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FINLAY, WILLIAM, businessman and jp; d. unmarried 5 Dec. 1834 in Funchal, Madeira.

William Finlay was possibly a native of Kilmarnock, Scotland, or of Glasgow, where an uncle was a manufacturer. He may have been related to James Finlay Sr and Jr, early fur traders at Montreal, or to Hugh Finlay* at Quebec; Hugh named as his testamentary executor the Quebec merchant John Mure, who was a brother-in-law of William’s Glasgow uncle. Whatever his immediate family relations, William was likely born into one of the wide connections in the forefront of what was known as the “Canada trade.” Consisting principally of Hunters, Patersons, Parkers, Robertsons, and Dunlops in London, Glasgow, Kilmarnock, and Greenock, this group’s old-country members were linked by business, family, and social ties among themselves and to many representatives in the British American colonies. The latter, often young relatives sent out to manage the colonial side of matters and including such future business leaders in the Canadas as James McGill*, Adam Lymburner*, James Dunlop*, and Robert Hamilton*, frequently worked with emigrants from the Edinburgh area, including Richard Dobie*, and with the little group of Grants from Strathaven and Glen Livet represented at Quebec by the merchant William Grant*. By 1800 major elements of this loosely tied, broad interest had formed into a copartnership that spanned the line of trade from London to the Great Lakes and included, in London, John Gillespie, who was related to the Patersons; in Montreal, the former Hunter correspondent William Parker, Samuel Gerrard*, an in-law of the Grants, and John Ogilvy*, who was linked to the Paterson and Robertson elements; and, at Quebec, another relative of the Patersons, John Mure. In the family-organized world of 18th-century Scottish business, being born into such a connection was a prime introduction to commerce.

Finlay arrived at Quebec possibly between 1798 and 1805; by 1808 he was working for Mure, and in 1816 he was first clerk in Mure’s counting-house, which was then operating outside the copartnership but serving as an agent for Mure’s former Montreal associates. Mure praised Finlay’s “faithful Service and friendship” and made him guardian of at least one of his sons, whose “regard and affection” Finlay also gained. Finlay’s long apprenticeship with Mure gave him a thorough grounding in the numerous aspects of trade in which Mure engaged, including the fur and timber trades, the import-export business, ship chartering, and property speculation. When Mure retired to Scotland in 1817 Finlay took over his firm and apparently brought it back into a copartnership with the Montrealers and Londoners, directing it first under the name Gerrard, Finlay and Company from 1817 and then as Gillespie, Finlay and Company from about 1822. Possibly in 1817 as well Finlay obtained one share in the copartnership’s Montreal branch, Gerrard, Gillespie, Moffatt and Company; by 1 May 1819 he possessed two shares, and in 1821 he was negotiating to obtain Gerrard’s interest. George Moffatt*, the dominant figure in the Montreal firm, was similarly a partner with Finlay in the Quebec concern.

Under Finlay the Quebec firm retired, to a large extent, from the fur trade; until 1826 at least, however, it continued to pass through Quebec a declining, share of the outfits and correspondence between the London office and Frederick William Ermatinger in Montreal, agent for his brother Charles Oakes in Sault Ste Marie (Ont.). As well, although Finlay’s company was still exporting staves in 1819, an agency for British contractors furnishing masts to the Admiralty and participation through the copartnership in a large timber-cutting operation called the Canada Company were wound up. In 1827 Gillespie, Finlay offered for lease its beach at Anse des Mères and perhaps at the same time it disposed of its big storage ground for timber at Wolfe’s Cove (Anse au Foulon) to the Gilmours [see Allan Gilmour*]. It does not seem to have owned sawmills.

Although Finlay withdrew his company from fur and timber, he kept it as active as had Mure in the local sale and export of flour, corn meal, and wood ashes as well as of pork from Upper Canada. He also brought in rum from New Brunswick, whisky from Upper Canada, Spanish and Madeira wines in quantity, West Indies rum and sugar, and Scotch spirits, in addition to groceries and hardware. For its shipments the firm had its own big wharf, Finlay’s, by 1818, and it continued until 1832 at least to use part of the King’s Wharf, held on lease.

Finlay engaged his company heavily in shipping. It had at least two vessels constructed, a 128-ton schooner in 1828 and a 430-ton ship in 1834, bought at least one, financed construction of a number of others (and in this manner had transferred to it no fewer than two ships, a barque, two brigs, and two schooners), and chartered craft for individual voyages. It frequently offered for freight or charter its own vessels or others for which it was agent, and its little fleet carried passengers to Britain or the West Indies. Finlay adapted to the steam age. In 1830 he became the first chairman of the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company, which had the steamship Royal William built in 183031. However, he was one of the many proprietors of the ship who sold out in the depression of 1832, before it made its pioneer transatlantic voyage [see Sir Samuel Cunard*]. Although Finlay had little direct interest in canals, a new field of enterprise in the colony, he provided introductions at Quebec for William Hamilton Merritt*, who came in 1827 seeking financial backing for the Welland Canal, potentially so useful for Gerrard, Gillespie, Moffatt and Company’s trade with Upper Canada.

Finlay was more involved in another new field of investment for colonial businessmen, that of financial institutions. He was among a number of businessmen who had the Bank of Montreal incorporated in 1821 and with others obtained incorporation of the Quebec Bank the following year, but by 1831 neither he nor his firm had any more connection with the latter. In 1825 he was a director of a rival organization, the Quebec branch of the Bank of Montreal, Gerrard and Moffatt being powerful figures in its Montreal office. The same year he was a shareholder in the City Bank (of Montreal). During the 1820s he was often a weekly director of the Quebec Savings Bank. At the end of the decade he was an incorporator of, and a shareholder in, the Quebec Fire Assurance Company, and in the early 1830s his firm, like Gerrard, Gillespie, Moffatt and Company in Montreal, had the local agency for the big Phoenix Assurance Company of London. Land, a traditional area of investment, may also have attracted Finlay; he seems to have acquired property of his own, by purchase and foreclosure, in Lower and Upper Canada.

With a mix of business activities somewhat different from that of Mure’s day, the, Quebec firm seems to have continued to prosper under Finlay’s direction despite the weak economy of the early and late 1820s and the depression of 1832. Since all the branches of the copartnership had the same partners, they probably all benefited from the prosperity of any one of them; thus Finlay’s company must have been aided by Gerrard, Gillespie, Moffat and Company, which reaped the profits of Upper Canada’s growth and was, along with Forsyth, Richardson and Company and Peter McGill and Company, one of the three great firms of Montreal. An indication of Gillespie, Finlay and Company’s success is the construction on Finlay’s Wharf in 1832 of two long three-storey stone warehouses, which, with several built at the time by other merchants, changed the scale of the Lower Town waterfront.

Finlay’s wide interests and success earned for him a leading position in Quebec’s business world. He served as chairman of the Committee of Trade from 1825 to 1833, and was an intelligent and well-informed – and often the first – witness before committees of the Lower Canadian House of Assembly investigating commercial matters such as Britain’s corn and tariff acts of 1828. Politically and socially, Finlay was discreet. In 1822 he was elected to the Quebec committee, presided over by William Bacheler Coltman, of a provincial movement to promote the union of the Canadas, but he was much less active than William Walker, his counterpart at Quebec in the Ellice–Forsyth–Richardson transatlantic chain [see John Richardson]. For some time Finlay resisted appointment as a justice of the peace, pleading the pressure of private business, but he finally accepted a commission in February 1828. He was long a trustee of the Quebec Library and occupied the same position in St Andrew’s Church from 1830 until his death.

The fear of cholera in 1832 appeared to Samuel Neilson*, publisher of the Quebec Gazette, “to have overcome [Finlay’s] physical & moral powers completely.” Although he recovered fully from his fright, in late summer 1834, with his health deteriorating again, he made a will and then almost immediately left for the mild climate of Madeira. He did not last out the year, however. Neilson related that “women had had much to do with his illness,” and in 1836 learned from Finlay’s landlady at Funchal that during his last days he was “inconceivably fractious & hated women so much that he fairly interdicted her visiting him on any formula. He was strange mortal.” However, a woman, Margaret Maloney, was the only individual not clearly of his family or business background to be remembered generously in his will. Against Neilson’s account of the dying man should be set the ample evidence of his kindness and broadmindedness; among specific bequests totalling £14,000 were £100 to the poor of each of Quebec’s seven principal congregations (Roman Catholic and Protestant), £200 to the Quebec Library, £1,000 to the Montreal General Hospital, and £1,000 to the city of Quebec for the improvement of streets and squares. The unestimated residue of the estate went to nephews. The bequest to the city was used to open a new, larger market-place on the waterfront, and in 1838 it was named Finlay Place in his honour.

A. J. H. Richardson

ANQ-Q, CN1-16, 27 janv. 1809, 6 août 1817; CN1-188, 13 nov. 1826; CN1-197, 22 juill. 1816; 20, 22 oct., 7 nov. 1817; 3 juill. 1819; 12 févr. 1820; 2 oct. 1821; 27 févr. 1822; 5 janv., 23 mars, 15 avril, 13, 16, 23, 25 mai, 13 nov. 1826; 2 avril, 5 mai, 16, 30 oct., 13 déc. 1827; 4, 19 janv., 15 mai, 25 juin, 27 août, 6 oct. 1828; 10, 30 avril, 13 déc. 1829; 14 janv., 25 mai, 28 août, 3, 9 sept. 1830; 4 août, 2 déc. 1831; 4 avril, 10, 17, 29 mai 1832; 8 févr., 15 nov. 1833; 22 avril 1835; CN1-219, 18 mai 1832; CN1-230, 10 oct. 1804; CN1-253, 27 oct. 1813; P-219. Arch. judiciaires, Québec, Holograph will of William Finlay, 13 March 1835 (see P.-G. Roy, Inv. testaments, 3: 64). PAC, MG 19, B2, 1, 14 Aug. 1817, 6 July 1818; MG 23, GII, 3, vo1.6; MG 24, B1, 5: 45153; 16: 238; 18: 13455; 36: 551; 187: 3824; 1.3: 880910, 885558, 893941, 895358, 919192, 9855; National Map Coll., H2/340-1845; RG 4, A 1, 253: 5455; 332: 25; 352: 132; RG 31, C 1, 1831, Quebec. Private arch., A. J. H. Richardson (Ottawa), J. A. Paterson to Richardson, 22 May 1950. PRO, CO 42/275: 142 (mfm. at PAC). L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 182829, apps.F, R; 1830, app.N; 1831, app.M; 183132, app.TT; 183233, apps.U, W; 1834, apps.Q, S; Statutes, 182122, c.26; 1826, c.l l; 182829, c.58; 1830, c.15. G.B., Parl., House of Commons, Report from the select committee on timber duties . . . (London, 1835). Statistical account of UC. (Gourlay), 463, 504. Wis., State Hist. Soc., Coll., 4 (185758): 95. Quebec Gazette, 26 June, 21 Aug., 27 Nov. 1817; 5, 12 Feb., 12 March, 2 July, 9 Nov. 1818; 11 Nov. 1819; 29 May, 23 Oct. 1820; 2 April, 24 May, 21, 28 June, 19 Nov. 1821; 6, 20 June, 4, 8, 11 July, 15 Aug., 24 Oct., 4 Nov., 2 Dec. 1822; 27 Jan., 10, 21 April, 19, 29 May, 9, 29 June, 4 Aug., 22 Sept. 1823; 9 March 1824; 7 Oct. 1828; 14 April 1829; 8 Feb. 1831; 21 April 1834. Quebec almanac, 182534. Quebec directory, 1826: 18, 20, 53, 95. George Gale, Historic tales of old Quebec (Quebec, 1923), 29. Ouellet, Hist. économique, 36265. H. B. Timothy, The Galts, a Canadian odyssey; John Galt, 1779–1839 (Toronto, 1977), 1416, 5051. G. J. J. Tulchinsky, The river barons: Montreal businessmen and the growth of industry and transportation, 1837–53 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977). Archibald Campbell, “The Royal William, the pioneer of ocean steam navigation,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans. (Quebec), new ser., 20 (1891): 29, 3235, 41. O.-A. Coté, “La Chambre de commerce de Québec,” BRH, 27 (1921): 2628. “The Royal William, 183133,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans., new ser., 13 (1879). “William Finlay,” BRH, 42 (1936): 733.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

A. J. H. Richardson, “FINLAY, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/finlay_william_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/finlay_william_6E.html
Author of Article:   A. J. H. Richardson
Title of Article:   FINLAY, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   October 1, 2023