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MURE, JOHN, businessman, jp, militia officer, politician, and office holder; b. probably in the parish of Kilmarnock, Scotland; d. 17 Jan. 1823 in Glasgow.

John Mure was likely drawn to the province of Quebec through the network of Ayrshiremen and Lanarkshiremen active in trade there. John Porteous, his uncle and member of an Ayrshire family, had established himself in Montreal in the 1760s, and Porteous’s cousin, John Paterson, was a partner in an early British firm at Quebec, Paterson and Grant. By 1782 Mure was in the province (evidently at Montreal), and by November 1788 he was apparently a clerk at Quebec for James Tod*, who had served with Paterson and Grant. Within a few years Mure began operating on his own account in the fur trade and as an importer.

The 1790s saw Mure move towards the front rank of merchants in the transatlantic trade as a period of unprecedented economic development, extending to 1815, began in Lower Canada and other British North American colonies. His business, conducted from stores on the Queen’s Wharf in Lower Town, where he lived, was typical of import firms in its diversity. In addition to importing such products as salt by the shipload (mostly from Liverpool), wine, window glass, cordage, and “Scotch herrings,” Mure auctioned wheat and sold dried cod from the Gaspé and flour from the Beauport mills of Antoine Juchereau* Duchesnay. As well, he performed numerous services arising from his contacts with other mercantile figures; he was, for example, a trustee or curator for the estates of many, including Jean Renaud* and Hugh Finlay*. In 1796, with Tod and two others, he acquired the fiefs of Grosse-Île and Granville, valued for their hay, timber, and nearness to porpoise and eel fisheries. On 11 Jan. 1798 Mure solidified his place among the colony’s Scottish merchants when he married his cousin Margaret Porteous, daughter of John. The marriage, conducted by Presbyterian minister Alexander Spark*, was witnessed by merchants James McGill* (a friend of the Porteous family), John Blackwood*, and Isaac Todd*. The union ended tragically; Margaret died in 1799, and their child died in infancy.

Between 1795 and about 1799, again facilitated by Ayrshire connections, Mure entered into an extended partnership that had developed from the founding in the former year of the Montreal firm of Parker, Gerrard, and Ogilvy. In 1800 the partners were William Parker (a Kilmarnock native), Samuel Gerrard*, John Ogilvy*, John and George* Gillespie, Thomas Yeoward, and Mure. Functioning through companies or offices in London, Quebec (where Mure directed business), Montreal, and Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.), the copartners engaged in the fur trade, furnished goods to traders such as Robert Dickson, operated a transatlantic shipping service, and supplied merchants in Detroit, Queenston, and Kingston, among them Thomas Clark and Richard Cartwright*. Though none of the firms composing the co-partnership was in itself formidable, together they formed an enormously strong organization, the most closely knit after the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. Between 1799 and 1803, for example, Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy and Company and Mure combined were the leading exporters of potash from Lower Canada, far outranking James Dunlop* and James Irvine.

Mure’s involvement in the fur trade was ultimately influenced by factors beyond his control. In July 1800 he, Ogilvy, Alexander Mackenzie*, James Leith*, and others had formed a partnership within the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), recently organized to compete with the NWC. At first obligated by Ogilvy, who had taken the initiative in the arrangement without consulting them, Gerrard, George Gillespie, and Yeoward withdrew from it in October. Mure believed Ogilvy had had “no alternative but to form the connection he did or sacrifice almost the whole of the adventure” he had sent to the northwest. Despite this division of interest Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy and Company became a supplier to the Ogilvy–Mackenzie group. Indeed, in October 1803 the co-partnership was reorganized principally to bring in Mackenzie and thus strengthen its involvement in the fur trade. Subsequently, however, according to Robert Gillespie*, a clerk in the Montreal firm, “that branch of business became ruinous owing to the political state of . . . Europe where a great part of the furs from Canada were consumed.” Mure also suffered as a shareholder in the New North West Company, which was affected not only by the blockage of European ports but also by ruinous competition in the northwest. On 5 Nov. 1804 the company, unable to sustain its losses any longer, was taken as a copartner into the NWC. Within a week, the partners in the New North West Company divided among themselves their shares in the restructured NWC; Mure held three shares in common with Ogilvy. The co-partnership underwent further reorganization in 1807, at which time Mure’s firm became known as John Mure and Company.

More profitable than the fur trade was Mure’s engagement in the burgeoning timber and shipping trades at Quebec. In 1802 and 1807 he leased nearby Anse des Mères from the Ursulines for timber storage. Beginning in June 1804 he joined successively with merchant Henry Usborne* and the firms of Blackwood, Paterson and Company and Monro and Bell to arrange terms for the use by themselves and rental to others of the coves between Anse des Mères and Pointe-à-Pizeau. By spring 1806 he had formed a partnership with James Hare Jolliffe to export timber and lumber. Within a year the partners became agents for the London wine and stave merchants Scott, Idle and Company, a major contractor to the Admiralty for colonial masts, spars, and staves. That company’s contract and the agency of Mure and Jolliffe were challenged by competitors; chief among them was Usborne, who attempted to prevent local shipbuilders from “engaging” with Mure and Jolliffe. The timber and spars of the agents became the targets of thieves and saboteurs, but Mure and Jolliffe were no less aggressive in dealing with their rivals.

Between 1807 and 1813 the partners bought timber and planks from subcontractors at Plattsburgh and Peru, N.Y., and in Upper Canada at Kingston and York (Toronto), as well as from John Crysler* and Joel Stone along the upper St Lawrence. The firm’s cutting was frequently indiscriminate, drawing unheeded complaints from resident spokesmen such as the Reverend Alexander McDonell* in Glengarry. In 1809 the combined timber operations of Mure and Jolliffe, John Mure and Company, and the London firm of Linthorne and Jolliffe necessitated their joint lease of virtually all the coves at Quebec. Their timber and lumber filled many vessels, and the ballast on incoming ships, usually salt, was sold by Mure. His association with Jolliffe ended when the latter and Benjamin Linthorne went bankrupt about 1813; Mure, Peter Patterson*, and James Henderson became trustees of the company’s affairs.

At Quebec Mure held a commanding position as head of the transatlantic shipping operations of the major partnerships in which he was involved. Between 1800 and 1811 he acquired at least 16 schooners, brigs, and ships, many built or rebuilt for him by such notable shipbuilders as Alexander Munn* and John Goudie. Of these vessels, the “remarkable fine, fast sailing, staunch, new copper fastened ship” Fame was small in comparison to the mammoth merchantmen of the East India Company, but at 876 tons it dwarfed most vessels anchoring at Quebec. Those recording fast crossings advertised the apparent efficiency of Mure’s operations; in April 1801 he heralded the crossing of the Nancy from Liverpool in just 28 days as the “shortest passage ever known from Great Britain.” Within three weeks the Nancy was ready to return on one of the two round trips (spring and fall) that were then typical of shipping between North America and Britain.

Central to Mure’s business was his integration of operations. He often supplied the timbers and planks for shipbuilding, and he operated a shipyard near the Dorchester Bridge. Several vessels were registered by Mure and associates in the Canada trade, including Jolliffe, Linthorne, Christopher and Jonathan Idle, and Mure’s copartners at London and Montreal. All members of the Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy group had access to vessels owned by Mure alone and to the flotilla he represented as an agent. The connection between the fur trade and shipbuilding, long suspected by historians, is illustrated by the 474-ton Olive Branch, constructed by Mure alone in 1809 to transport to London what was still the most valuable export per shipload from the colony: furs. Congestion on his wharf during the short shipping season, vessels arriving from or leaving for the Caribbean or Britain (occasionally armed or in convoys during the Napoleonic Wars), disputes with customs officers, extensive advertising, waterfront auctions, military provisioning – all were aspects of Mure’s broad mercantile interest.

Mure took other steps to solidify his commercial base at Quebec. In 1809 he secured from the government a 21-year lease to the King’s Wharf on Rue Champlain. This large dock and storage facility became his principal premises; the wharf was later shared with Irvine, McNaught and Company [see James Irvine]. The following year, using a loan of £2,095 from merchant Étienne-Claude Lagueux, Mure made an enormously profitable purchase: the southwest part of the burgeoning faubourg Saint-Roch. It was acquired from John Richardson, a close friend of Mure and executor of William Grant*. Mure created 166 lots, from which he drew rental income of nearly £590 a year by 1823. In 1811 he donated land in Saint-Roch for a Roman Catholic church.

Mure’s extensive business associations were undoubtedly a significant factor in his success at Quebec, where he became increasingly prominent commercially and publicly. In March 1799 he was elected president of the Fire Society and in June appointed a justice of the peace. George Thomas Landmann*, a British military engineer, described him as “an active magistrate, and a persevering man, exceedingly sanguine, a stout, square-shouldered, good-looking Scotchman, and quite a gentleman; he was a little vain of his abilities” as a magistrate. In 1800 Mure became an ensign in the Quebec Battalion of British Militia. That year as well he contested the general election for the riding of Gaspé but was soundly beaten by William Vondenvelden*. Four years later he tested his popularity in Lower Town Quebec only to face a “torrent of undue influence” and be squeezed out as the second member by merchant John Young*. According to one observer, Mure’s “inordinate love of fame” cost him election; most of his support came from Canadian voters rather than British. Within weeks, however, he secured a seat for the Ottawa valley riding of York. Meanwhile, in 1802 he had gained a place on the Board of Pilots at Quebec and the following year had become a commissioner for regulating navigation on the St Lawrence. Between 1807 and 1811 he was acting coroner for the district of Quebec. In 1809 he, James Irvine, John Jones*, and other leading merchants of the city launched the Quebec Committee of Trade to promote their interests in imperial markets.

In the assembly Mure became a prominent representative of mercantile interests in debates and committees on commercial matters ranging from regulation of the timber trade to desertion by seamen from the merchant marine. In 1805–6 he fought for the financing of new prisons from a tax on land rather than on imports, a position supported in London by his copartner Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Gillespie, Parker and Company. After Young and Richardson retired from the assembly in 1808, Mure emerged as the leading spokesman there of the English party, which supported Governor Sir James Henry Craig* against the Canadian party. Sensitized by the Napoleonic Wars and the “threatening” prospect of Lower Canada falling prey to a foreign power, he opposed attempts by the nationalist assembly to obtain control of civil expenditures. As well, he supported in 1809 the eligibility of the Jew Ezekiel Hart* to sit in the house and in February 1810 reversed his stand on judges running as candidates when he sided with Pierre-Amable De Bonne*.

In the election of 1810, after at first declining to run, Mure won a seat along with Pierre Bruneau* in Lower Town. He represented it for four years, parrying with Canadian party spokesmen over civil expenditures, militia matters, the threat of war with the United States, and, in the wartime session of 1812–13, the prickly question of martial law. On 6 Jan. 1812, on the recommendation of Governor Sir George Prevost*, he had been made an honorary member of the Executive Council; he became a full member, with voting privileges, on 26 June. In 1811 he had been named a commissioner for erecting a jail and a court-house at Quebec and for obtaining plans for a new parliament building.

Mure participated in the War of 1812 both as a militia officer and as a merchant. In March 1812 he had been promoted captain in Quebec’s 3rd Militia Battalion. The next year he became major in the Île d’Orléans battalion of militia and then in the 6th Select Embodied Militia Battalion. As a senior officer with commercial experience, he sat on a board formed in August 1812 to establish an office for supervising the government’s issue of army bills [see James Green], which he and others had recommended to Prevost as a supplementary currency. These bills stimulated the province’s economy, and Mure privately handled large volumes of them. After the war, in 1816, he supported formation of a bank to alleviate the shortage of currency resulting from termination of the bills scheme and to handle the unprecedented need for investment capital created by the timber trade and other rapidly expanding sectors of the economy. Mure was also among the early promoters of the Quebec Exchange, founded that year to facilitate the collection of commercial information and the transaction of business; in May 1817 he was one of its vice presidents.

Mure devoted much energy after 1814 to educational concerns, such as the Book Society Committee, which donated books to schools. In the spring of 1815 he vigorously supported establishment of a nonsectarian school by the Committee for Promoting the Education of the Poor in Upper and Lower Canada, an initiative of the Reverend Thaddeus Osgood*, and he soon became president of its Lower Canadian branch, which succeeded in opening a school at Quebec by mid May. In 1815 Mure also became a commissioner for managing the Jesuit estates, revenues from which were used to support education. The following year he was appointed a commissioner for the construction and repair of churches in the district of Quebec.

The war and post-war years marked a number of major departures in Mure’s business affairs. In May 1812 John Mure and Company had withdrawn from partnership in the Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy group, in part perhaps because of severe reverses sustained by the co-partnership in the fur trade. The war and the complexity of the co-partnership’s operations delayed until at least the fall of 1814 the disposal at Quebec and London of its assets, including ships, timber and lumber, land, and buildings, as well as debts owed to it. In October 1814 Mure informed Gerrard, “I am very anxious to have my own matters under my sole controul”; this preoccupation led him to purchase Ogilvy’s half of their interest in the NWC (sold with his half in 1832 by his heirs to Edward Ellice*) and to reorganize the business of John Mure and Company. Mure nevertheless maintained some association with his former partners, apart from the wind-up of affairs; in October 1814 he was still in a position to advise Gerrard on the deployment of partners. In contrast to his importing activity, which he maintained at a time of inflationary increase in the value of imports, Mure took steps to reduce his firm’s involvement in the fur trade. Though still a shareholder in the NWC, he was also a shipping agent for Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and corresponded with him over the conflict that developed from 1814 between the NWC and the HBC in the Red River colony. Mure recommended to Selkirk sale of the HBC’s trading rights or lease of its whole trade to the NWC. The latter proposal, however, would have necessitated recognition of the HBC charter by the NWC, a move Mure knew his associates were “not inclined to make.” In May 1816 Selkirk dismissed Mure’s suggestions as “totally & radically inadmissable.” The disagreement apparently did not rupture their business relationship.

In late 1815, during a period of significant economic malaise in Lower Canada, Mure took steps to lease out his shipyard and timber-yard. In February 1817 he offered for lease a newly constructed store, located on the King’s Wharf; with a capacity of 30,000 bushels, it was one of the largest on the waterfront. Between then and August he dissolved John Mure and Company, granted power of attorney on his personal affairs and those of Mure and Jolliffe to William Finlay (his first clerk and a cousin of Mure’s nephew William Steel), and announced his intention to sail for Britain on 10 August.

The time was propitious in other respects for Mure to retire after some 35 years in Lower Canada. In November 1816 his daughter, Charlotte, whom he had had with a mistress, Louise Picard, had married another Quebec merchant, François-Xavier Pinguet. Some arrangement seemed possible for the guardianship of Mure’s sons, James and William, from a liaison with Marie-Anne Chasseur. Mure had evidently enjoyed a style of life befitting a gentleman; it took three days to auction off effects that included mahogany furniture, silverware, more than 300 books, engravings, guns, fishing gear, silver spurs and gold epaulettes, choice wines, and a London-built curricle (among other carriages). Politically, he was leaving the colony at a time of relative tranquillity [see Sir John Coape Sherbrooke].

Settled in Glasgow, Mure retained an interest in Lower Canada and corresponded with other members of the mercantile community in Britain who had Canadian backgrounds. Between 1818 and his death he initiated more than 14 sheriff’s sales at Quebec to recover debts, most of them from Canadians. When, in 1819, St Andrew’s Church at Quebec sought a successor to Spark, Mure and John Greenshields were delegated to find one; they presented James Harkness and provided money to facilitate resumption of services. In 1820, evidently at Selkirk’s request, Mure agreed to help Colin Robertson*, an employee of the HBC, extricate himself from debt.

At Mure’s death, in Glasgow in 1823, his residence was located 16 miles southwest at Dalserf House. Among the effects auctioned there in March were some 2,400 bottles of wine. Mure bequeathed more than £10,150, most of it to relatives and family, including his daughter and sons, the latter under the care of William Finlay at Quebec; annuities were provided for Louise Picard and Marie-Anne Chasseur.

David Roberts

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Cite This Article

David Roberts, “MURE, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 2, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mure_john_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mure_john_6E.html
Author of Article: David Roberts
Title of Article: MURE, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: September 2, 2014