what influence he had on behalf of the hierarchy. About 1803 he was delegated to mollify the angered lieutenant governor when it became clear that the emigré French priest Philippe-Jean-Louis Desjardins*, whom Milnes had permitted to visit France, intended to stay there even though that country was at war with Britain. In November 1804, when Lester was in London on one of his business trips, Plessis asked him to obtain from the British government the letters patent for a grant of land at Quebec, made some time before by Milnes to the Congregation of Notre-Dame. Lester also tried, but with limited success in an inhospitable political climate, to obtain foreign priests for seminaries at Quebec and Halifax. In June 1806, when Plessis, who had succeeded Denaut as bishop of Quebec, sought an English vicar general to fill a crucial position as his agent to the British government, Lester persuaded him to nominate an exiled French Sulpician, François-Emmanuel Bourret, whom he had met during earlier visits to London.
To his ever-widening range of activities Lester was adding those of land speculation in the Eastern Townships and the production of beer. In April 1801 he, as leader according to the system of township leaders and associates [see James Caldwell], received a grant of 23,100 acres in Barnston Township. Two years later he was granted 500 acres in Granby and 200 acres in Milton for his role in the defence of Quebec in 1775–76. In June 1800 Lester and Morrogh hired the master mason Charles Jourdain*, dit Labrosse, to construct a brewery on their property on Rue du Cap-Diamant at Près-de-Ville. The brewer James Mason Godard (Goddard) left his partnership with Young at the St Roc Brewery in February 1801 to join Lester and Morrogh, whose Cape Diamond Brewery was to begin about April producing porter and Burton and mild ale, as well as table and small beer. At the same time Lester and Morrogh continued to import spirits; they also sold Upper Canadian flour.
Perhaps the most important enterprise conducted by Lester and Morrogh after 1800, however, was the provisioning of the army, in association with Todd. The associates filled the role of middlemen, negotiating purchases, mainly of flour and peas, from local merchants when possible, but importing when necessary, to fill orders principally for the commissariat. In December 1801 they received orders for 3,000 barrels of flour and 5,000 bushels of wheat. The same year Lester and Morrogh themselves made the lowest bid to supply 500 gallons of rum. Responding to directions from the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, Peter Hunter, to obtain as many of their provisions as possible from that colony rather than from the United States, in 1803 Todd and Lester and Morrogh entered the Upper Canadian market through Todd’s relations with the principal partners of James and Andrew McGill and Company. Similarly, a decision by the British government to supply its troops in the Maritimes from the Canadas resulted in an increase in business for the partners; in 1804 and 1805 they were invited to supply Nova Scotia and neighbouring colonies as well as Lower Canada. Todd and Lester and Morrogh continued to act as purchasing agents until at least 1806, when they supplied provisions later valued by the government at £31,694. However, in November 1807 Commissary General John Craigie stated that the merchants owed the government more than £2,800 for credit advanced.
On the surface, by the year 1805 Lester and Morrogh had finally achieved prosperity and security: provisioning orders were large; they were Peter Hunter’s personal financial agents for the transfer of money to London; and in May Lester obtained the grant of a beach lot at Quebec, allowing room for further expansion. Although their partnership with Godard in the Cape Diamond Brewery terminated acrimoniously at the end of 1805, in April 1806 they signed a new contract with William Hullett to buy his entire crop of hops up to 6,000 pounds at 1s. 6d. per pound. The following January they renewed for five years the contract of the brewery’s maltster, George Oakley. They also continued to import liquors.
In fact, however, neither Lester nor his company was well. “Our friend Mr Lester leaves for London in a state that makes me fear we will not see him again,” Plessis wrote to Bourret in November 1806. “At least the good man will have before God the consolation of having honoured and practised his religion in a manner very edifying for the church and its friends.” His will, handwritten before his departure, indicates that Lester was not optimistic of success on his trip. By May 1807, when he returned to Quebec, word of financial disaster was abroad. Lester and Morrogh had had to borrow £2,500 in August 1805 from the collector of customs, Thomas Scott. Two years later the Montreal merchant Alexander Henry* informed John Askin at Sandwich (Windsor), Upper Canada, that the firm was bankrupt. In June 1807 Plessis remarked that he had offered Lester condolences on a reversal “that has just ruined him completely.” One month later he was dead. The Catholic hierarchy had lost one of the few laymen it trusted. For Plessis the loss was a personal one; for Bourret it was also a “public calamity.” Lester was buried on 15 July in the crypt of Notre-Dame at a service attended by prominent merchants and officials of the colony.
At the time of Lester’s death, 79 debtors owed him or his firm more than £7,400. Major ones were located in St John’s, Nfld, Halifax, and London; Joseph Frobisher of Montreal owed £423 and Plessis £326. Lester’s and Lester and Morrogh’s properties, equipment, and merchandise were valued at more than £29,000. The house and business at 2 Rue Saint-Pierre were worth more than £5,300, the wharf and one-half of the store at Près-de-Ville £6,000, and Lester’s one-half share in the Cape Diamond Brewery £6,900. Yet the beneficiaries of his will – Fisher, Morrogh, and relatives in Spain and Portugal – were obliged to renounce the succession in order not to be engulfed in debts totalling more than £42,700.
Lester’s collapse was only one of many [see John Jones; James Tod] that severely hampered the establishment of a stable economy in Lower Canada. The British traveller Hugh Gray remarked in 1809 that “it is very well known, that many of the goods imported are never paid for, the importers becoming insolvent.” He felt that the enforced idleness of trade from November to May each year and lack of acquaintance by British merchants with the customs of the people were major problems, but that the principal cause of bankruptcy was an habitual over-extension of credit. Importers easily obtained credit in Britain to purchase their merchandise on the expectation of paying for the order, with interest, from sales to retailers in the colony. Most retailers, however, were themselves obliged to buy on credit, and the importers watched the interest on their debts in Britain mount, even during the idle winter season. Moreover, most merchants, like Lester and Morrogh, depended on credit to expand their facilities or diversify their activities. The numerous bankruptcies of debtors deprived the creditors of part of the capital, interest, and, in the case of sales, profits, on which they relied to pay their own debts; each bankruptcy echoed through the entire credit system, and when the failure was as important as Lester’s – Alexander Henry had predicted it would “fall heavily on Individuals” – the reverberations were heard as far away as London, where Lester and his company owed nearly £4,000 to Inglis, Ellice and Company and £1,367 to Isaac and Henry Thompson. In all, Lester had 87 creditors; in Lower Canada, the majority of these – and the largest – were at Quebec and Montreal. At Quebec he and his firm were indebted, for example, to Dunn for more than £5,000, to Fisher for more than £2,500, and to Craigie for £942, while at Montreal they owed £1,041 to James and Andrew McGill and Company and £728 to Forsyth, Richardson and Company, as well as substantial sums to Todd and James McGill among others.
Between 1807 and 1809 all of Lester’s possessions were sold to pay part of his debts. They included a surprisingly small library of 13 titles. The artist William Berczy was astonished to learn that at a sale of Lester’s effects in 1808 “one of the most beautiful masterpieces of Vandick [Sir Anthony Van Dyke],” which the merchant had acquired for 25 guineas at Lisbon and which “in London or Paris would sell easily for 300 louis,” was bought for a mere five louis by the Anglican clergyman and schoolmaster John Jackson*.
Robert Lester was among the most prominent merchants of his time at Quebec and possessed the respect of business colleagues all over British North America and in London. He was considered fully dependable by both the government and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, a reputation he alone enjoyed; his standing enabled him to work discreetly – a manner of proceeding favoured by both parties – to maintain good relations between them under increasingly difficult conditions. Finally his personal rapport with the Canadian hierarchy may have constituted an excellent beginning to relations between the clergy of the town of Quebec and an Irish Catholic population that, as the 19th century progressed, grew rapidly and made its presence felt increasingly in the city’s religious and social life.
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