McAVITY, JAMES HENDRICKS, industrialist; b. 15 Sept. 1838 in Saint John, N.B., eldest child of Thomas McAvity and Isabella Sandall; m. first 22 June 1865 Elizabeth Jane Stevenson in Savannah, Ga, and they had one daughter and two sons; m. secondly 12 June 1877 Ella Elizabeth Ayer in Lincoln, Maine, and they had four daughters; d. 16 Jan. 1910 in Saint John.
Of Scottish descent, the McAvity family left Ireland in 1818 for New Brunswick. The decision to emigrate was due to James McAvity’s grandmother, Catherine McAvity, who was aware of the post-Napoleonic trends pulling young men to the promise of prosperity in the colonies of America. Catherine realized the strength of her family was its unity, and thus the entire family emigrated together. In June 1824, at age 14, James’s father, Thomas, became an indentured apprentice to James Hendricks, a dry-goods and hardware merchant in Saint John, to learn “the art, trade and mystery” of an ironmonger. He remained with the benevolent Hendricks until he set up on his own account in 1834. In 1838 Thomas acquired his former employer’s business, including its staff and its premises on North Market Wharf.
James McAvity would follow the same educational pattern as his father, beginning with attendance at the Madras school on King Square, of which he would later become a board member. In 1854, to receive business training, he entered his father’s firm, Thomas McAvity and Company. Commercial competition was intense, but business acumen and farsightedness in anticipating the needs of consumers made the McAvity firm one of only a few successful hardware stores.
In its early days the company supplied the demands of the shipbuilding industry. New Brunswick’s wooden vessels required quantities of bronze and brass fittings, and McAvity saw the need to expand into the manufacture of these items. In 1863 he left the family firm with his brother William and bought a brass factory. The brothers’ company initially employed around 14 men who used foot-lathes to turn out ship-work supplies including bells, rudder braces, and roller brushes. The business expanded in 1869 with the addition of small brass-work and cocks and moved to Water Street to be close to the docks, a source of its growing custom. The following year the brothers rejoined the family firm. McAvity’s return marked the company’s transition from a hardware store doing piece-work to a highly specialized manufacturing operation supplying industrial enterprises across Canada. The firm, styled T. McAvity and Sons from 1873, consisted of Thomas as president and his six sons who oversaw its various departments. James McAvity was most involved with the brass foundry, which would eventually become the largest manufacturer of brass items in Canada.
Disaster struck Saint John and the company in the form of the great fire of 1877, which destroyed the city’s business district. A temporary location was found for the firm while the Water Street factory and a new store on King Street were being built. In 1879 the company moved into its new quarters, the same year in which it made its first brass valve, in time to take advantage of the boom in railway construction. The first telephone service in Saint John was installed in 1879 as a private line between the store and the foundry. Three years later the firm moved again, to another location on Water Street.
By 1885 the foundry was in full production. An advertisement that year offered “Engineers’ and Steam fitters’ supplies,” including “wrought iron pipe and fittings, globe valves, whistle, stop cocks, steam gauges, [and] patent globe valves.” The foundry employed 60 workers and housed 30 lathes and other machinery in 20,000 square feet of space. Six furnaces unlike any in the dominion could reach a temperature of 2,700° F in half an hour. When an order for a replacement part arrived the pattern shop would locate the original mould kept for this very purpose. The efficiency of the furnaces and large staff of moulders could ready an entire refitting for the lathe in just one hour.
McAvity’s real interests lay in research rather than the intricacies of business. So it was that his brother Thomas succeeded to the presidency of the company on the death of their father in 1887. Similarly, McAvity left the politicking for the Liberal party to his brother George. Thus he had the freedom to seek better technologies and improvements in the design of the firm’s products. In 1910, the year he died, the company introduced a fire hydrant of a superior design with which the firm’s name would become synonymous in the minds of the general public. Another strength of the company was the cohesiveness of the brothers, who built loyalty to the firm by genuine concern for the welfare of their employees. McAvity had a parallel interest in chemical wood fibre, wood pulp, and paper, and made frequent trips to Maine to study developments there.
In the year of McAvity’s death his brother Thomas retired as president of the firm, which had been incorporated in 1907 as T. McAvity and Company Limited, and George took control. At that time there were four large buildings housing their brassworks, machine shops, store, and an iron foundry established in 1903.
Although a private man, McAvity was dedicated to his church and community organizations. A lifetime member of Trinity Church (Anglican), he was a senior warden for 18 years and a vestryman for 34. He served on its building committee formed after the fire of 1877. The rood screen in the church was dedicated to his memory in 1912. He was also a member of Fernhill Cemetery Foundation, a guiding light in the Saint John Exhibition Association, and a justice of the peace for Saint John city and county.
Saint John Regional Library, Willett scrapbook, R. J. Ritchie, “The day before yesterday.” Observer [E. S. Carter], “Linking the past with the present,” Telegraph-Journal (Saint John), 1, 31 Aug., 1–2 Sept. 1931. Saint John Globe, 13 Dec. 1886, 17 Jan. 1910. St. John Daily Sun, 9 March 1885, 13 Dec. 1887, continued as the Sun, 17 Jan. 1910. Telegraph-Journal, 19 May 1934. Biog. rev. of N.B. (Jack). L. A. Cunningham, “Brass, brains and backbone: the story of the McAvitys, of Saint John – an epic of courage, vision and determination,” Maclean’s (Toronto), 42 (1929), no.5: 19–20, 51–52. T. McAvity and Sons, Limited, Eighty-four years in public service: the story of an honourable business career in the city of Saint John . . . 1834–1918 (Saint John, ; copy in Saint John Regional Library).